Going to the Mountain

Life Lessons from My Grandfather, Nelson Mandela


By Ndaba Mandela

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$16.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around June 26, 2018. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

The first-ever book to tell Nelson Mandela’s life through the eyes of the grandson who was raised by him, chronicling Ndaba Mandela’s life living with, and learning from, one of the greatest leaders and humanitarians the world has ever known.

To the rest of the world, Nelson Mandela was a giant: an anti-apartheid revolutionary, a world-renowned humanitarian, and South Africa’s first black president. To Ndaba Mandela, he was simply “Granddad.” In Going to the Mountain, Ndaba tells how he came to live with Mandela shortly after he turned eleven–having met each other only once, years before, when Mandela was imprisoned at Victor Verster Prison — and how the two of them slowly, cautiously built a relationship that would affect both their lives in extraordinary ways.

It wasn’t an easy transition. Mandela had high expectations for those around him, especially his family, and Ndaba chafed at the strict rules and exacting guidelines in his grandfather’s home. But at the same time — through overheard calls from foreign dignitaries as well as the Xhosa folk wisdom that his grandfather shared with him at every opportunity — Ndaba was learning how to be a man. On a scale both personal and epic, Ndaba’s extraordinary journey mirrors that of South Africa’s coming of age — from the segregated Soweto ghettos into which he was born to the privileged life in which he grew up and the turbulent yet exciting times in which he carries on his grandfather’s legacy.

Going to the Mountain is, in the end, a story about unlocking the power within each of us. It’s a cautionary tale about how a child’s life can go one way or the other, depending upon the intervention of a caring soul–and about the awesome power of love to serve as a catalyst for change.



Idolophu egqibeleleyo iyakusoloko imgama.

“The perfect city is always a long way off.”

The first time I met my grandfather, I was seven and he was seventy-one, already an old man in my eyes, if not in the eyes of the world. I’d heard many stories about the Old Man, of course, but I was a child, so those stories were no more real or relatable to me than the old Xhosa folktales repeated by my great-aunts and great-uncles and other elderly people around the neighborhood. The Story of the Child with the Star on His Forehead. The Story of the Tree That Could Not Be Grasped. The Story of Nelson Mandela and How He Was Imprisoned by White Men. The Story of the Massacre at Sharpeville. Fables and folktales drifted around in the dusty streets and got mixed in with the news on a car radio. Parables and proverbs slipped through the cracks in the Bible stories in the Temple Hall. The Story of the Workers in the Vineyard. The Story of Job and His Many Troubles.

My father grew up a hustler on the streets of Soweto, and for better or worse, a hustler is always good with a story. The Story of Where I Was Last Night. The Story of How Rich I’ll Be Someday. Grownups all around me, each according to their own belief system, repeated their stories over and over, blowing smoke, tipping beers, shaking their heads. Talk, talk, talk. That’s all I heard when I was a child. I wasn’t really listening. I never felt those stories steal under my skin and soak into my bones, but that’s what they did.

I was a smart little boy with a quick mind and a big imagination, but I had no real understanding that my family was at the center of a global political firestorm. I didn’t know why I was always being moved from place to place or why people would either take me in or shut me out—either love me or hate me—because I am a Mandela. I was vaguely aware that my dad’s father was a very important man on the radio and TV, but I couldn’t begin to know how important he would become in my own life or how important I already was to him.

I was told that he loved my father and me and all his children and grandchildren, but I had seen no evidence of that, and I certainly didn’t understand that there were people who thought they could use Madiba’s love for us to bloody his spirit and bring him low. They thought the weight of his love might break him in a way that hammering rocks in the heat of the South African sun could not. They were mistaken, but they kept trying. First they let a large group of family members visit for his seventy-first birthday in July 1989. That must have been like a drop of water on the tongue of a man who’s been dying of thirst for twenty-seven years, but Madiba still refused to yield any political ground, so six months later, they allowed a holiday visit on New Year’s Day 1990, just a few weeks after my seventh birthday.

My father invested no drama in the announcement. He simply said, “We’re going to see your grandfather in jail.” Until that moment, such a suggestion was like saying we were hopping in the car to go meet Michael Jackson or Jesus Christ. People on TV seemed to believe that my grandfather was a bit of both: celebrity and deity. This turn of events was quite unexpected, but in African culture, children don’t ask questions. My father and grandmother said, “We’re going.” So we went.

No further explanation was offered or expected, but I was burning with curiosity. What would jail be like? Would Grandmother Evelyn lead us through the iron bars and down a cement hallway to a razor-wired yard? Would heavy iron doors clang shut behind us—and would someone remember to come back and let us out? Would we be surrounded by murderers and thugs? Would my aunts beat them off with their enormous purses?

I was ready to fight, if necessary, to defend my family and myself. I was good with a stick. My friends and I had sharpened our stick-fighting skills through years of pretend fights in the dirt streets and trampled yards. I rather enjoyed daydreaming about a great battle in which I would be a hero, and there was plenty of time for daydreaming as we made the thirteen-hour drive from Johannesburg to Victor Verster Prison in a caravan of five mud-encrusted cars loaded with Mandela wives, children, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, babies, and old folks. So you can imagine, it was a pretty long trip.

We drove for what seemed like an eternity, through rolling hills and across expansive savannahs to the Hawequas Mountains. We turned south from Paarl, a little town full of Dutch Cape houses with scrolled white facades. Sitting in the back seat, I rolled down the window and inhaled the clean scent of wet grape leaves and freshly tilled soil. For a thousand years before the Dutch East India Company came to this region in the 1650s, it was the land of the Khoikhoi people, who herded cattle and had great wealth. Now vineyards dominated the landscape, and the mountain called Tortoise by the Khoikhoi had been renamed Pearl by the Dutch. The mountain knew nothing of this, of course, and as a seven-year-old boy, I was equally oblivious. I saw only the vineyards, verdant green and rigidly in order, and I accepted without thinking twice that this was as it should be. I never questioned it, because as an African child, I was taught not to ask questions, but now, as a man—as a Xhosa man—as an African father and son and grandson, I do wonder: At what point do the roots of a vineyard sink so deep that they become more “indigenous” than five hundred generations of cattle?

This sort of question is my grandfather’s voice in my head, even though it’s been a few years since his death and many more years since I went to live with him in a rapidly spinning world where we broke and rebuilt each other’s idea of what a man is. His voice still rumbles through my bones, bumping into the old stories. It has settled into the marrow, like sediment in a river. As I get older, I hear his voice coming from my own throat. Everyone tells me I sound like him, and knowing that I do makes me weigh my words a little more carefully, particularly in a public setting.

At the prison entrance, there was a small guard shack with a swing arm gate behind a white angled arch. A bright green sign with yellow lettering said: VICTOR VERSTER CORRECTIONAL SERVICES. Beneath this was inscribed: Ons dien met trots. (“We serve with pride.”) It’s possible that my aunts exchanged glances at the irony of that, but if they did, I didn’t notice. I was staring up at the towering rocky faces of the mountains. Grownups chatted with the guards who leaned from the window of the guard shack. Talk, talk, talk. The guards hustled the two dozen Mandelas out of the five cars and into a large white van. Packed tightly on the hard bench seats, we were rolling again, but we didn’t go to the big prison building with its high walls and coiled razor wire. We turned down a long dirt road, little more than a worn set of parallel tire tracks that led to the far, far back corner of the prison complex.

The van pulled to a stop outside an arched garage door, and we all got out in front of an attractive salmon-colored bungalow shaded by fir and palm trees. My grandmother and great-aunts were dressed up as if they were going to church or a special social event, so they stood out like exotic birds, all bold prints and bright colors, against the pale pinkish walls. My father and the other men present wore dress shirts and ties, and before they approached the gate, they shook their carefully folded suit coats and put them on.

The house was surrounded by a decorative garden wall that was not even as tall as my father. Two armed guards stood outside a little wrought iron gate—like a pretty little garden gate, not the dramatically clanging iron doors I’d imagined—and they greeted us and waved us inside. And there was my grandfather. I barely glimpsed his broad smile before he was engulfed in a wave of affection. The women were crying as they rushed to throw their arms around him, crying, “Tata! Tata!” which means “father.” The men maintained stiff chins and straight postures, each waiting his turn to embrace the Old Man firmly, to grasp his hand and squeeze his shoulder. No tears, no tears. Only those firm jaws and hardy handshakes.

The children, including my brother Mandla, my cousin Kweku, and me, hung back, not quite knowing what to expect. To us, the Old Man was a stranger, and he seemed to understand this, smiling at us over the heads of our parents and grandparents, patient but eager to get to us and greet each one of us individually. When it was my turn, he took my small hand in his huge, warm grip.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Ndaba,” I said.

“Yes! Ndaba! Good, good.” He nodded enthusiastically, as if he recognized me. “And how old are you, Ndaba?”


“Good. Good. What grade are you in? Do you do well in school?”

I shrugged and looked at the floor.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” he asked.

I had no answer for that question, being a child who’d been shuffled from here to there. I had seen very little beyond the poverty and obstacles that surrounded me in the inner city, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself by saying something dumb like “stick fighter.”

The Old Man set his big hand on top of my head and smiled.

“Ndaba. Good.”

He shook my hand again, very formal, very proper, and went on to greet the next child in line. The moment, I’m sorry to tell you, was not at all momentous. Sitting here now, trying very hard to remember the feeling—his hand on my head, that gigantic handshake, the towering height of his pant leg, the smell of linen and coffee when he bent down to hear my shy answers to his questions—nope. I got nothing. All of that was lost on me then. I’ve read what my grandfather wrote about it in Long Walk to Freedom. He was always reluctant to write about personal family matters, but he describes the house at Victor Verster as “a cottage” that was “sparsely but comfortably furnished.” That made me laugh out loud when I read it, because to me as a kid from Soweto, this place seemed like a mansion.

The overstuffed sofa and matching easy chairs were like rose-colored clouds. The impeccably clean bathroom was the same size as the bedroom I shared with my cousins. A white man whose job was to cook and keep house for my grandfather came and went from the kitchen, trotting out a parade of platters and bowls and baskets of dinner rolls. Out back, there was a pristine blue swimming pool that made my skin itch to dive in. The pool was flanked by potted plants and surrounded by the garden wall. My grandfather told me later that the garden wall was topped by razor wire, but I was either too short to see that or too busy playing on the impossibly green grass. I couldn’t have been more impressed if we’d found the Old Man locked up in the Ritz Hotel. The next time somebody asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I said, “I want to be in jail!”

Of course, the prison I expected to see that day was Robben Island, the stark hellhole where my grandfather had spent a large part of his life. As anti-apartheid sentiment grew around the world, the powers that be had Madiba moved to the house at Victor Verster in an effort to separate him from his friends and drive a wedge between the members of the African National Congress. His political foes hoped to chip away at his resolve with the seductive comfort of this pleasant little home and the promise that he could see his family: the wife who’d been imprisoned and tortured, the children he hadn’t seen since they were small, the grandchildren he’d never seen at all. But his foes underestimated him. For two years, he maintained his resolve and held his ground in round after round of bitter argument over the future of South Africa. It would be a long time before I fully understood that my cousins and I were lolling that day with our feet up on the chairs where my grandfather routinely sat with powerful heads of state, embroiled in political and ideological debates that would soon alter the course of history.

As the day wore on, the grownups gathered in the kitchen and dining room, as grownups tend to do, and the kids flopped down on the carpet in the living room and popped a video tape of The NeverEnding Story into the VCR. I vaguely remember the adult voices rising and falling through laughter and lively conversation with my grandfather’s resonant bass at the center of it all, but we had no interest in their conversation.

To be totally honest, I have to admit that my memory of that first meeting with my grandfather is quite hazy. I know what he was like that day mainly because I spent thousands of other days with him as I grew up and he grew old. For the exact details, I have to rely on what I’ve seen more recently about the place that’s now called Drakenstein Correctional Centre. The bright green and yellow sign is still there, but people only see it because they’re visiting the statue of my grandfather as a free man, bronze fist held high, striding out of Victor Verster on February 11, 1990. In my mind, the particulars of that family visit are a collage of recollection, newspaper clippings, and conversations with my grandfather, grandmother, Mama Winnie, and other old folks who were there. But I do remember one thing very clearly: The NeverEnding Story.

I suppose a Xhosa storyteller might call it “The Story of the Boy Who Saved the World from Nothing.” In it (for those of you who have not seen this movie or read the book by Michael Ende), a boy goes on a perilous journey to overcome an invisible menace, The Nothing, which is slowly, steadily swallowing everything and everyone in the world. The daunting challenge facing the boy is that he must find a way to stop this invisible menace, but first, he must convince others that it exists. He must somehow win them over to the understanding that all those who have vanished had value and that the world now perceived as “normal” is not the world as it should be—and that the world must change in order to survive.

In a very real sense, that is the story of my grandfather, Nelson Mandela. I believe it is also my story. And I hope to convince you that it is your story as well.

Madiba and his colleagues in the African National Congress, Gandhi and his followers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and all who marched alongside him—these people successfully broke the physical chains that existed under apartheid in South Africa, British rule in India, and Jim Crow segregation in the United States. The wrongheadedness and evil of apartheid and segregation were very clear. Black people were told, “No, you can’t live in such and such a neighborhood or this or that house, because that’s too close to the white people. No, you can’t get on that bus. No, you can’t use that tap or that toilet.” These laws were wrong, and the judges, police, and prison guards were wrong to uphold them. If they truly did “serve with pride,” certainly, they should look back with shame. Any law that violates the civil or human rights of another person should offend our natural sense of social justice. It should grind like sandpaper on our conscience, and I think it does, but we get very good at ignoring it.

“To be free is not only to cast off one’s chains,” my grandfather said. “It’s to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

When my grandfather and so many others fought for civil rights around the world and broke free from those physical chains of apartheid and segregation, it was very easy to identify who the enemy was. But in today’s world, there is a new fight for young Africans—and for many young people around the world—and that is to break the mental chains that still exist. It’s a lot harder to break the mental chains because you cannot touch them. They’re not tangible. You cannot point them out. These chains exist within your mind, but they can be stronger than iron. Every link is forged by an act of injustice, large or small. Some are inflicted by the world; others we inflict on ourselves. Bob Marley sings about mental chains in “Redemption Song” and reminds you that the only one who can emancipate you is yourself.

As I travel the world, I hear young brothers and sisters talk about the “American dream”—a big house with a swimming pool and posh furniture and a servant—and I recognize that place as a jail. I hear talk, talk, talk on adverts and reality TV shows, nattering constantly about that narrow vision of worth and wealth, and I can’t help but contrast that with the young African in Monrovia whose dream is to have a library, or the child in Syria whose dream is to go to a school with a roof, or the young black man in the United States who’s attacked for simply saying, “My life matters.” In them and in you—and in myself, because my grandfather opened my eyes to it—I see the new generation who will rewrite the world.

“Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great,” Madiba said. “You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

I WAS BORN IN Soweto in December 1982. My parents had a turbulent marriage. Two strong personalities, both good people, but they struggled to make their family work in a situation that was overwhelmingly stacked against them. When I was two, my parents left Soweto because life there had become difficult as a result of the police harassment and protest violence in black neighborhoods. We went to live with Grandma Evelyn—my father’s mother—in Cofimvaba, a tiny town on the Eastern Cape, where she owned a grocery store. This was a rural area with big stretches of farmland. We routinely shared the road with cows and chickens as we walked to school.

Grandma Evelyn was a staunch Jehovah’s Witness, so reading the Bible was a daily event, morning and night. Before breakfast, she did a little ten-minute devotional. In the evening, before dinner, it would go on for about forty-five minutes. On Saturday and Sunday, Grandma Evelyn attended services at the Temple Hall. After one interminable three-hour service, I told her, “I never want to do that again.” Grandma Evelyn laughed and said, “That’s fine.” She knew I was getting more than my share at home.

Life was pleasant and orderly at Grandma Evelyn’s. She was the boss, but both my parents were there. My dad managed Grandma Evelyn’s grocery store, and he always let me come in and get chips, candy, or chocolate or whatever I wanted. Sometimes he’d send me to buy cigarettes for him, which made me feel like a big kid. On my seventh birthday, Dad bought me a sheep, and we slaughtered and barbecued it, and I’d never eaten anything so delicious. This was a good moment for my mom and dad. They were together, young and healthy, and we were a happy family. During the holidays, my dad’s sister Makaziwe (I call her Auntie Maki) came to visit with my cousins Dumani and Kweku. Kweku was three years younger than me, but we had a lot of fun together.

Everyone spoke isiXhosa. That was my first language, the language I still love. In the movie Black Panther, the people of the make-believe world of Wakanda speak isiXhosa, the true-life language my granddad and I grew up with, so there’s been some curiosity about it since the film came out and obliterated box office records on a global scale. I was so happy to see this spark ignite, to have people see the true beauty and power of Africa and hear my native language spoken around the world. It’s a very theatrical language that incorporates clicks and growls and musical inflection like no other language on Earth. It requires the whole body, the jaw, not just the tongue.

The traditional Xhosa song “Qongqothwane”—a song people sing at a wedding to wish the happy couple a prosperous union—was made popular in the 1960s by Miriam Makeba. Europeans called it “The Click Song” because their language lacks the distinct percussive consonant that happens in isiXhosa. It’s a tonal language, so a syllable means one thing when it’s high and something completely different when it’s low. You don’t see the difference when it’s spelled out. You have to live this language to truly understand it.

I started learning English when I was seven and moved to Durban with my father. I don’t know why my mom didn’t move there with us. I just remember that she wasn’t there, and if I asked too many questions about it, I got a smack. Dad and I stayed with the family of Walter Sisulu, an African National Congress (ANC) activist who was in prison with my granddad. His wife, Albertina Sisulu, a nurse and an ANC freedom fighter, was Grandma Evelyn’s cousin and best friend. People call her “Mother of the Nation,” but to me, she was always Mama Albertina. Mama Albertina took me under her wing. Grandmotherly and fierce at the same time, she made a home for seven kids and several adults. We had to share everything, and it was crowded, but everyone was basically cool and there was always food, something I didn’t appreciate until later. The adults were all involved in the ANC, so the children were surrounded by that vibe—the rhetoric, the passion, the determination—and inevitably, that became second nature to us. We experienced the chokehold of apartheid daily, so we thought about things like freedom and responsibility on a level most kids aren’t exposed to so early in life.

Durban was home to a lot of South Africans of Indian descent—more Indians than any other city outside of India—because of the way the Group Areas Act shuffled “Asians” and “nonwhites” into certain areas during apartheid. So in Durban, I went to a Muslim school with mostly Indian students. I was the only black kid in my class, so it was pretty tough. All I could do was be tougher than the bullies. There was no use tattling or complaining. The grownups in the house had their own troubles.

I was relieved when Mom came back and took me to live with her brother in a relatively decent area of Soweto. The house was tiny, but there was running water and a two-burner stove, and most important, Mom was there. I missed my dad, but I liked the Catholic school in Johannesburg. I stayed with people from my mother’s family for a while, and then I stayed with my father’s family. Sometimes it was me and my dad, sometimes me and my mom. My parents were together now and then, but their relationship was starting to get violent. Sometimes I was scared, sometimes hungry. I remember being sent to knock on the neighbor’s door to see if they had anything I could eat for supper.

For a while, I was sent to stay with Mama Winnie and her family, who could slightly better afford to feed me. Winnie Mandela was known far and wide in South Africa, my grandfather’s second wife and a firebrand activist in the ANC. The government kept their eye on her. During the years that Madiba was in prison, they arrested and tortured her, which I suppose was their backhanded way of torturing my granddad, who had to sit there in Robben Island and know there was nothing he could do to help her. Being treated that way didn’t bend her will at all. If anything, it made her and the rest of the ANC more determined. Anyone with the last name Mandela was subject to scrutiny and harassment by the government, so all these grownups had to create safe havens for themselves and their kids. We kids, for the most part, just went where we were told to go and made the best of it.

Mama Winnie lived on the corner of Vilakazi Street and Ngakane in Soweto, just up the street from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. That place is now a museum called Mandela House. It was declared a national heritage site in 1999. I haven’t been there for a very long time, and it’s strange to think of tourists going there to view the rooms we crammed into and the toilet we flushed with a bucket of water. I remember it as a place where I was singularly unhappy, but I didn’t complain. I was grateful to have a roof over my head and food in my mouth, but I missed my parents terribly and got a strong vibe that I wasn’t exactly welcome in the already crowded house. I kept sneaking back to my dad’s house, which was just over the hill, so eventually, Dad let me come back to live with him. Later on my mom came to live there too, but my parents fought bitterly. After my baby brother Mbuso was born, they were seriously scraping for enough money to survive.


On Sale
Jun 26, 2018
Page Count
272 pages
Hachette Books

Ndaba Mandela

About the Author

Nelson Mandela’s legacy lives on as his grandson, Ndaba Mandela, continues to keep its beacon of hope bright, fueling its fiery message that one person can make a difference. Ndaba is the cofounder and cochairman of the Africa Rising Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting a positive image of Africa around the world and to increasing its potential for growth in the areas of education, employment, and international corporate alliances for profit and partnership. Ndaba is also the longest serving ambassador of UNAIDS, which seeks to end discrimination around HIV/AIDS.

Ndaba was named one of the “28 Men of Change” by Black Entertainment Television and is showing the world, through his actions and orations, that Nelson Mandela’s voice and message of freedom still rings true. He lives in South Africa.

Learn more about this author