South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela went back to his natal village of Qunu in July, and he’s still there. Many South Africans fear it may have been his last trip.
QUNU - Nonkumbulo Mandela rattles the church door. It's supposed to be left open; ever since the handle broke years ago. "It's a scandal, you can't just let a church fall apart like this," grumbles Nelson Mandela's grand-niece. Grimly, she picks a little stick up off the ground, inserts it in the lock and turns. The door opens. Rays of sun shine through the hole-filled corrugated iron roofing of the Evangelical Methodist Church.
At this little place of worship on a hill in Qunu, there is a service every Sunday morning at 11 a.m. To attend, Nonkumbulo brings her own plastic chair. There are only five benches in the small space, and two are nothing more than wooden planks. Nonkumbulo approaches life without any particular expectations, and she isn't one for a lot of talk or gestures. But this issue angers her. The state of the schools here is a mess, she says, and a village needs a properly maintained church.
On the little dirt path leading to the white church there's a good view out over this South African village. There are green hills as far as the eye can see, and only a few buildings – small stone houses, tiny round huts – with the occasional paved road meandering through. Nelson Mandela grew up here. The boy who later became arguably the greatest statesman of our time herded sheep in these quiet pastures, and played with friends in these fields.
This past July, he came home. Initially, the idea was that he would return to celebrate his 93rd birthday. After the festivities, he was scheduled to go back to his house in the up-market Houghton area of Johannesburg. But that was six weeks ago. Nelson Mandela, it's now being said in South Africa, will likely stay in Qunu for good.
At first glance, Mandela's Qunu compound, with its high walls, surveillance cameras, and guards, looks as if it had been transplanted from the city. But for Mandela this property also harbors memories: before building the big house, he built a replica of the house in which he spent the last years of his nearly 30-year imprisonment. In the 1980s, when it was clear that the South African political landscape was changing, the apartheid government saw to more comfortable conditions for Mandela in prison.
"We're spending Christmas together"
Nonkumbulo Mandela looks over at the compound, and smiles. "We're spending Christmas together," she says, adding that Mandela takes active interest in the village life. "Nelson asks how the children are doing in school. He knows exactly what's going on here." She speaks fondly of her famous relative, but without awe despite his iconic stature in the Rainbow Nation.
Nonkumbulo lives some 400 meters from Mandela‘s home. There are no photographs of him in her house. "We don't need photos, we can just go see him," she says. He may be the great Nelson, but he's one of many Nelsons in the family, which is the largest family in Qunu.
Another family member is Morris Mandela. He's seated in an old armchair in house No. 30143; the number is painted on the wall of the red brick structure. There isn't a more exact address for this house located on a craggy field path, just: Morris Mandela, No. 30143, Qunu. While his stepbrother, Nelson, headed for Johannesburg and left the rural Eastern Cape province behind, Morris Mandela, 14 years his junior, has lived the traditional life of the village.
At least, he stayed for as long as he could. He then had to go work at a mine in Johannesburg, spending many of his 79 years there. Now, back home, he's finding tending his vegetable garden a little harder, and is getting a little hard of hearing. On a shelf near his chair sits a cardboard box with Martin Luther King‘s words "I have a dream" printed on it. "A granddaughter put that there," he says. "I've never been much into politics myself."
Nelson Mandela had this house built for his brother 14 years ago, on the land they both grew up on, and where he came back to spend holidays. It's a solid, simple home with old furniture and a television set. On the wall there's a faded photograph of Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca; Mandela holds one of Morris's children. "I've always dreamt that after he was released from prison Nelson would come back to Qunu," says Morris in his weak voice. "An old man should come home."
But it was 21 years before that happened. Nelson Mandela had a nation to build. And while doing so, he never lost sight of the bigger picture, resisting the temptation to favor his place of origin, something which other African heads of state have done, sometimes to excess, and which the country's current president, Jacob Zuma, quite shamelessly does in his village Kwa Nxamalala. In Qunu, since the end of apartheid, only a few roads have been built, along with a community hall.
Right now, Mandela's is a less active presence on the national scene. His unmistakable voice is that of the nation's conscience, but public statements are rare. Encounters with official visitors are rare, though in June he welcomed U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama. His family says Mandela's recovered from health issues that had him in an intensive care unit this past January, and had the nation in a state of near-panic.
Mandela's voice, again, could do the nation some good right now. The governing African National Congress (ANC) is inefficient, conflicted, and lacks strong leadership. Along with five other young politicians, the head of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, is facing a disciplinary committee on charges that he brought the ANC "into disrepute" and "sowed division in the ranks' – something of a euphemism for populist Malema's demagoguery and the recent international embarrassment caused by his call to establish a "command team" to unite opposition in Botswana against President Ian Khama's "puppet regime."
Mandela has devoted his life to the greater good of his nation. Yet on his visits to Qunu, he always had time for local matters. People came to him with their problems. And he listened.
He often said that he felt tugged between Western-influenced city life and rural African life. Even before he was the first dark-skinned lawyer in Johannesburg in the 1950s, he was supposed to be the "Chief" – a traditional leader whose role went beyond that of head of government.
Now the official local chief is Nokwanele Balizulu; in 1996, she became one of the first women to head a South African village. She owns the small shop, located just a couple of hundred meters from the Mandela home, that sells a bit of everything, from tea and rice to ties and umbrellas. Her shop is also the post office, so the village's 200 mailboxes are in front of her hut.
Balizulu doesn't like when anyone speaks negatively about South Africa. "Life has gotten better for all of us," she says. "Even the very poor get help; we distribute blankets and food." She has plans for the village, including an agriculture project. Indeed, in Qunu, she has the last word: even Nelson Mandela needed her okay a few years ago before he could begin construction work on his property. Leading, and living, by example.
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