Nelson Mandela Foundation

Mandela at 90: in conversation

April 25, 2008 – In the third of our “In Conversation With” series to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday, Tara Turkington interviews Dr Makaziwe Mandela, daughter of Nelson Mandela and Evelyn Mase.

Tara Turkington: I think that you embody the ideal South African … many people in one. You’ve taken on many roles and performed them all exceptionally well –social worker, anthropologist, mother, educationist and businesswoman. You exemplify the proactive type of people we need in South Africa. Above all, you’re a strong woman.

Makaziwe Mandela: I think there are a lot of strong women, but we put them into boxes, in that they are actresses, or this and that. We tend to view these things from a male perspective. If you look at our Parliament, there’s a set percentage of female representatives, but how often do you see women made visible?

TT: And when they are, they are usually portrayed in controversial roles.

Makaziwe Mandela: Yes, I don’t think the ANC would have succeeded if it didn’t have strong women. I think that there are a lot of strong women, but as women, we have not been able to gain rightful recognition, and this doesn’t only apply to South African women. Women have not been able to market themselves appropriately in terms of the causes that they stand for. There’s this popular attitude that when a woman is courageous and does the same things that men do, she is pigeon-holed as being aggressive. Most men who run corporations both private and public have wives at home, so if they have dealings with women in the workplace, they seem to adopt an attitude that asks, “What are you doing here?”

Dr Makaziwe Mandela, daughter of Nelson Mandela and Evelyn Mase.

Dr Makaziwe Mandela, daughter of Nelson Mandela and Evelyn Mase.

(Image: Nelson Mandela Foundation)

TT: In other words, “What’s wrong with you?”

Makaziwe Mandela: Yes, what’s wrong with you? You should really be at home! Yet the world we live in demands that both spouses work, at least in most South African homes. I don’t think it’s that different elsewhere in the rest of the world. There are many more families headed by women than by men. I believe that women bring something different into the world; we bring nurturing and caring. Not to say that there aren’t some of us who try to be like men, but there’s this natural instinct that we have that men really don’t. Some may be trying to acquire it, but to us it comes naturally. I think women need to be courageous enough to bring this natural, caring instinct to the corporate world of work. I don’t think we should be shy about being beautiful, feminine-looking women while performing other roles. You don’t need a man to be able to make a valid contribution to society; at least I don’t think so.

TT: You started your career as a social worker and then became an anthropologist, so you have a caring, constructive background …

Makaziwe Mandela: They say, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” My mom was a nurse and my dad was a lawyer who became a politician and has also been in a caring profession, so I think it was a natural tendency for me. You do tell yourself, “I’m not going to be like my dad or my mom,” but you can’t help it. I’ve always had a desire to make a difference in whatever field I’m in. I also want to make a difference in the way I relate to my children. I have four children of my own, but I always say I have 10 children, since my late brother’s children all look up to me as an aunt, mother, father … as everything.

TT: Do they all live with you?

Makaziwe Mandela: They don’t live here, but they come for Sunday lunch, so there’s a strong sense of family. I love creating a nurturing and caring environment. I believe that institutions that are nurturing and caring help you to live longer and prosper, because of the way they relate to their employees. An autocratic or dictatorial workplace creates animosity. People should be encouraged to think for themselves and to be creative and innovative at the same time. If you look at the so-called “best companies to work for” in South Africa, I think you will find that there are elements of caring and nurturing present, much more so than a heavy, top-down, autocratic system.

TT: Where people are given a little bit of freedom. Makaziwe Mandela: Yes, to make decisions. I think that’s important.

TT: What about South Africa? What is your take on us as a young democracy? Have we lost our sense of ubuntu, as some of the older people say? Do you think we are too selfish, or is it just natural for older people to criticise younger people?

Makaziwe Mandela: Every generation believes that their era was the best of all eras … there’s a tendency to over-glorify the past. I was born and bred in Orlando West, in Soweto, and I knew everybody in my community. Later my parents divorced and I grew up in Orlando East. We knew practically everybody. My mom was a midwife, so sometimes she had to work nights, so the other mothers in the street took care of us and they would discipline us like we were their own children. I remember the first time I went to Cape Town to visit my dad … I got on the train and my mom just handed me over to some elder person and said to this woman, “Take care of my child,” and she really took care of me like I was her own.

TT: How old were you then?

Makaziwe Mandela: I was only 16 then, because I could only go to visit my father [who was in prison] once I had an ID book.

TT: Your mom had never met this lady before?

Makaziwe Mandela: No, this was another African lady going her own route, and as we do in our culture, my mother just said, “My child is going to Cape Town, please take care of her,” and so we shared the same compartment. The lady even waited with me until my brother and sister-in-law came to pick me up, so that’s the kind of environment we lived in.

TT: Caring for each other.

Makaziwe Mandela: Yes. I think as modernisation and Western influences have made inroads into African culture, African people have lost some elements of ubuntu. Allied to this is the capitalist system, which is, by design, very selfish, individualistic and materialistic. We are becoming the new black elite, very materialistic in our essence, and with little of that caring and sharing philosophy.

TT: Do you think we could regain it, or is it something that once it’s gone, it’s gone?

Makaziwe Mandela: I don’t think that once it’s gone it’s gone. We grew up in Soweto and told ourselves that when we grew up as a generation we would be so much better educated than our parents. We promised ourselves a different lifestyle, in which we would give our children things we didn’t have.

Dr Makaziwe Mandela, with one of her sons

Dr Makaziwe Mandela, with one of her sons.

(Image: Nelson Mandela Foundation)

TT: But look how much you have given back. You can give back by education.

Makaziwe Mandela: Yes, but I think every generation looks at the world differently. We come from a generation that basically told women that they could have it all – be a wife and a mother and a working woman – but we have discovered that we can’t really have it all. Life is about give and take, it’s about compromise.

I’m one of those people who’s materialistic, but I always ask my husband the question, “Once we have the two cars and two or three houses, how many houses can we live in, and how many cars do we drive a year?”

Once you’ve achieved this materialism, what’s left? You don’t get satisfaction from materialism; you get satisfaction from helping somebody else, from making a difference. If I’m a woman in a corporation, then I can make it much easier for other women to grow within that corporation, which will give me much more satisfaction.

There was a young woman who was my PA at Spoornet, and I said to her: “In five years’ time I really don’t want to see you still here as my PA, I want you to be doing something better,” so she started studying privately. Today I believe she is a project manager in one of the banks. Just yesterday she told me she did something at work that resulted in change and transformation. She said to me, “Maki, one day I will succeed, I will surpass you,” and I replied, “Good. I will stand there and give myself a pat on the back.” It’s good to see a young person move from a situation where they lacked confidence to a level where they’ve grown in self-confidence. Building a person’s self-esteem is something that will last forever, and that person is going to pass it on to somebody else. This is my social welfare background; it’s all about change. How I relate to you is crucial, because it might make a fundamental difference in your life, which is important to me.

TT: So, is that how we change society? If you look at the big problems that face us, like poverty and the oppression of women, how do we relate those massive problems to individuals each doing their own little bit?

Makaziwe Mandela: To me the English idiom “charity begins at home” means we should start at the individual level. You have to be convinced of your own desire to be a better person, so that you can create a better you, a better family, a better neighbourhood – that’s where it starts. Nowadays, we live in these gated communities with gated households and don’t even know who our neighbours are! If we don’t change from inside as individuals, change won’t last. That’s why people say, “But we thought that all of us were in the struggle to create significant change for the poor. Why does it seem as if people have forgotten what it was all about?” It’s because the change was not internal.

In his book Black Skins, White Masks, Frantz Fanon says, “Those who are oppressed always want to emulate their oppressors.” It’s a sub-conscious thing, not something that you actively think about. That’s not to say I discount group effort, but it always starts with the individual.

TT: I think it’s also about leadership, to come to your father’s legacy.    Makaziwe Mandela: We make the mistake of saying that only special people are endowed with leadership ability. It’s inherent in all of us, but some of us are less courageous than others. I believe that there are lots of Nelson Mandelas, Chief Luthulis, Robert Sobukwes, and Oliver Tambos. There’s an ongoing debate about whether leaders are born or made, but I think there’s a germ of leadership in each and every one of us. If you look at the interaction between children, the leadership changes, depending on what they are playing. A certain leader emerges, depending on the competency of that particular child. If you look at geese flying, they take turns, which means that in every goose there’s an element of leadership, so how much more is this true about humans?

TT: And an element of support?

Makaziwe Mandela: Yes, because if one goose is tired, another one supports it.

As human beings, we have killed these elements of leadership in one another, because we have started thinking that there is only one leader, so we don’t support leadership. It’s individualistic and it’s moving away from ubuntu. Even when you examine ancient African culture, a leader was not a leader outside his community. One was chosen as the chief, but he in turn consulted other elders in the community, so he didn’t rule as a dictator, he ruled through consultation and debate, and there was group participation.

Something we have to start doing in South Africa is training young leaders. I was just in Bermuda recently, where friends of mine run an annual workshop. They invite students from all the schools on the island to participate in a two-day workshop in which they are given a topic to research, come up with a proposal and budget and organise real sponsors. There were about 130 students the first day and they got a topic on renewable energy. When these students came in they didn’t know anything about renewable energy, so they had to find amongst themselves who was good at marketing, research and fundraising. At the end of the first day they made their preliminary presentations and they were really criticised. On the second day, they had to present their budget and proposal to a real panel. I was amazed by what these children, aged around 14-16, could do. The winning team had already contacted suitable sponsors, using IT … it was just mind-blowing. It proves that you can teach children leadership and responsibility from a very young age and I think that this is what we lack in our education system. I don’t think much has changed in education if one compares the apartheid years with post-apartheid education. Children are still spending time learning Afrikaans – for what? And very few schools are making children think and develop leadership capability and confidence.

TT: What about at tertiary level? I read an interview that you did long ago in an American education magazine, in which they were asking you about tertiary education and you were saying that it’s going to take a long time to transform that landscape.

Makaziwe Mandela: I think that when you institute change, you also have to change the teachers, the education system, and even methods of teaching. I don’t think our mode of teaching has changed fundamentally from what it was before.

TT: Why not?

Makaziwe Mandela: The kids are still taught the same way. There’s something radically wrong when every year black children – based on matric results – are getting more and more stupid and white children are getting brighter and brighter.

TT: Is that really the case? The results are showing that black kids are passing. Isn’t that just to do with wealth?

Makaziwe Mandela: There are those exceptions where you see that children are doing well.

TT: Isn’t that to do with excellent leadership, a principal who is caring, staff of teachers who are really putting in something extra?

Makaziwe Mandela: Yes, but what I’m saying is unless you have a core of teachers who are leaders in the field, with a proactive mindset, you won’t see good results.

TT: But how do you change those mindsets that are generations old, how do we change things?

Makaziwe Mandela: Something is happening in the schools that are succeeding, especially the very poor ones, that can be duplicated, but we don’t take time to understand it. These people are also black teachers, they come from the same world, from the poorest of the poor.

TT: It’s our system that breeds mediocrity, it’s our system that’s generations old that says, “It’s okay not to work hard, it’s okay for teachers to arrive drunk or not to arrive at all.”

Makaziwe Mandela: It’s not just the teachers. When I was working at Spoornet, we arrived at 8am and by 3.30pm people were gone. This is a culture that pervades the greater South African culture and it’s going to take a long time to change attitudes.

TT: Coming back to your father, is there a way that we can use his legacy better than we already do to inspire a younger generation, not only in South Africa, but also across the world?

Makaziwe Mandela: I know that the schools teach the history of South Africa and the ANC talks a lot about Nelson Mandela. It’s fine to teach, but I think that we also have to learn to give children the opportunity to gain experience. It’s more than just a history lesson: there should be some historical, practical lesson attached. If you just say, “Nelson Mandela was concerned about the people,” what does it mean to the children in their everyday lives?

I think what is missing in the curriculum is that experiential learning element. Things are too theoretical. If we truly want to create a culture that’s different, there has to be much more experiential learning. Children have to feel it. Some black children have never been to Soweto or Alexandra; they only know the suburbs and the malls. They don’t see the world because they are taken to school, picked up and dropped off at malls. All they know is Sandton, Hyde Park and that kind of lifestyle. They get onto planes to go to a holiday home in Cape Town – that’s the kind of life they know today. We as parents have to start exposing our children to real life issues, because many children of former struggle parents have lost touch with their history – they don’t know what their parents went through.

Even a lot of people who claim to know Mandela don’t, because they have not taken time to study who he really is and what his background is. If they paid attention to things like that, then they would have a different perception of the man, because Mandela is not this larger-than-life character that they see now. He was once a rural boy, who went to rural schools, who walked to school with no shoes … that’s where he comes from.

I think if we portray Mandela as a father who had very little education and who has sisters and was a farm boy, then he will be someone people can relate to, but when we portray him as this saint, then they can’t emulate him, because they’re only human. We need to find something within Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King or any great leader. There must be something tangible that people can identify with.

TT: I wanted to ask you about your thoughts on business. Business has often been criticised for being the most conservative sector of society, and slow to change. You moved into business after being a social worker and after being university academic.

Makaziwe Mandela: I came late into business but I think, honestly, you have to go to Hyde Park to see that South Africa has really not changed, because the people who are enjoying the best of what South Africa has to offer are still whites, let’s not fool ourselves. Disposable money is still found mainly among whites, and because business reflects the society in which we live, business has been very slow to change. Society has to change and business will automatically follow suit. The rainbow nation is emerging, but it’s not without a struggle. There are a few of us I would call the intelligentsia or the business people, who are enjoying post-apartheid South Africa, but there hasn’t been a significant enough change among African people who should be really enjoying the best of what South Africa has to offer. It will come, but we are struggling to get there. We all tend to enjoy our comfort zones, but we shouldn’t be comfortable, because the majority of people have been left behind.

One thing we need to address is the lack of courage and confidence to make uncomfortable decisions. Leadership is about making those who are comfortable, uncomfortable. This is where I think leadership has failed or is failing in South Africa.

TT: It’s easy to sit back and to forget when you are personally enjoying a better lifestyle? Makaziwe Mandela: I’m including myself. It’s easy to forget and not want to be reminded about these issues, but if we are going to be true to ourselves and true to the struggle of our fathers, uncles, forefathers and grandmothers, then we have to be prepared to take off the sunglasses and see reality as it is. When you land in Johannesburg, there’s no way that one can ignore the squatter camps that you drive past on the way home. What does that say about us? If the National Party was in power and the Afrikaners lived in the squatter camps, they would have declared a State of Emergency and done something drastic. Why don’t we? There are lots of excuses people give, such as people pouring in from surrounding countries, but there’s no excuse for bad decision-making.

TT: Should we be more self-critical?

Makaziwe Mandela: I think that South Africa started with a bang in 1994. There were many discussions and debates, but I think at some point we lost it, and colluded in silence. Nobody wanted to talk.

TT: Do you think it’s fear and lack of courage again?

Makaziwe Mandela: I think it’s lack of courage. I think we are protecting the little that we have. I think in Africa what prevails is the system of patriarchy, in that government tends to be the major source of income, whichever way we slice it, and because lots of businesses depend on government, we lack the courage to criticise. Criticising doesn’t mean that you are destroying something, there is also positive criticism, but suddenly nobody was willing to commit, just a few individuals continued to be the voice of conscience. The majority of us sort of colluded.

We need to create real dialogue and debate, because that’s where we find common ground, through dialogue. We can only grow by discussing and sharing. Nobody has the answers to everything. In South Africa we tend to be smug and see ourselves as the best in Africa. Why should we be comparing ourselves with Africa? Let’s compare ourselves with the best in the world.

TT: I think a converse to that is that we think we are inferior because we are African, that we can’t be the best in the world because we don’t come from the northern hemisphere. Makaziwe Mandela: I don’t think we are inferior. Most countries have gone through a cycle where the graph has gone up and down, but they learn from each experience and so must we. We can’t say we have arrived, having not learned anything by getting there. Nobody knows it all, not even Nelson Mandela! One of the things he learnt from leaders that went before him in the Transkei is, “I can only become a leader if those around me can voice their different opinions.” He believes that even if you have already made up your mind, you should allow people to discuss and debate issues, because during the course of discussion and debate, you may change your mind – there could be something that you might have overlooked. As a leader, you cannot have a complete overview, you need people who complement you.

TT: There are two kinds of leaders. There’s the leader who creates leaders and there are leaders who create followers. 

Makaziwe Mandela: There is what I call the authoritarian/Machiavellian kind of leadership. I think sometimes when you are driving change you do need leaders who have this authoritarian view, but they must have a vision bigger than their egos. We all have egos and our egos tend to run ahead of us. I believe that for everything we do there’s a selfish interest. Nelson Mandela himself was a very ambitious man who wanted to be that leader, but he knew, having learnt from when he grew up amongst the leaders of the Thembu, that you have to put the interest of the community first, above your own. I think we are losing those kinds of leaders. Now we have a universe of leaders who put themselves first, above the interests of the people. We need leaders who have a good conscience. It starts to a great extent at school, and it has to be something that even our television shows instil in the public.

People always criticise the Chinese, but look at the positive side of the Chinese culture. They make children exercise in the morning, so it’s not just about creating intellectuals, they are creating all-around individuals and young entrepreneurs.

TT: Do you think we have a good entrepreneurial spirit, or is it something that needs to be nurtured as well? Makaziwe Mandela: Entrepreneurial spirit has always been there in the African. If you look at the rest of Africa, how is Africa surviving? Because the people have spirit, they will sell anything. Anything you want, you can get in the African markets. This entrepreneurial spirit is encouraged by the governments. Take the informal sector in Kenya: their government knows that the economy is not going to just thrive solely though the formal sector, there has to be an informal sector as well. I think that one of the things we need to do in South Africa is to create parallel informal structures where you can get everything in one place, be it in the streets or the markets.

TT: But it exists to a certain extent.

Makaziwe Mandela: Not to the extent that it should. We have the Rosebank flea market, but we need more than that, because the formal sector is not going to be accessible to everybody, because our unemployment rate is high.

TT: I wanted to ask you about your mother, Evelyn Mase. Having read just a little about her and spoken to a few people who met her, she was clearly a very strong woman, who was quiet, in the background, but remarkable. I wondered if you would be prepared to share with me some of your memories about your mom?

Makaziwe Mandela: For every child, a mom is the best thing in its life. My mom, Evelyn, was a very strong woman. She was a cousin of Walter Sisulu’s, and when she came from the Transkei, she lived with the Sisulus and trained at Coronation Hospital during the late 1940s. She was an orphan, her parents died when she was three, so she grew up with the Titus family, and that’s how she met my father. She actually paid for my father’s education, so he could become a lawyer. My mom was quiet but strong. She didn’t just bring us up, she took care of her brothers and sisters as well, and grandchildren. She was a religious person, who believed in God as a higher power, and I think that’s what sustained her over the years. She was a loving mother and grandmother and would always cook on Sundays. She was a good cook and taught us how to cook well, too. She was a nurse and her brother ran a butcher shop in Orlando East. When her brother left, she ran the butchery, but sold it after a while because she couldn’t cope with the two. She worked all her life until the Transkei became independent and Matanzima encouraged her to go back to the Transkei and buy a shop. She bought a general dealership in Cofimvaba in the Transkei and worked there as a businesswoman.

TT: It sounds like she was way ahead of her time.

Makaziwe Mandela: There were a couple of women who ran businesses, but it was a rarity. She loved gardening. She grew her own vegetables, and had cattle and chickens, so she was a busy and extremely independent woman.

She was also a disciplinarian. In her house, as a girl, you wouldn’t be seen lazing about. We worked hard, we cleaned and we had chores like cooking in turns – even the grandchildren learnt that. She would wake them up and say Kusile namhlanje (it’s light, wake up) and she would sprinkle water on their faces. The boys still remember that each day before they went to school they had to take the cows to the mountain and then after school they had to fetch them again. She worked until the very end, but in her old age, three years before she came to Johannesburg, she sold the shop because she couldn’t cope any longer.

Even though my dad wasn’t around most of the time, there were many people who supported us. Blacks are very good at creating family networks, in the sense that you will find that a person becomes part of your family. There’s a saying in Xhosa, umuntu akalahlwa, which means, “you never throw somebody away”. I grew up surrounded by lots of aunts and uncles and my father’s younger brother. He is still alive and living in Cape Town. At the time he was working here in Johannesburg as a labourer, but he was always there for us. When we wanted dresses for Christmas, he would buy them for us. I still have very fond memories of Bhut’ Tsheketshe.

So now it’s my turn. I know that if I’m going to the Transkei, I have to buy something for him, whether it’s shoes or a suit, and I give him money. I love him to bits, he was always around for us. He wasn’t getting that much of a salary, but whatever he had, he shared with his brother’s children. My father was not there, so he took good care of us and I can’t ever forget that. In some way I know that I have to pay him back … that’s the culture we grew up in. Matanzima took care of my mom and of us, so there was always this supportive network, so that you didn’t feel sad, even though we missed our father. We received help from people who didn’t have much to give. My uncle wasn’t getting a huge salary but he gave us what he had. Even when we had to straighten our hair in December, he would give us money, so it’s those little things that were very important in our young lives.

* A shorter version of this interview was published in the City Press on April 27, 2008.

About Makaziwe Mandela

Dr Makaziwe Mandela is the only surviving child of four from Nelson Mandela’s marriage to Evelyn Mase. She chairs Nozala Investments, which directs the proceeds of investment towards the economic upliftment of women in South Africa.