Exclusive interview with Ndaba Mandela
Exclusive interview with Ndaba Mandela
Yes, he’s related. To put it more precisely, Ndaba is Nelson Mandela’s grandson. When he was eleven years old, he moved into his grandfather’s house and grew up there. Ndaba is committed to the AIDS response. For good reason: he lost both parents to AIDS.
Losing two parents to AIDS. That’s terrible.
‘AIDS made me the orphan I am today. Actually, many other South Africans can tell you the same story. I mean, there are hundreds of thousands of people like me who have been orphaned by HIV and AIDS.’
Your grandfather took a bold decision after your father – his son – died due to AIDS in 2005.
‘In those days, the taboo surrounding HIV and AIDS was enormous. But my grandfather was proud of my father. He didn’t want to participate in the shame of others. And so he held a press conference to announce that his son had died of AIDS. We were the first prominent family in South Africa that actually told the truth about it. It inspired millions of people to talk freely about HIV. You see, if this disease could even affect the Mandela family and Nelson Mandela could talk openly about one of his own children having it, others would follow in his footsteps. That day, something changed.’
Your mother’s story is very different. Can you tell us about that period in your life?
‘My mother died two years before my father, when I was twenty. It was a really dark period in my life. I was angry with my aunt and uncle. They knew about my mother’s HIV-status but kept it secret from me. By the time I took her to a hospital, it was too late. The doctor told me she had HIV and that she wouldn’t leave the clinic alive. I was angry with my mother because she hadn’t told me anything. I was also angry with myself. I could see she was sick. It was very clear she was in a bad condition, but she never said anything. A mother being a mother, she didn’t want her children to worry. She passed away in less than a month.’
You say that the HIV- and AIDS-related stigma could kill just as well as the disease itself. Why?
‘Many people find it impossible to share their status with their loved ones because of the stigma. I could see the enormous weight of the shame and isolation pressing on my mother’s narrow shoulders. That was one of the saddest moments in my life,’ Ndaba says, sighing in frustration. ‘Many HIV-infected people die in isolation. Telling someone about the disease causes more fear than dying itself. Do you understand how crazy that is? It’s nuts!’ After sighing again, Ndaba continues: ‘There is nothing that can compare to the pain of losing your mother. Mothers are the cornerstone of any home, especially in our African society. So, when your mother leaves, you feel a huge void. As an individual and as a family, you feel the void. Because mothers nurture their children and also unite them. They raise boys to become men.’
Your grandfather, Nelson Mandela, said: ‘When a man’s mother passes away, this causes him to re-evaluate his life’. Was that true for you?
‘To be honest, I felt I had lost my sense of direction after my mother passed away. I think that pain, that void, makes the whole world stop.’ Ndaba swallows back his tears. ‘I was drinking a lot of alcohol and using drugs to avoid the pain. But at some point – as my grandfather said – you re-evaluate your life. And so I started a foundation that aims to empower young people in Africa. We address the issues most affecting them, such as education, technology, agriculture and the promotion of African culture. We make sure that young people are proud of who they are. And HIV and AIDS are very important. Because, what kind of future, what kind of hope, can we give to our children if HIV and AIDS are threatening them?’
How much activism did you inherit from Nelson Mandela?
‘Ahem, maybe a little bit… I am not as disciplined as he was, but our values are the same. And our generation continues to build on his legacy and his vision of what we want Africa to look like in the next three generations. As I said before, our country has a generation of orphans due to HIV and AIDS. It has stopped people from daring to dream or from following those dreams. It is also a human rights issue. For a long time, the majority of people didn’t have access to medicines because they were too expensive. But they finally put the prices down about three years ago.’
Today, 62 per cent of people living with HIV receive treatment globally. That means there are still about 14 million people who are not getting medication. How do you feel about that?
‘Well, obviously we have done some good work, but we need to do much more. It’s clear that we need to join forces. All organisations and institutions, every single person like me who is worried about this epidemic, should unite their efforts. By working together we can accomplish much more. For example, we can confront the governments that don’t recognise the epidemic in their countries. Together, our voice is much stronger.’
How can people support the AIDS response?
‘You know, it gives people hope when they know there are people out there who do care. And I think it’s important to share your commitment in your own community. Whether that be through social media or any other platform. That way, you can inspire others to support the response.’
That sounds like the African Ubuntu concept: ‘I am because we are’
‘Of course, it is Ubuntu. Even though I don’t know you, I want no harm to come to you. You know what I mean? I need not know you to wish you well. I need not know you to want to see your children grow up, be healthy and become leaders in their own right.’
Now that you mention children: you have two of your own. What does their future Africa look like?
‘My son Lewanika – who is named after my father – is eight, and my daughter Neema is six. I listen to Bob Marley’s songs with them to make them aware of what happens in the world. Lewanika and Neema know how much I love Africa. I hope they can live in an Africa where there is no more AIDS. They probably won’t experience a completely HIV-free generation, but I hope for a generation in which at least nobody gets HIV. The end of the epidemic is a matter of time. As long as we continue our efforts, as long as we work together, we will win. Unity is the answer.’ Ndaba smiles. ‘Love and unity.’