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Zoleka Mandela laid to rest — a ‘tireless fighter’ who shared her breast cancer struggle to help others

Zoleka Mandela laid to rest — a ‘tireless fighter’ who shared her breast cancer struggle to help others
Portrait of Zoleka Mandela during the memorial service at the Mandela family home on 28 September, 2023 in Soweto, South Africa. The celebrated author and activist died on 25 September after a long battle with metastatic cancer. (Photo: Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo)

Author Zoleka Mandela, the granddaughter of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, lost her life on Monday evening after a long and brave fight with cancer. Her family remembers her as a strong and loving individual who lived to help others. She was due to be laid to rest at the Fourways Memorial Park on Friday. 

The country mourns the passing of Zoleka Mandela,  author and granddaughter of South Africa’s iconic leader Nelson Mandela. She succumbed to cancer at the age of 43.

Surrounded by loved ones on the evening of September 25, she finally lost her battle with metastatic cancer, a disease that had spread to her hip, liver, lung, pelvis, brain, and spinal cord. 

The announcement of her untimely departure was made by the Mandela family and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which hailed her as a “tireless activist for healthcare and justice”. 

“Her work in raising awareness about cancer prevention and her unwavering commitment to breaking down the stigma surrounding the disease will continue to inspire us all,” read the statement. 

Mourners walk past a portrait of Zoleka Mandela

Mourners walk past a portrait of Zoleka Mandela during a memorial service at the Mandela family home on 28 September 28. (Photo: Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo)

Diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32, she initially achieved remission only to face a resurgence of the disease in her liver, lungs, and other vital organs. Through her candid Instagram updates and a YouTube channel, Mandela shared her profound belief in the human spirit’s ability to fight against terminal cancer and updated followers of her health journey. 

In one of her Instagram posts, she posted a picture of cooked chicken meat and captioned it: “16.08.2023 – Dear Diary! Guess who was able to cook an entire meal for her family today? MOI!!! I can barely taste anything due to Chemo, but I think I nailed it, if the empty plates and seconds (some) had are anything to go by! Today’s highlight!!! Peace. Passion. Positivity. #TerminallyFree.”


[Embed this: Zoleka Zobuhle Mandela (@zolekamandela) • Instagram photos and videos]

In another post, she posted a video of herself after running an errand, captioning it as follows: “20.06.2023 – Dear Diary! Guess who was up and about today? Don’t laugh!!! Today’s HIGHLIGHT was being able to run an errand and I did, I felt like such a normal person and can’t quite explain the excitement and accomplishment I feel but YAY, okay? I’m beaming.”

Beyond her battle with cancer, Mandela emerged as an outspoken advocate for a multitude of causes. Tragically, she lost her 13-year-old daughter, Zenani, in a car accident in 2010, a traumatic event that prompted her to become a passionate advocate for road safety to eradicate child death on the road. 

She also shared her past struggles with depression and her painful history of childhood sexual abuse, breaking down the walls of silence and stigma that often surround these issues. 

In 2013, Zoleka Mandela released her autobiography, When Hope Whispers — a deeply personal account that delved into the painful circumstances of her life. Her childhood was deeply affected by South Africa’s apartheid era, during which her grandfather was incarcerated on Robben Island and her family were caught in the grips of state harassment and hardship. 

memorial service of Zoleka Mandela

Friends and family at the memorial service of Zoleka Mandela. (Photo: Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo)

Zodwa Zwane, the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s previous personal assistant, remembered Zoleka Mandela as a strong young lady who greatly loved her family. 

“Zoleka was very strong. It is one of the things that made the family understand cancer. More than anything, Zoleka understood her disease. She was one of those patients who asked questions so she could teach others. She was able to be strong for everyone. Zoleka was a very loving person and if she loved you, you would feel her presence. She was a fighter in everything. She loved her family, especially her children.”

Zwane described her as a dynamic young woman who found her voice outside her family surname by helping cancer patients and road accident victims. 

“Whatever pain she went through, she used it as a stepping ladder. She would make it a point that out of it, she teaches people about it,” said Zwane. 

The Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa) shared their deepest condolences with the children, family, and friends of Mandela. Cansa released a statement on their Instagram account, remembering her as a “remarkable woman who was determined to share her breast cancer story so that others can be inspired by her”.

Zoleka Mandela memorial service

Friends and family mourn Zoleka Mandela at her memorial service. (Photo: Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo)

The statement continued, “Despite living with the challenges of #MetastaticBreastCancer, Zoleka created a platform to raise awareness about women with cancer in middle to low-income countries. As an activist, she supported our women’s health campaign by sharing her story at our events such as Cuppa For Cansa and also supported Cansa Shavathon by spraying her hair”.

“She aimed to share her diagnosis to reach others so that they can in some way, benefit from her personal experiences and the reality of living with breast cancer. Zoleka saw the opportunity of sharing her story within the cancer community, to effect change and to bring hope. She prompted early detection and encouraged screening early for cancer and wrote a book during her time of chemotherapy, When Hope Whispers.”

Cansa told Daily Maverick that she “was special and kind and also gave proceeds of the sale of her book to Cansa towards our Women’s Health programmes to promote awareness of breast and cervical cancer”.

Her brother, Zwelabo Mandela, said he hopes to inherit her strength and approach to life. He called her a relatable human who was “always open, always vulnerable”. He said the person people saw online was the same Zoleka Mandela her family knew and loved. 

Mandela was due to be buried privately at Fourways Memorial Park  on Friday after a service at the Bryanston Methodist Church.  DM

mural of Zoleka Mandela

A mural of Zoleka Mandela is painted at the Mandela family home on 28 September 28, 2023 in Soweto, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo)


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