Mandla Mandela: a chip of the old block?

Mvezo (South Africa), April 19 (Inditop) When Mandla Mandela arrived in the home village of his grandfather Nelson 18 months ago to take up the position of “nkosi” (traditional leader), the locals just laughed – and wagered he’d be gone by the next day.

Instead he’s now a candidate for the country’s national parliament, following in his famous grandfather’s illustrious footsteps.

Draped in a lion skin, Mandla – a 35-year-old politics graduate – had been solemnly installed as chief of the Tembu clan at Mvezo, Mandela’s homestead in the Eastern Cape, six months beforehand.

But the people of Mvezo, an impoverished community of brightly-painted mud huts strewn across a cluster of bare hills, assumed he would run the show from afar.

“They laughed. They thought it was hilarious! They wondered how can Madiba’s (Mandela’s clan name) grandson come and stay in such a remote village,” Mandla, who bears a striking resemblance to the iconic politician, with his towering physique, same slightly thick voice and easy banter, recalls.

But in coming to Mvezo, Mandla realised a dream of Mandela’s – to reclaim for the family the Tembu chieftaincy, which he renounced as a young man to devote himself to the anti-apartheid struggle.

And for Mandla, becoming nkosi also entailed painful sacrifices.

As a businessman in Johannesburg he ran two successful companies and drove a BMW. These days he sleeps in a single-roomed hut, drives a van and spends days sitting cross-legged on the stone floor of a tribal court, listening to villagers’ grievances.

But Mandla Mandela’s ambitions extend far beyond these hills, where Nelson used to herd cattle as a boy. His sights are set on parliament, where the African National Congress, of which his grandfather is still the figurehead, is only too happy to have a young Mandela in its ranks.

Next week, South Africans will vote in the fourth national and provincial elections since Mandela became the country’s first democratically-elected president in 1994.

In a corner of the court at Mvezo a stack of yellow, green and black posters urge “Vote ANC”.

Mandla is on the ANC’s list of candidates for parliament. His candidacy arose after he took his grandfather out to campaign for the current, controversial ANC leader, Jacob Zuma at a rally.

Mandla insists his selection was purely on the strength of his performance in Mvezo, where he is well-liked and hopes to remain chief, even if he becomes a lawmaker.

One of the key issues he has had to grapple with is HIV/AIDS, a pandemic that has ravaged rural communities like Mvezo, which have little or no access to healthcare.

“The Mandelas are not a family that have been left untouched by the epidemic,” Mandla notes. His own father, Nelson’s son Makgatho, died of AIDS in 2005, and he has several cousins living with HIV.

Mandla has persuaded mobile HIV testing units up the road to Mvezo, so that people can check their status and begin treatment if necessary.

On other issues, change has been slower. The expected date for electricity in the area is only 2011 and poverty is so acute one young villager said she had deliberately infected herself with HIV so she could collect a small stipend for the sick.

Some South Africans now blame the slow pace of post-apartheid transformation on corruption in the ANC and accuse it of betraying Mandela’s legacy. Zuma himself has been dogged by suspicion of corruption in an arms deal.

But Mandla holds the previous administration of Thabo Mbeki chiefly responsible for the sense of alienation between the government and the electorate.

“We found ourselves in an era where leadership had become detached from its own members.” he says. “This era (of Zuma’s ANC leadership) is bringing us back to the masses,” he says, claiming Nelson Mandela is one of Zuma’s fans.

If there is cause for concern, he says, it’s over the country’s deteriorating human rights record.

The government of caretaker-president Kgalema Motlanthe, who has been keeping the seat warm for Zuma since Mbeki was ousted last year, attracted widespread condemnation last month for denying the Dalai Lama a visa, following diplomatic pressure from China.

“His rejection of a visa for me broke the very essence of who we are as a country,” according to Mandla. “Although we are a poverty-stricken nation that is seeking investment, we need not compromise our identity. We need not sell out who we are.”