Mandela Month with Xoliswa Ndo

Xoliswa Ndoyiya and Nelson Mandela. Image: Nelson Mandela Foundation, Debbie Yazbek

Mandela Month with Xoliswa Ndoyiya: Meeting Mr President

In the second instalment of The South African’s exclusive series on the iconic statesman’s personal chef, Xoliswa Ndoyiya recalls how she met Madiba.

Mandela Month with Xoliswa Ndo

Xoliswa Ndoyiya and Nelson Mandela. Image: Nelson Mandela Foundation, Debbie Yazbek

Having settled into her first job as a chef at the Coronation Hotel, in Johannesburg, Xoliswa Ndoyiya was alerted to what would be a life-changing job opportunity by a close friend who believed in her cooking.

Xoliswa’s close friend and mkhaya (homegirl), Gloria Nocanda, who was already working as part of the cooking team for the man poised to lead South Africa as its first democratically elected president, told her that her employer was in the market for a cook who would prepare traditional home-cooked meals.

Start of it all: Xoliswa Ndoyiya’s Shell House interview

Nocanda gave the name and address of the building she was to go to – Shell House, at 91 Plein Street, in central Johannesburg. This was the African National Congress (ANC) headquarters from the time of the party’s unbanning until 1997, when it moved to its current headquarters on Sauer Street.

“I didn’t know who exactly I was going to meet. When I got there, I felt uncomfortable as there were a lot of men who had ubuso obungathyilekanga (“rather closed faces”). I told them that I was there to meet Gloria.”

The ‘possessive’ chef’s ‘biggest and longest secret’

Ndoyiya goes on to tell how the experience with the unknown, pokerfaced men ended up being an interview-cum-security-check.

“I was asked whether I’m able to keep a secret; and what is the biggest and longest secret I’ve ever kept. I told them I definitely can keep a secret, and that I couldn’t answer the second part of their question. So I didn’t tell them what the secret was, and I think that scored me points,” she recalled.

Poisoning threat

She was then asked what she would do if she landed a job that would see her cook for high-profile people, for whom the threat of poisoning was real. 

“I told them that I’m a very possessive cook. I never leave my pots unattended until I dish out and the food is served.”

Ndoyiya believes it was this that landed her the job of cooking for one of the world’s most famous former political prisoners and most revered leaders of the 20th century in November 1992.

Meeting Mandela

As they led her to where Tat’ uMandela was, unbeknown to her, one of the men asked why she was so trusting of them as, after all, they could be leading her to her death.

She calmly responded: “You have no reason to kill me. I’m not a threat to you.”

When the door opened to reveal the towering figure – in more ways than one – of Nelson Mandela, Ndoyiya was paralysed with shock.

“I saw uTata and I just froze. I just couldn’t move another inch,” she laughed.

“He stood up to come and greet me, and I was shocked that he would do that for me, a young woman.

‘I hear you’re a great cook’

“He said: ‘I hear you’re a great cook. Can you cook for me?’ I said: ‘Yes.’ And he said: ‘You have got the job.’

“I could not believe it.”

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

Background check and cooking incognito

While Ndoyiya thought that was all it took to land the job, she was shocked to learn that the intelligence team had done a thorough background check on her.

“I remember my mother calling me, telling me there were people who had come by the house asking about me and my family. So they had used their intelligence to research me, and during all that, it turned out that they happened to know my brother, who was very active in the struggle for liberation,” she said.

While her immediate family knew who she worked for, it was one of their best-kept secrets. For the longest time, people also did not know who was cooking for Madiba.

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