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


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.”  

While traditional beliefs and rites evidently remained important to Mandela during his life, he was also exposed to Christian beliefs as a child and was baptised into the Methodist Church.   His father died when he was nine, causing another chapter to open in his life. His mother dispatched him to live and be educated in what he calls The Great Place, Mqhekezweni, the provisional capital of Thembuland which also happened to be a mission station of the Methodist Church.  

“At Qunu,” Mandela recalls in Long Walk to Freedom, “the only time I ever attended church was on the day I was baptised [a Methodist]. Religion was a ritual that I indulged in for my mother’s sake and to which I attached no meaning. But at Mqhekezweni, religion was a part of the fabric of life and I attended church every Sunday along with the regent and his wife.”  

The young Mandela came under the influence of a Methodist preacher, the Rev Matyolo. “For me, his powerful presence embodied all that was alluring about Christianity,” he wrote.  

“The Methodism preached by Rev Matyolo was of the fire-and-brimstone variety, seasoned with a bit of African animism. The Lord was wise and omnipotent but He was also a vengeful God who let no bad deed go unpunished.”

If Christianity became a powerful influence on Mandela and played a role in his forgiving approach to those who inflicted such injustice on South Africa’s black people, he also acknowledged that what he saw of chieftaincy at Mqhekezweni and how the regent ruled his court shaped his own “later notions of leadership”.  

Pure democracy
He gives a detailed description of how the court worked. “Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers, but everyone was heard: chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and labourer.

“People spoke without interruption and meetings lasted for many hours. The foundation of self-government was that all men were free to voice their opinions and were equal in their value. (Women, I am afraid, were deemed second class citizens) . . .  

“Democracy meant all men were to be heard, and a decision was taken together as a people. Majority rule was a foreign notion. A minority was not to be crushed by a majority. . .  

“As a leader, I have always followed the principles I first saw demonstrated by the regent at the Great Place.”  

As his legion of admiring former enemies have said, Mandela was a good listener and wanted to hear all points of view.  

The boy whose earliest memories were of the beehive- shaped mud huts of Qunu, will tomorrow be returned to the earth here.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.