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(photo credit: Medacord)
He's not really Nelson Mandela's grandson in the strict, European, bloodlines sense of the word. But in the Xhosa culture of South Africa, Francois Mtirara, the grandson of Mandela's sister, Lieby Piliso, considers himself Mandela's grandson. This Xhosa "way" has served Mtirara well over the past several years - as he is now recognized in the West as the famous statesman's grandson, with all the advantages that such an association brings.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes, "In African culture, the sons and daughters of one's aunts or uncles are considered brothers and sisters, not cousins. We do not make the same distinctions among relations practised by Europeans. We have no half-brothers or half-sisters. My mother's sister is my mother; my uncle's son is my brother."
Francois Mtirara, the grandson of one of history's most effective and inspiring leaders, has chosen a life away from the halls of power, instead rolling up his sleeves to work on development projects with a Belgian-funded NGO called MEDACORD, the Mediterranean Association for Cooperation Resources and Development.
Mtirara is working with MEDACORD on development and sustainability projects in Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including founding an urban development academy, recycling and renewable energy projects, and developing exports. He is here on a 10-day working trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
"I'm not in public life, not in the limelight. I believe you can get more done away from the public eye," says Mtirara, 27, in an interview at a Tel Aviv hotel. "My grandfather is aware of my work, and supports it. He doesn't talk to me about politics. He talks to me about working for the people and making a difference. Politics is the farthest thing from my mind at this stage," he says. Still, Mtirara has not ruled out entering the political fray in South Africa, "when I get a little older. Right now I'm too young."
He won't say if, when that day comes, he will join his grandfather's African National Congress [ANC] party, preferring at this stage to talk as little about politics as possible.
"Madiba [Nelson Mandela] is doing fine, his health is fine. Of course he is having the normal health issues that a man his age has," Mtirara says. (Mandela is 88 years old.) "I was raised by my grandfather, Nelson Mandela, and [his second wife] Winnie Mandela. The whole family would get together almost every Sunday after he was released from prison, either in Houghton at my grandfather's place, or Soweto. I am very close to Winnie - I consider her to be my mother."
"I hate to see suffering. Because of where I'm from, I had to tackle the major issues I see that cause suffering: AIDS, women's issues, children's issues, poverty and hunger," he says.
Israel and the Palestinian territories, Mtirara says, are "wrongly portrayed" in the South African and global media. "When you turn on a news TV channel, and they show you this place, all you really see are bombs and war. I have seen other things here. Warm people on both sides, and they have something in common: They all express a desire for peace. The Palestinians are asking for sustainable projects. I hate seeing children suffer from malnutrition. This should not be the fate of children. They should play with each other. Kids don't hate. They are clean spirits. They are educated to hate," Mtirara says.
MEDACORD has not met with any Hamas officials during this visit to the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Mtirara says. "Why would we meet Hamas? We are staying away from politics."
Gaza brought back a lot of bad memories for Mtirara, who has seen first-hand the deprivations of Soweto - a huge black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. He imparts a note of optimism on the Gazans, though, saying the people he spoke to there "wanted to look forward to something better. This gives me hope for a better future."
"I am also in no doubt that the South African media is biased against Israel, but I don't know why," he says. "The media is trying to sell a product, and I guess war and violence sells. Just once I'd like the media to show people doing day-to-day things. That would make a big change."
"I fell in love with Israel the moment I landed here. I looked out of the plane's windows and Tel Aviv looked like Durban to me. It is a beautiful place. The people are very hospitable and kind," Mtirara says. "Even at the Erez Crossing into Gaza, women Israeli soldiers gave us food and drink when we were delayed on entry in the Strip."
"I'll be coming back in the near future. I'm under no illusions that making a difference in people's lives here will take time, and I won't give up. I'm going to become a local. You're going to be seeing a lot of me here," Mandela's grandson says.