Nelson Mandela’s impact will be felt for many generations. Claire Thurston shares how Mandela’s two fathers helped to influence the type of man that he would become.
This post ran last month, but in light of the sad news out of South Africa that Nelson Mandela has died we thought it should be shared again. He was a fascinating man and a force for much good in this world. RIP, Nelson Mandela.
New research shows that fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives helps them develop empathy for others. Nelson Mandelaʼs two fathers, his birth father and his adopted father, gave him the tools to change the course of history in his native land. Mandelaʼs transformation of South Africa was not accomplished in broad strokes. It was built step-by-step on a chain of human empathic victories. Each person he transformed became not only an agent of change themselves but also Mandelaʼs advocate.
“Even as a boy, I defeated my opponents without dishonoring them.”
Mandelaʼs biological father:
Gadla “Henry” Mphakanyiswa, chief of the Mvezo village, welcomed the birth of his youngest son from his third wife, Nosekini, on July 18, 1918. In the Xhosa culture, fathers choose their boysʼ names. Mandelaʼs father was prophetic in selecting Rolihlahla, meaning, “pulling the branch of a tree,ʼʼ or “troublemaker.” In his autobiography, Mandela writes,
“I do not believe names are destiny or that my father somehow divined my future, but in later years, friends and relatives would ascribe to my birth name the many storms I both caused and weathered.”
Mphakanyiswa demonstrated trust in his own perceptions and acted from the understanding of his truth no matter what the consequences, a trait that would be deeply imprinted in his son. Although confirmed by the tribal king as the local Chief, under British rule, the local magistrate controlled his employment and salary. One of Henry’s subjects complained to the magistrate about a serious loss, an ox that had escaped a meadow. When the magistrate ordered the Chief to appear before him, Henry refused, asserting his prerogative on issues of tribal concern. When the magistrate read the response, he charged him with insubordination and deposed him, stripping away Henryʼs traditional Chiefʼs title and income. Mandelaʼs father did not receive the benefit of an investigation that white civil servants would have been granted.
The family had to leave their home village for Qunu, a few miles away. Though a traditional man in tribal relations, nonetheless, he was unusual in his notions of social justice and tolerance. In the new town, there was a historic animosity towards another tribe, the Mfengu. Both of his parents did nor share the local prejudice. One of the Mfengu, a retired teacher, advised Mandelaʼs mother to send him to school. No one in his family had ever attended before and his mother consulted with her husband about it. He immediately agreed and Mandela enrolled in the local primary school.
Mandelaʼs adopted father:
After his “first” father died when he was only nine years old, Mandela was sent off to be educated in the court of the Regent Jongintaba. After journeying six miles to the “Great Place” where the Regent held court, he was treated like a prince, even living in a hut with the Regentʼs son. But more importantly, he was allowed the privilege of being near the Regent as he presided over tribal meetings. Whenever there was an important issue to resolve, Jongintaba would gather all of the local Chiefs. He let them freely vent all of their concerns and criticisms without reacting emotionally. One of the Regentʼs finest attributes as a leader was how he could reach consensus among disparate parts of his community. When the rulings had been made, the elders would sit together in a circle and recount the tales of heroic exploits from days past. At first, they chased Nelson away because he was too young, but he didn’t give up until they let him stay.
Putting his fathersʼ lessons into practice:
Jailed for his defiant leadership against apartheid in the 1950ʼs, Mandela evolved a new strategy: to persuade whites to destroy apartheid themselves. He realized the key to executing this strategy was getting to know his enemy so well that he could step into their shoes, empathy in action. First Mandela set about learning the white Afrikaner history, language, and mentality. He came to understand the common ground between Afrikaner and black Africans. For years, Mandela had been sending letters requesting a meeting with the Minister of Justice and Prisons. Due to intensifying pressure from the outside world, the African National Congressʼ Free Mandela campaign, and an increasingly volatile situation in the townships, Prime Minister Botha finally permitted his trusted Minister of Justice and Prisons to meet with Mandela. At the time, Mandela was recovering from an operation, so he was still physically weak and they met in his hospital room. Even in this condition, Mandela rose to the occasion, acting like a genial host. He did everything to make his guest comfortable, speaking in Afrikaans, referring to Afrikaner history, and mentioning people in the prison service that they knew in common. By the end of the meeting, a new political paradigm had been established between black and white South Africans: the two sides would talk, not fight.
The moment finally arrived for Mandela to meet the Prime Minister himself. Once again, he spoke Afrikaans. He bridged the divide between them by connecting the black peopleʼs struggle for liberation and the Afrikanerʼs similar effort in the Anglo-Boer war one hundred years prior. Mr. Botha felt invested personally in this analogy since both his grandfather and father had fought in the war. Mandelaʼs style of presentation was sincere almost to the point of bluntness, mirroring the Afrikaner value for straightforward communication. Mandela was so skillful that Botha could almost see him as an alter ego. When Mandela gained power and eventually ascended to the Prime Minister position himself, he did not stoop to revenge. He continued to seek the cultural unification of his country.
Could Mandelaʼs fathers have ever imagined the magnificent consequences of their fathering?
“Historical Parenting” is a reoccurring feature on Dads & Families in which we study the impact of fatherhood upon the titans of history. Submissions are open.