Ndileka Mandela, the eldest granddaughter of the late former South African president, arrives at the Johannesburg Magistrates Court in 2015. (Stefan Heunis/AFP/Getty Images)

She was the eldest grandchild of Nelson Mandela, and that meant politics were woven into her life. As a child, it meant visiting her grandfather in prison as he served time for fighting apartheid. Later, it meant celebrating in the presidential office as the racist system fell.

And always, it meant that Ndileka Mandela was an exalted member of the African National Congress (ANC), the organization led by her grandfather. More than a party, it had long been synonymous with the black majority’s struggle for justice under white rule — and with Mandela himself.

But last month, Ndileka, 52, opened Facebook on her computer and posted a picture of herself voting with her grandfather in 2011. Then she swallowed hard and began to type: “I will no longer vote for the ANC.”

Since Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013, the ANC has been plagued by scandals, internal divisions and electoral losses. But no member of the Mandela family had disowned the party.

“I finally decided it was time,” she said.

Twenty-three years after the birth of democracy here, a surging number of South Africans are asking themselves whether the movement that defeated apartheid still deserves to lead the country. Much of the criticism is directed at President Jacob Zuma, whose two terms have been marked by corruption allegations while unemployment has risen to more than 27 percent.

The dilemma over whether to support the party of Mandela has divided its first family. After Ndileka’s Facebook post went viral, another grandchild, Mandla Mandela, responded in an open letter.

“Abandoning the ANC does not serve the people of South Africa,” he wrote, addressing her as “my dear sister.”

Ndileka’s decision — and the familial debate that it sparked — reflect not just the decline of a party that has dominated political life since the end of apartheid, but also a profound question of identity for many South Africans.

Can they abandon a movement that gave them dignity and rights, a party whose members were killed, imprisoned and tortured for seeking racial equality? Can they betray the ANC?

Or has the ANC betrayed them? Even Mandela’s inner circle can’t agree.


A family divided

The Mandelas — two surviving children and 17 grandchildren — have not always spoken with a single voice, and the South African media has chronicled every dispute with the kind of granularity usually reserved for royalty.

They couldn’t agree on where Nelson Mandela should be buried. They clashed over whether a reality television show starring two granddaughters called “We are the Mandelas” was exploitative. They fought over who was entitled to his financial legacy.

“There are camps within camps within camps,” said Ndaba Mandela, one of the grandchildren.

But the family had never publicly fought over politics, in part because Nelson Mandela’s commitment to the ANC was so absolute. Before he died, Mandela said of the afterlife, “I will look for a branch of the African National Congress in that world and join it.”

Since it was founded in 1912, the ANC’s primary mission was to end the white government’s policy of racial segregation, a brutal system that had prevented black and mixed-race citizens from holding public office, traveling without written permission or owning land in most of the country. In the 1960s, as opposition to apartheid mounted, the police cracked down violently and the ANC created an armed wing. Mandela was imprisoned from 1963 to 1990 for his leadership in the movement.

Ndileka never expected to be the inheritor of her grandfather’s political legacy. She went to nursing school. She raised two sons. She started a foundation that focused on education in poor parts of the country.

But she grew outraged over the string of scandals that plagued Zuma and the party. There was the charge that Zuma had used millions in state funds to renovate his private home. There was the finding this year that 94 psychiatric patients in Gauteng province had died, some of starvation, because of government negligence.

There was the overall state of South Africa’s poor black communities, which she saw through her foundation’s work: schools without desks or bathrooms, girls who missed weeks of class each year because they didn’t have access to sanitary pads. Parts of Africa’s wealthiest country remained mired in pre-apartheid poverty, while the government’s promises to provide public services went unfulfilled.

In 1994, Ndileka had voted in the country’s first multiracial elections, waiting in line for four hours to cast a ballot for her grandfather. Now she found herself thinking, “Is this what my granddad fought for?”

The ANC leadership had hardly been perfect before Zuma took office. President Thabo Mbeki was widely criticized for questioning the link between AIDS and HIV in the early 2000s as the disease ravaged his country. But Zuma’s rule drew especially harsh condemnation, including from some people close to Mandela.

“We will pray for the downfall of a government that misrepresents us,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of a Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-apartheid activities, said last year.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation, a prominent organization that promotes his ideals, shocked South Africans last year by lamenting that “the wheels [were] coming off the vehicle of our state.”

“We know that Madiba wanted the country corruption-free, that he didn’t believe in leadership without service,” said Sello Hatang, the foundation’s director, referring to Mandela by his nickname. “What we’re seeing are examples of the contrary.”

In last year’s municipal elections, the ANC suffered its worst results since the end of apartheid. The most successful opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), ran an ad that featured Mandela’s voice saying: “Let there be work. Let there be bread for all.’

Zuma and the ANC pleaded with people not to abandon the “party of liberation.”

“Mandela for so many years was the unifying figure. You didn’t have to ask what would Madiba do — he was around to answer,” said Douglas Foster, the author of “After Mandela,” a book about contemporary South Africa. “Now, the difficulty is that nobody has that moral authority. “

‘Our party to fix’

Ndileka Mandela’s post breaking with the ANC flashed across the Internet and was featured in newspapers and on television.

Ndaba Mandela, another grandchild, tried to keep from shouting when he saw it.

“I thought to myself, ‘How can you do this to us, sister? We’re supposed to bleed black, green and gold,’ ” he said, referring to the colors of the ANC flag.

Ndaba is the spitting image of his grandfather at 34, with high cheekbones and a wide smile, like Nelson Mandela in an Oakland Raiders hat.

“This is our party to fix,” he said. “We don’t have the option of jumping into another lifeboat.”


Former South African president Nelson Mandela and with his granddaughter Ndileka Mandela in 2011. (Elmond Jiyane / GCIS handout/EPA)

He shares the concerns of Mandla, the cousin who wrote the open letter defending the ANC. Mandla called Ndileka before issuing the statement, reminding her of how their grandfather had remained with the party during its long history of difficulties.

“If our grandfather could remain loyal to the ANC, who are we to tire of that responsibility?” he recalled asking her.

She responded: “Granddad always taught us to act based on our conscience.”

From her neat townhouse in an upscale Johannesburg suburb, Ndileka watched the Facebook comments roll in. On the wall, she keeps pictures of her grandfather and a plaque honoring those imprisoned for opposing apartheid.

“That’s granddad’s 85th birthday,” she said while leafing through a photo album with a visitor. “And that’s Michael Jackson in the background.”

“Oh, and there’s Oprah,” she added, two pages later.

This month, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of cities across South Africa, chanting “Zuma must fall!” Another scandal had just occurred, with the president firing his well-regarded finance minister in what many thought was an effort to consolidate power. The currency promptly crashed.

Ndileka was out of the country. She watched the protests on television, posting her encouragement on Facebook.

As the first Mandela to take on the ANC, she had to figure out her own way forward. Would she attend the next demonstration? Would she run for office under an opposition party banner? She wasn’t ruling anything out.

“With my surname I can make my voice heard,” she said. “And I think my granddad would be proud.”