Zoleka Mandela grew up in the spotlight that came with her grandfather’s iconic global status. And yet her life has been far from easy. Aged just 36, she has survived abuse, addiction and breast cancer and buried two children – but she is a survivor who campaigns to help others. She told the BBC’s 100 Women season her story.
When Zoleka was 10 years old, her grandfather was released from prison. She had only ever known him as an incarcerated man, so when he was released she was just excited he was coming home.
For the world, it was a moment many will never forget. The freedom fighter walked out of Victor Verster prison in Cape Town with his wife Winnie at his side and his fist in the air.
For Zoleka, there was a slow realisation that the man she called her grandfather was a man who made huge sacrifices for the good of the country. Home life changed as his strict rules and curfew came in to place. Outside the front door, South Africa was changing too, as the end of the apartheid era was negotiated, and within a few years, Zoleka’s grandfather became the country’s first black president.
It was a time of extraordinary hope and change in South Africa.
But in Zoleka’s personal life, things were different. When she was still a child she was sexually abused, setting off a chain of difficult events in her life. She went on to struggle with alcohol and drug addiction. Two of her children died, and she has been diagnosed with cancer twice.
Now sober, she campaigns for causes close to her heart, and has shared her story to try and help others. When the BBC meets Zoleka, she says she hopes her grandfather Nelson, who died in 2013, can see her to know she “has gotten it right finally”.
Being abused as a child was difficult to accept, for Zoleka and for her whole family.
The self-blame and anger she felt drove her to look for ways to numb the pain, and she had her first drink at the age of nine. By 13 years old she was abusing drugs and alcohol as a means of escape. She only disclosed her addiction to her family aged 21. By that time she was a mother to a daughter, Zenani. A son, Zwelami, was born six years later.
“I was not a fit parent,” she says. “I was not the parent my children deserved.”
In the midst of her darkest days of addiction and depression, Zenani – then aged 13 years old – was tragically killed returning from the 2010 World Cup opening ceremony in Johannesburg.
The driver of the car she was in was drunk and crashed into a safety barrier. Zenani was flung from the car and killed instantly.
On the night of the accident, Zoleka herself happened to be in hospital. She had been there for 10 days already recovering from an attempted suicide. It was the darkest and most painful period of her life.
She says she constantly asked God: “Why did you not take me? I am the one that needs to go.
“My kids don’t deserve a mother like me.”
On the death of her daughter, Zoleka hit rock bottom.
Two months after the crash, she checked herself into rehab. It was the start of a new phase of her life, but not necessarily one devoid of its challenges.
Aged 32 years old, Zoleka was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a devastating diagnosis for a woman who had already survived so much.
At first, too scared to face this new trauma, she refused treatment. But eventually she had a double mastectomy and chemotherapy.
Shortly after treatment, she got pregnant. She was overjoyed as she had been terrified the cancer would mean no more children.
But her baby boy, Zenawe, was born prematurely and only survived a few days. Zoleka once again had to bury one of her children.
She remained in remission for 3 years, in which time she met her fiance, Thierry Bashala, a Congolese man, in Johannesburg. They had a baby and life could not have felt better.
In April of this year she found a new lump in her chest. The cancer had returned, this time more aggressively. Zoleka was devastated. She and Thierry had been wanting to have another child and just move on with their lives but it was back to chemotherapy.
This time, she shared her journey on social media, hoping to inspire and educate others on similar journeys as hers.
“I feel like this time around it is much easier to deal with,” she says. “I feel like I have already won the fight.”
Zoleka has set up a foundation in her name to raise awareness on road safety and in honour of her daughter Zenani. And now she is a cancer awareness ambassador too.
She says: “It is important for women to speak out, get tested, perform their own examinations.
“Silence cancer before it silences you.”
And if there is one regret in her life it is that she could not make her grandfather proud when he was alive.
Her final words are: “I spent so much time abusing drugs and alcohol and choosing that over my family and loved ones.
“I just hope where he is with my daughter he is looking down and thinking she has gotten it right finally.”
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