As South Africans and indeed the rest of the world mourn the loss of former President Nelson Mandela, the small village where he spent most of his childhood, close to the place where he was born and where he will be laid to rest, has come into the limelight.
Situated approximately 30km from Mthatha, on the face of it there is little, apart from Mandela’s large Tuscan-styled home, to distinguish Qunu from countless other rural villages in the region. However, Nelson Mandela’s love affair with the area he fondly remembered as being the place that provided the happiest moments of his childhood never faded and once he retreated from public life, it was the place to which he returned to live out his remaining years.
Set in the rolling hills of the beautiful former Transkei, it’s difficult for those more used to the highs of city life to understand what the attraction for a child could have been. There are no large shopping malls or entertainment facilities – in fact there is very little in the way of anything in an area that has basically remained untouched and if you will, unspoiled by the ravages of progress.
In his book Long Walk To Freedom, Mandela wrote, “The hills above Qunu were dotted with large smooth rocks which we transformed into our own roller coaster. We sat on flat stones and slid down the face of the rocks. We did this until our backsides were so sore we could hardly sit down.”
You can almost hear the children’s laughter as they made up games to keep themselves amused and despite all the honours and awards bestowed on the great man, regardless of the palaces and grand homes he visited after his release and aside from his growing fortune, Qunu always remained home.
Perhaps it’s an indication of how humble the former president remained. He may have built a home on a scale never before seen in the village, but he never overlooked “his people” or their needs. The legendary annual Christmas parties for local children started long before his imprisonment. The story goes that as a young man, while sitting with his family enjoying Christmas lunch, he became quiet. When asked why, he replied that he wondered what other children in the community were eating while he and his family tucked into their festive feast. It’s said that family members immediately began canvassing the area and rounded up some 60 children to come and share the meal with them. On his release from prison, he again took up the tradition and every year hundreds of children, perhaps for the first time, learnt what it was like to receive presents and to see first hand the true meaning of Christmas.
It wasn’t only children who benefited from his generosity and the village now boasts electricity, running water, a clinic, a community centre, schools and a church. The Thusong Centre, which was donated to Madiba and his people by AECI, boasts a Department of Home Affairs, an arts and culture centre, a post office, a library and a computer school.
A man who never forgot his roots, Nelson Mandela ensured that his people were taken care of and the loss of the great man must have had a devastating effect on those who knew and loved him on such a personal level.
On Sunday 15th December 2013 Madiba will for the final time rest in his beloved Qunu. Sleep well our beloved Tata, and may the light of the candle you lit 23 years ago when you were released from prison never fade.