House of Mandela’s Tukwini Mandela on telling the family story through creative brand collaborations

The House of Mandela brand was launched back in 2010 by Nelson Mandela’s daughter, Dr Makaziwe Mandela, and granddaughter, Tukwini Mandela, as a means of telling the family story and promoting its values of resilience, compassion and courage.

The brand has launched products across sectors like wine, jewellery, art and, most recently, streetwear, thanks to a Mandela Day collaboration with KITH.

We caught up with Tukwini to find out more about the brand values behind House of Mandela, what guides their approach to product collaborations and what sectors are of interest moving forward.

Tukwini Mandela, House of Mandela
Tukwini, it’s great to connect! Thank you for making time. To kick us off, for anyone new to House of Mandela, please talk us through the brand.

We launched the brand 10 years ago now, because we really wanted to tell the story of our family and of Nelson Mandela, without necessarily politicising it. People seem to think my grandfather is this mythical figure that fell from the sky and he has no sense of place; but he has a definite sense of place. All the values that my grandfather espoused, he learned from someone and from somewhere. We wanted to tell that part of the story, as it’s not part of the story that’s told everyday.

Lots of people think my grandfather became a politician in prison, but he didn’t; he grew up amongst political figures of the time. One of those political figures was his father, who was essentially a prime minister of Thembuland. My grandfather talks very strongly in the first 100 pages of Long Walk to Freedom about how his father influenced his sense of fairness, his stubbornness, and his right to speak out about injustice in any form. It’s those ideals and that history that we wanted to talk about with House of Mandela.

“We want partners to have an affinity with our story. We want people to walk away feeling like they know the real Nelson Mandela.”

My grandfather was also raised by the regent of the Thembus, because his father passed away when he was nine. His mother took him to someone that could take care of him better than she could at the time, because she couldn’t afford to. That’s where my grandfather learnt about leadership. The regent would sit and talk with his advisors, and they’d disagree with him – and sometimes swear at him – but he would sit there, listen, and make the final decision based on what was good for everyone.

With that in mind, how vital is it that House of Mandela consumer products reflect those ideals?
Absolutely, and the most important thing is the story. Without the story, the products wouldn’t exist and the House of Mandela wouldn’t exist. We want partners to have an affinity with the story. We want people to walk away feeling like they know the real Nelson Mandela, as opposed to the Nelson Mandela of the media or the person people have concocted in their minds.

We want people to understand that having compassion for your fellow man is really important. We want people to understand that they don’t exist in a vacuum. When my grandfather was being sentenced, he said that he’s fought against black domination and he’s fought against white domination. We should all live with some relative cohesion, respect diversity, and respect each other’s views. When we do collaborations, those are the things that we want people to understand.

Tukwini Mandela, House of Mandela
Let’s dive into one of these brand extensions – House of Mandela wine. Why did wine make sense for House of Mandela?

The concept was introduced to us by my brother, Dumani. He had friends in the wine business, but my mum and I didn’t want to do it because we didn’t know anything about wine. When we got the first proposal to do wine, they wanted my grandfather’s face on the wine. We said absolutely not… My grandfather’s face is everywhere, so we’re really ambivalent about putting my grandfather’s face on product. When we do put his face on a product, it has a specific reason.

Like on the KITH apparel ranges?
Exactly. With KITH, we initially didn’t want his face on the range, but KITH said that their consumers might not necessarily know a lot about Nelson Mandela, and they wanted to educate them. They wanted people to see what this man looked like. It was a means of telling a story, and the next time we do a collaboration with them, his face won’t necessarily be on the t-shirts; it’ll be more about pushing the messaging.

Tukwini Mandela, House of Mandela
But let’s go back to the wine! My mum and I did some research and we found that while the wine industry has a chequered past in South Africa, it’s actually a really beautiful industry. The people that work in these wine farms are black people. We learned about how wine is made and found it does have an affinity to our story because my grandfather did not have an easy life. He struggled through life, spent 27 years in jail, and then found himself. In wine, the vine doesn’t necessarily grow in a straight line. It weaves and bobs and if it’s taken care of, it produces a beautiful grape which produces beautiful wine.

We thought it would be a great way to tell our family story, and also a great way to get people together, because wine is a social drink. It’s a great way to bring people together to talk about the values of their own families and their own legacies – and legacy and lineage was very important to my grandfather.

“My grandfather’s face is everywhere, so we’re really ambivalent about putting my grandfather’s face on product. When we do put his face on a product, it has a specific reason.”

We started with the high-end wine. South African wine has a stigma of being easy, everyday drinking wine at a low price point, but we wanted to showcase that South Africa can produce really beautiful wine. The reception was good. As usually, haters will say “What are the Mandelas doing producing wine?” Well, we live in a democratic South Africa and we can do whatever we like!

And you’re very hands on with the wine?
Yes, we’re hands on with all our brand collaborations and brand extensions. We taste the wines and we’re involved in the branding, the labelling and the marketing. We’re the face of the brand so we want it to always be authentic. The labels of the Thembu wines were inspired by my grandfather’s Madiba shirts. The Thembu were laid-back people, and that quality is reflected in the wines. My grandfather was also very laid-back; he didn’t wear suits for crying out loud!

Tukwini Mandela, House of Mandela
That’s a lovely touch with the shirt designs being on the labels, especially considering that original proposal to have your grandfather’s face on them.

Exactly, and I think it encourages people to learn more about the man and where he came from. It’s all about telling the real story and allowing people to dig a little deeper than what they’ve been told about Nelson Mandela.

Did the wine industry welcome you with open arms?
It was mixed. There were people and retailers who really stood behind the brand and supported us, and there were people who sneered. The wine industry by its very nature is snobbish, and I think what was refreshing for people was the fact that we didn’t pretend to be wine connoisseurs. We talked people through the story and through our process with how we made the wine, and that’s how we built our fanbase. The wine range is not something we’ll ever let go.

Moving onto a recent launch, House of Mandela teamed with KITH for an apparel line celebrating Mandela Day. How did this collaboration come about?
We have a licensing agent in the US called DMA United. They introduced us to KITH, and we really liked them as a brand because they’re a streetwear brand. My grandfather, in his younger days, was a rebel and he really challenged the status quo. He challenged people to push the envelope and that’s what KITH does to a certain extent. It’s not a brand that wants to look like everybody else.

KITH really loved our story and wanted to create product that would help extend that story. They also wanted to be true collaborators; they didn’t want to just slap my grandfather’s face on a t-shirt. They wanted to use his artwork on the t-shirts. It was a really great partnership.

Tukwini Mandela, House of Mandela
You mentioned your grandfather’s artwork there and we spoke about his shirt patterns earlier; how would you describe House of Mandela’s assets that licensees can work with when creating product ranges with you?

We have a lot of content. We have my grandfather’s art, and that can be interpreted in so many different ways. We have the wine, but we’re not limiting ourselves to wine, we could do any beverage. We have my grandfather’s shirts, but we also have our traditions as Xhosa-speaking people; as Thembus. Our traditional dress is a great source of inspiration, and actually inspired our jewellery line.

Tukwini Mandela, House of Mandela
The House of Mandela brand is a great one to sink your teeth into if you’re a truly creative person. Most of the creative things we do are truly left field, and we like that. We don’t like things that are too designed, or too perfect. We love to work with people that have new, fresh ideas, and ideas that gel with our story. We also have an in-house designer now and he’s always creating left-field things, and I’m that way inclined as well.

Looking ahead, what sectors are you interested in exploring brand collaborations within? Would toys be interesting? Is Mandela ice cream on the agenda?
We’re open minded. The only thing that we’d stay away from is tobacco or something that is completely against the ethos of the brand. I’m interested in fashion – right now I’m creating a fashion collection right now. We want things that will help elevate the brand, and more importantly, things that will help spread our story.

My grandfather was known as the Black Pimpernel when he was in hiding. There could be children’s books set around that. It’s about finding interesting ways of educating kids and helping them gain an affinity for our story.

Is there anything that most people don’t know about your grandfather, that you feel is an aspect to his story that could be told through product?
A lot of people don’t know that my grandfather was a rebel in his youth. He wasn’t as formal as people think; he was very laid back. That said, at the dinner table he would really encourage us to have fiery discussions. He said that being a yes person was never a good thing. He also had a really great sense of humour and was very self-deprecating. It’s those things we want people to know about him.

Also, as you mentioned ice cream a moment ago, he loved ice cream! He would often steal our ice cream!

“The House of Mandela brand is a great one to sink your teeth into if you’re a truly creative person.”

Ha! Let’s get Ben & Jerry’s on the phone, there’s a deal to be done! We mentioned your grandfather’s artwork appearing on some of the KITH items; what else did he do to express his creativity?
He was a creative person but he was never given a chance to have a creative outlet. The art was his creative outlet after he retired from politics. Someone taught him at first, but he soon found he had an affinity for it. When he was younger, he would express his creativity through his clothes. If you look at pictures, he was a really snazzy dresser. His friends told me that my grandfather could be vain because he liked being well put together. You can see his flamboyant streak in the shirts he would wear.

Tukwini Mandela, House of Mandela
And how do you fuel your creativity?

I can be inspired by anything Billy! I could wake up in the morning, look out my window and be inspired by how the sun shines that day.

I’m really inspired by my culture, and I’m also inspired by the wider cultures of Africa and all the different tribes. I’m inspired by people and how they express themselves through fashion, especially young people in South Africa. I’m still inspired by the way my grandparents dressed in their heyday. I’m always open to being inspired by different things.

Tukwini, this has been great. Thank you so much for taking time out for this. Before I let you go, if anyone is reading and wants to reach out about a brand collaboration with House of Mandela, how can they do so?
People DM us a lot on Instagram, and we’re pretty responsive there! If it’s about a brand collaboration, it’s best to get in touch with DMA United.

Great stuff. Huge thanks again Tukwini; hopefully we’ll chat again soon!

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