Zinzi Mandela is Nelson Mandela’s eldest daughter. She never knew him until she turned 16 years old – and then she only saw him through a piece of glass. Zinzi tells us about that day:
“I will never forget that day – the day I saw my father for the first time. I was happy and excited. But at the same time, I was also a bit scared.
They sent “Tata” to jail when I was only 18 months old. And now I was 16 years old – and my mother was taking me to meet him.
I knew a lot about my father. When I was still very young, I always heard adults talking about him. I did not understand very much. But I knew people respected him. I knew people thought he was a very great man.
If my sister or myself did something clever, the family always said: “Just like their father!” I knew that my parents had been apart for many years. But I saw the letters he wrote to my mother. And I always listened to my mother talk about him. I knew they were still very much in love.
I grew up with a certain picture of my father in my mind. I felt close to him like the way a person feels close to a God – the spirit is near but you can’t touch it. You never even dream of reaching out and touching.
Tata’s letters are always full of love and understanding. I think he tries to make up for all those lost years in just one sentence. Whenever I feel sad and weak, Tata’s letters make me brave and hopeful again. He does that for his people too.
When I first met him, I was so nervous. But. I held my mother’s hand tightly – and she led me into the small room on Robben Island.
The room was damp and full of uniformed men. I felt dizzy and sick in that room. When I sat down next to my mother, I felt his eyes on me. I looked up slowly.
He looked so proud and his eyes were full of love and warmth. And when he spoke, the prison warders seemed to fade away – and so did the piece of glass between us.
He told me to pretend I was asleep on his lap while he read to me at home. He spoke about all the things I always wanted to share with him – all those things I thought were hard to let out.
We were so close. But he did not forget about my mother even for a minute. He made love to her with his eyes! In just one hour he showed the love of a husband and a father.
Okay, so I struggled to hold back the tears when we left him – but he even made me ready for that. I could hardly wait for our next meeting. I felt so proud because I had such a wonderful man for a father.
I’ve seen him a lot since then and I think I know him now. He is not sorry for anything and he has not changed his beliefs. Instead, he grows more powerful with time in mind and in body. He is a great lover of sports. I can’t jog for an hour every morning, but he can!
I would do anything to see him again – walking freely In the streets of South Africa.”
(adapted from a story in City Press)