Xoliswa Ndoyiya nelson mandela chef

Xoliswa Ndoyiya was the personal chef for late president Nelson Mandela and his family for over 20 years. Image: AFP PHOTO / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN

Mandela Month with Xoliswa Ndoyiya: From chef to chief of Madiba’s kitchen

Join The South African this Mandela Month as we journey through an exclusive series on the iconic statesman’s personal chef Xoliswa Ndoyiya…and Madiba’s favourite dishes!

Xoliswa Ndoyiya nelson mandela chef

Xoliswa Ndoyiya was the personal chef for late president Nelson Mandela and his family for over 20 years. Image: AFP PHOTO / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN

Growing up in Komani, in the Eastern Cape, Nelson Mandela’s personal and family chef, Xoliswa Ndoyiya, dreamt of pursuing a career in one of the more popular, and accessible, professions available to black people at the time – nursing.

However, that all changed when, as a pupil at Nzimankulu High School, she was bitten by the cooking bug after being introduced to Home Economics. Ndoyiya already knew her way around the kitchen because, as the eldest daughter, she would always help her mother maintain the home and keep the family’s tummies full.

‘The kitchen became my happy place’ – Xoliswa Ndoyiya

“At home, as the eldest girl, the kitchen duties rested with me, especially when my mom was at work. So when I started doing Home Economics at school, I realised that I actually enjoyed cooking. The kitchen became my happy place,” she says.

The ensuing passion for cooking would change the course of her life forever.

Early years: From ‘Deputy Mother’ to hotel chef

Ndoyiya, who is known across the world as former president Nelson Mandela’s personal and family chef, grew up in Ezibeleni township in Komani.

Hers was a typical black household upbringing. She is the fourth of five children, with three older brothers, and working-class parents. She, herself, began her professional career as a domestic worker.

“As the eldest daughter, you end up almost becoming like a Deputy Mother; and at home, we were a bit old school, so some chores were reserved for the girls,” she says.

Culinary school and Coronation Hotel

Ndoyiya became increasingly comfortable in the kitchen, deriving a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction each time a plate she cooked was returned empty. She gradually improved her cooking skills through, among others, attending a Jewish culinary school sponsored by her then employers.

Her first job as a chef was at the Coronation Hotel, in Johannesburg.

“I felt indebted to the family that put me through culinary school and felt a bit guilty leaving them to take on the new job. I’m very happy that I did, though, because that hotel was a great training ground for me as a professional chef,” she says.

‘Mkhaya’ Gloria Nocanda

It was while working here that Ndoyiya was alerted to an amazing job opportunity by her mkhaya (homegirl) and close friend, Gloria Nocanda.

“We were from the same area back home and, mos, when you are away from home, you just look out for each other. She was a cook herself and told me to go Shell House [the former ANC headquarters in Johannesburg],” she says.

Meeting Mandela

After a rather puzzling experience at Shell House where she was unwittingly subjected to an interview-cum-security-check, she met Tat’ uMandela. This was to be the beginning of at least two decades of preparing meals for one of the most revered leaders of the 20th century.

“That entire experience changed my life. I was privileged to be in the daily presence of a man who was a global icon, but was so humble and always wanted to know how your day was, whereas he was the one going about everyday trying to change the world,” Ndoyiya fondly recalls.

“He was not selfish and loved to share everything, including wisdoms. UTata was always interested to know how my family was doing back home, and because I was far from home, he kind of filled the gap of my parents.”

Restaurant dreams and Mandela’s favourite meals

Since Madiba’s passing eight years ago, Ndoyiya’s life took another turn.

No longer cooking for Madiba, she had a brief stint at the Department of Public Works, before joining the Presidency cooking team preparing meals for former president Jacob Zuma and, until shortly after President Cyril Ramaphosa began his term in 2018.

Having been unemployed for about three years, Ndoyiya, who co-authored the cookbook Ukutya Kwasekhaya: Tastes from Nelson Mandela’s Kitchen, dreams of opening a restaurant where she would keep sharing some of the renowned statesman’s favourite meals.

‘Xoli, because that delicious meal…’

“I’ve always believed that working for Tata was my small way of thanking him for his sacrifices for the liberation of our country, and in a way, my tiny contribution to the amazing work he did to try improve people’s lives, especially children,” says Ndoyiya.

“I cannot describe to you how amazing it felt when, after he had hosted some of these famous people and other donors to his many causes, he would call me and sit me down to say: ‘Xoli, because that delicious meal that they enjoyed so much, you’ve helped raised, for example, R2 million to help children’.”

“That made me feel like my cooking was more than just that. It contributed to something bigger than me.”

Keeping the legacy alive

Ndoyiya, who is a single mother putting her youngest two children through high school, says a restaurant – and at some point a culinary school – would be her way of keeping Madiba’s legacy alive.

“To Tata, food was also his way of expressing love, and it would be an honour for me to spread some of that love by serving his most loved meals to the masses,” she says.

MAKE XOLISWA’S OXTAIL RECIPE! Oxtail stew – A dish Nelson Mandela loved to share