The genesis of the homegrown Christmas party is one more entry in the voluminous lore about Mandela’s generosity and openness of spirit, which he even extended at times to the jailers who imprisoned him for 27 years under apartheid.
The system of white minority rule was eventually dismantled, opening the way to South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. Mandela, a Nobel laureate, served one five-year term as president before retiring and in recent years he has lived near Mvezo in Qunu, a village where he recalled happy moments as a child.
Mandela himself was uneasy with the idea of being an icon, and as president, he failed to craft a lasting formula for overcoming South Africa’s biggest, post-apartheid problems, poverty and economic inequality. While he was active, he did not escape criticism as an individual and a politician, but he is globally respected as a symbol of decency and principle.
Mandla Mandela, the grandson, remembered how the Christmas party that followed the first impromptu one in the 1990s was swamped by more than 1,000 children, three times as many as were expected. By 2001, nearly 10,000 were showing up. At some point, the chief said, American television personality Oprah Winfrey got involved and there was sponsorship.
“The numbers grew phenomenally,” he said, with tens of thousands of children in attendance.
The Christmas parties were originally held in Qunu. The 2005 edition was cancelled when Mandla Mandela’s father died. The tradition was revived in 2007 in Mvezo.
Nelson Mandela “has always said every society will be judged by the manner it treats its children,” his grandson said.
“We were, on our part, wishing to spend this time with him, Christmas being a family day,” his grandson said. “But we do not want to exert pressure on the doctors because they know what he needs to get well.”