In a rural South African village like Mandela’s, when a child graduated from middle or high school, the entire village celebrated. Mutton, a luxury, was typically served at these gatherings, called umpaso. To honor a college graduate, beef from a village farm would be on the menu.
To really know Mandela, it helps to understand the concept of ubuntu. The Xhosa word is difficult to define, but it refers to the interconnectivity of one to another. In a Xhosa village like Mandela’s, when someone asks, “How are you?” the answer is not “I am fine.” It is, “We are fine.”
Our families certainly were interconnected. My grandfather, ZK Matthews, taught Mandela at the University of Fort Hare; my grandmother, Frieda Matthews, was one of Mandela’s few visitors when he was in prison at Pollsmoor. Afterward Mandela wrote her a letter, saying that her visit “made one feel that, after all, one is still part of the world to which we were born and grew up…” However, the outpouring of grief that we are witnessing today shows that, when it came to Mandela, ubuntu applied to not only the village, or to the families he knew well, but to the city, the country, the world.
In Qunu, Mandela lived a life of relative privilege, but in the village culture, that called for an extra dose of humility. His uncle was the acting king of the Thembus, part of the Xhosa people, and young Mandela was present during the many meetings in his village, where he would hear the egalitarian aspirations of elders, absorbing their dreams and frustrations. Mandela also herded cattle, as I and any boy growing up far from the townships did. Humility defined him.
Yet, when Mandela was 33 and heading the Youth League of the African National Congress, he announced publicly during protests on Jan Van Riebeeck Day, a holiday celebrating the whites’ arrival in South Africa, that he would someday become the first president of a liberated South Africa. Were these the words of a humble man? Yes—but also the words of a man who realized black South Africa needed energy, and, despite the callous and brutal killings, hope. Those who were fighting against apartheid had, up to that moment, been focused on equal rights. They had not considered for a moment that the highest office in the country could belong to a black.
Mandela’s name became our rallying cry. In 1976, after the Soweto Uprising, when blacks were killed with impunity, we would sing to white police officers, imploring the African National Congress leader-in-exile Oliver Tambo, “Oliver Tambo, xelel’uBotha akhulul’ uMandela azosikhokhela, Oliver Tambo, demand that Botha release Mandela to come and lead us.”
Nelson Mandela would not have led us as he did had he not grown up in his village. Throngs will head to Qunu, near Mthatha, to view Mandela’s burial spot. They will see him where they should, in the place where his ideas, his leadership, his values developed. That is where the seeds of leadership took root, where he came to understand the common man, and ubuntu, the importance of each one to another. For Mandela, the battle was never about him. It was always about us.