frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela

interview: Chief Ndaba Mtirara, Chief Anderson Joyi and Chief Jonginyaniso Mtirara INTERVIEWED BY John Carlin

They are three Madiba chiefs from Mandela's clan in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa. They remember Mandela as a young boy
Chief Ndaba Mtirara (left), Chief Anderson Joyi (center) and Chief Jonginyaniso Mtirara (right)

Chief Joyi, you first met Mandela in 1935. What kind of young man was he in those early days?

Chief Joyi: Mr. Mandela was promising ... a hale fellow ... even during his childhood. The three of us are related to Mr. Mandela. As we are the same clan--the Madibas. He is of the royal house as we are ... his grandfather is a brother to King Mtirara, and Chief Joyi. 1935 was the year of his circumcision. It is there I saw him ... he was staying at Mqhekezweni.

I wonder if either of you could tell me about your first impressions of Mandela.

Chief N. Mtirara: Well, I was still young, attending school at primary level, when I first heard of that name, Mandela. I didn't even know his first or second name. But later, as time went on, I learned his actual name was Rolihlahla. We often ... heard about his name, and about his political activities in Transvaal, and his ups and downs with Justice [the eldest son of the regent king], but what we were impressed about was that we used to hear that he was on his way to bring freedom to the black people.

Explain the circumstances by which he ended up having such a good education.

Chief Joyi: He was brought up by the regent king Jongintaba Dalindyebo, a very noble man, who decided to educate the young man by sending him to school.

Do you have any recollections, Chief Joyi, of that period.

Chief Joyi: He was seen at the meeting of the elderly people, headed by the king. He was seen as a young man who knew how to express his views. And the people of the Thembus were very proud of that when they saw him even at that time as a leader.

Chief J. Mtirara: What I remember, is what Themba told me, some jokes which may lead somebody to laugh.

Jokes are very welcome.

Chief J. Mtirara: As Chief Joyi already said, at an early stage, Mandela had shown signs of brilliancy and integrity. They were all young boys at Mqhekezweni, where they were brought up by the regent king, Jongintaba.

Well, it's normal practice that young boys often wet their blankets ... at night, when they are asleep ... Now Mandela would wake up at midnight when he discovers that he has wet his blankets. He would take B-----, remove him from his dry place, put him on the wet place, and then Mandela would sleep on the dry place. And when regent king Jongintaba woke up in the morning he would find that B----- has wetted his blankets. Then he would punish him for that. That alone is enough proof that there was something in Mandela's mind. He was capable of avoiding something that would come up in a wrong way.

How old would he have been when this happened, more or less? ...

Chief J. Mtirara: ... by that time, normally children wet their blankets at night up to nine to ten years.

You are describing a person of brilliance and integrity, but maybe that action did not display so much integrity. That is more cunning than honest.

Chief J. Mtirara: Yes, it might look cunning, but one thing is sure, you can't be cunning if you are stupid.

Maybe you could tell us about the manner in which he left this part of the world and went to Johannesburg--the circumstances behind that.

Chief J. Mtirara: I remember a story which was told to us by him--that as he grew up at Mqhekezweni Great Place, under the watchful eye of the regent king, Jongintaba, he also grew up with ... Justice Mtirara, the eldest son of the regent king. Then he told us that [Justice] had a girlfriend. Regent King Jongintaba was not aware of the affair between [Justice] and the girl. All he wanted to do was to take that girl and get her married to Rolihlahla Mandela. When Mandela refused that, the regent king tried to force that marriage, then Rolihlahla ran away to Johannesburg together with Justice. Leaving their father behind.

Wasn't this action by Nelson Mandela, the young man, to run away and to disobey, wasn't this a great scandal at the time?

Chief J. Mtirara: I think, on the part of the elders and senior members of the family, it appeared like that, but on his side, he feared to tell his father the truth that the lady you want me to get married to is, in actual fact, in love with my cousin brother.

Chief N. Mtirara: He also told us that the woman he was forced to marry was very, very ugly. That was another reason why he had to run from Mqhekezweni to Jo'burg with Prince Mtirara as well ...

Chief Joyi, in those early days when Mandela was a young man, before he went to Johannesburg, how were white people seen by the people here, the residents of this part of the world? How were they viewed?

Chief Joyi: The white people were a threat to the blacks. That I can say. And the blacks were dead scared of the white people. The white people were dominant, in police stations ... churches, schools. I remember when I was a school boy, I was still very young, I might have been between seven and eight years ... a piggery farmer or a butcher man used to come to my grandfather looking for pigs. The moment I saw him, I would run for dear life, because I have never seen a man, or anybody, with a white face. I was scared of him.

And while we were at the veld herding sheep and goats and cattle, the policemen on horseback, a white policemen ... when they come to us boys, herdboys, they would get off their horsebacks, and demanded to see our kieries. If any one of us would be carrying a knobkierie they would demand that that boy put the head of the kierie into his mouth, in order to determine whether it's dangerous or not. If it couldn't fit into his mouth, he would be arrested for carrying a dangerous weapon. So that is the way the whites were seen by those days by the black people.

Was that the same experience that Nelson Mandela had?

Chief J. Mtirara: Definitely so, because he also grew up as a herdboy. He must have experienced that.

He went to another world, and became more and more famous. During that period until he was arrested, what were you hearing here about Nelson Mandela.

Chief Joyi: ... people talked about Mr. Mandela's behavior, because he was always creating and promoting the policy of a multiracial system of government in South Africa, which is to give full independent humane citizenship rights to all races in South Africa. A significant example is that of the piano--the notes on a piano are black and white. A tune may be played on the black notes, and a tune may be played on the white notes, but for real harmony, they both play. That is the reason why we are now enjoying, at the government of national unity, it was his motto. And the people were very proud of that.

Mandela was arrested in 1962, and condemned to five years in prison. He had a second trial, the Rivonia trial of 1964. What was the reaction here as the Rivonia trial was going on?

Chief N. Mtirara: I may not be cocksure whether there were radios by that time, but I think only people from urban areas might have been following that either on radios or on newspapers. But people from rural areas ... whatever means of communication they had ... they were fully informed of whatever was going on. Illiterate as they were, and as they still are at this moment in time, but talk of Mandela to them ... you would be talking of a great hero even while he was still in prison or while he was still a trialist.

During the years Mandela was in prison, people reacted with pride and some regret that he was in prison. On the day of his release from prison, tell me where you were and what you were doing on that day.

Chief N. Mtirara: Everybody was more than just delighted to hear about the release ... Even if you would question a kid or an old illiterate somebody about how he or she felt about Mandela's release, he or she would tell you that Mandela's release means nothing less than that we are just on the verge of attaining our long fought for freedom ... The Thembu chiefs celebrated Mandela's release by slaughtering some beasts and some home-brew beer.

Can you remember the first time he came to visit here after his release from prison?

Chief N. Mtirara: His first visit was to pay homage to the Thembu Great Place which is traditional for anybody who has been away for quite some time ...

Chief Joyi : He also visited his clan, the Madiba clan, especially the bereaved families--to mourn the death of that particular somebody who might have been buried while he was not there. Which is traditional to us.

Chief Joyi, can you paint a picture for me of the first time that you saw Mandela after his release, maybe the first time you had seen him since he was a child?

Chief Joyi: Yes. I can picture that visit as it was in shipshape form, because everybody was rejoicing. It seemed as if that day heaven was walking on earth because a great man was back home.

You had not seen him since he was a young boy.

Chief Joyi: ... I saw him at Victor Verster. I was together with other chiefs. He wanted to know about the traditional activities at home. I was the first man to deliver at this stage by word of mouth. Telling him about what happened at home. Promising him that we are here, not for vanity and glory, but for reasonable use. He must have hope that we are behind him.

Chief N. Mtirara: I remember the first time I saw him, and it was the first time in my life, when he visited Bhombane Great Place, in the company of Mr. Alfred Nzo, Mr. Walter Sisulu and the late Mr. Chris Hani and others. Everybody was just smiling. Everybody was just eager to shake his hand. From there we went to Mqhekezweni. From there we went to the place where his homestead was, where he was born. An area on the banks of the Mbashe River, known as Mvezo, where we walked down a distance of approximately two to three kilometers, a slope side down to the banks of the river, where he showed us the remains of his homestead, even the stone where they used to grind mielies to make samp, and the other one to make maize meal. Where his father, Chief Gadla, was a chief, which he apparently had left whilst he was approximately 6 years old to go and live with the regent king at Mqhekezweni. He visited Umtata. Then there was a political rally ... I was not there. I was listening on the radio. It was a helluva big thing ...

Chief J. Mtirara: Yes, he also visited Umtata. A big rally was held. People there were more than ten thousand. There was no place to move ... Young people were singing traditional songs, political songs and otherwise. He expressed himself very much in delivering a long speech trying to motivate everybody and it was a silent day. We then realized in fact that we are now free. As we still say, we are free.

When you went to see him at Victor Verster prison, he was a much older man. Did you recognize the boy in the man?

Chief Joyi: Yes. To me, it was figuratively a paradox because we usually say an elderly person is a man, and a younger one is a boy. But I saw him being an elderly man, not a boy. I saw him being so strong even in walking, and even his deliberation when he wanted to know about his home activities. We told him of everything we know. We left him a happy man. Inquiring about how some other things had occurred. We explained everything to him. We also expressed our dismay at his absence when we laid to rest our godfather, the late king Sabata Dalindyebo.

How many times since he was released from prison has he come back here to this part of the world, to his home?

Chief N. Mtirara: He comes frequently, whenever he has some sort of holiday, never mind how short or how long it might be. It might be two or three days, it might be a week, it might be a month, he spends it with us here. Because he gets more rest while he is here.

You say he gets more rest when he is here. But, is he also expected to perform the duties of a chief when he returns home?

Chief N. Mtirara: Well, it's compulsory that he partakes in some form of advising the chiefs here and there, as the elder of the family. Most of his duties when he's here on holiday is to look into the chieftainship. He's more than just concerned about it, and he often attends to any problems affecting chieftainship and any would be disputes wherever applicable.

Give me an example of the kind of problem that Nelson Mandela has to address here at home in his chieftaincy capacity.

Chief N. Mtirara: The complaints from chiefs about salaries and chiefs who have been appointed to their duties but who are not remunerated in due course often bring those grievances to his attention, and he attends to them.

Does he also address himself to the problems of ordinary people?

Chief N. Mtirara: Yes, he does, especially when there are funerals. He attends funerals and tombstone unveilings, and sometimes he happens to lend a hand in such events, to those particular families.

You used the word compulsory earlier. You also say he is on holiday. Explain to me this idea that it is compulsory for him to do this.

Chief N. Mtirara: ... It is compulsory ... that he addresses the chiefs problems or anything that's got something to do with chieftainship because while he's here, he is no longer regarded as a state president, but as a member of the royal family, and he is a chief by virtue of birth. So if chiefs talk to him in his capacity as a chief, it will be easy for the chiefs to obtain whatever they have been yearning for from the government, through the other chief, who is Nelson Mandela. He has a role to play.

As I've already said, he has a role to play, he is more than just an ordinary chief, but a godfather to us. Amongst us he has got sons, he has got grandsons, he has got great grandsons, for instance, by virtue, or in accordance with the genealogy, this is his son. I am his great son or I am his grandson, and this is his great grandson. So we are all looking upon him as our godfather, and there is no one else in his position, to see to our grievances.

When you speak in your language, you refer to Nelson Mandela by a different name. Can you explain that to me.

Chief N. Mtirara: His name is Dalibhunga. Chief Dalibhunga. That name was given to him after circumcision. So each and every chief or prince in accordance with our custom, after circumcision, he is given a praise name, so that his original first name, like that one of Rolihlahla is no longer used. Instead of it, he is being called Chief Dalibhunga ...

Chief Joyi, to get back to your piano. Many people would say that Mandela is someone who has been a great one for reconciling the black and white people of this country ... how did growing up in the regent's house prepare him for this role as a national reconciliator of black and white.

Chief Joyi: Here in Thembuland, a foreigner is not regarded as an outcast. If you are here in Thembuland, it's not expected or required of you to be told often that you don't belong to this place. He grew up under such indoctrination. No racialism or intimidation amongst the Thembus.

What values did Nelson Mandela learn in Thembuland ...

Chief Joyi: Chief Dalibhunga inherited this ability from his forebears that there is no segregation amongst the Thembus. So that's why he found it so easy for him to form some means of reconciling so [many] jjdifferent people in this country.

Mandela has a very special way of making decisions when he is in a cabinet. Explain how you make your decisions here as chiefs.

Chief N. Mtirara: Okay. In a gathering of whatever kind the issue for discussion is put on the table, and the councilors and the chiefs discuss the matter thoroughly from both angles in the presence of the king, who is just keeping quiet, listening attentively. As they continue discussing, they come to a level whereby they decide now that the discussion has gone this much and no further. Then they turn upon the king, and ask him for his own version of the matter. He is the man who will come up after having heard different opinions from the people gathering there. Then he will put his final say and nobody will have any objection to that. Whether he likes it or not, he'll have to oblige. That's the manner Chief Dalibhunga was used to, and under which he was brought up, and indoctrinated. Which we strongly believe that had a good effect in him deciding on the reconciliation and this government of national unity.

If there are two or three parties who have an argument about grazing land or water ... three groups having an argument. How important is it in your tradition to bring everyone into the same circle, so that you all discuss it. What happens if one group doesn't come into the circle?

Chief Joyi: ... In a dispute, of approximately three parties, or even more or even less than that, normally all parties are called to the Great Place, where the matter is discussed, regardless of the cause of the dispute. It might be water, it might be grazing land. It might be anything ... but after it has been discussed thoroughly and amicably, then a decision will be taken, which will be binding on all parties. In the presence of the chief at the Great Place of the chief. It then might happen that one party fails to pitch up, other parties avail themselves. Then that gathering at the Great Place would discuss the absence of this other party, and that party will be punished according to the Thembu custom ...

When Mandela appeared at that rugby match wearing the Springbok jersey, rugby was seen as the apartheid sport. He went to have tea with Betsy Verwoerd ... People in Johannesburg would say, "Mandela is crazy. Why is he behaving in this way? It doesn't make sense. This is the enemy." Can you explain that sort of behavior to me? Explain that to me in terms of Thembu tradition.

Chief N. Mtirara: We, as Thembus, same as Chief Dalibhunga, and as a chief, we have no grudge against any wrongdoers. If we cross each other's road today, tomorrow that's long past and forgotten. We, therefore, see nothing wrong with Chief Mandela having had tea with Mrs. Verwoerd and being at a Springbok match. We see nothing wrong with that. That is a good symbol of a good leader. Because if you are a leader, everybody, all people are your subjects be they thieves, murderers or whatever they are. They are your subjects. You have to listen to them. You have to pay homage to them when the occasion arises.

People say that he keeps his emotions very much to himself. He is a very private man. Is it something that is expected of a Thembu chief, to keep to themselves. Is there a connection there or not?

Chief Joyi: It's common practice and something natural that people of high nobility sort of contain themselves in order that their emotions are not well known to the people ... as well as to deprive their enemies of an opportunity to ... how can I put it ...

To know his opinion ...

Chief Joyi: Yes, to know their opinion by that time. So that if you suppose your next of kin has passed away, and you fail to contain yourself, your enemy will get a chance and strike at you. But if you can contain your emotions, then he won't be able do that.

The explanation that you are giving is that the chief does so in order to deprive his enemies of an opportunity to see his weakness or his vulnerability.

Chief Joyi: Yes. ... to maintain or to control. ... You must not always be exposed to people in the sense that they know what sort of a person you are. Because they might take full advantage of that. They might be in a position to know your weak points and capitalize on that. But by keeping or containing your emotions, you may be in a position to deprive them of that opportunity.

Mandela is a person who has an extraordinary grace and charm. People warm to him immediately, and people respect him immediately. Where does that come from?

Chief Joyi: Since Mandela is a member of the royal family, and although has not been a chief, but he was born by a chief, he might have inherited that from his father, grandfather, and great grandfather. Moreover, we strongly believe that chiefs are not there by virtue or by the will of the people, but they've been appointed by the will of God. So whatever they do, on most occasions, if not all, is God given ...

What do you think his big achievement is.

Chief J. Mtirara: He is the only person who ... decided to remain in jail for the sake of the freedom of the country, while other prisoners were released. And even by the time the government was willing to release him on conditions--he refused. And said he would rather rot in jail and he strongly believed that at the end of the day the will of God will prevail, and have him released out of jail. So that's why we think that he is a man of high integrity, hence his earning so much respect all over the world.

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