The public disputes that have engulfed the Mandela family are of deep concern, to say the least. Given the clan patriarch Nelson Mandela’s state of health, the disputes have the serious potential of wrecking the family unity and cohesion at a time when he is vulnerable, unable to provide much-needed leadership.
All families have disputes, hence the ancient Sotho adage “Ntoa keya madula mmoho (fights are common among family)”. The Mandela family are no exception.
The Mandela family are part of the AbaThembu, whose nominal chief is descended from the Dlomo royal bloodline. Dlomo is credited as the founding father of the clan. The disputes among amaDlomo are as ancient as the sun.
These ancient disputes are reflected in the clan praises that have been carried from one generation to another.
The Eurocentric study of African leadership and related circumstances of causality of leadership emergence are flawed since they are based on a disconnection from the essential cultural traits that are influential in the make-up of a leader.
The thesis proffered in the biography of Robert Sobukwe is that for so long as African clan praises are not an integral part of the study of any African leader, such a study is at best ahistorical, and at worst infinitesimal in consequence and historical outcome.
The African clan praises are not just mere idle recitations aimed at amusing or entertaining revellers at a cultural ceremony to celebrate some event or feast.
Clan praises are systematically evoked by selected individuals or elders to great ululation and enchanting response depending on the type of ceremony. These clan praises maintain a singular rhythmic pace, tempo and manner of expression and delivery that has been handed down from generation to generation.
These clan praises have their origin in the distant past and involve some great founding ancestor who has performed some heroic deeds to save his people from the ravisher or has distinguished himself in battle.
In the Sotho culture, clan praises in the main take the form of totem wherein certain animals are adopted for veneration. The Thembu legend has it that Dlomo, the founding head of the branch of the Thembu, was involved in a succession battle with his half-brother Hlanga.
In the ensuing fight Dlomo defeated Hlanga and so scattered his subjects.
Upon entering his homestead after returning from battle, the heroic Dlomo was greeted by a jubilant crowd of ululating women who lifted their skirts upon his grand entrance to the village. Years later Dlomo’s son Hala occasioned a truce between his people and those of Hlanga.
Hala was crowned as a chief and given a new royal name and title of Madiba. “Madiba” in Xhosa means to close ditches or could be taken to mean a filler of ditches.
The name Madiba was aptly applied to Hala for his heroic reconciliation with Hlanga, thus bringing back the unity of the descendants of Dlomo.
It was little wonder that Mandela brought about the reconciliation of the South African nation in 1994, because that gift had been bequeathed to his family by tradition and encapsulates the virtues of a leader and peacemaker firmly rooted in his own clan praises.
In simple terms, the moniker Madiba is generally used to refer to a reconciler and a peacemaker.
Madiba’s son was Tato who gave birth to Zondwa. Zondwa’s son was Ndaba, who fathered Phitshi. Therefore, in the clan praises Ndaba is not referred to by his name – instead he is referred to by his son’s name, Sophitshi, shortened from uyise ka Phitshi (father of Phitshi).
The clan praises of the Dlomo people demonstrate and extol the real heroic deeds of their ancestors for hegemony and succession.
Second, the Dlomo clan praises are rooted in the real historical events that occurred in the past and those that are held with reverence by its adherents or clan members as an expression of self-affirmation.
It is thus crucial that, in the attempt to understand ourselves and our leaders, we pay some attention to our clan praises and reconstitute some form of historical relationship with our roots and heritage. It may not be that a person’s clan praises can summarily explain an individual’s character. However, they can contain critical leads and pointers that speak to character, demeanour, gifts and leadership traits.
The scars of the public feud will surely run deep and will hurt for some time.
The heir of the Dlomo royal leopard skin and descendant of Dlanga has been tested to the limit.
I believe and trust that the house of King Sabata Dalindyebo, represented by his son, King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo, will reconcile with that of the Dlomo represented by Chief Mandla Mandela.
They must look up to history to find replete lessons of how their forebears have overcome adversities.
It is also my fervent wish that the descendants of Dlomo will find one another as they have done in the past. Their very foundation and existence is rooted in the acquired ability to resolve the monstrosities of challenges that have faced the nation and their immediate families.
Thami Ka Plaatjie is advisor to minister of public service and administration, Lindiwe Sisulu, and head of the ANC Research Unit