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Revisiting Nelson Mandela’s roots: a photographic exploration

Fertile valleys in rural Eastern Cape where Nelson Mandela was born. Bonile Bam

South African photographer, Bonile Bam, decided that he wanted to tell a different Nelson Mandela story by documenting the landscape and physical setting in which Mandela lived as a boy. Like Mandela, Bam also grew up in the Eastern Cape province. The entirely black and white photographs will form part of an upcoming exhibition in Johannesburg called Mandela’s Roots (revisited). Raymond Suttner interviewed Bam on his photography and how he came to develop the Mandela exhibition, which coincides with Mandela’s birth 100 years ago.

How did you come to focus on Mandela?

In 2003, I had the privilege of working for the Sunday Times newspaper in Johannesburg. During that period, I read a lot of articles about Madiba but he had already retired from politics.

A phone call from the Nelson Mandela Foundation requesting me to be an official photographer for the event where Madiba was meeting his guests, played a huge part in my career.

Did you get a chance to talk to Madiba?

Bonile Bam. Supplied

At the end of the event, Mandela, spoke to me and said, “Good to see you young man, I’m glad you came.”

Smiling, he continued, “You must treat a camera like a key, it will unlock many doors for you.”

That was a turning point in my life. Being in the presence of a man who sacrificed everything on earth in order to help liberate his country from the chains of apartheid – was exceptional. After hearing stories and struggles he had gone through as a young boy, I took it upon myself to trace his roots in the Eastern Cape.

Was this not a difficult task?

I could not travel to Mvezo, Qunu and Mqhekezweni (Eastern Cape towns) and just start pointing a camera at people. On my trip, I met with elders of the Madiba clan (Mandela’s clan). Arriving there with a camera ready to photograph preserved sites would be seen as a sign of disrespect and undermining the community. My attempt was to move with caution and allow the story to unfold.

Authentic remains of the house where Nelson Mandela was born in 1918. Bonile Bam

As an observer with a camera, the ability to speak and write is not enough. I needed to listen. The elders who grew up with Madiba pointed in the direction of Mvezo. When I gathered enough material, I knew it was time to get going.

On my arrival, in June 2005, I was freezing from the shoulders down to my toes. My fingertips were shrinking and becoming stiffer the closer I got to his birth place. The houses were dark but I could only identify slow movement of livestock passing far away. The path I walked through was dry and dusty with some parts of rough stones. I desperately needed a cup of coffee to stay warm but the sun was beginning to crack between clouds. The sound of the birds and Mbashe River kept me going.

On what were you focused?

My point of interest was to find the remains of the house where Madiba’s umbilical cord was hidden in 1918 – and related things in the surroundings.

Meanwhile, the livestock were grazing lazily in the fields. I had to stop and appreciate the view. In the village, it would be rude of a stranger to leave a place without speaking to the people on the road side. I was interested in documenting life, values, landscape, spaces, objects, specific textures and history of the place.

It was time to move to Qunu. Here, the Madibas dominate large part of the social landscape. Beautiful or not – a place in any part of the world is defined by human experience and knowledge brought to it.

Why do you think we can interpret Mandela through his early physical surroundings?

Clearly, it’s hard to measure a person of Madiba’s stature against nature. The streams and footpaths where he played traditional stick-fight with other boys, hunted rabbits, knocked birds (out of the sky) and herded his father’s cattle is seen not far away from his home. In my visits there, I sensed an element of harmony and respect for tradition.

The Julukuqu mountain in Mqhekezweni - where Nelson Mandela grew up. Bonile Bam

In Mqhekezweni, where Madiba grew up after the passing of his father, a rondavel (bungalow) and church are testimony to what influenced his life long before politics took centre stage.

Natural sculpture in Mvezo. Bonile Bam

Going outside, the twin gumtrees maintained their majestic appeal. This is where Madiba was groomed to be an advisor to Acting Regent Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo long before Madiba became a symbol of democracy and freedom.

Why do you think the photographs are important?

These photographs matter because they tell a story about a place, a man and his identity at a certain point in time. In my view, the pictures depicted here are much more than a simple record of home. They reflect values, history and lifestyle.

Madiba was a humanist. However, some people have a basic knowledge of where he came from and who he was but in reality, not much is known about the settings that shaped his childhood.

This body of work attempts to reveal his origins.

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