The Crime Shaking Mandela's Family

The South African leader's daughter was robbed at gunpoint this week—the latest in a string of harrowing incidents that show how the country is failing its people.

07.24.10 7:46 PM ET

For Nelson Mandela, national celebrations have recently come with a slew of personal tragedies.

This week, the grizzled elder statesman hosted a party at home in Johannesburg in honor of his 92nd birthday, and of 12 years of marriage to his third wife, humanitarian Graca Machel. As Zambian President Rupiah Banda, and Mandela’s infamous ex-wife Winnie, gathered round the cake, a gaggle of great-grandchildren sang, “Happy Birthday, Tata!”

Hours later, the Mandela suffered a severe blow. While was celebrating the first annual Nelson Mandela day, armed robbers held up his daughter, Zindzi, and four of his grandchildren at gunpoint. As the family drove home from Mandela’s party, the bandits stopped their car in the driveway of their Jo’burg home, and ordered the children out of the car and to lie face down in the dirt.

As Mandela fades from view, his moral authority is also waning. Who will provide his visionary leadership?

This is only the latest catastrophe to strike the Mandelas. Last month, Nelson's great-grandaughter, 13-year-old Zenani (who is named for one of Mandela’s two children by his second ex-wife, Winnie) was on her way home from a World Cup concert when she was killed a fatal crash; the driver was drunk.

Sadly, Nelson Mandela has outlived other children, too. Makawize, Mandela’s daughter by his first wife, Evelyn Mase, died at nine months in 1946. Then, while the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former South African president was serving his 27-year sentence on Robben Island, Thembi, one of his sons by his first marriage, was killed in a 1969 car crash. In 2005, another of his sons, Makgatho, died of HIV/AIDS. This death spurred Mandela to use his prison number 46664 to form a foundation and address the scourge of the disease.

Although HIV/AIDS is a horribly familiar crisis, the grinding toll of South Africa’s everyday violence remains little more than statistics. With an average death toll of 50 a day, the country is the world’s second-leading murder capital of the world. (Colombia is number one.) But when it comes to rape, South Africa tops the list. A girl in South Africa has a one in three chance of finishing secondary school—and a one in two chance of being raped.

So what’s being done about this kind of violent pandemic?

Not enough. Paradoxically, on the same day his grandchildren were lying facedown outside their own home, thousands of South Africans were taking part in 67 minutes of community service to honor Mandela’s 67 years of devotion to his country.

For the Mandela family, this week’s attack ended when the chauffeur pulled his own gun and shot after one of the thieves reportedly fired a weapon. (One may have been shot in the leg.) Whether or not the bandits had a personal grudge against Mandela and his family remains unclear. Or has violence in South Africa simply gotten so bad that no one is safe anymore—even its leading hero?

As Mandela fades from view, his moral authority is also waning. Who will provide his visionary leadership? Not Desmond Tutu. This week the Archbishop also celebrated a birthday. Turning 79, he, too, announced that he soon will be retiring from public life to spend more time with his four children and grandchildren, as well “to dote on” his wife of the past 55 years, Leah. "The time has now come to slow down, to sip Rooibos tea with my beloved wife in the afternoons, to watch cricket," Tutu said.

Even after retirement age, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu aren’t just rolled out for fist pumps at the World Cup. Both have continued to risk international ire by speaking out on the issues. Mandela was a powerful opponent of Bush’s foreign policy. And Tutu’s constant critique of Zimbabwe’s fearsome dictator Robert Mugabe prompted Mugabe to call Tutu “the evil little bishop.”

There is currently no African leader can replace these larger-than-life men whose roles were shaped by an era of overt racism. But what is just as insidious and far less visible is the systemic corruption and poverty—the failure of nations to address the needs of their people—that attacks like the recent one against the Mandelas betray.

South Africa’s violence, like AIDS, is a disease. If the death of Mandela’s 54-year-old son, Makgatho, helped prompt the Nobel Laureate to take on one fatal illness, maybe this ambush will lead him to publically tackle the violence that affects millions of South Africans.

Eliza Griswold is a New America fellow and a recipient of the 2010 Rome Prize. Her book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Islam and Christianity, will by published by FSG in August.