Essential lessons of leadership and ritual taught in daily life of village
Some of Mandela’s most formative years were spent in the village of Qunu
South African boys sit and watch preparations taking place around Nelson Mandela’s home for his burial in the ancestral village of Qunu yesterday. Photograph: Nic Bothma/ EPA
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela will be committed to the earth tomorrow by his own people, in the land that shaped him as a child.
The man who revolutionised South Africa, and in doing so became a pre-eminent global moral force, had the most humble of origins. But, as he recalled in the opening paragraph of his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, there were early indications of what was to come.
In Xhosa, his birth language, his middle name meant pulling the branch of a tree – “but its colloquial meaning more accurately would be ‘troublemaker’,” he wrote.
Dwelling on Mandela’s life and achievements throughout the past week, the first 30 pages or so of his autobiography are particularly illuminating. He was born in the village of Mvezo, in the district of Umtata.
His father was chief of the village, a position given to him by the king of the Thembu tribe, but which he lost as a result of a tiff with the local white magistrate. As a result, Mandela senior, described by his son as “a wealthy nobleman by the standards of his time”, lost everything. Mandela’s mother moved to the nearby village of Qunu where she had family and friends to support her.
“We lived in less grand style in Qunu,” he wrote, “but it was in that village near Umtata that I spend some of the happiest years of my boyhood and whence I trace my earliest memories.”
While this emotional attachment clearly lay behind his decision to be buried in Qunu, other aspects of Mandela’s early years there, the values learned as a child and which became the building blocks of his character, are particularly worth noting this weekend. They may be bracketed into two broad categories: religion and leadership.
“My life,” he wrote, “was shaped by custom, ritual and taboo.” He learnt that neglecting one’s ancestors would bring bad fortune and failure. “If you dishonoured your ancestors in some way, the only way to atone for that lapse was to consult a traditional healer or tribe elder, who communicated with the ancestors and conveyed profound apologies.
“All of these beliefs were perfectly natural to me.” That outlook remains very much part of the fabric of thinking among Mandela’s people and their neighbours today. The current Thembu king, Buyelakhaya Dalindyebo, is presiding over deep divisions within his tribe and for some years has refused to attend a number of funerals, including that of Mandela’s son Makgatho.
Early in the week, a royal spokesman, Chief Mfundo Mtirara, said the king would attend Mandela’s funeral and “he will say Madiba’s praise name three times, as prescribed by our tradition”. However, on Thursday, Mtirara cast doubt on the king’s attendance saying: “If his dreams from the ancestors are telling him not to, he will not attend Sunday’s funeral.”