Mandla Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom

By Leon Hartwell*

Something was brewing on the side-lines of this year’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) that did not receive much media attention: discrimination. The victim was Mandla Mandela, one of Nelson Mandela’s grandsons.

At the end of last year, Mandla converted to Islam, and in February he married a Muslim woman. Some traditional folks were unhappy about this revelation. Mandla was asked by the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South African (Contralesa) to step down as chief of the AbaThembu in Mvezo, because “the Mvezo people are not Muslim.”

After revelations about Mandla’s wedding, the Twittersphere was awash with foul comments. Some of it focused on the fact that this was his fourth marriage, while other Tweets were chauvinistic. Vusi Khumalo (@_vus) Tweeted, “Mandla Mandela is a fool, in our culture a woman marrys [sic] into my culture. He might as well change his surname to hers.” Similarly, many other Twitter users (especially males), under the hashtag #MandlaMandela, expressed deep displeasure with Mandla’s decision to convert to his new wife’s religion, because they feel it is un-African and goes against long-standing traditions.

As Mandla and his third wife (Mbalenhle Makhathini) walked down the red carpet to attend SONA, people were shouting “Askari” and “sell-out”. In South Africa, the word Askari carries a pejorative connotation as it was used to describe collaborators of the Apartheid regime. In the most extreme cases, those accused of collaboration were punished with necklacing. By dubbing Mandla an Askari therefore carries with it elements of hatred and animosity, which in turn, could become food for discrimination. Throughout the hissing, Mandla and his wife nonetheless put up brave faces.

Clearly, some of the reactions towards Mandla’s conversion to Islam relates to ignorance and plain and simple discrimination. Other reactions are expressions of disappointment that Mandla has presumably challenged deep traditional values and customs.

I will not pretend to know much about Mandla’s traditional responsibilities and whether his conversion to Islam directly conflicts with his role as Chief. However, I would add that, the cultural and religious traditions of Mandla’s forefathers are not as straightforward as some Twitter users have suggested. More importantly, Mandla has the freedom of choice to which religion he wants to belong to.

In his Long Walk to Freedom, Madiba made a number of references to culture and religion worth mentioning. Generally we think of culture and religion as fixed, as several Twitter users have implied. A certain level of conservatism rooted in culture and religion provides people with some form of security, because we do not always like change.

Michael Oakeshott, an English philosopher once wrote, “To be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” It is for these reasons that we generally prefer incremental rather than radical changes. Nonetheless, Mandela himself acknowledged that culture is apt to change. In Qunu, where Madiba grew up, he was surrounded by Xhosas and AmaMfengu. The AmaMfengu, he recognised, “were not originally Xhosa-speakers” and, according to him, they adopted Christianity before Xhosas. In other words, language and religion are not permanent features of culture, even though we would like to think the contrary.

His father, wrote Madiba, “remained aloof from Christianity and instead reserved his own faith for the great spirit of the Xhosas, Qamata, the God of his fathers”, while his mother was in fact a Christian. With regards to his own childhood, Madiba said; “Religion was a ritual that I indulged in for my mother’s sake and to which I attached no meaning.” Later in life, he became “quite religious” and claimed that the Communist Party’s antipathy towards religion put him off. Furthermore, people often forget that Madiba once asked Amina Cachalia for her hand in marriage but she turned him down. Importantly, Cachalia’s cultural and religious heritage was different from Madiba’s. Again, the point is, that even with regards to his own life and that of his immediate family members, religious values were often in flux.

Moreover, Madiba’s most important message about identity — whether we are talking about race, ethnicity or religion — relates to respect and tolerance. While many South Africans tend to think of discrimination in literally Black and White terms, along the lines of Penny Sparrow’s racism, it should not be forgotten that prejudice takes many forms. South Africa’s Constitution, which is one of Madiba’s greatest legacies, and particularly the Bill of Rights, recognise that equality is not only about race, it also includes issues related to gender, sex, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.

Mandla must have known that converting to Islam would be met with great controversy. Yet, he persisted. His decision, which comes at a time of deep divisions in South Africa, is a rare example of embracing the rainbow nation. When he married his new wife, Mandla reportedly stated, “I am honoured and delighted to announce my marriage to Rabia Clarke … I wish to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Rabia’s parents, her extended family and the Muslim community, for welcoming me into their hearts… Although Rabia and I were raised in different cultural and religious traditions, our coming together reflects what we have in common: we are South Africans.”

We do not have to like Mandla Mandela or his decision to convert, but we have to acknowledge that traditions are not set in stone. We should also respect his constitutional freedom to choose his own religion. Although people have every right to voice their objections against possible conflict of interest between his role as Chief and Islam, they should not turn his conversion into hatred. For it is hatred that fuels discrimination, which is exactly what Mandla’s grandfather fought against.

Leon Hartwell is a political analyst. Follow him on Twitter @LeonHartwell

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