As tickets went on sale this week for a massive Nelson Mandela exhibition at Eden Park, his grandson details how he's trying to carry on his legacy.

The first time he met his grandfather, Nkosi 'Chief' Zwelivelile Mandela was 9 years old. He had heard his own name – "Viva Mandela! Viva!" – chanted in the dusty streets of Soweto, South Africa, and asked his father, Makgatho, what it meant. Without explanation, Makgatho arranged for Chief to travel 1400km to Pollsmoor Prison, near Cape Town, escorted by his step-grandmother Winnie.

As he waited in a visitors' room, unaware of the history he was steeped in, Chief heard a voice: "How are you warden?" It was Nelson Mandela: a "giant" 1.98m figure who slipped into the room and greeted an excited Winnie, before turning to Chief and saying, "You must be my grandson".

"Did I hear right? Did this man say that I'm his grandson?" Chief recalls thinking. He was Mandela's eldest grandchild, born to Rose Rayne Perry and Makgatho, the statesman's third child with his first wife Evelyn Mase. A young child, he was ashamed to be related to someone in prison, a place he associated with "people who have done wrong in society". Chief withdrew from Mandela, answering with single words and hating every precious first moment with his grandfather.


"But thank goodness for my grandfather's wisdom," says Chief, three decades later in a snug corner of a hotel in London's West End. "He understood very well what was going on in my head." Mandela sent a coded letter to Sussex-born anti-apartheid campaigner Helen Joseph asking her to teach his grandson about the "ideals and principles he stood for – and his commitment to the struggle for liberation". Joseph invited Chief and his mother to her house, showed them the letter and said, "Let me educate you".

"Growing up in Soweto, a racially constructed township only for black people, any representation of a white person expressed the apartheid regime to me: they were either police or officials,' says Chief. 'But here was my grandfather reaching out to a white woman and asking her to assist in my development. It changed my entire perspective of what the struggle for liberation was."

Now 44, Chief is head of the Mandela clan, member of the South African and Pan-African parliaments and chief of the Traditional Council in Mvezo - the South African village where Mandela was born. He accepted this title in 2007 after it was returned to the family after nearly 70 years, having been revoked in 1918 when Mandela's father defied a magistrate. Rather than taking the post himself, Mandela nominated Chief.

With clear family resemblances, Chief is an imposing 1.95m with warm eyes and a white-flecked goatee beard. It is an unseasonably warm morning in October, and we are inside, but he is wearing a suit with a keffiyeh around his neck; a symbol of his 2016 conversion to Islam, and of his solidarity with Palestine.

Chief and Mandela used to joke about their similarity in appearance. "I'm very concerned," Chief would say to his grandfather. "When he asked what was bothering me, I would reply, 'Everywhere I go people tell me I look just like you. Am I that old?' Mandela would protest: 'Who you calling old?' 'It was one of those light moments we used to have together."

Chief is in London to retrace his grandfather's steps before the opening of Mandela: The Official Exhibition, which he helped curate to celebrate the statesman's tribal roots.

Tickets for a New Zealand exhibition, Mandela My Life: The Official Exhibition went on sale this week for when it travels to Auckland from Australia on April 13.

Eden Park, where in 1981 flour bombs were dropped in protest at the Apartheid regime and the ongoing imprisonment of the future South African president, will play host to the exhibition which runs until August.

In what has been billed as the most comprehensive collection ever to be shown outside of South Africa, it features over 200 original artefacts and personal items from The Nelson Mandela Foundation and Nelson Mandela's private collection.

It features film and sound recordings of Mandela's famous speeches, a detailed physical replica of his prison cell, artworks and manuscripts from his writings from prison, as well as the famous pen which signed away apartheid.

There were two sides to Mandela, Chief says, the second of which most people aren't acquainted with. To most, he was a symbol of freedom and peace; at home, he upheld tribal values.

"Madiba [Mandela's clan name] was applauded publicly as the best statesman of the 21st century," says Chief. "But to his family he was a traditional and cultural man. He put a lot of emphasis on his eldest son because of the patriarchal system that resonates in our family."

It is for this reason that Chief, Mandela's third grandchild and eldest grandson, was eventually nominated to play an important role in the family and South African politics.

An election campaign poster reading 'Mandela for President' features in Mandela: The Official Exhibition.
An election campaign poster reading 'Mandela for President' features in Mandela: The Official Exhibition.

When Chief's mother, Perry, moved to the UK in 1986 after divorcing his father, Mandela from prison forbade her from taking his 11-year-old grandson with her, maintaining that he needed to stay in South Africa to witness its challenges first hand. Mandela then sent Chief to live with the royal family in Swaziland, where he went to boarding school.

"Madiba insisted she leave me behind, saying, 'He needs to fully understand what this struggle for liberation has been about'," says Chief. "Education was always so important to him. He regarded it as the weapon by which one could change the world."

In London his mother became an anti-apartheid activist, and it was only then, during visits to her, that Chief learned how important his grandfather really was, attending protests alongside hundreds of thousands of others in front of Trafalgar Square's South Africa House, the site of a non-stop picket in the 1980s. "Being around people leading the fight from exile I witnessed the passion they had for the release Mandela campaign."

In 1990 their hopes came to pass. Chief was 16 and at boarding school in Swaziland when a group of his peers who were gathered around a television asked if he had heard Mandela was going to be released. "No such thing," Chief replied. "I recently paid him a visit and there was no mention of that." The crowd around the TV grew as did that outside Victor Verster Prison until a car approached the gates. Out stepped Mandela and Winnie.

"They were holding hands with their fists held high," Chief says. "I don't even recall seeing them walk out of the prison, I was so emotional. I left immediately, went to the closest main road and hitchhiked to the border."

The truck driver who dropped Chief in Johannesburg, from where he made the journey on to Soweto, couldn't be certain that his passenger was related to Mandela, but gave him 10 South African Rand and said, "In case you are Madiba's grandson, I wouldn't want to be the one that left you on the side of the road."

The following days were filled with the excitement of feasting, giving interviews to the world's press, and planning the changes to come in South Africa now Madiba, their "true champion", was back home.

Chief's elation was cut short when Mandela showed his education still took priority. Three days after his release, Chief bumped into his grandfather in the corridor of the family home in Soweto. "Aren't you supposed to be at school?" he asked.

"That afternoon, his security team drove me back to Swaziland and I had to spend two miserable years away, while my family was reuniting and my grandfather was a free man," Chief recalls.

The tension between Mandela's public and private lives brought strife with family members such as Chief's father, Makgatho, who Madiba "had difficulties reaching out to" having initially neglected him as second son. When, in 1969, Mandela's eldest son, Thembekile, was killed in a car crash aged 24, he had to build a relationship with new heir Makgatho from prison.

"My father believed if Madiba was sincere and true about wanting to be a father, then he would come home and prioritise his family. That was a great challenge for my grandfather who had committed his life to the struggle for liberation."

The two reunited after Mandela was released, and as a sign of reconciliation, Makgatho agreed to go back to school at 40 and qualify as a lawyer. But Mandela would outlive his two sons and heirs. In 2005, Makgatho died from Aids, aged 55.

"It was a big blow to my grandfather and became [a calling to arms]. Madiba convened a family meeting and said he was going to disclose that my father had been HIV positive in order to end the stigma associated with it," says Chief. "A lot of the family, particularly his daughters, were against that, but Madiba wasn't fazed." As Makgatho's eldest son, Mandela asked Chief if it was the right decision and he responded, "Grandfather, you have been a leader in society and even in a time of loss you have a duty to lead our people".

Mandela was the glue that held the family together. Since his death, in December 2013, they have become fractious, fighting over trifles such as where Mandela should be buried, who his rightful heir is, who should have been recognised in his will, and who runs the various sites connected to him. Family members have been accused of greed following attempts to cash in on his legacy and have taken one another to court multiple times.

Chief, for one, evicted his second cousin from his grandmother Evelyn's home so he could restore it, and fought off a claim from his brother, Ndaba, that he was born out of wedlock and therefore shouldn't be head of the family. In 2009, he was accused of selling the television rights to Mandela's funeral for 3 million rand ($300,000), while in 2013, he was found to have illegally exhumed the bones of Mandela's siblings from the family's ancestral village Qunu and reburied them down the road in Mvezo, the idea being that his grandfather's final resting place would then become his birthplace. Chief denies any wrongdoing.

A three-piece suit worn by Nelson Mandela for the opening of Parliament in Cape Town on February 9 1996.
A three-piece suit worn by Nelson Mandela for the opening of Parliament in Cape Town on February 9 1996.

"There have been attempts to divide the family and lay claim to the important parts of the countryside where Madiba was born and buried," says Chief. "Going forward, members of the family need to just continue with their own lives, building on my grandfather's life and legacy, and looking at how they can further those commitments."

He brushes off scandals that have, for some, tarnished the family, including the controversy surrounding his step-grandmother and Mandela's second wife, Winnie, who died last year and was widely held accountable for violent attacks perpetrated by Winnie's personal bodyguards, known as the Mandela United Football Club, who conducted a "reign of terror" over Soweto in the 1980s.

"I like to look holistically at how she touched and changed people's lives," says Chief. "Winnie is a struggle icon in her own right. She is one of many women who played an immense role in our liberation. We owe the freedom we have today to those heroines." On a personal level, he sees Winnie as much a member of his family as his other grandmothers Evelyn and Graca Michel, saying, "It can't be that we speak of an individual. I wouldn't want to promote one against the other."

It is a freedom that needs to be nurtured and protected. South Africa's former president, Jacob Zuma, was last year embroiled in a corruption scandal and forced to step down, paving the way for Cyril Ramaphosa to take office as the country erupted with protests. Chief, who is a member of the incumbent African National Congress (ANC) party, said at the time he supports Ramaphosa as "Mandela's first choice to succeed him as leader of our movement".

Chief wants to see a renewed focus on creating the "rainbow nation" Mandela used to speak of. "I don't think we're doing enough in terms of nation building and unifying our people," he says, adding it will take South Africa time to solve its complex political problems, such as land reform.

"We defied apartheid legislatively and the unjust laws were taken away, but the reality is that economically it hasn't been solved," he says. "The white population of South Africa, nine per cent of the total, still owns 80 per cent of the land. There has to be a means of redress.

"There's an expectation that we must have all the answers 24 years later, but that's unfair. It will probably take us another century or two to correct the wrongs of 400 years of oppression."

If Mandela were alive today, Chief believes he would be firmly opposed to geopolitical developments. "The man's legacy is a call to world leaders to have courage, as well as to humanity to be active participants and the voice for oppressed nations," he says, adding that his grandfather would be "frustrated by world leaders being reckless with their actions and not fully cognizant of who they are as a nation". Personally, Chief is a supporter of Palestine and critic of Donald Trump.

At home, Chief hopes to use the proceeds from Mandela: The Official Exhibition to improve people's lives in rural areas and rebuild Madiba's birthplace Mvezo, making it a hub for cultural tourism and a place where peace, human rights and justice can be celebrated. He lives by his grandfather's principle: "If you equip a young person with education you can give rise to their freedom and they can dream of becoming anything."

Mandela My Life: The Official Exhibition
Eden Park, April 13 – August 4
Book online at
Adult: $27.50
Under 16: Free