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Rachel Bray and her children on Nelson's Rock

Nelson's Rock - Qunu, E Cape, South Africa [2010 © greatguides.org]
Rachel Bray and her children on Nelson's Rock

A high point of our day in Qunu, the village of Nelson Mandela’s childhood, was sliding down a large rock, feet in the air and bums following the well-polished descent. It was a lot of fun, and as we laughingly hoped for some of Mandela’s greatness to rub off through osmosis, the experience prompted thought about Nelson and the scores of other children who have spent long days on this rock and in the surrounding hills.

Tending cattle as they grazed would have given boys lots of time to think about the world around them, an experience our guide felt to be significant in forming Mandela’s character and approach to political life. Nelson, like many young Xhosa children then and now, did not have a ‘stable’ childhood in the sense this term is usually used. He moved homes and schools several times before his teens, and at nine years, when his father died, he went with his mother to live under the care of his uncle, Chief Jongintaba Mtirara. His uncle set high standards and Nelson recalls a stern demeanour yet never doubted the man’s love for him.

Two aspects of Mandela’s youth stood out for me as offering stability of a rarely appreciated kind, and as being fundamental to his personal fulfilment at the time as well as his later political acumen. He was invited into, indeed even expected to attend, chief Jongintaba’s court where he listened to his uncle and other elders debate issues of governance. There, he recalls, chief Jongintaba always listened attentively to all points of view before making a decision. Secondly, Nelson’s slightly elder cousin, a son of the Chief, became a friend and role model with whom he navigated his late teens and initiation into manhood through the traditional circumcision ceremony in the bush. A few years later, Nelson met Walter Sisulu, a young professional a couple of years his senior, who became a second, life-long role model and guide.

Nelson enjoyed a healthy balance between inclusion in the affairs of the world – often assumed as being comprehensible only to adults – and loving mentoring from his elders. My own research suggests that this combination is as rare for young people now as it was in Mandela’s youth. The reasons have changed because the terrain is very different, but such absences are just as problematic. Parents and children are battling to achieve the aspirations that Nelson and countless others fought to make a possibility. One question niggles: Do we take the nurture of youth and education in its broadest sense, as seriously as the struggle that was waged against an oppressive government?

I wondered what the school children visiting Qunu’s youth and heritage centre make of it all. Sliding down the rock gets them most excited, our guide told us. Some are taken through sessions on leadership skills and conflict resolution based on the specially designed exhibition that draws parallels between Mandela’s life decisions and those of the young American, Rosa Parkes, whose campaign against racial inequality began with a refusal to give up her bus seat to someone with paler skin.

Young visitors to the centre are invited to write a letter to one or both leaders, explaining their feelings about the decisions Nelson and Rosa made and the risks they took. And each year the museum committee selects half a dozen to display prominently on the vast windows overlooking the valley and villages of Mandela’s childhood. I was happy to see children’s opinions being valued, only regretful that most of the home addresses were European or American, rather than South African. Are the well-articulated letters by children raised overseas being given priority or are local children hesitant to put forward an opinion? If the latter, where are this country’s children expressing their priorities and the challenges they encounter in fulfilling these?

Author: Rachel Bray
Published Date: 10 Feb 2010
Location: Southern Africa | South Africa
Themes: the past | biography

Clive Walker on 19 Jan 2012

Great to read about Nelson Mandela