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In their native country, Mandla and Lindiwe had belonged to the Zion Christian Church, a South African sect that melds Christian teachings with indigenous traditions. They still kept the ZCC Sabbath, taking their sons on barefoot walks in Griffith Park each Saturday to pray and meditate. They also fasted at least one day a week in an effort to purify both body and spirit. In early 2004, God seemed to reward their exertions when Mandla began landing steadier production work. That April, they moved into their new house. Lindiwe started a business, selling T-shirts hand-painted with mystical symbols and uplifting mottoes (“Wisdom is worth more than silver and gold”) to local boutiques. “We’d been through so much in this city,” Lindiwe told me. “Finally, everything was good.”
That June, Masekela, whom the couple hadn’t seen in years, appeared at Esowon Bookstore in Baldwin Hills to promote his new autobiography, Still Grazing. The whole family came to the event — including the python — and Mandla and the boys acknowledged the occasion’s sacredness by going shoeless. Masekela embraced his old colleague and introduced him to his stepsons, Patrick and Adam, who had grown up in Ghana and were attending Santa Monica College. The teens hoped to become filmmakers, and Masekela asked Mandla to help guide them.
Mandla interpreted this request (incorrectly, Masekela later asserted) in a way that reflected his Zulu upbringing. He would not simply teach the boys the fundamentals of filmmaking; he would put them through a rite of initiation. “At home, they call it ‘growing them up,’ ” Lindiwe said. “Teaching them the right way, the right path.”
July 3, the day Mandla scheduled his first session with Patrick and Adam, was a Saturday. It was also the day before Mandla and Lindiwe’s 12th anniversary. To give thanks for their marriage and their restored good fortune, the couple had been fasting for five days. Mandla had slept little the two previous nights; he’d been up unpacking boxes retrieved from storage. Still, when he awoke at 4 a.m., his usual time, he seemed cheerful. He got the children ready for their outing — they often accompanied him on shoots as part of their own induction into manhood — and left the house around 6:30.
Mandla had told Patrick and Adam he would pick them up at AFI, which borders Griffith Park, at 7 o’clock. They would then drive to Compton to interview Zane Smith, a Crips founder–turned–community organizer, for a documentary Mandla was planning on L.A. gangs. So they were surprised when he turned into the park instead and herded them off on the Sabbath hike.
The group headed barefoot up the sagebrush-covered hill, walking for about 30 minutes. To flush out his system, Mandla drank a mug of South African rooibos tea; to combat the bad breath caused by fasting, he gobbled fennel seeds (neither substance is known to be psychoactive). On the trail, he began babbling unintelligibly. Lindiwe believed his hunger was to blame. He had never had such a reaction before, she said, but perhaps other factors — the climb, the lack of sleep — pushed him over the edge.
What happened after everyone returned to the van, Lindiwe said, was a mystery. Mandla himself recalled almost nothing. Eight-year-old Khaya, the only one of Mandla’s children capable of describing the scene, did not remember him making any threats. Patrick and Adam may have misunderstood what they heard, Lindiwe ventured, or they may have exaggerated out of anger. She handed me a sheaf of letters from friends and colleagues attesting to Mandla’s gentleness, moral uprightness and professional competence. The crash, she said, must have been the result of a blackout — a product not of deadly malice but of brain cells starved for fuel.
“What I know of my husband,” Lindiwe said, “is that he would never hurt himself. He would never hurt his children. He probably whacked Patrick on the butt with his cane to keep moving, but that’s a cultural thing. If you told that to somebody in South Africa, they’d say, ‘So what? That’s what we do.’ ”
On the phone from jail, swinging from the particulars of his case to grand generalities about colonialism and comparative religion, Mandla could sound like a multicultural mystic, a Pan-Africanist visionary, a pop psychologist or a bitter veteran of the Hollywood rat race. Mostly, he sounded like a man who had seldom felt at home, in his own country or elsewhere.
Born Walter Mandlakayise Dube Jr. in Mabopane on March 25, 1971, he was the fourth of five children. South Africa was in the full grip of apartheid in those days, and blacks were officially fourth-class citizens (after whites, Indians and mixed-race “coloreds”), forced to live in segregated townships or arid “homelands.” But Mandla grew up relatively privileged, and isolated from his poorer peers. His father was one of a handful of blacks granted a license to trade in diamonds; although apartheid restrictions limited the scope of that business, he also owned shops, a gas station and a restaurant. The family had a TV set — “Everyone in the neighborhood used to come and watch it,” Mandla said — and Walter Sr. drove a BMW.