The Thembekile Mandela Monument

The Symbolism of the Madiba Thembekile Mandela Memorial Monument

27 December 2023

In the heart of Touws River, South Africa, a somber yet profound tribute stands, transcending the passage of time. The Thembekile Mandela Monument, unveiled on 13 July 2019, pays homage to a tragic event etched in the Mandela family history. Born on 27 December 1945, Madiba Thembekile Mandela’s life was tragically cut short at the age of 23 in a motor vehicle accident in Touws River, along the N1 highway.

This solemn structure, crafted from the very stone that stood witness to the accident, marks the untimely passing of Madiba Thembekile Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s eldest son, and others who lost their lives on that fateful Sunday morning, 13 July 1969.

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The Symbolism of the Memorial Stone

The stone used for the memorial monument was collected from the site of the accident where Thembekile died on 13 July 1969. The same stone was the only ‘witness’ of what really happened that fateful Sunday morning along the N1. Even former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, had many questions about his son’s death—to which no one knew the answers. In a letter to Nolusapho Irene Mkwayi, dated 19 November 1969, former President Nelson Mandela wrote:

“How did it happen? Did his car capsize or did it collide with another car? Exactly where did the accident occur? How many people were involved? Was death instantaneous or otherwise?”

The memorial Stone also holds deep cultural and emotional symbolism, and stands as a poignant reminder of the life and memory of Madiba Thembekile Mandela, the eldest son of Nelson Mandela. The symbolism of the stone centres on the ideas of endurance, stability, and permanence. Representing the ability to be grounded and connected with the earth, it is important to recognise the symbolic strength and immovable quality of Thembekile’s love and impact for those who knew him.

To understand the true significance of the monument, one has to have respect for the Xhosa custom of ‘Ukubek iletye‘, which, directly translated, means “to place a stone”. This traditional Xhosa ceremony is performed after a burial for those who missed the burial of a loved one.

The Wish of Former President, Nelson Mandela

There is little doubt that former South African president, Nelson Mandela, would have stood at the unveiling of Thembekile Mandela’s memorial monument. Upon receiving news of Thembekile’s tragic passing, on 19 July 1969, Nelson Mandela wrote to the Commanding Officeer of Robben Island to as permission to perform the Ukubek iletye, but his application was turned down. Since then, and until the unveiling of the Thembekile Mandela memorial stone on the 13 July 2019 (exactly 50 years since Thembekile’s passing), Ukubek iletye was never performed. 

So, for the Mandela Family, and for the people of Touws River, the memorial service performed and the unveiling of the stone monument served as a truly historic and important day. Although Thembekile Mandela is not buried in Touws River, but in Johannesburg, there will always be a part of his spirit that rests at the scene of his passing. It is for this reason that the monument, located near the scene of the accident in The Gideon Joubert Memorial Park, is forever memorialised in the form of a headstone.

Unveiling the Thembekile Mandela Monument

The Madiba Thembekile Mandela Memorial Stone was unveiled on 13 July 2019. The monument commemorates the 50th anniversary of the death of Madiba Thembekile Mandela, Christina Klaassen, Irene Simelane, and Angelo Egidio, who tragically lost their lives in a motor vehicle accident in Touws River, on 13 July 1969.

Although there are many statutes across South Africa commemorating former President Nelson Mandela’s contribution to the liberation struggle, there is no other monument anywhere in the world that commemorates former President Mandela’s and the Mandela family’s personal sacrifices and hardships in the pursuit of freedom against Apartheid. Nowhere in South Africa is the personal sacrifice of Nelson Mandela and the Mandela family more evident than here, in Touws River.

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