Mandela's 'secret' village fears it will be forgotten

MQHEKEZWENI, South Africa (AFP) - As the world's eyes turn to the village of Qunu where Nelson Mandela will be buried on Sunday, another small rural community where the global icon spent many formative years is feeling decidedly left-out.

"You are welcome in Mqhekezweni, Mandela's 'secret' village," laughed Mr Nugget Sithupo, 75, as he stood next to a rutted dirt track, waiting for a bag of maize to be ground to flour at a portable, roadside mill.

"Now that uThatha (Mandela) is gone, we'll probably be forgotten," he added with a sigh as he leaned on his walking stick.

Shortly after the death of his father, a nine-year-old Mandela and his mother left Qunu - his boyhood home - and travelled to Mqhekezweni, about 40km inland through the rolling treeless hills that dot the Eastern Cape landscape.

"Mqhekezweni was a mission station of the Methodist Church and far more up to date and Westernised than Qunu," Mandela recalled in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

It was here where the future global peace icon was taken under the wing of the Thembu king Jongintaba Dalindyebo and where his political activism was first stirred.

"It was at Mqhekezweni that I developed my interest in African history," Mandela said.

"I discovered the great African patriots who fought against Western domination. My imagination was fired by the glory of these warriors," he added.

Also at Mqhekezweni, Mandela underwent the traditional Xhosa circumcision rite which remains an important rite of passage for thousands of young men of today.

"It is an honour for us to undergo the same custom as the one he went through so many years ago," said Mr Wanda Bongoza, 19, a new initiate, his face and body painted with traditional white Xhosa clay called "ingceke".

After Mandela was released from 27 years in prison in 1990, he decided to build a family estate in Qunu - a move that saw the village blossom with new schools and tarred roads.

Mqhekezweni, by contrast, remained largely undeveloped and only received electricity for the first time two years ago, according to residents.

In many regards, Mqhekezweni is the archetypical rural South African village, where many eke out a living through subsistence farming and government handouts.

Now many people fear that as Mandela's legacy benefits places like Qunu and nearby Mvezo, where he was born, his time in Mqhekezweni will be largely forgotten.

"Qunu has some of the Mandela family living there, Mvezo has some of the Mandela family living there, but we don't have anything like this here," the elderly Sithupo told AFP.

"For a young man here it's very hard to get a job," added Mr Zuko Bongaza, 22.

In recent years, crime rates in and around Mqhekezweni have shot up, as has the incidence of HIV/Aids and tuberculosis.

Sister Lindelwa Memani, 54, who works in a local health clinic, said thieves had twice tried to steal its solar panels.

Teenage pregnancies have also shot up, Ms Memani said, despite education campaigns focused on family planning.

But it's not all doom and gloom.

Recently the high school, named after Chief Jongintaba, who once took Mandela under his wing, was equipped with four computers - and an Internet connection.

Asked whether he was sad that he was going to miss Mandela's funeral on Sunday because of his ongoing Xhosa initiation ceremony, Mr Wanda Bongoza told AFP he wasn't too worried.

"I'll watch it on YouTube once the initiation is over," he said.