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Young S. African Nelsons Say They Will Carry Mandela’s Legacy

  • Anita Powell

A child writes a note to former South African President Nelson Mandela on a banner at the Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu, Dec. 12, 2013.

A child writes a note to former South African President Nelson Mandela on a banner at the Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu, Dec. 12, 2013.

South Africans say anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela has left his country a legacy of freedom, hope and promise. But for some young South Africans, he left an even more indelible mark. Countless baby boys were named after Mandela in the 1990s.

Greita Mahlangu was pregnant during Nelson Mandela’s first year as president of South Africa. The year before, she was one of millions of South Africans who lined up for hours to vote in the nation’s first democratic election.

She voted for Mandela, and then watched her country change seemingly overnight: from a nation riven by racial divisions to what Mandela, known here by his clan name, Madiba, called the “Rainbow Nation.”

When she was blessed with a baby boy on December 30, 1995, she named him Nelson. “I am very proud of my son because he’s very clever. I named him Nelson because I love Madiba very much, because he [fought] for us. He [fought] for freedom, for many years, he was in prison for 27 years just for us," Mahlangu explained.

Mandela died last week at the age of 95 after an extraordinary life in which he helped bring down South Africa's apartheid system and usher in peace and democracy. He was actually given his first name by a teacher, who said his actual given name, Rohlihlahla, which translates roughly to “troublemaker,” was too hard to say.

It is not known how many babies were named Nelson in the wake of Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and his ascension to the presidency. The University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg found 26 young men named Nelson on their roll of 30,000 students.

Greita Mahlangu is a cleaning lady in a small town in rural Mpumalanga province. Because of apartheid’s racist laws, Mahlangu, who is black, said that is the best job she could hope for. Today, her 17-year-old son is an incoming accounting student at one of South Africa’s best universities.

In high school, Nelson Thokozeni Mahlangu made good grades and led his class. He said he feels a duty to live up to the man who inspired his name. “There is a quote I like about him that says, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.’ So I am striving to use education as a weapon myself to change the world," he said. "For me to be going to Wits University next year, it is such a huge honor because Wits University is regarded as one of the best universities in the world. Nelson Mandela was also a student there, so I feel very honored to be going to Wits University.”

Another incoming Wits University student, Nelson Phetla, said he probably will study engineering. He was born March 23, 1994, in Johannesburg’s Soweto township, just a month before Mandela was elected president. ”Yeah, there is a lot of pressure because, like, many people see you as Nelson and they expect a lot of things from you. They expect you to bring about change. It becomes a challenge to even myself,” he stated.

Nelson Mahlangu laughed when asked what he might name his future children. He said he is too young to think about that and will first see what he can do to make his mark in this world, and make it a better place.