Mandela's bleak homeland ready for saviour's return

"THE CASINO can go there!" said Nosithili Mpamatye, excitedly pondering the post- presidential prospects of Qunu, Nelson Mandela's home village. Sitting among ripening marrows on her farmhouse front step, she pointed towards a hillside covered with yellow grass.

The idea of a casino is incongruous in the rural bleakness of Transkei. But then this treeless, hilly landscape was the childhood backdrop of the man who dreamt of reconciliation in the time of apartheid. Churchill is remembered at Blenheim, De Gaulle at Colombey in Lorraine. Now Qunu is about to become a focal point for tributes to one of the greatest moral guardians of the century.

"He is our Tata (father) because he freed us and the people of South Africa. Thanks to him, we have got water, electricity and a school feeding scheme," said Mrs Mpamatye.

Mrs Mpamatye, who is in her seventies and has seven children, pointed proudly to a phone company sticker on her window. "Telkom is coming, too," she said.

But Qunu, which has a few hundred residents, does not receive special treatment for having been President Mandela's home for his first nine years. Mrs Mpamatye had mixed feelings about this: "He has developed our area like all the others in South Africa because he is everybody's Tata and he has always cherished the idea that all people shall benefit from the riches of this country," she said. "But there are things we need, like a sports field and roads."

Apart from the N2 - a two-lane tar road that races along the outskirts of the village on its way to the city of Umtata - there are no roads in Qunu. Set on both sides of a valley with a dam, the village has just one shop with postboxes, housed in a metal shipping container owned by the chieftainess, Nogwanele Balizulu. She presides over a traditional power structure that President Mandela must respect, just as he learnt to do as Rolihlahla, as he was called before being given an English name at school. Madiba, as the 80-year-old leader is sometimes called, is his clan name.

Rolihlahla, the son of a chieftain, was brought to Qunu as a baby by his mother. When, at the age of nine, his father died, he was fostered by a Thembu chief, Jogintaba, taken away from Qunu and given an education.

But it was in this village, writes President Mandela in A Long Walk To Freedom, that he learnt about Qamata, the great spirit of the Xhosa people, and drank sweet milk straight from a cow's udder.

Most of Qunu's villagers live in traditional round houses with thatched roofs. Some have larger, rectangular homes and two of these stand out. The first is a red-brick and red-tiled house, big enough to have two bedrooms, which belongs to Napilisi Mandela, younger half-brother of the president. The second, grander house, is billed as the retirement home of President Mandela. It looks out, on one side, on the N2 and, on the other, a valley.

The President made clear that he had grown rather fond of the jail house in the grounds of Victor Verster prison where he spent the later part of his incarceration. The red brick Qunu house, with a guard tower, rolled razor wire topping the fence, surveillance cameras on high poles and rose bushes in the garden, is partly a replica of the Victor Verster house.

High on a hill, it has a view of its own dairy and fields growing corn, beans and pumpkins. Napilisi Mandela manages the house and farm, and keeps an eye on the family's graveyard.In the absence of a museum the graves are as close as you get to a Mandela family tribute.

The Qunu house, in the grounds of which a guesthouse is being built, was planned before President Mandela's marriage last year to Graca, window of the late Mozambican leader, Samora Machel. Shemight prefer the couple's homes in Cape Town and the Mozambican capital, Maputo.

On the other hand, President Mandela has recently had a walkway built outside his house, leading beneath the N2 and almost directly to the village shop. This, to the people of Qunu, is a clue that he plans to spend time here.

Mrs Mpamatye said: "He loves it here. He always comes for Christmas and he was here in March. He walks around the village and greets us all. Because of his age I think he likes it here. It is far from all the fuss."

But she is worried that Graca will not want to come to Qunu. "We like her, of course, because he has chosen her as his wife. But she is not a Xhosa woman like Winnie was," said Mrs Mpamatye to fervent agreement from the crowd of women friends now gathered around her.

In all its bleakness, the former Transkei homeland, a banana republic of apartheid's making that is the size of Switzerland and an entirely rural economy, is something of a magic spot on the globe.

It has not only given us Nelson Mandela and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela- Mandela, but also the cream of South Africa's brightest politicians, including the new President, Thabo Mbeki. They are known sometimes as the Xhosa-nostra. Before the election on 2 June, all the African National Congress's top names, including Mrs Madikizela- Mandela, came to Transkei area to woo traditional chiefs.

In conversations with President Mandela's contemporaries it becomes clear that, while respectful of tribal traditions, he has never been hamstrung by what was expected of him - even in childhood games.

"All the children swam in the river but he was never with us. He sat on the side, always writing down what we were doing," said Ludidi Ngxekana, an 80-year-old cattle farmer. "He was a serious little boy who always had composure," said Mr Ngxekana.

President Mandela's younger sister, Notancu Timakwe, 75, lives in a neighbouring village.

"We always realised he could be president of the country. He was special. He did not play with us and, when he did, it was only for a short time. Then he would go and read.

"By the time he was a teenager you could find him counselling the elders in a way you would never expect from a child," said Mrs Timakwe, with the same cheeky grin as her elder brother.