At 49 years old, Ndileka Mandela knows a lot about the struggles of women in South Africa.
Having lost her father when she was just four years old and growing up in a family torn apart by the politics of the day, she can identify with the struggles of many South African women.
As the first granddaughter of one of South Africa’s most famous politicians, the late former President Nelson Mandela, she was constantly harassed and missed out on a proper upbringing as a child.
This explains why Mandela dedicates her time these days to championing women’s issues and highlighting the plight of women and girls, particularly in rural areas.
As South Africa marks Women’s Month throughout the month of August, SAnews looks at how Ndileka Mandela is using her own experiences in life to help struggling women across South Africa.
Her belief is that even though she may be a Mandela, it’s what she gives back to the community that would ultimately fulfill her role as a person with that bloodline and stature.
“You must not wear that name on your forehead like a symbol without having anything to give back to the people,” she says as she clearly tries to put across a point.
She is determined to continue with her granddad’s education legacy in the historically disadvantaged communities.
For Women’s Day last week, Mandela hosted a breakfast to highlight the plight of girl learners in the rural areas who miss school when they are menstruating due to a lack of sanitary towels. She did this through the foundation she launched in honour of her father, Thembekile Mandela, who died in 1969.
Teenage girls, who cannot afford proper sanitary towels, sometimes make use of rags and newspapers during their monthly menstrual cycle. It’s a common challenge among girls in rural areas and a barrier to the educational rights of adolescent girls.
“It is estimated that an average South African school girl will miss 50 days of her school life because of the lack of sanitary towels.
“As a foundation, we believe that through our concerted efforts, this challenge can be eradicated. People will have an opportunity to pledge their support to girls in rural areas by purchasing a year’s supply of sanitary towels.
“We are asking South Africans to adopt a girl for R250. This amount will ensure that a girl gets a year’s supply of sanitary towels.”
Mandela says this year’s target for the foundation is 100 000 girls in three of South Africa’s most impoverished provinces – Limpopo, Eastern Cape and the North West.
Mandela notes that it was during her grandfather’s time in government that August was declared Women’s Month to pay tribute to the thousands of women who marched to the Union Buildings on August 9, 1956, to protest against pass laws.
“Their heroic march to the Union Buildings made an impact in the liberation struggle. Some of those women paid the ultimate price to ensure that we are emancipated not only as women, but as a nation,” she says.
The mother of two stresses the importance of young girls to prioritise education.
“I always say education will give them freedom and social security, to be self-sufficient. I want young girls to be educated so that they can also contribute towards the economic development of this country.
“You must embrace education, because it is only through education that you can change your social status.”
Mandela makes an example of her own grandparents – Nelson Mandela and Evelyn Mase (Mandela’s first wife), whom she says defied all odds to become successful in life, thanks to education.
“By the time my grandmother died, she was a renowned business woman, who grew up in rural Ngcobo.
“Look at my grandfather; the first time he went to school, he walked barefooted with cut-off trousers with a string tying those trousers on the waist. Look at what he became…. the first black democratically elected President of this country.”
As a young girl, Mandela did not have it easy. She started boarding school in 1980 at Nyanga High School in Ngcobo, Eastern Cape. She was expelled from school after participating in a “poor food” protest. She was in grade 10 and a year after she started visiting her grandfather in Robben Island in 1980.
“My grandmother was very strict, but although she understood it very well that as part of a politically active family, something might come at a particular time. I did not tell her that I was expelled, so the following year, I went to Daliwonga High School not far away from Cofimvaba,” Mandela says.
After completing her grade 12 in 1983, Ndileka registered for a teaching diploma at Clarkebury, which is now a secondary school.
However, she had a very short stint at the teaching school as she fell pregnant and never went back after the June holidays.
Her son Thembela was born in November 1984.
Clarkebury has a long history with the Mandela family. The land where the school was built was donated to the missionaries by Ndileka’s great great-grandfather, Inkosi Ngubengcuka, to build the school and a clinic.
This is also the school where Nelson Mandela was taught to read and write.
Inspired by her grandmother, Evelyn, who was a nurse; from May 1985, Mandela was busy with her nursing training, which she completed in July 1989. In 1990, she went to StAidan’s Mission Regional Hospital in Durban to work at the Intensive Care Unit, where she worked for more than six years before she joined Shellac pharmaceutical for two years.
After giving birth to her daughter, Pumla, in 1993, Mandela joined a group of private clinics focusing on primary healthcare.
These days, she spends most of her energy on The Thembekile Mandela Foundation which focuses on infrastructure development in health and education in the rural areas as well as youth development.
“My passion has always been rural development because people migrate from rural areas to urban areas in their numbers. But now there are no more jobs. The mining sector, which they migrated for, can no longer provide as many jobs.
“I see the Thembi Foundation as a catalyst for change, especially with regard to rural development,” she said.
And as someone who has had struggles of her own, both as a women and as a member of the Mandela family, Ndileka Mandela believes as long as girls and women are still victims of abuse and cultural practices that degrade them, their struggle is far from over.