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There aren’t many places to go in New York when you’re homesick for a lekker South African meal. For ‘n bietjie bobotie, some pap & vleis, a bowl of mngqusho, or a slice of malva pudding. Up until Sunday night, there was only one place to go that fed your soul just as much as it did your stomach.
To residents who live in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Madiba became a staple on the block of Dekalb and Carlton streets, opposite the Edmonds Playground, close to the park. To South Africans – and Africans – it became a home-away-from-home. A place to go when you wanted to support your team during the Soccer World Cup. When you needed to mourn the death of Nelson Mandela with others who felt the depth of the loss. When you wanted to vent about the US presidential election and the rise of Donald Trump. Or when you just wanted to catch some local kwaito or jazz tunes.
Owner Mark Henegan started the restaurant 19 years ago, when he and his wife took over a rice-and-beans spot, adding 5 tables and a make-shift bar to create Madiba. Mark wanted to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, to the ideals of freedom he stood for, and the example of sacrifice he served to his country. I remember interviewing Mark when he was expanding to a Harlem location and him telling me about how much he wanted to keep Mandela’s legacy going in the US, for others to follow.
“Mandela was the peacemaker. He said, ‘put down your pangas and your guns.’ He embraced rugby, the Afrikaners, and, through the TRC, helped us come together. We’re all the reflection and image of God – we all have the ability to do great things. If everyone can just do a little bit, we can all make wonders happen. Somebody that went to jail for what he believed in, became president of South Africa. Could you imagine being in that moment in that time, coming out of prison and becoming a president? It’s almost crazy.”
Brooklyn was the first place Madiba went on his first visit to NYC, which was also his first to the US, upon being released from prison. Mark himself was told he was crazy to open up Madiba, as a white man in what was then a predominantly black area that had a problem with drugs. Over the years Fort Greene has changed and morphed into a hip part of Brooklyn, with gentrification causing property prices to surge. Mark has made his battles with rent known – he didn’t have a proper lease on the building and so the restaurant’s future was always unknown.
To have made it this long is testimony to the family behind the scenes – to Mark, who was born in Benoni and grew up in Durban, to his sister, who helped him financially get the place on its feet, to his brother, who spent many a night behind the bar. But also, to those who became family, which is essentially, anyone who walked through Madiba’s doors.
The restaurant attracted a warm hub of people, working with the nearby community to help plant food gardens for local charities and becoming the place to hang out for regular customers. “Madiba is about community; it’s about family, wrapped in a blanket. It doesn’t matter if you’re from South Africa or not. I don’t look at it as a restaurant, I look at it as a community space,” Mark had once told me. It was a space we all could go for a little of that Madiba magic in the US of A.