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Mandela: the new face of a political dynasty

The most revered name in South African politics is back on the electoral ballot. But there is concern about the way Nkosi Mandla Mandela is exploiting his grandfather's reputation. Daniel Howden reports

In a time of increasing political uncertainty for South Africa there is one name that almost everyone in the country would like to see on the ballot in the coming election: Mandela. And it is there, only it is not Nelson but his grandson, Nkosi Mandla Mandela, who will be running for the African National Congress in South Africa's most important vote since the end of apartheid.

The man with the most famous surname in South African politics has an even grander first name, given to him after he took on the role of Xhosa chieftain, an honour his grandfather abandoned to lead the struggle against minority rule.

He eschews his given name Mandla and now prefers to be known as Zwelivelile, Xhosa for "The Nation has Appeared" the name given to him at his inauguration as chief. The Mandelas' reclamation of their royal past has made him traditional leader to 250,000 of his compatriots in the impoverished Eastern Cape.

The younger Mandela has not had to stand in line with the ANC either; they gave the newcomer the equivalent of a safe seat, placing him high up the ANC's parliamentary list, effectively guaranteeing he will become an MP after 22 April.

Despite his sudden entrance into the political arena only six weeks before the election, a move that even the former president Mandela claims took him by surprise, the 35-year-old insists he takes his extraordinary political inheritance seriously.

"It's good to know that the Madibas are still on the roll," Mandela Snr told his grandson, using his nickname, which means Great Man. "I'm proud of you." The 90-year-old who led South Africa out of apartheid is one of the few living rebuttals to the old joke that a statesman is a politician who has been in the ground for 15 years. His 90th birthday was greeted with global celebrations, and he is at least as well-loved in his vast home country as he is by his millions of supporters worldwide.

"There won't be another Nelson Mandela," says his grandson, in an effort to edge respectfully out of a giant shadow. "My grandfather has astounding achievements and has created a huge legacy for the Mandelas. We strive to hold on to a small piece of that, to do something to honour him, be it building hospitals, schools or clinics."

There are already some who believe the Xhosa chief has been playing irresponsible politics with his grandfather's health. There was widespread criticism of the decision to wheel out the ageing icon at a political rally in the Eastern Cape last month in support of the ANC leader Jacob Zuma. It later emerged that the rare public appearance had taken place without the usual precautions managed by Mandela Snr's own foundation, sparking concerns that proper health procedures were not followed with the elder statesman.

Zwelivelile was instrumental in that move and strongly rejects accusations that the ANC took shortcuts to score political points ahead of what's expected to be its tightest electoral contest. "It was my grandfather's decision to come. He's been wanting to appear in the campaign for some time. He asked to appear with Jacob Zuma."

Asked if the former president would be appearing again on the campaign trail to show family support, Mandela Jnr replied: "My grandfather has done enough but from time to time he wants to perform. If the old man has such wishes then he will. Obviously at 90, we've got to respect his health."

The chief of Mvezo in Transvaal is facing similar scepticism over his own qualifications for a swift ascent into parliament. And it is this role as traditional leader that he is keen to talk up to counter claims that he is a political neophyte. The grassroots work he describes, trying to help some of the poorest people in South Africa, villages without access to electricity, running water or modern sanitation, is in itself a criticism of the ANC's progress in overhauling the deeply unequal state it inherited. This is not something the chief tries to hide from but it is something he blames on Thabo Mbeki, the man who took over from his grandfather as ANC leader and president of South Africa. "The past 12 years have given us still no access to basic services."

It is this deep dissatisfaction at the absence of a democratic dividend among ordinary people that led to the split in the ANC, Mandela Jnr believes. "The split has been about a lot of people feeling that a new character needed to take office. The people are crying out for change. Jacob Zuma gets the support of the grass roots."

He is even happy to compare the former deputy president who is still battling corruption charges and is seen by many to be steeped in the dirty politics that some claim have ruined the ANC, to the struggle icon Mandela. "Zuma has the same charisma. He knows how to talk to people and understands the struggle [against apartheid] was won by ordinary men and women."

He goes on to describe the shrewd former ANC head of intelligence during white rule as "humble". He also excuses the new ANC leader of any responsibility for past mistakes, despite his constant presence in government since 1994, saying he was "just once voice among many" and never "head of government".

Mandela Jnr is not so kind with the Mbeki supporters who broke away from the rump ANC after their man was unseated at the party assembly last year to form the Congress of the People (Cope). "If you look at the characters who have left they're people who have always been sitting in office." He reserves particular ire for the woman who until recently was deputy president of South Africa, Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka. "She was in office, she was serving but what has she delivered?"

The split has triggered intense speculation that the ANC's electoral dominance will be challenged for the first time. But the aspiring member of parliament is among those who believe that the challenge from Cope will reawaken the party's vast base and that they will retain their two-thirds majority. "I don't think it will be a tight election. It's the media who have made it seem tight."

He points to the recent by-elections which saw Cope take only two seats from 27 contests.

Mandla, as he was then known, came to prominence during a period of personal tragedies. His father, Makgatho, was the last of Mandela Snr's surviving sons to die in 2005. It was the latest in a line of bereavements, including the death in a car crash of Makgatho's elder brother Thembi while Mandela Snr was still in prison and whom Nelson wrote about movingly in his autobiography Long Walk To Freedom.

At Makgatho's funeral, the elder statesman decided to break the South African taboo of Aids denial and admit that his son had died of the virus. At the time, the move was seen as an indirect criticism of his successor, Mr Mbeki, and marked an extremely rare venture from the retired politician into the highly charged battles over the Aids crisis within the ANC. Speaking at the funeral, Mandla followed his grandfather's lead and surprised mourners by admitting that his mother, Zondi, had also died of HIV-Aids.

He describes his grandfather as his "pillar of strength" and explains how the older man had persuaded him to return to school in 2002 to study political science at Rhodes University. "Even today he will always applaud me and ask me about what is happening in the community. He has been asking me what I am doing about women's rights, what we are doing to get women involved in the traditional council. He says, 'We are living in modern times and women must have a place at the council'."

Despite his close links with Mr Zuma (the two were pictured together laughing and joking at the same Eastern Cape rally), he does have some words of warning for his political overlord. Using the example of US President Barack Obama who had to abandon two of his marquee cabinet appointments over their tax irregularities, he is unequivocal about what should happen if the ANC leader is found guilty of corruption. "If we see someone has a criminal record then we will have to remove them."

That is extremely unlikely. Moves are already afoot to replace the head of national prosecutions, the equivalent of an attorney general, with a lawyer who previously represented Mr Zuma. Equally, if the ANC does win a two-thirds majority, it could change the constitution to afford immunity to a sitting president.

Tomorrow, the chief will go through the formality of consulting his Xhosa people to decide, he says, whether he will leave behind the Eastern Cape for the more affluent surroundings of Cape Town and the South African parliament. "The people will decide," he insists.

In reality, the decision has already been taken and there are early indications that his ambitions go beyond being a backbench MP. In language borrowed from his grandfather's story as told in Long Walk To Freedom, he speaks of entering parliament as the "beginning of a journey".

There is already private discussion in some circles of a possible cabinet post in a Zuma administration, something he neither confirms nor denies. There are even predictions of an eventual run for the presidency itself.

"My grandfather told us that we should not be driven by obtaining positions but by serving the people. If my people want me to go to parliament then it's time for me to go."

When asked what he would do if he was asked to serve in a higher office, his answer would make a veteran politician proud. "I am comfortable with leaving it up to the people to decide."