· Vatican City ·

Interview with Makaziwe Mandela

Let me tell you about my father and his dream of equality

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10 December 2021

“A winner is a dreamer who never gives up”. Almost a decade since his death on 5 December 2013, Nelson Mandela continues to inspire millions of people throughout the world in their non-violent commitment against every form of racism. Still today, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate is a reference point well beyond the borders of South Africa. After all, as demonstrated by the “return” of the phenomenons of xenophobia and racism in many parts of the planet, the fight for equality continues to be as urgent as ever. Among those who walk in the footsteps of the South African leader, is his daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, who is involved with various charitable works and is the founder and president of “House of Mandela”, a company that through clothing — especially for young people — carries on the anti-racist message of her father. In this interview with Vatican Media, Makaziwe reflects on Nelson Mandela’s personality, the topical nature of his social commitment and the importance of education to overcome the prejudices that still poison relationships between individuals and between peoples.

Almost ten years after his death, your father is still an extraordinarily popular figure worldwide. Why do you think his legacy is still so relevant today?

My father was a man of courage and vision. He really believed in the power of unity and that if people all over the world came together, they would strike a blow to any form of injustice. He was truly authentic to what he believed in and there were core values that formed his life: humility, perseverance, honesty and forgiveness. My father grew up in an environment where all people were allowed to voice their views freely without any fear of retribution, where leaders were the shepherds and stewards of their people, their rights and their freedoms. He took the responsibility of being a leader very seriously and actively encouraged different forms of thought. One of the many things he taught, which is relevant in our world is that we have a choice in how we want to live our lives, good and bad things happen to all of us, but we are also imbued with the responsibility to fight against all forms of injustice, prejudice, cruelty and violence in our society. He did not just fight for the freedom of black people but he also fought for the freedom of all South Africans. 

Unfortunately, every day we are confronted with racism and discrimination in many areas of the world. What, in your opinion, would Nelson Mandela do today in the face of this evil that seems to be so rooted in human history?

During the Rivonia trial, my father said, that he fought against white domination, but he also fought against black domination. He believed that no race was superior to the other, that effectively there were no races genetically speaking, that there was only one race, the human race. My father only judged people by their character and their values. He would be disappointed by what is happening today, the rise of the ultra-right in politics and how racism, cultural wars and arrogance, ethnicity, fear, tribalism, gender violence, religious intolerance are being weaponized and used to destabilize the entire democratic world. He would remind us all that our hard-won freedoms did not come easily, that people sacrificed their lives so that we could all have access to equal rights. My father believed that all of these things were man-made and since that was the case, we could equally get rid of them. My father’s ancestor King Ngubengcuka is said to have formed the Thembu nation by bringing different groups together; people who sought refuge, people who were displaced, and who sought a home. The Thembu nation is essentially comprised of people from different walks of life who believed in one vision. So, this nation of diversity is strongly imbued in our family and passed from one generation to the other, embracing different people and different ideas. My father believed that maintaining the status quo was an enemy to progress and we should grow and evolve as people. He would see what is happening today as a disappointing regression taking us back to the dark ages.

Your father used to say that “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”. What is your opinion on this issue, based also on your personal experience?

My father was not just talking about mainstream formal education. He believed that people could educate themselves through books, that they could travel far and wide with books, could learn about other cultures, could really understand how other people lived. That the purpose of going to school was not just to learn what is in a book, but to learn how to negotiate and get along with others, the exposure to other races, other cultures — education could free you from ignorance. He believed education was the basis of human relations — you learn something about me and I learn something about you and find that we have things in common. He believed that once these commonalities were established, the issue of race should not matter. Covid-19 has really brought to the fore that racial superiority doesn’t really have any place in our society because Covid has been the great equalizer — it pays no attention to whether you are rich or poor, black or white, educated or not. That we really need to wake up to the fact that besides skin colour, there is very little that separates us and that we are all endowed with inalienable rights to exist in this world, to have the same privileges as our next-door neighbours, black or white.

When your father died, Pope Francis expressed the hope that his example may inspire generations of South Africans to “put justice and the common good at the forefront of their political aspirations”. To what extent are new African generations — not only those in South Africa — still inspired by Nelson Mandela?

A lot of people had previously believed that the young generation of millennials here in South Africa and all over the world were lost, but the Black Lives Matter movement and other social justice movements have proven that they are very much present and in tune with what is going on around them and are prepared to fight against the rise of racism, inequality, poverty and gender-based violence. These are young people from all races and all walks of life who are holding politicians to account and reminding them that they are accountable to the people first and not to their own vanity; which really encourages me and gives me hope that all is not lost in this world. If you look at Africa, young people are not waiting for handouts from their governments, they are coming up with innovative solutions around water and sanitation, food security, education, energy and electricity as well as ways to combat climate change. These young people are really conscientious about improving not just their own lives, but the lives of their communities and countrymen. My father always believed that charity begins at home, with people close to you or in your own community if you will. 

Pope Francis, just like Nelson Mandela, has always emphasized the value of non-violence as a force for change. How can this value be promoted today, especially among the younger generation?

We need to emphasize that our journey in this world is to heal the wounds that we are surrounded by and carry. My father realized that if he did not leave anger and bitterness when he left prison — he would still be in jail as a free man. We have to learn to love those who are ethnically, culturally, different from us and work to bring together people from across racial, political and economic lines. We need to build bridges, especially those that unite us in the battle against disease, poverty and hunger. We have all of the solutions right in front of us, but for some reason or the other, those in power refuse to implement them, which I find confounding ad frustrating at times. Today we really need to remember the indivisibility of human freedom and that our own freedom cannot be complete without the freedom of others.

Personally, what is the greatest, most important teaching that your father taught you and that has been most meaningful in your life?

That nobody is born hating another because of the colour of their skin, culture or religious belief — we are taught to hate and if we are taught to hate, we can also be taught to love because love comes naturally to the human spirit. For me personally, I make a conscious effort every day to treat people with respect, dignity and compassion. My father always treated everyone the same, whether that was the queen or the street sweeper and he really believed that all human beings were equal. I apply that same value to everything that I do in my life.

Alessandro Gisotti