Zoleka Mandela: Journey of her life to last breath

By Esther Muhozi
On 30 September 2023 at 10:06

Zoleka Mandela, the granddaughter of Nelson Mandela passed away this week at the age of 43.

According to Cape Town South Africa, her life was marked by a turbulent journey through addiction, a harrowing suicide attempt, a relentless battle against cancer, and the tragic loss of two young children.

The Mandela family officially announced her untimely demise on Tuesday, following her passing on Monday. Although Zoleka had previously overcome breast cancer, her health took a devastating turn when she was diagnosed with cancer in her liver and lungs. The disease had metastasized, spreading throughout her body, ultimately claiming her life.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation, dedicated to preserving the legacy of the iconic South African leader who passed away in 2013, expressed deep sorrow over the loss of Zoleka Mandela. They extended their heartfelt condolences to her family, acknowledging her as a cherished grandchild of Nelson Mandela.

The foundation lauded her tireless efforts to raise awareness about cancer and her role as a beacon of inspiration for those affected by the disease and for parents who had experienced the profound grief of losing a child. Zoleka had established foundations to support individuals in both of these critical areas.

Zoleka’s early life was a series of profound challenges and tragedies that would have overwhelmed anyone. These difficulties unfolded in the backdrop of her struggle to live up to the extraordinary legacy of her grandfather – a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the leader of the anti-apartheid movement, South Africa’s first Black president, and a globally respected symbol of positive change.

Zoleka experienced sexual abuse during her childhood and grappled with drug and alcohol addiction from her teenage years onwards. Tragically, her 13-year-old daughter, Zenani, lost her life in a car accident in 2010, caused by a drunk driver. At that time, Zoleka was deep in the throes of addiction and had even attempted suicide.

In a candid interview with The Associated Press in 2013, she admitted the devastating choice she had made: "I hadn’t seen my daughter for 10 days before her passing, and I hadn’t because I chose to use drugs. That’s obviously a reminder that I chose my addiction over my kids and I have to live with that for the rest of my life."

The immense pain and guilt shook her to the core, leading her to seek help and enter rehab, not just for her own well-being but also for the sake of her surviving child, Zwelami, and in memory of Zenani. Zenani’s tragic death prompted Nelson Mandela, then in frail health, to attend his great-granddaughter’s funeral, marking one of his final public appearances.

Shortly after her daughter’s passing, Zoleka was diagnosed with breast cancer, which necessitated a double mastectomy and grueling rounds of chemotherapy. Tragically, her second son was born prematurely in 2011 while she was undergoing cancer treatment and passed away shortly thereafter. At the time of her passing, she had four surviving children.

In 2013, Zoleka Mandela released her autobiography, titled "When Hope Whispers." The book delved into the profoundly challenging circumstances of her life, including her unconventional upbringing as a Mandela during the violent era of apartheid in the 1980s, when her grandfather was incarcerated for leading the anti-apartheid movement.

In her autobiography, Zoleka recounted a startling childhood memory: "By the time I was born ... my mother knew how to strip and assemble an AK-47 in exactly thirty-eight seconds." Her struggle with alcohol began at the tender age of nine, eventually spiraling into a daily cocaine addiction. This addiction would later separate her from her own children and become her deepest regret, particularly during the period when her daughter tragically lost her life.

However, Zoleka’s life would ultimately take a different trajectory, concluding with a remarkable chapter of transformation. She emerged as a prominent advocate, not only for cancer awareness but also for road safety, earning widespread acclaim for her efforts in both areas. Even as she battled terminal cancer, her unwavering courage and commitment to her causes were evident.

The foundation bearing her grandfather’s name aptly recognized her as a "tireless activist." This tribute was particularly fitting, as Zoleka, despite initially feeling daunted by the monumental legacy of Nelson Mandela, ultimately found inspiration in it.

She expressed her hope that her grandfather, wherever he might be, was looking down and thinking, "she has gotten it right, finally." These words, spoken to the BBC in 2016, encapsulate the journey of a remarkable woman who, in the face of immense adversity, ultimately found her purpose and made a profound impact on the world.

Zoleka Mandela, the granddaughter of Nelson Mandela passed away this week at the age of 43. Photo Shutterstock