Xoliswa Ndoyiya is guilty of smuggling—just not the usual drugs, cigarettes or exotic animals.
In the 1990s, Ndoyiya orchestrated a plan to deliver a classic South African dish into the U.K to the then South African President Nelson Mandela, for whom she was a private chef for over two decades.
“He spent a long time in London one year and I got a call from one of his advisors, and they told me: ‘Nelson is not behaving so well, we need you to send some food over’,” she told get lost over dinner at Sanctuary Mandela, Madiba’s old residence in Johannesburg. The Sanctuary has been made into a boutique hotel, and Ndoyiya has returned as Head Chef.
“It was Umphokoqo—not a meal you can get in London, I don’t think. You cook the maize nice and fluffy, and it goes with a sour milk that you make with cottage cheese,” says Ndoyiya.
“I wrapped it like it was a present and gave it to his friend. And they smuggled it in—I was a smuggler!
“But when we came back he teased me. He would say to me: ‘they are going to put you in jail!’”
Ndoyiya was born and raised in Queenstown, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, where Mandela also hails from.
She was plucked from relative obscurity to cook for one of the 20th century’s most iconic figures. “It all started at home as a young girl. My grandmother and my mother were the people I learnt from, and who inspired me,” she tells us.
“I was at school and decided I liked cooking, and I knew my parents could not afford to send me to the cooking school, so I left and came to Johannesburg. I was introduced to Nelson by a friend of mine who owned the hotel I was working at, someone who knew me and trusted my cooking,” says Ndoyiya.
He was so whole-hearted. I would see him teaching people everyday with my own eyes and he taught me so much as well. He was so good to everyone around him and to the people of South Africa.
“The thing was, when I met him, I didn’t know that I was coming for an interview! Nelson said ‘I need you to cook home food for me, can you do that?’ And I didn’t hesitate, I just said yes, and that was it. I worked as his chef from that day until his very last day.”
White paint adorns the façade at the Sanctuary, which was Madiba’s residence between 1992 and 1998. He was based here for all the significant moments in the Rainbow Nation’s history, such as negotiating the multi-party talks that led to South Africa’s democratic rebirth, and South Africa’s famous 1995 Rugby World Cup win.
Much remains the same here, including the arched entrance once made famous by the iconic photo of Mandela reading the newspaper.
While returning to the same kitchen, Ndoyiya has swapped cooking for world leaders and dignitaries for the general public. Today she presides over a menu which blends contemporary South African cuisine and Mandela-inspired dishes; the Umngqusho—samp (dried corn kernels) prepared risotto style with pan-fried king oyster mushroom, sugar snap peas & toasted cashews—was one of the great man’s favourite dishes.
Ndoyiya also notes Mandela had a sweet tooth, and while admonishing grandchildren and others for eating sweet food, he was more than partial to baked treats.
It is striking to hear the reverence in her voice when she speaks of her old boss, despite it being almost a decade since his passing.
“He was always asking about our families, he wanted to know about everyone who worked for him. He knew my mother quite well.
“He was so whole-hearted. I would see him teaching people everyday with my own eyes and he taught me so much as well. He was so good to everyone around him and to the people of South Africa,” she says.
“All the values he left with me—I will never forget them.”
A quiet veneration can also be felt throughout the plush nine-room sanctuary, which is part Madiba museum, part boutique hotel.
Hand-written letters from the former President to various people around the world are framed, and a large image of a young Madiba during his boxing career hangs in the hallway.