How Zoleka Mandela carved out her own legacy instead of piggybacking off her famous last name

Zoleka Mandela. Picture: Instagram

Zoleka Mandela. Picture: Instagram

Published Sep 26, 2023


The Mandela name is synonymous with the birth of democracy in South Africa.

It’s nuanced with so many facets, from the fight for freedom, to the end of apartheid. The list goes on and on.

For Zoleka Mandela, carrying the Mandela name was both a blessing and a curse.

The granddaughter of Nelson and Winnie Mandela refused to speak about her famous grandparents, always alluding to the heavy cross that came with being a Mandela.

I remember jumping on a Zoom call with her earlier this year. The plan was do an exclusive interview. Due to circumstances out of our control, it never materialised.

But what stuck in my head was when asked which topics were off-limits, she blankly said, “Nothing to do with my grandparents. I’m not ready to speak about that yet.”

Even before her initial breast cancer diagnosis in 2012, Zoleka was very much aware of the gravitas her last name drew. Instead of riding its coattails, she chose to carve out her own legacy, leaving something tangible for her children.

Because Zoleka knew what it meant to be in pain. In 2010, her daughter Zenani, 13, was killed by a drunk driver.

In her book, ‘When Hope Whispers,’ she admitted she was recovering from a suicide attempt after the tragic event. She also touched on her cocaine addiction, rehab and being sexually abused.

Eleven years later, she shared with fans on Instagram, “I’m grateful for the frequent blessings – both big and small.

“When my daughter was killed by a drunk driver in 2010, my former psychiatrist advised that I read Habakkuk for answers I was asking … I was triggered, frustrated over the years because there were no answers to my questions until today.”

The loss drove her to launch an initiative and campaign for road safety. But her grief was compounded by another blow - her infant son died just days after giving birth in 2011 due to complications from being born prematurely.

And then cancer came knocking at her door. For a woman who had endured so much pain and grief, her cancer diagnosis was yet another battle she had to fight.

The author took on another passion project - her activism work in cancer.

Always brave and always grateful, the mom of four kept her social media followers in the loop with every step of her treatment.

In the years that followed, she received two additional cancer diagnoses, and in 2022 she shared that the cancer had returned and had spread to her bones.

Via her Instagram series, "Dear Diary, #TerminallyFree," she had given a voice to the cancer community, sharing the ups and downs of her journey with brutal honesty while inspiring others.

Even in death, Zoleka Mandela will still inspire many to fight the good fight.