Ladies Drive: Swati, it is such a pleasure to talk with you. I have a favourite question to start with: what is the scent of your childhood days?
Swati Mandela: Wow… give me a couple of minutes for me to gather and see if I can feel it, sense it. There is just so much. I don’t even know how to put it into one word, that’s challenging. My childhood was, as you can imagine, quite complex and not the average childhood. I did not grow up with both my parents at home. Definitely for sure when I think about my childhood my grandmother is very integral to my childhood. But it’s quite distracting, because there were times when we lived with her and there were times when we went to live with my mum at home with my dad. My mum says the reason why she did that was because my grandmother had such a hard time because of who she was and everything she faced at that time that she tried to create some sense of normality for her. And the way she did that was ensuring that she was surrounded by her grandchildren. So I suppose at the sacrifice of her having us around as children, she rather had us around our grandmother because she needed some sense of just stability in the midst of chaos and brutality, anguish. I would have to say it’s a bit a scent of smoke, because… So, apartheid was set in such a way that in the areas where my grandmother grew up, where my grandmother lived…well, they build the houses so small they were like box-like houses. It was like a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen and a – I cannot even call it a living room. I remember a dining table. But the smoke was there because people used coal to warm their houses and cook. Wherever I was, there was the scent of smoke. That was how we made our food, how we kept warm, how we lived. We lived around the stove, the integral part of our interactions would be near the stove with my grandmother.
Your childhood was so different than, for instance, mine. I grew up here in Switzerland and it’s a safe haven, right? So I always felt safe. Did you ever feel safe as a kid?
I felt very safe because my grandmother was this larger than life role and figure and person and persona in my life. And she always ensured that we felt loved and we felt supported and we felt her presence. I think a lot of the traumas come up as an adult. Because I had to unpack certain things. In my therapy I came to realise that it is trauma that I experienced as a child that I sort of internalised. And it kind of manifested itself as an adult. When I think about my childhood I felt very safe. My grandmother could create stability or normality for us in whatever little ways she could. With the very little she had. For me, I always felt loved by her. I always felt her presence. There was always myself, my siblings and my cousins. The house was always full of people. So I definitely felt safe when I was a child. I did.
Can you recall specific conversations you had with your grandmother, your grandfather that still are with you in a way?
When I first had contact with my grandfather I was in my early teenage years by what my mum tells me. Because he was on Robben Island we did not have as much access to him. And actually, when we were going to visit him on Robben Island there were so many of us at the time. I could not have a one-on-one with him. I always tell people, I did not grew up with grandparents where I could sit on their lap and I could hug them. Or if I had a bad dream or a nightmare or something like that I could sit and be consoled by them. Definitely with my grandmother for sure, she was there. But with my grandfather I did not have the same luxury of a grandfather figure or role in my life.
The one thing that I have taken from my grandmother is the sense of community and always ensuring that I look after the community I’m living in. Whether it’s my family, whether it’s my work, whether it’s my colleagues, whether it’s a physical community, so the people around me. She had this sense of togetherness. Family was also another big value that she taught me. She always used to say “If I don’t have my family I do not know where I would be now. She’s like “If I did not have you kids around me I probably would have gone crazy. The apartheid objective was to drive me crazy. They wanted me to lose my mind, but having family around me really kept me sane. And really kind of reminded me that I also have family at the end of the day that needs to be looked after and that is also looking to me and relying on me”. The sense of family to me is something that I learned from my grandmother and the sense of ensuring that I nurture those relationships, that I look after those relationships. I’m very aware of it, I’m very consistent about it, I’m very deliberate about it. It’s not something that I leave to chance, it’s something I have to be very deliberate about.
How can we – sitting here in Switzerland, Germany or Austria – imagine your childhood and teenage years? What kind of reality surrounded you, what type of energy surrounded you?
The energy was quite oppressed. It was very violent and it was very dangerous and it was very harsh. Let’s say within my home I would not have thought that, but it was happening around me every day and all the time. And my grandmother being such an integral part of the system against apartheid at that time, I continuously was aware of the fact that ours was not a normal upbringing nor a normal life. I always remark to people that being a Mandela only became popular after my grandfather got out of prison. But prior to that we were not popular and people did not want to sit with us, people did not want to have anything to do with us, including our own neighbours. Coming from a community where you typically can knock on your neighbour’s door and you can ask for bread, sugar, tea or anything. We could not do that because our neighbours did not want to be associated with us because of who we were. Understanding the fact that my grandfather was in prison, my grandmother essentially was in prison for a long time, too. As a child I did not really understand why my mother was leaving us with my grandmother. I was traumatised because I was like “Why would you leave us in such harsh environment in such unstable situations? Why would you do that?”. I think my whole family construct has been sacrificed for the liberation of this country. I have sacrificed normal family life, I sacrificed having grandparents, having parents, having like a normal upbringing. I sacrificed all of that, it has been sacrificed on my behalf. Because of who my grandparents were and what they chose to be and to do. It took me a very long time to come to peace with that.
When other people decide your fate, you can feel a bit trapped or you can end up seeing yourself as a victim…
I was mostly bitter for the large part towards my grandfather in particular and I think also angry for a very long time. Because I think he chose that for himself but us as the family suffered the most. He even said himself “I was on Robben Island. I was in a prison, far away from everything. My wife probably bore the brunt of what apartheid did to our people. And not only my wife, my children and their children. They are the ones who were most traumatised by the system, because they did not have the ability to choose whether or not they wanted to be a part of it. We chose for them. We sacrificed family life for them, we sacrificed their family life for the bigger cause, for the greater good”. So yes, I was very resentful, very angry for a very long time. Interestingly enough I never dared to say that to my grandmother. I think because she had such a nurturing role in my life I think I just did not allow myself to go there, despite everything she tried her hardest to give us everything she could. She tried her hardest to make it as normal as possible. With everything she had to do, she really, really tried. And I have so many loving memories of my childhood. And my grandmother is a major part of it. But the interesting thing is that she is the one who made me come full circle and made me come to peace with the whole process. She said “Sweetie, you have to accept and you have to forgive. And you have to let go. And you have to embrace everything you went through and use that in a positive way. Turn your anger, your rage, your bitterness and rather use it for good.” So she is the one who has me made come full circle in my journey to just make peace with it. Because it was just torment for a very long time.
How old were you when you started to be able to make some sort of peace with your past?
A couple of years ago. This literally happened in the past five years. So it happened just a few years before my grandmother Winnie passed away.
How old are you now?
I’m 41. Yes. So one of the things my grandmother did for me was – for most of my life – I did not want people to know who I was. I wanted to be under the radar. If people even knew who I was it was like: “Oh my god, here it goes.” Because I never knew what I was going to get. So I lived most of my childhood into my adult life not wanting people to know who I was. But again my grandmother was like: “You can’t run away from who you are. It’s part of your DNA. You are going to torment yourself if you don’t make peace with yourself. You have to understand that even if you feel negative towards it, there are so many positives that you can draw from it. And you are missing the connection about the fact that that is your DNA and that is where you come from. Take the good and leave behind the ugly. Make peace with the bad. Forget the bad and just take the good parts of it and use that to go forth in your life”. It took me a very long time to get to that place of just peace, understanding and acceptance of the fact that I’m Nelson Mandela’s and Winnie Mandela’s granddaughter. But it was a journey to get there.
I can only imagine. How did you do that? How did you make peace? Can you share that a little bit?
I think when you are in a place in your life where a part of who you are is something you are suppressing…you are literally suppressing one half of yourself. I’m a Dlamini and a Mandela, but the Mandela side I’m completely suppressing. I didn’t even want to engage with it or encounter it. I did not want to accept it and more than anything I think it’s a burden. It was just a journey of just like unpacking what that meant for me. I’m a huge proponent of therapy, so I went through therapy. My therapist helped me a lot. My grandmother was the catalyst for my own healing. And then one of the things that it did, I always went by my father’s name and then I changed my name to my mother’s name. And that was a big step for me to do. Because then I became Swati Mandela and that is just what it is. It was lots of tears, lots of unpacking with my family, with my grandmother. Understanding what it means for me, how I can define it for myself. Knowing I have their love and their support. There was a moment for me where I thought “How does my grandfather sit in a prison for 27 years for a cause?” What type of strength does that take, what type of resilience. What type of mind? What is that? And when I went on that journey to unpack that I just said to myself “Okay, whatever that is that he has, I have that in me. I have some of that in me.” And I think it’s going back to my roots, going back to the people that were very much a part of me instead of running away from who I was and just them helping me accept who I was. But yes, lots of therapy and facing my demons, the ugly truth about my past. And just coming to peace with it and saying it’s okay. And I think a lot of self- care and a lot of self-love. Because you have to be extremely vulnerable through that process and you’ve got to be extremely loving to yourself and gentle and kind to fall apart and put the pieces back together. And then emerges this new person. It was very painful and I feel very overwhelmed and emotional about it, even when I think about it now. For half of my life, I did not even want to be associated with who I was. That took away so much from me. But I did not know how detrimental it was to myself and my sense of self-worth and my sense of being and confidence and esteem in the world. But nevertheless it was my journey, it was my process and I’m grateful my grandmother walked it with me and she was there and she held my hand. My mother held my hand and my dad held my hand, and my siblings held my hand and my therapist held my hand – and I paid a lot of money. That was the journey. It was ugly but very rewarding at the end.
I think when you once experience such dark moments when you are literally on the dark side of the moon, you can only see darkness. Once you have acknowledged that darkness can only exist when there is light and start to trust in the process, that there will be light somewhere, you just need to be on the edge of the moon to see the light again. And as you said, to be okay with not being okay, this acceptance helps a lot.
Correct. I think having a safe landing space is critical as well. If you have spaces that you can land that are safe, that are loving, it allows you to land safely and gently. Whether it’s parents, or husband, or siblings, or friends or your therapist. But I think it definitely aids in the process of just having safe spaces where you can go back to because being raw and opening yourself up and exposing just the ugliest parts of yourself. People would look at me and say “I would never think that you have issues of self-confidence or self-worth, or self-esteem or a sense of being.” They think you have it all put together, and I’m like “No it has been a lot of work to get here.” This was not by accident, it was deliberate on my part and was a journey and process to get there.
Can you recall the first time that you met your grandfather Nelson Mandela?
I do not recall the first time, but I do recall when my grandfather left Robben Island. What I recall is, flying from Johannesburg, landing in Cape Town, getting into a car from Cape Town international airport and then driving a very long distance to get to this place where we went to see my grandfather. So we get there and there is almost something like an estate, security at the entrance and once you got past security you get entry into the estate. So when we arrived, there were big gates and it really looked like an estate. When we got into the estate, there were houses everywhere. “Why are we here?” And my mother said “This is where your grandfather lives.” And I said “But I do not understand, I thought my grandfather was still on Robben Island” and she replied “No, he is not.” “But then why is he in this house?”. So we get to the house and it’s a huge house. And for me that was huge because coming from where we lived…this house with a pool was just huge, there was staff, he was wearing a suit, he looked very handsome. We could embrace. The whole family was there. And I asked myself, if grandfather is here then why can’t he leave? Then my mother was trying to explain: “Your grandfather is still in prison, but not.” I could not understand. However, they explained it to me and I ended up shutting up. I just remember being so happy and so excited. A bit confused, too. We were sitting at a table to have dinner with him. And there is a pool and there is a beautiful house. I just did not get it. Anyways, we spend the afternoon with him and we could embrace, we could hug we could sit on his lap, we could hold his hands, we could touch him, we could embrace him. Because prior to that we were literally behind a glass door. So that was the first time we were able to do it. But what was so incredible was that my whole family was there. So that was my first sort of memory that I have seeing my grandfather outside of Robben Island. Perhaps Robben Island is too dramatic for me and I just can’t go there. Maybe I just want to remember the good because Robben Island was just so ugly.
But can you remember conversations with him and maybe did he ever try to explain why this all happened and could you share with him that you suffered from these circumstances?
Please understand that my grandfather leaves Robben Island and he moves to this estate. And at this estate is where the negotiations started. Firstly to release the rest of the prisoners from Robben Island and then also how the transitional government is going to take place. So my grandfather was an extremely busy person all the time. The only first moments where I actually got to sit with my grandfather was when I maybe walked into a room and it was just the two of us was after my grandfather retired. And by then he was in his late 80’s. By then his physical health, his health in general had quite deteriorated at that stage. So a large part of my experiences with my grandfather were always with people around. However, he was never shy to remind us that education is important, we must go to school, we must get an education, we must complete. I’d walk into a room and he would be like “Hello darling, did you finish school?” And I was like “I finished school, I have a child, I’m a mother now. I long finished school.” And he was obsessed with education all the time. He drilled it into our heads, drummed it into our heads. If you have got a degree, get another one. Just further. Get a masters, get a PHD. That I think was the one thing that my grandfather always ensured we knew and we understood. But for the most part my grandfather just sadly – and it is a sad point for me – we were just not given that time. We were not given that time. And it’s something that again I had to make peace with. At some point I was just happy to be in a room with him just sitting and not saying anything, whether I’m reading a book or reading a newspaper. But education when it came to that my grandfather was very strict about that and ensuring we got our education and valued education, understood the importance of education. And what it does for you as a person, how it unlocks your opportunities in life and your abilities to have dignity for yourself and to choose what type of life you want to create for yourself. I had lunch with a gentleman yesterday and he is re-reading my grandfather’s autobiography. And he said: “One thing I never understood about…your grandfather and a lot of their peers were highly educated and they spoke impeccable English. I could never understand how it is that they had such a command of the English language.” I can’t remember what it was called but before the days of Apartheid people had a great education system – almost parallel to the English system. And that is why they were such intellectuals and such academics because they were raised on and grew up on that type of education system. What Apartheid did and the government did, was to introduce the bantu education system. The type of education system that we have now is nothing in comparison to the education system my grandfather and his peers and that generation had. I mean dignity was such a big thing for my grandfather.
Being dignified. And being treated with dignity. And just living in a dignified manner was something that his peers on Robben Island spoke so much about him. And the prison guards treating the prisoners with dignity. How do you even do that? I don’t know how. But if there was something he valued was living a life of dignity and being treated as such. And for him the connection, the bridge was education in order for you to have that. So I would say that education is a big one that my grandfather taught me.
I would love to spend some more minutes on the topic of education, what it does, what it means in your home country or in Switzerland. But first I would like to know what the experience of these dramatic changes in life was like? You just shared that you were brought up in a very tiny house and then your grandfather became President of South Africa between 1994 – 1999. This transition must have been huge for you?
It was – but my mum is incredibly humble. We grew up in the US – we left Boston when I was about 8 years old. Back then my mother refused to buy us a Christmas tree for all the years we lived there. We did not understand why, we were not at home, in the US, all our friends, all our neighbours had Christmas trees why could we not have a Christmas tree? “No, until your grandfather gets out of prison, until the prisoners on Robben Island are free, we are not celebrating Christmas. Because they can’t celebrate Christmas”. My mother just continuously reminded us of who we were and where we came from and what was being sacrificed for us to have the life we had. And it was the fact that we had my grandfather and my grandmother who were doing that. I feel like the transition for me was not like this… I don’t know how to explain it in a way that it does not simplify it. I go from one extreme to the next. But for me I had that grounding from my mum, essentially my mum just kept us always very grounded. She did not let anything go to our heads. Manners were important. Treating people equally was important.
Understanding that every single thing that I have is a sacrifice because of somebody else. And being grateful for everything that I had. And also understanding that even though the circumstances changed, it is not like my family construct improved over night. My grandfather was still a person that we could not have for ourselves, we still had to share him. With everybody else. People might think that we have this very glamorous life, it just wasn’t that and my grandfather was also very strict. About little things, like the type of food we had, the type of meals we would eat. He was not big on indulging or spoiling. My grandfather was not that guy at all.
There are people who have this perception about what type of life we had – and it’s just so far from the truth. We still had to share him with everybody else. And that was hard, that was very difficult to do. When I wanted to see my grandfather I had to make an appointment, I had to get into his diary like everybody else did. And he said that “I apologise to my family because I have to share you with everybody. You never had me all to yourself. I’m very sorry for you, but that is the choice I made and that’s the life I have.” I was always very sorry for my mum and my uncles. They were the real victims of apartheid, my mum, my aunt and my uncles. They were the real victims.
When you meet someone today and you introduce yourself with your name, how do people react? How does it feel for you when people have this idea of who you might be, which differs so much from the reality and experiences you shared with me.
I find it quite interesting. My favourite is always to see people when they don’t know who I am and then somebody introduces me and then they know who I am. How literally I can see a switch in their behaviour. It taught me a lot about human behaviour and human psyche.
That’s kind of weird I guess…?
I enjoy it. I actually find it quite comical and hilarious. But it is just the nature of humans and human beings. No fault of their own for most part. I think for me, I walked the journey that I walked. We are all just to try to figure things out most of the time. And we don’t all have it figured out. I don’t allow people trying to project themselves on to me. It’s not healthy for me.
So just speaking about education. What did you study?
I have Bachelor in Communications and followed in my mother’s footsteps. Her degree is International Relations but then she went into PR. And I love it.
What is your current role?
My current role is legacy work, I do a lot about my grandmother’s. I live in a country that still views my grandmother in a particular manner. And I kind of made it my mission to tell a different narrative about who she was.
Can you explain that a little bit and give me more context?
The context is: in 2010 at the start of the World Cup my niece passed away. A year later in 2011, we were unveiling the tombstone and my grandmother comes to me and says “I have this manuscript that has been returned to me and I haven’t opened it. I’m giving it to you and you can decide what to do with it.” It turns out it is this journal that she wrote when she was in solitary confinement for 18 months. So I go like “Why me?” And she said “I feel like of my grandchildren, you are the one who will know exactly what to do with it.” Anyways I buried it for a couple of weeks, because I thought it was a daunting task and eventually when I was ready to face it I shared it with a friend of mine and she said “Why don’t we try to get it published?” Long story short, book gets published and then once it’s published somebody reached out to me and said we would love to promote the book. Could we create some sort of mini doc series around it? So I said “I don’t have the time, I did this because my grandmother asked me but I would like to move on to other things.”. “No”, my grandmother said “You have to do this.”. What was supposed to be a couple of weeks turns into 8 years of my life producing a documentary. So then I go on this journey to produce this documentary. The documentary is essentially about my grandmother’s story in its entirety. So initially it was a slice of her life, just the confinement period, but then we and the producers were like “Why don’t we go for it all and tell the whole story?” So then I said to my grandmother “I don’t know if I can dedicate, if I have so much time.” She was like “I don’t care what you have to say, you will have to do this.” And I said “Ok, fine.” So I start the journey. And then I realised, this was also a journey I needed to take myself. And it was also a part of my own healing, my own understanding of my grandmother too. Who she is and who she was, what shaped her to make whatever choices she made, the good, the bad, the ugly, all of it. So 8 years later we are producing a 7-part series about my grandmother’s life. And then when my grandmother passed away in April 2018, her words… literally I can hear her voice in my ears “You, my child, will carry my legacy and you will tell my story and make sure my name lives on.” And I just heard it, and I heard it over and over again. And so I am now building a memorial in her honour. With MASS design. It’s quite a big project I’m embarking on, it’s pretty massive. I pretty much found myself surrounded by legacy projects related to her and her story and making sure she lives on in the right and authentic story, giving people the context about who she is. And then there has been some other projects I’m working on, media stuff that I want to sort of do, educational stuff that I want to do and it all relates to my grandmother. It’s my life’s work, I have to dedicate some to myself but most part it’s about her. The legacy of my family name is very important to me.
Can you say – and maybe this is not the right word – but are you proud of your family?
I’m extremely, extremely proud – I mean it can also be bittersweet, because it cost so much…
I can only imagine what that means. But I think, bittersweet is maybe the only word to describe it.
Yeah it is. I’m extremely proud, I’m extremely grateful. I think that is the reason I committed so much time to my grandmother’s story and her legacy. My grandfather’s narrative is protected by big institutions. My country is very protective over his legacy. He’s forever going to be edged in our history for generations to come. But what my grandmother did – I think she deserves that in her own right. Without her, in my opinion, there would not be a Nelson Mandela. I do not even know if he would have come off Robben Island if it had not been for my grandmother. It’s the whole “behind every great man, there is a successful woman” – it’s exactly that. My grandmother was that person. I saw her live it, I saw her do it, I saw her fight, I saw her literally give up everything because she believed in it so much. I just feel like I owe her. But I’m so grateful that I have them to stand on, what they were able to give me, my country, give the world.
What an incredible family to come from. I’m not a Nelson, I’m not a Winnie, I’m Swati, I’m my own person. But I think it’s very important that my grandmother’s narrative and her story is being told. My thing is: there needs to be a physical space for people to come and learn about who she was and what she did, and experience her struggles and her contribution. There is plenty for my grandfather, – all over my country, there is a street, there is a statue, a road, a building, a university… Everywhere! My grandmother, not quite the same. I’m going to take what she had and what she gave me and give it back to her by honouring her name and ensuring her name lives on.
What is your personal mission in life, what is your reason for living and getting up every morning?
My reason for living and getting up every single morning is because I… I have a deep sense of purpose… I find it hard to kind of talk about anything else than my grandmother’s legacy and her story. I think I have become a bit all-consumed by it and drives a lot of what I’m doing at the moment. With me ensuring her story is out, I can tell my story too and I get to tell women’s stories. For me it’s not about Winnie Mandela, it’s about women everywhere and all women. She said “When you finish doing my work, make sure other women are also known, spoken about and remembered.” It goes beyond my grandmother for me, it’s about women in general. It’s about our recognition and being recognised and getting our true recognition for what we do, what we have done and the sacrifices we make. Just honouring women everywhere, women in my country, Women across the globe. If I honour my grandmother, I honour myself, my daughter will honour me and herself one day. And other women honour themselves through the women that came before us and who gave us what we have. But what gets me up every single day is just my child, my family, my country, because there is still so much that needs to be done in this country. So much. So I think my country also gets me up every single day.
You have a great inner light, so let it shine!
I do! Everybody asks “What about you?” Maybe I’m doing a lot of what my grandparents did, it was not about them and they did not make it about them. So maybe in a sense I’m following in their footsteps in that way because that is my mission. My grandmother is my mission. I don’t feel I’m neglecting myself in any way. I’m serving myself, actually my family and where I come from, my family name. I feel like everything is interlinked, I don’t feel separate from that, I really don’t. She is not physically here to do it herself, so somebody’s got to do it. And if I don’t drive it, it’s not going to happen. Nobody else will do it, I have to drive it.