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Madiba’s granddaughter: ‘Mandelas are human beings, too’

As Zoleka Mandela walked across the graduation stage, her grandmother, mama Winnie, watching proudly from the audience, it appeared as if fate had destined this year for her graduation as this is the year her grandfather would have celebrated his 100th birthday. ‘I didn’t get a chance to make my grandfather proud of me,’ she said, ‘but I do believe that there’s always an opportunity for second chances; I’m at that place in my life right now.’ 

As a journalist one covers many stories, but the best and most life-inspiring interviews are the ones with people who have overcome all kinds of obstacles to achieve their life goals. Zoleka is one of those people.

Yes, you might know her as the granddaughter of the mother of the nation, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, and the former president, the late Nelson Mandela, but listening to her life story on the night of her graduation at Unisa highlighted just how human she is in a world where people often forget that. ‘Mandelas are human beings, too,’ she said.

Due to her addiction to alcohol and drugs, it took Zoleka 17 years to complete her BA degree, something she is unashamed of and wants to share with the world. The mother of four children, two of whom have passed away, said her grandparents always instilled in them the value of education and therefore completing her degree, irrespective of how long it took and all the challenges that stood in her way, was incredibly important to her.

She acknowledged that she was very privileged to have had access to education that many South Africans yearn for. ‘I had the opportunity to go to school, and to drop out for the reasons that I did, it saddens and pains me … My hope is that my journey can inspire others; it is never too late to rewrite your life story.’

Zoleka emphasised that this degree is just the beginning for her and that she intends on enrolling for her honours. ‘It is important for me to learn from the lessons that my grandparents have imparted; the work I do now, should speak to their legacy.’

Asked what her advice would be to women who feel that they can’t make it, Zoleka said it is important for them to know that one can overcome even the most unbearable things. ‘It is never too late to rewrite your life story,’ she said, ‘and there’s always a whisper of hope if you listen hard enough. We all deserve second chances.‘

Zoleka had nothing but praise for Unisa, commending its 145-year commitment to shaping futures in the service of humanity. ‘I dropped out of my studies 17 years ago. Unisa afforded me the opportunity to care of for family and complete my degree. I am thankful for that opportunity to study,’ she concluded.

* By Rivonia Naidu-Hoffmeester