On 12th November  2013 Zoleka Mandela released her tell-all memoir, When Hope Whispers, in which she shares her personal struggles with sex, drug and alcohol addiction, the tragic loss of her daughter Zenani and her son Zenawe, as well as her empowering story with breast cancer. | Interview by Ashley Makue

No ordinary girl; Zoleka could not escape her extraordinary life even if she tried. She was born to the daughter of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, spent a significant amount of her childhood in exile, witnessed her mother’s tact with guns, according to the opening line of the book,  “By the time I was born, on 9 April 1980, my mother knew how to strip and assemble an Ak-47 in exactly thirty-eight seconds.”, her grandfather’s imprisonment and maybe the harsher reality of apartheid South Africa without any immunity from adolescence and raging brokenness.

Picture2hZoleka’s young life was filled with painful experiences of sexual abuse, relationships that were bigger and deeper than her age, experimenting with drugs and falling pregnant for the first time in her teens. Her adult life was no more sheltered; her experiences with sex, drugs and alcohol blew into a consuming addiction- an addiction so intensely paralyzing that a drug induced psychotic episode ended with her hospitalized after setting her bedroom on fire just a few days before her daughter Zenani was killed in a motor accident during the 2010 World Cup.

In 2011 Zoleka experienced another loss when her son Zenawe died of organ failure resulting from a premature birth. Another significant experience in Zoleka’s adult life was her journey with breast cancer which she describes as having saved her life. Seven months after the release of the autobiography published by Jacana Media, Afroelle Magazine caught up with Zoleka to chat about her candid and inspiring book and its impact  on her life and the lives of those who have read it.

Ashley Makue: Growing up, did you imagine that you would write a book?

Zoleka Mandela: I think if anyone had to tell me that long ago that I would be a published author of my autobiography decades later, I wouldn’t have believed them. Growing up I always imagined myself as a mother and a social worker.

AM: When Hope Whispers is an important and communicative book title, what was the inspiration behind it and what does hope say when it whispers?

ZM: I wish I had a more profound story to tell about the name of the book but I simply jotted a few titles in my note book closer to the time it was published –  When Hope Whispers spoke to the central message of my book. I wanted the book to instil hope in others. Hope says that even through the loudness of desperation, listen to the whisper of hope and be encouraged.

AM: How did you find the writing experience in terms of finding a voice and a writing style?

ZM: Writing from the heart, so to speak – it was the most emotionally challenging having to be brutally honest about who I was but it was important to me to be vocal about my truths despite having to revisit painful and shocking chapters in my life that I was so completely ashamed of. That risk I felt would one day encourage someone else to make honest changes.

AM: You have written honestly about a lot of intimate experiences of your life, what has been reception of the book in terms of the information the world now has about you?

ZM: To be quite frank, I underestimated the impact my book would have on all those individuals who have reached out to me. I was so afraid that someone or some people would lambaste me without giving my book a chance at changing their lives so that they wouldn’t ever have to go through what I went through. The reception locally and internationally, has been both positive and rewarding to say the very least.

AM: Did you ever feel like this book was an opportunity to tell your side of the story, with regards especially to media reports on your struggle with drug and sex addiction?

ZM: Undeniably. I had to be honest about all my addictions; sex, drugs and alcohol. The media before my  book had been reporting only on my drug addiction up until I spoke openly about all the others.

AM: Has this book fulfilled its purpose in your life?

ZM: Not entirely but I do believe it’s one of the many  ways in which I am able to inspire change and instil hope in many. I’m currently working on getting funding for my documentary film on my journey with breast cancer. There are still so many ways that I can help save and change lives even through my road safety and breast cancer campaigning.

AM: In the first part of the book, you wrote candidly on addiction both to drugs and sex, how did you know you were dealing with addiction?

ZM: When the relationship with the men I involved myself with or the drugs and alcohol came before my own children. If there is a time that sticks out the most it is when I experienced a drug induced psychotic episode that had me trying to burn myself alive with my children in the next bedroom.

AM: You had an extraordinary life, being the granddaughter of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, would you say that your childhood and adolescent life contributed to your addiction?

ZM: Yes. The physical and sexual abuse I experienced as a child all the way through to my teenage years definitely contributed to my addiction.

AM: With the unwavering support from your grandmother, your aunt Zenani and your mother that you have expressed throughout the book, what caused you the emptiness and depression that fuelled much of your painful experiences?

ZM: Apart from the abuse from loved ones, it would be my relationship with my parents and being born into the political family I belong to especially in that particular era. I do believe though, that all these life changing experiences have made me a better person today.

AM: The loss of your daughter Zenani and all that was related to it, was a traumatic and an excruciatingly tragic experience that you are still dealing with, what helps you get by?

ZM: The road safety campaign work I do in her memory and that of all our children who have lost their lives on the road. As well as, being a better parent today than I was to her. I know the work I do and the changes I have made to become a parent would make her proud and that helps me get by.

AM: Contrary to Zenani’s unexpected death, you had a chance to say goodbye to Zenawe, has this meant anything for the healing process?

ZM: I suppose in more ways than one. I was even robbed of that opportunity due to the injuries she sustained to her face and my family refused to let me see her that way, I think they were only trying to protect me and my last image of her.

AM: Your journey with breast cancer was another overwhelming part of the book, what is the biggest lesson you have learned from battling and surviving cancer?

ZM: Breast cancer has honestly changed my life for the better. I have learned that early detection really saved my life and that through my own experiences, I can help change and save someone else’ life.

AM: While many women who have survived breast cancer worry about hair, your obsession, following your mastectomy was with breasts, why was this?

ZM: I think it is because the result of my last breast surgery would then be indication that I had won; that and being declared cancer free. The obsession developed in shopping for sizes, I guess and it was exciting just thinking of the final result of my new man made breasts – my trophy. I still have my breast tissue expanders and yet to undergo two surgeries to replace the expanders with implants and to have my nipple reconstruction done.

AM: What is the significance of the unashamed showing of your bald head during and after chemotherapy?

ZM: I have never felt more liberated in all my life than owning my bald head. I’m a survivor of this life threatening disease and I conquered it, I did that with unashamed pride.

AM: Your issues with self-esteem were a theme carried through the book, what has caused  you to recognize and appreciate Zoleka’s place and power in the world?

ZM: For one; having my grandmother tell me how proud of me she is, truly inspires me even after all the pain I caused her and my family. I’m a work in progress and realizing that the more positive changes I can make within myself, the more successful I can be in empowering others.

AM: You are a lover of love and of family and children, is it accurate to assume When Hope Whispers is a happily-ever-after story?

ZM: Indeed. During the editing process of my book, I had already conceived! After my breast cancer diagnosis and six whole gruelling months of chemotherapy treatments, I gave birth to my fourth child a year after my last treatment. I hope I am a testament to many on their journey with breast cancer, that there is indeed life after cancer.

AM: The Zenani Mandela Campaign requires road safety and less on-the-road deaths, what are some of the milestones reached by this campaign?

ZM: Since the launch of the campaign; the Zenani Mandela Scholarship for road safety was launched, which affords young South Africans the opportunity to improve road safety within their own communities. In addition to that; the Long Short Walk campaign was also launched to highlight the importance of safe walking by encouraging all to capture images of unsafe areas in their communities  and sharing them online to make these areas safer. Just recently, we launched a Safe Schools project at one of the primary schools in Kayaletsha with the purpose of improving the roads near those schools.

AM: Have you done any work to aid the struggle against addiction?

ZM: I have been very fortunate with the numerous platforms to share on my struggle against addiction which I never shy away from be it at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, rally or at any of my speaking opportunities.

AM: Other than When Hope Whispers, what ways have you sought to raise breast cancer awareness?

ZM: From as early as my first chemotherapy treatment; I captured images and video footage of my journey. I am hoping that I will receive the funding for my documentary film which will include my personal experiences captured in the footage in hopes that it will aid in raising the awareness of breast cancer.

AM: What are your plans for the future with regards to sharing hope?

ZM: Finding more ways that I can help others who are going through what I went through; addiction, death of loved ones, breast cancer, physical and sexual abuse. I am hoping that my foundation and I will continue to create more opportunities for many to find ways that they can instil hope in others and contribute to society. []

Interview featured in our August Issue 2014

Ashley Makue is a writer, poet and lover of arts based in South Africa. She is an active feminist and through her work with The Ladies Empowerment Organisation, Love Life and The Lebohang Mokoena Project she contributes to causes for educating African girls about their important and immovable place in the world.

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