Throughout all the time before and after the burial, my mind has been unsettled as I thought about Zenani and Zindzi ,Nelson Mandela’s two daughters who were born by Winnie , Nelson Mandela’s second wife . To me and probably the fraternity of people reaching out to children affected by parental imprisonment globally, Zenani and Zindzi need to be recognized highly around this time because the pain they suffered as children highlights the plight of children affected by parental imprisonment world wide. I am aware that Nelson Mandela had more children than these ,but the work I do which involves helping children 5-17 years with a parent in prison , especially young girls explains why my heart goes out to these two daughters of Mandela.
Look here, Zenani was born 1959 and Zindzi was born 1960 and their father Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1963 and released in 1990. Zindzi was only 18 months old when her father was sent to Robben island, while Zenani was 4. These children missed their father all those early years of their lives, when they really needed him ,they were able to have him only later in 1990 when he was released and by then they were already adults .
In one of the TV interviews these two sisters lament that they had spent no adequate time with their father when they were young, and we all know something that children wish to have in plenty is TIME with their parents. While South Africa and entire humanity benefited from Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment ,all his children missed out on the love , support and mentorship of a father. And no earthly treasure can recompose them.In one of the reports recently, Zindzi says, “I was so envious of the children whose fathers returned from work every day.”
One thing that we have learnt over time is that Children with a parent in prison ,especially girls below the age of 10 years are more vulnerable, they are at a greater risk. I don’t know what the research at that time would reveal but in the present situation in Uganda ,Zenani and Zindzi would fall in that category of children with a parent in prison and at a greater risk.
Zenani and Zindzi remind me of the many children we care for, every day I see what these children go through. They face many risks because of having a parent in prison and for most of them, it’s a father who is in prison just like Zenani and Zindzi had their father in prison.
Zenani and Zindzi’s father was serving almost a similar sentence like the children we have here at Wells of Hope. if we back track 50 years when Nelson Mandela was arrested. and I was in south Africa at that time, I see myself looking after Zenani and Zindzi.The most important thing I know they needed was to keep in touch with their father, I would put them also on a bus three times a year to go and visit their father , just like we do it for the children under our care.
I remember watching a film of Nelson Mandela in 1987, it showed how Winnie Mandela struggled to visit Nelson Mandela, and she was not allowed to have direct contact with him, and they would kiss through the glass window with lips touching the opposite sides of the glass. Sometimes they would harass her as she visited. This tells us how most governments’ world over through their criminal justice systems leave out the family and to be specific the children. So they end up imprisoning the family as well for no crime. Given the prevailing apartheid conditions , as children Zenani and Zindzi did not visit their father , did not have direct contact and quality time with him in prison .
The visits happened later on when Zindzi was 15 and Zenani was 16 years old .After that they could visit two times a month.
I read that one day during Mandela’s 27 years in prison his wife Winnie arrived on Robben Island with their baby granddaughter Zoleka.
Christo Brand a prison guard at Robben Island smuggled the baby past his fellow guards , and Mandela was able to have his grand child visit him. Yet as I have come to learn, One of the cruelest rules they had was that prisoners were never allowed to touch or see a child, not even one from the warders’ families .So for Mandela to have his grand child visit him was such a great privilege for him.
In November 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) ,in which article 9 clause 3 ,stipulates that as long as it is in the best interest of the child ,it is a right for the child who is separated from one or both parents to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis. But this is not so in many countries ; like it was at that time of Mandela’s imprisonment , let alone having direct contact with their parents in prison, for children visiting their parents remains a rare privilege yet it supposed to be a right!
Children of prisoners should be considered
I am making a wish in memory of Nelson Mandela, that children of prisoners should be considered when their parents are being imprisoned. The criminal justice system for all states should have a child perspective right from the time of arrest.
Mandela was a popular prisoner with a popular cause, and probably later during his imprisonment his children received sympathy and support which enabled them to cope, and were able to get a good education .But think of the many children whose fathers or mothers are not as popular as Mandela and were jailed for heinous crimes .Just think of these children being in a country like Uganda, where children of prisoners are vulnerable to child sacrifice, defilement, HIV , child labor and school drop out among many risks. Above this and yet very big a problem, these children never have an opportunity to visit their parents in prison and if they visited, few have a direct contact with their parents - Who cares ? These children suffer gross abuse of their fundamental rights .
As children Zenani and Zindzi for all those years and at different stages of their lives when their father was in prison, they were united in the same suffering with other children across the globe who have their parents in prison. Children of prisoners wherever they may be either in China, or America or South Africa will face common challenges like trauma, mental health issues, stigma ,truancy, unbearable psychological torture, sleeping problems, ostracism ,fear, anxiety, behavior problems like aggression and violence, among many other risks.
As a family they went through a lot of pain
Regardless of her problems later as she tried to fight for her husband’s release, we need to appreciate women like Winnie. From my experience here in Uganda only 2 of 10 women will stay at home with their children when their husbands are put in prison . Most of them in the first year of their husband’s imprisonment will abandon their children ,some say such children are a curse. Winnie even though she was busy fighting for her husband’s release, she did not abandon Zenani and Zindzi .
Winnie faced many hardships while raising up her children and meeting all the family needs during Mandela’s imprisonment. I try to imagine that as Zenani and Zindzi grew up , as toddlers ,teenagers and later as adults ,at each stage it was a challenge for Winnie to help her daughters cope.She had to play both roles as a mother and father to her daughters .From our experience at Wells of Hope , we have learnt that children as they grow up they react differently to their parents imprisonment . It is likely that in their teens, Zenani and Zindzi found it more painful because in all places they lived and schools they went to,they had that constant reminder that their father was in prison.May be people called them names like children of a prisoner.
As years went by Mandela’s struggle against apartheid gained more support and so Mandela became more popular but this made the pain bigger for his children, because this made these children also popular as being children of someone in prison. Zenani and Zindzi suffered again when their mother was also imprisoned , so both parents were now in prison. They qualified for yet another category of children of prisoners and this enhanced their risk and pain. Here I am reminded of little Agnes 5 at Wells of Hope with both parents in prison serving 60 years .Such children need support especially in maintaining contacts with both parents in prison.
Winnie was subjected to a lot of torture and organized persecution. The family lived in fear of being arrested or killed .I read in a media story that one day They dragged Winnie out of the home in the middle of the night, with the terrified girls clinging to her skirt, and as they took her they cried out “ Mum don’t go”. She spent the next 16 months in solitary confinement. “I never knew if she would come back alive,” said Zindzi. “They were very cruel.This kind of practice by security agents still happens in different parts of the world and it leaves the children traumatized.
Imprisonment affects the whole family , and With all I have said here,I would be right to say that In a sum total ,Mandela’s family represents many families that suffer when one of the relatives especially one of the parents is in prison.
And On behalf of the women who suffer when their husbands are in prison, Winnie deserves a Gold medal.
If the UN , other international organizations and influential countries like the US and the UK are to be true to their promise to push for what Mandela stood for, let them come out at this time and address the rights of children with a parent in prison. If he never talked about children of prisoners, then what would Mandela say and do about these children in light of his own children especially Zenani and Zindzi who really suffered more when he was imprisoned.
Zenani and Zindzi represent many children world over who have suffered because they have a parent in prison, so let world leaders come together to have such children enjoy their rights.