Tribute to a Freedom Fighter – Zindzi Mandela

 South African Broadcasting Centre, Johannesburg, SA, – Zindziswa Mandela, an internationally-known South African freedom fighter, speaker, writer and diplomat who made forgiveness a hallmark of her life, passed away on July 13 after being diagnosed with COVID-19 in a Johannesburg hospital. She was 59-years-old.

“Zindzi” to all who knew her, was the youngest daughter of global peace and forgiveness icons Nelson Mandela  and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. She had served as her country’s first Ambassador to Denmark  (2015-2020) and had recently been named Ambassador to Liberia. Also known as Zindzi Mandela-Hlongwane (her first husband was Zwelibanzi Hlongwane), she is survived by her four children and her second husband Molapo Motlhajwa.

Born two days before Christmas in 1960, Zindzi was 18 months old when her father was arrested and charged with sabotage and treason. For 20 years, he had directed peaceful, nonviolent acts of defiance against the South African government and its racist policies.  Zindzi was only 3 years old when Nelson was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison where he eventually spent 27 years–much of it at hard labor.

At age 12, Zindzi wrote to the United Nations, urging it to intervene to protect her mother (also an anti-apartheid activist) who was sent to prison for 12-15 months at a time, mostly in solitary confinement and often tortured. In 1976, Zindzi accompanied Winnie when she was banished by the apartheid government to Brandfort, the site of a former concentration camp built by the British during the Second Boer War.

Zindzi and her mother were unceremoniously dumped at house 802 in Brandfort which had no running water, no electricity, no floors and no ceilings. Neither of them could speak the local Sotho language. A few years later the house was firebombed.

Zindzi rose to international prominence in 1985 when the white minority government offered to release Nelson Mandela from prison if he denounced the violence perpetrated by his movement, the African National Congress, against apartheid–the brutal system of racial discrimination that was being enforced in South Africa. Zindzi was the one who read her father’s letter rejecting the offer at a packed Soweto football stadium that was broadcast around the world.

Five years later, Nelson was released from prison and famously decided to forgive his captors and oppressors while moving forward in the spirit of reconciliation, in order to achieve a “rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Largely through his own negotiations, Zindi’s father persuaded white South Africans to share power with the black majority–an almost unbelievable transformation of the apartheid state into a colorblind democracy that soon after elected him to be its first Black president. He is often called “the father of South Africa” and in 1993 he received a Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1994, Nelson published his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, much of which he had secretly written while in prison. The book inspired the 2013 movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedomthat tells the complicated and not always uplifting story of the man who went from prisoner to president. Multi-disciplinary African artist Lindiwe Matshikiza portrayed the adult Zindzi in the movie while African child-actress Refilwe Charles played a younger Zindzi. Watch the 2 min. 31 sec. trailer.

After viewing the movie, Zindzi said it “reasonably portrayed” her father’s shift from embracing violence to his post-prison insistence on forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. At the same time, she added, that shift created a good deal of friction between the two before she, too, embraced “the forgiving life.”  

Another popular movie about the Mandela family was Invictus, a 2009 biographical sports drama directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman (as Nelson Mandela), Matt Damon (the country’s rugby team captain) and Bonnie Henna (the South African television personality who played Zindzi). The story is based on the John Carlin book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation about the events in South Africa before and during the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

The tagline for the movie Invictus was: “His people needed a leader. He gave them a champion.” The movie received positive critical reviews and earned Academy Award nominations for Freeman (Best Actor) and Damon (Best Supporting Actor) at that year’s Oscars. According to TSFX, an Australian educational resource center, Invictus “demonstrates the power forgiveness has to not only unite conflicting teams but to reconcile citizens of nations as well.”

Throughout her adult life, Zindzi had embarked on various humanitarian activities as well as participated in local politics while embracing and reinforcing the legacy her father lived. When Nelson Mandela died in 2013, Zindzi spoke at his funeral saying that she and her father repeatedly talked about how they wanted the world to embrace one thing–FORGIVENESS.

Along with her many other accomplishments, Zindzi is the author of Black As I Am, a collection of poems she wrote when she was 16, and a childrens’ book Grandad Mandela authored jointly by Zindzi and Nelson Mandela’s great-grandchildren. That books is included in the Bookroo: Children’s Book Experts list of the best 38 books about forgiveness.

Due to coronavirus lockdown requirements, only a handful of people were able to attend Zindzi’s funeral. South Africa, with 58 million people, is the African country hardest hit by coronavirus with more than 320,000 diagnosed cases and more than 4,600 deaths. Government projections estimate that the death toll could rise to 50,000 by the end of the year.

Learn more about forgiveness as practiced by Zindzi and Nelson Mandela:

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