Nelson Mandela's great-grandson on healing racial divides

The Unveiling Of The Nelson Mandela Statue
A military fly-past takes place above a statue of former South African president Nelson Mandela shortly after its unveiling at the Union Buildings.
Oli Scarff via Getty Images | 2014

MPR News host Angela Davis is heading to South Africa for an 11-day tour of the country. She will travel with a small group of public radio listeners from Minnesota and eight other states.

They’ll visit historic sites in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and they’ll meet people who lived through apartheid, white people and non-white people were separated and lived very different lives. Apartheid ended in 1994.

Before the trip, Angela Davis spoke with Siyabulela Mandela, the great-grandson of former South African president Nelson Mandela.

two people smiling side to side in videocall
MPR News Host Angela Davis spoke with Siyabulela Mandela, the great-grandson of former South African president Nelson Mandela.
Screenshot via Videocall

Siyabulela Mandela was in Minnesota in the spring of 2022 for a month-long residency at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.

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Angela Davis and Siyabulela Mandela talked about South African and American history, Mandela’s experience in Minnesota and healing racial division.


portrait of a man
Portrait of Siyabulela Mandela, the great-grandson of former South African president Nelson Mandela.
Courtesy of Journalists for Human Rights
  • Siyabulela Mandela is the regional project manager for East and Southern Africa at Journalists for Human Rights. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations and Conflict Resolution from Nelson Mandela University, which is named for his great-grandfather, the late former president of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

You can follow Angela’s trip to South Africa on Twitter, Facebook and TikTok.

Here are eight key moments from the conversation.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

Why is it so significant for you to be introduced as Madiba, your South African clan name?

Madiba Mandela: It is a way to introduce myself in a very decolonial way, and that is by locating myself in the history of my people in the African continent. History shows how deep the trauma of slavery and segregation has been to our fellow brothers and sisters in the United States. That also speaks to the specific reasons why white men decided to strip us of our own identity and dignity so that we do not know who we are and where we come from. If you ask many of white folks in different states, they are configured according to where they come from.

There's something very powerful about knowing who you are, and where you come from, and I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors, so I can feel myself embraced with the blanket of wisdom, that would enable me to articulate myself clearly in any particular space that I'm placed in to deliver whatever message that I'm supposed to deliver.

What was it like for you to be around Nelson Mandela when you were growing up?

Madiba Mandela: I could recognize the significance and the contribution that Madiba (Nelson Mandela) has made to the history of my people, to the history of my country and the continent, when I was in high school, heading to university. Growing up, I didn't really understand the fascination around this old man. All I remember was that every Christmas, he had this tradition of bringing together all children from across nearby villages to come into his house, and get them Christmas presents, some food and some entertainment. He had a very close relationship with young people.

He has always been that old man who was always concerned about what people were doing, what they were studying, and what they wanted to be. Of course, surrounded by this cloud of political leaders. I didn’t know they were political leaders at the time. I was a toddler in the prime times of his administration, and by the time I was able to understand, he had left the government probably 10 years ago and just engaged in humanitarian work.

Carrying Nelson Mandela’s name, do you feel a sense of urgency to use your youth to continue this work as a human rights activist and scholar?

Madiba Mandela: Of course, his legacy and his history have an enormous influence on the work that I'm currently doing. This generation has a collective responsibility to build upon the foundation that Mandela and his generation have created for us. We're enjoying these limited freedoms, freedoms that they did not enjoy during their time. They dedicated their lives to fight so that the generations yet to come, did not have to endure the very same injustice of the apartheid regime. We, therefore, should push further the frontiers of oppression, segregation, and all forms of injustice so that history does not repeat itself.

When they managed to defeat the apartheid regime in South Africa, Mandela was quoted arguing that our freedom is not complete, until the freedom of the people of Palestine, who are currently experiencing the Israeli apartheid system, and all the oppressed people around the world. In the United States, there are indigenous communities who are still experiencing the remnants of the Indian Act, the remnants of the segregation system and the infringement of rights, or the skewed patterns of economic distribution, particularly for Black people.

The United States systematically uses the law to infringe on and segregate one group from another. People of color and Black people are systematically targeted by the police, killed and in prisons, the majority are Black and people of color. That is systematic racism. That is something we must speak against and hold our governments to account when they do not question countries such as the United States when perpetuating such injustices.

What are your thoughts about racial disparities in the state of Minnesota?

Madiba Mandela: America has been so great in marketing itself, as a model around the world, a system of democracy and a form of leadership that everyone aspires to taste the American dream. But for us who have been to America several times, it seems as though I am in the devil's house. I was socialized and raised in a very racist environment, but the kind of racism I experienced in Minnesota was completely different and you can even sense it in institutions of higher learning.

I remember two encounters raised a lot of disputes about my existence within that space. I remember receiving a call from my university, back in South Africa telling me a university in the United States wanted to authenticate whether I had a Ph.D. In the second encounter, I received a call from my family saying they have been contacted by a member of the University of St. John questioning whether I was a relative of the Mandela family. That's the kind of racism that I dealt with. I've never experienced that kind of racism in South Africa. I was so exhausted by the time I left Minnesota, I was thinking to myself: “when am I going to catch a break?” because I grew up in a racist country, and I move to another country hoping I will escape that kind of racism, but when I got there I am confronted with the western racism.

I'm not surprised or shocked to hear the Minnesota statistics. But what is puzzling is how America Projects itself in the world as this perfect country and the perfect nation, and yet when you go inside, you get to understand, we are better off than America. I remember we had a public discussion with a panel of academics, I was one of those panelists at the University of St. John's. The theme came from a song that questioned why slave owners appeared in U.S. dollars. One would have thought that when the country was emerging out of segregation and out of slavery, it would have done a lot of transformation. In South Africa, these are things that we dealt with because these soft powers are things that invoke that trauma. In fact, we even went as far as to ban the apartheid flag. It is unconstitutional, a criminal offense. But to have a country like the U.S. that has had a democracy for probably over 100 years, but still has the faces of slave owners in their currencies, and that continues as normal, was quite interesting. And to see an institution only discussing that in 2022, was quite disappointing.

Nelson Mandela talked so much about forgiveness. Have you seen it work in your life, or what do you think about it today?

Madiba Mandela: In the West, there is the tendency to romanticize Nelson Mandela's legacy as this peace-loving individual, and who was preaching forgiveness against everything else that stood in the way. And that is a false narrative. The forgiveness aspect comes within the context of the truth and reconciliation process. If we can go back, investigate and analyze what went wrong in the past, and the perpetrators of such injustices during colonialism and apartheid can come forward and shed light on the injustice, then maybe we can find ways in which we can heal as a nation, as we move forward and reconcile. In that process of moving forward, of reconciling, then we find forgiveness. Reconciliation is only possible through truth-telling.

For instance, in the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa, there was an amnesty committee, which was all about forgiving those who committed these injustices, and there was a committee that focused on bringing out compensation to the victims of the apartheid regime. Here we're talking about the transformation process. We're talking about giving the land back that was stolen by the white minority back to the people, and that is where the forgiveness process comes into existence. Now that we have finally negotiated a settlement, we can then forgive them.

The West notion and concept of forgiveness is that we had a negotiated settlement, we went to vote, and we forgave one another, which is a false narrative. Nelson Mandela was, in fact, a man who in the 1960s, realized that violence was a way to respond to the government that was using violence against defensiveness and unarmed people. So their own conclusion in the 1990s was to adopt a different shift than Martin Luther King’s, which is the use of violence as a means to bring down the apartheid regime to the negotiation table.

What the education system from the West seems to advance is the notion that you can do injustice to people, and those people can forgive you. And that is a very false narrative because forgiveness is the final phase of the process, it is not the beginning. The United States throughout its history of segregation, slavery, violence and racism never went through a process of truth and reconciliation. But yet, countries that have gone through similar systems of oppression and violence have adopted a system that will enable the nation to move forward. Nations like Argentina, Chile, and Germany.

How to have civil conversations about race that promote understanding?

Madiba Mandela: I did four months of my Ph.D. research in the School of Conflict Analysis, and Resolution at George Mason University, Virginia and I got to witness an academic lecture where professionals were Black and white Americans, academics, were very angry with each other, to the point where they couldn’t even listen to one another and they insulted each other. That is because people have been so frustrated for the longest time, and the government has failed to provide a platform where these front frustrations are ventilated. When such frustrations are building up then you experience what psychologists call the displacement of frustration-aggression. That explains to a certain extent, the level of violence that is within American society. I think processes such as the truth and reconciliation process can actually do a long way in dealing with so much anger, and actually make it easier to address issues of race.

In South Africa, we speak about race freely, and we engage with our professionals, directly on race issues. Of course, we're not perfect, we're still going through a lot of challenges, but at least we are at the level where we can engage openly on issues of race. Racism is a criminal offense, that's how far we have gone in South Africa. So it has gotten to that level that because we are comfortable engaging in race relations, we have been able to create a system in place through the law to hold those who advance racism openly to account in the court of law and even be arrested for such a criminal offense. I don't think the United States is anywhere close to getting to that level.

What can we expect in our interactions in South Africa?

Madiba Mandela: You'll find people from different walks of life. We have 11 official languages including the colonial language, which is English. We have created a multiparty democracy where everyone has an opportunity and a voice to contribute. But what you are also going to experience is a different perspective. We have a system that was a liberation system or movement that was not complete, it only ended with the transfer of political power without the transfer of economic power.

You're going to experience a situation where even though the country has transitioned from apartheid to democracy, people are still suffering, many are still without access to basic human rights, and many are still going through their racial systems of oppression, particularly in the Western Cape and Cape Town. You're going to see how white people are so racist, and in certain spaces, they will actually question whether you are supposed to be in that space. Those are some of the realities of South Africa. But I would say, if you come with an open mind you'll enjoy it. In the midst of such challenges, we are still happy people. We still celebrate our cultures and our history as well.

What are you encouraged by right now, as you think about the present and the future?

Madiba Mandela: I find strength and hope in the sacrifices that were made by the previous generation. I always think that if the generation of Mandela, the generation of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and many other heroes, were able to advance their struggles in their own time, if they were able to achieve what they have achieved, and lay the foundation for us, who would then stop us to continue that fight, given the opportunities that we have.

If Nelson Mandela finished his law degree while he was in prison, then what would stop me from getting as many degrees as possible to empower myself to engage more effectively in the fight that we are in today? Education is the most important tool we can use to change the world. I had to go through education before I became an activist. That is the place from which I draw my strength. It is from those sacrifices. It is from that resilience and from that spirit to fight and move forward.