Interview with Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela

<p>Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela <br />© Debbie Yazbeck</p>

Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela
© Debbie Yazbeck

How many years had your grandfather been in prison when you were born? Do you remember your first meeting with him or have you been told about it?

He had been in prison for seventeen years when I was born. I don’t recall my first meeting with him but I have been told I was a baby, and that it was very emotional for him as he was not allowed physical contact with us.

What was it like for your grandmother, mother and aunts and uncles to have their father in prison for twenty-seven years? How did it affect your family?

It was extremely difficult on my grandmother; she was a single mother from when she had my mother, her first-born, Zenani. My grandfather was politically active and had been underground virtually from when they were married. She never got to spend much time with my him – he was an absent father prior to Robben Island. I am sure the same can be said for my aunts and uncles.
It affected my grandfather’s ability to provide for his family and support them and play a fatherly role, so my grandmother had to try and provide for them financially, emotionally and physically and that was made difficult by the apartheid police who would subject her to constant harassment, brutality and imprisonment. So it was left to ‘strangers’ to raise my mother and aunt (Zindzi). Evelyn (my grandfather’s first wife) also had to be the provider for herself as well as her children – my Aunt Maki, Uncle Magkatho and Uncle Thembekile.
My mother, aunts, uncles were raised without a father and my mother Zenani, and Aunt Zindzi, without both parents as my grandmother was also in and out of prison, the longest period being the 491 days she spent in solitary confinement. They essentially grew up as orphans. They were often sent from pillar to post depending on who would take them in. There were times when even family and friends did not want them for fear of police brutality.

Can you describe what it was like for family members to visit your grandfather in prison?

It was painful, frustrating and gruelling as they would have to make the trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town, and then by ferry to Robben Island. They also went many years without being able to see him, as this was not allowed. I am sure it was torture to his children as they grew up without a father, and then when they were able to see him they would have a very limited amount of time with him.

Many of the letters in this collection have never been published before. What impressed upon you the most when you read through this collection?

His perspective on his imprisonment and how he had to keep a positive attitude to be able to endure it without losing his mind. The way he would attempt to parent his children from prison and the fact that the letters often did not reach the intended recipients, and so while he was offering advice and counsel from prison, life outside prison had to continue without him. It makes me broken-hearted to see his continued efforts to parent his children and offer financial, educational and moral support trying to teach values and principles to his children and family via his letters.

What changed for your family the most when your grandfather was released from prison in 1990? Was it harder to have access to him despite the fact that he was now a free man?

I am not sure much changed; my grandfather was an international icon and everyone wanted a piece of him which didn’t leave much room for family life. It was distressing for his children – my parents, aunts and uncle – as they thought they could finally have easier access to him and be part of this life, but that was not true; he was always surrounded by people.

Did you grandfather ever talk about his time in prison in much detail? Were there any surprises for you? Did you gain any new insights into his personality?

I didn’t ever get to spend much time with my grandfather in the early days of his release from prison; he became president and then he did his philanthropic work, so by the time we were able to spend more time with him he had gone into retirement and had aged so much. As a family we really just wanted to be with him, rather than hearing him tell stories.

What overriding messages do you think your grandfather would like readers to take from this book?

The ability of the human spirit to triumph and to survive the harshest punishment when fighting for something you believe in; the resilience, strength and courage he showed despite what was handed to him; the dignity he showed throughout his entire imprisonment, that he would not be broken by his circumstances; that people must be strong in their faith and always have hope, especially when they believe in something that will positively impact society.