Kweku Mandela was 4 years old when he first met his grandfather, the South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela. After his family left South Africa to live in exile in America, Kweku Mandela grew up largely on the East Coast, returning to his homeland only after his grandfather was released from prison — after 27 years — in February 1990. Kweku Mandela saw the one-time revolutionary become his country’s first black president in 1994 and was with him before his Dec. 5, 2013, passing. Now president of one of South Africa’s largest film and TV production companies, Out of Africa Entertainment, Mandela, 30, was in Chicago recently to speak to a “We Day Illinois” youth gathering and spoke with Chicago Sun-Times reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika. An edited transcript follows.
“I live in Johannesburg, in Cape Town. One of my favorite things has always been to tell stories. I’m excited to tell stories that I think a lot of the world doesn’t know about but I think are hugely inspiring.
“My production company shoots films for the likes of HBO, BBC, Sky. We did ‘The Book of Negroes’ miniseries for BET. And currently we’re working on another miniseries with BET around the anti-apartheid struggle. It’s called ‘Madiba’ — about my grandfather.
“My mother is his eldest daughter — Makaziwa Mandela. You know, for the first 10 years of my life, my memories of him are limited and kind of vague. I’d met him once in 1989, just before he was released from prison, and he was still under house arrest in Cape Town. I’d heard about my grandfather, obviously — through my parents and even my schoolteachers. But I had no real sense of who he was. And then when I met him in prison, he was this extremely affectionate and warm individual.
“We went back when he became president in 1994, and that’s when I really started to build a bond with him. It was then that I began to realize how much he cared for his people and the country and just how much joy children gave him in particular. Whenever he was around his grandchildren, he lit up. I think it was the whole essence of realizing that, you know, we were the future.
“He’s probably got about 12 great-grandchildren now. And through what he instilled in us, he obviously lives on, as we are part of what our country will become.
“I think among the biggest lessons learned from my grandfather are probably perseverance and the need to reflect incessantly, no matter what stage you are in your life.
“And then, of course, you know, humility. Whether you were the queen of England or a prison-warder, he treated you the same.
“He would often invite me and some of my friends from school to come up to the house. One day, U2’s front man, Bono, was visiting. At the end of their meeting, Bono wanted to take a picture with him. And my friend was standing across the way. My grandfather yelled out, ‘Who is this young man?’ And my friend was, like, ‘Is he talking to me?’ And he said, ‘Yes, you!’ And he called my friend over. And he said, ‘Do you know Bono?’ And my friend’s, like, ‘Um, no…’ And he was, like, ‘Bono, meet this young man.’
“I remember that day very fondly. I know my friend remembers it. My grandfather gave us these kind of moments every day.
“I’d seen him a week before he passed. And, you know, he was in good spirits. He was obviously old and frail, but he was still joking around with all of us — our parents, his grandchildren, some of our nieces and nephews. He felt very at peace when surrounded by his family.
“Obviously, when he passed away, it was not just a big moment for myself and my family but the entire country and the world. I don’t think I was quite ready for the amount of love and sincerity and outpouring that came from so many people. We knew he had a huge impact around the world, but the tens of thousands at his funeral, the heads of state, I think that really brought it home to us. His death brought people closer.
“I have to say, seeing what’s going on in America with police and black men, with the protests, something needs to be done. Having experienced apartheid, I understand what it’s like for people to feel like they’re being oppressed or wrongfully accused or not being given equal rights. I think in a country as advanced as America, it’s paramount that they find a solution to this problem. It starts with people creating a dialogue and really putting this at the forefront of every conversation. One person, even a child, can change the world.”