'Being Mandela': Nelson Mandela's Granddaughters Bring An Icon's Legacy To Reality TV (VIDEO)

02/08/2013 11:01 pm ET | Updated Feb 09, 2013

The last time Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway saw South Africa's infamous Robben Island penitentiary, she was just 8 months old and being smuggled in by a prison guard to see her grandfather. For many years, she couldn't imagine making a trip back.

"We didn't want to go for years and years, because that's where my grandfather was," Zaziwe, now 35, told The Huffington Post. "It was a painful place and we didn't want to relive it," she said, recalling the return visit she eventually made, along with her sister Swati Dlamini, 33, and other siblings.

Their grandfather, 94-year-old civil rights icon Nelson Mandela, hasn't heard about the emotions the women's trip to his old prison cell evoked, though he may when an episode of their reality TV show, "Being Mandela," airs on the NBC-affiliated Cozi TV in the coming weeks.

The 13-episode series, which premieres Sunday on the eve of the anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison 23 years ago, doesn't only show viewers what life for a Mandela in South Africa is like today; it also helps Zaziwe and Swati understand their own legacy better.

According to the sisters, who grew up in exile in Boston with their parents, there were some reminders of the struggle raging in their home country, but for the most part, their parents kept them sheltered from the harsh realities that their famous grandparents and fellow South Africans had to endure.

"There were always reminders of the fact that far away, back at home, there are people who were fighting for the liberation of the country. So there are certain things that we wouldn't do as a family," Swati explained. "We would never put up a Christmas tree. [Our mother would say], 'We have no reason to celebrate. Once your grandfather gets out of prison, if he ever does get out of prison, then we can celebrate.' Even my sister's birthday -- June 16th, which is Youth Activist Day for us and the liberation struggle -- we couldn't celebrate. She never got a present on her actual birthday until my grandfather got out of prison."

These are sacrifices that Swati noted pale in comparison to those made by her grandparents -- and to the moment she realized just what their legacy meant.

"I remember coming back to South Africa when my grandfather was released, driving up Vilakazi Street," Swati said. "There were hundreds and thousands of people lined up on both sides of the road. They literally hung out for the entire time we were there -- two or three weeks -- and they didn't move. I was just like, 'Wow! Is this all for my grandfather?' That's the first recollection I [have] where I thought, 'OK, this is big. People really admire this man, and he's been such a huge inspiration for so many people.'"

Still, around Swati's and Zaziwe's homes, Nelson Mandela is "Granddad" and their grandmother, Winnie Mandela, is "Big Mommy." And when Zaziwe gives birth to her third child in episode one of "Being Mandela," none other than Big Mommy is on hand to help give him a name.

"She literally is the one who's responsible for naming everybody in the family," Zaziwe said, "so she was there when I had Zen, and it was an honor."

As for Swati, she is spearheading the publication of her grandmother's prison diary. In 1969, Winnie Mandela became one of the first detainees under Section 6 of South Africa's notorious Terrorism Act, serving 18 months in solitary confinement at Pretoria Central before being charged under the Suppression of Communism Act.

"It was such an eye-opener for me, the depths to which she describes her personal experiences and what she went through every day in prison, not being fed ... For two years she didn't see her children," said Swati. "As I'm going down this journey, I'll come home and ask my mom, 'Do you know this is what Big Mommy had to go through when she was in solitary confinement? Where were you guys?' And she would say, 'Sweetie, you know, we were just taken in by different people here and there. Our own family members didn't want to take us in because we were seen as such high risk.' We're going back into a place and a time where I think for a very long time we'd just shut off. We're facing a lot of those things now."

Remembering the past is crucial. "We're fortunate to look back, and February is a significant month for us," Swati said, adding that while the U.S. is celebrating Black History Month now, South Africa has its own Human Rights Month in March to acknowledge the country's struggle for human dignity.

But Nelson Mandela's granddaughters insist on writing the next chapter in their own way.

"To be able to be in a position as a woman to choose if I want to go into entertainment -- I'm fortunate that my grandmother did that for me. She fought, she was in solitary confinement for 18 months so that I can sit here and I can have this choice and live it out as I please," Swati said.

"We're looking back at our history to say look how far we've come, as a country, as a nation ... and we're excited about continuing the legacy, but we're doing it in our own way," she added.

One of those ways is a clothing line named after their grandfather's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. The line of apparel, which the sisters launched with their two younger brothers and which draws inspiration from their grandfather's famous Madiba shirts, is the primary focus of Zaziwe and Swati's work days. Running the business is also a major theme on the duo's reality show, giving the series the kind of sibling rivalry and semi-scripted adventures that reality TV is known for.

The sisters declare, nonetheless, that their show isn't your average reality TV. "Like every family, there's a bit of drama here and there, but we're very respectful of our name and we're very respectful of our grandparent's legacy and we're very mindful of that. In anything that we try to do, we always try to maintain the integrity of the family," Swati said.

The show also helps to portray Africa in a more positive light, Zaziwe added. "Most people think of Africa as one big country ... but the continent is so massive and this is just one aspect," she said. "We'll show that, Jesus, we've come so far after apartheid, we live in nice homes, we go to nice restaurants, the scenery is beautiful, it's safe ... this is a different side. It's not a travel show, but you'll see."

"Being Mandela" premieres on Cozi TV on Sunday, Feb. 10, at 9 p.m. ET. Watch a clip from the show in the video above.

'Being Mandela'

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