QONDILE KHEDAMA: A tribute to the late Zindzi Mandela-Hlongwane


The death of struggle icon Zindziswa Nobutho Mandela-Hlongwane caught most South Africans by surprise - more so because the world will in few days commemorate her father's birthday-turned-international-commemoration-day, Mandela Day.

Zindzi rose to the international prominence in 1985 when she read a letter in a mass gathering that was broadcast throughout the world on behalf of Nelson Mandela, rejecting PW Botha’s conditional offer to release him. The rally was initially meant to honour black Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Nobel Peace Prize award.

WATCH: Zindzi Mandela reads her father's rejection of PW Botha's offer

Comrade Zindzi told a packed Jabulane amphitheatre that her mother (Nomzamo Winifred Mandela-Madikizela) could not deliver the message because she was ″banned,″ meaning she was not allowed to meet with more than one person at a time and could not be quoted.

The crowd greeted the 24-year-old woman with wild applause and foot-stamping, and carried her to the stage as she entered the packed Jabulani outdoor amphitheatre to read the statement. Madikizela-Mandela later slipped into the stadium, almost unnoticed, and joined in the singing of freedom songs acclaiming her husband and other African National Congress leaders.

Born of these struggle icons, following in the footsteps of her late parents would become an inescapable venture for Zindzi. Born in Soweto in December 1960, the same year that the African National Congress (ANC) launched an armed wing, her parents were always on the run and hunted by the apartheid oppressive regime.

At the time of her father’s imprisonment Zindzi was only 18 months old. During her youth Zindzi was often left in the care of her older sister Zenani because her mother would be in and out of prison, sometimes for months. In 1977 her mother was banished to the Free State and was forced to take Zindzi as she was still a baby and couldn’t join her sister Zenani and Lindiwe Sisulu - who were sent to the boarding school in Swaziland. Zindzi was not able to complete her education until she too was sent to Swaziland, where she finally finished her secondary education. In 1985 she earned her BA Law degree at the University of Cape Town. It was also the year that she read her father’s refusal speech.

In his tribute, President Cyril Ramaphosa describes feisty Zindzi as a "fearless political activist who was a leader in her own right". This can be traced in her history of activism. Zindzi served as deputy president of the Soweto Youth Congress, was a member of the Release Mandela Campaign, and was recruited as an underground operative of Umkhonto we Sizwe. She worked with the communities of Weilers/Orange Farm to launch the first ANC branch with struggle leader Walter Sisulu in the 1990s, and served in the MK Veterans' Association in the Lesley Moatshe Branch.

In an interview with The Telegraph, she poured out her emotions. “For a long time after his [Mandela] release there was a lot of bitterness,” she said. “I never, ever imagined my father being president. I imagined him coming home and having a normal family life. When he came out of prison we only had a few moments with him as a family, before the reception committee joined us. I realised, ‘He’s still not mine.’ I always joke that at least when he was in prison I was guaranteed two visits a month.”

She went on to tell the outlet about her first memory really meeting her father, saying, “I was 18 months [when he left] and so afraid. I was waiting in the car with my sister at night outside Pretoria prison and there were hostile, uniformed men around. My mother had brought my father his favourite dish, a sort of lasagne made with soured milk and she was gone the longest time.”

The late Zindzi was a non-conformist. In her interview with the Zindzi Foundation team, she confronted racial prejudices that south Africa is still faced with. “In terms of our white brothers and sister, they also need a change of mindset; they must stop coming and thinking of us as being people who are going to save us from ourselves and redeem us from who we are and so on. But for them to also realise the role that they play in that they too in a sense are victims of ignorance and condescension”.

The ambassador to Denmark often described her childhood as lonely, and spoke about the pressures of being weighed up against her parents. This living throughout the turmoil of apartheid South Africa – and the torment of seeing her mother and father arrested and locked away for long periods of time – lit a fire in Zindzi’s soul. Struggle veteran Lindiwe Sisulu, who is a family friend and is also related to the first wife of Nelson Mandela, expressly captures the emotional side of Zindzi, saying she was “tragic figure” who had a difficult life.

Despite this, she was a gentle soul who took a place of her mother after she died two years ago. Sisulu says Zindzi Mandela resented being seen first as a daughter of a struggle icons because she was a fierce fighter of liberation. She said Zindzi was the youngest of the struggle heroes' children, and she didn’t have an easy childhood.

As an avid lover of the arts and with poetry as her discipline of choice, she found solace when she couldn’t turn to anyone else. Her works have appeared in_ Black as I Am, as well as Somehow We Survive: An Anthology of South African Writing, and Daughters of Africa._

Zindzi, who felt first the brutality of the apartheid regime, was an activist and a leader in her own right. She led from the front for emancipation of her people. She joins the likes of Florence Matomela who worked as a teacher while raising five children. In 1950, angered by new influx control regulations in Port Elizabeth, Matomela led a demonstration that ended in the burning of permits. She was also one of the first women volunteers in the 1952 Defiance Campaign, and spent time in prison for civil disobedience. She joins unsung heroes who were active in a number of squatter movements in and around the cities - such as Dora Tamana in Cape Town, the women who organised marches throughout Johannesburg in 1947 to protest against the housing shortage, as well as campaigns led by Julia Mpanze and others we don't hear about.

Lala Ngoxolo Madlomo, Yem Yem, Ngqolomsila, Sophishi, Velabambentsele!

Qondile Khedama is former ANC spokesperson in the Free State.