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The Upbringing

It was in Qunu that the family settled after Nelson Mandela’s father was deposed by the magistrate. His father died in 1930 and the young Nelson Mandela was put in the care of Regent Jongintaba Mtirara, a man Nelson Mandela says loved him very much and who looked after him ‘as diligently as my father had’. 5

It was here, on his first day of school, that his teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave him his English name, Nelson, and where he was first baptised in the stone church that stands there still.

‘The village of Qunu was situated in a narrow, grassy valley crisscrossed by clear streams, and overlooked by green hills…There were no roads, only paths through the grass worn away by barefooted boys and women. The women and children of the village wore blankets dyed in ochre; only the few Christians in the village wore Western style clothing. Cattle, sheep, goats and horses grazed together in common pastures.’ 6

From an early age, Nelson Mandela became a herd boy, looking after his father’s cattle.


‘I discovered the almost mystical attachment that the Xhosa have for cattle, not only as a source of food and wealth, but also as a blessing from God and a source of happiness. It was in the fields that I learned how to knock birds out of the sky with a slingshot, to gather wild honey and fruits and edible roots, to drink warm, sweet milk straight from the udder of a cow, to swim in the clear cold streams, and to catch fish with twine and sharpened bits of wire…From these days I date my love of the veld, of open spaces, the simply beauties of nature, the clean line of the horizon.’ 6

It is to Qunu that Nelson Mandela returned after his release from prison, where he has built a home that is a replica of the house in which he lived at Victor Verster Prison – now renamed Drakenstein Prinson – during his last remaining years in jail. Here is the family graveyard where his parents and his children are buried. Here is his original home where his mother presided over three huts and taught him the legends and fables of his people. Here is the granite stone that he used to slide down until ‘our backsides were so sore we couldn’t sit down’.

From here he would journey to Mqhekezweni where from the elders, sitting under the tall trees, he learned of heroism, dispossession of land, apartheid, and the injustices vested on his people by the oppressive white regime.

‘My political interest was first aroused when I listened to elders of our tribe in my village as a youth. They spoke of the good old days before the arrival of the white man. Our people lived peacefully under the democratic rule of their kings and counsellors and moved freely all over the country.’ 5

The Nelson Mandela Youth and Heritage Centre in Qunu is a living testament to the life and times of the man. It helps perpetuate his love for children, his respect for tradition, and his quest to inspire future leaders through its leadership programmes for youth.

5 From An Autobiographical Note by Nelson Mandela, 1964
6 Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela.

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