Zoleka Mandela’s battle against breast cancer has not been her most difficult life challenge. Madiba’s granddaughter shares her personal struggles with abuse, addiction and loss, and how surviving illness has enabled her to heal many wounds.

A quote from her famous grandfather, Nelson Mandela, features prominently on Zoleka’s website: ‘The greatest glory in living lies not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall.’ The words are a constant source of inspiration for the 37-year-old, who although born into one of the most famous families in the world, has had a life that is far from a fairy tale.

Zoleka (who is the daughter of Zindzi Mandela) launched her tell-all memoir, When Hope Whispers, in 2013. Her revelations shocked South Africa. But the Zoleka I meet on a fresh, spring morning in Johannesburg is not the hard or aloof survivor one might expect. She is all smiles and hugs for the team that has been assembled to photograph her and it’s almost impossible to reconcile this gregarious and warm woman with the one she exposed in the pages of her book. Zoleka endured years of sexual and physical abuse as a child. She fell pregnant while still at school and tumbled into a life dominated by drug and alcohol addiction, and turbulent and volatile relationships. She survived a suicide attempt during which she tried to set herself on fire due to a drug-induced psychotic breakdown. She lost two of her children; her 13-year-old daughter Zenani died tragically in a car accident in 2010, and her son Zenawe was born prematurely and died when he was two days old. Her book also documents her battles with her health – she was diagnosed with stage-two breast cancer at the age of 32.

We meet more than five years on – difficult years, she confesses to me as we settle down to chat on the eve of Breast Cancer Awareness month. Dealing with these hardships and being a public figure has been a hard balance to achieve. Everything she did, and said, was open for public criticism, something she realised all too well when she told her life story. ‘It was a difficult process,’ she tells me. ‘Putting my life out there for anyone to critique. That’s why I needed to focus on why I was telling my story. It was for others who were going through the same things as me, so that they wouldn’t feel lonely. I wanted to be a whisper of hope.’

Zoleka discovered a lump in her breast, which after further examination by doctors, turned out to be cancerous. ‘So the doctors tell me that I have this life-threatening disease, and the only way I’ll survive it is if I undergo chemotherapy treatment and have my breasts removed. At the end of all this, there would be a chance that I’d be infertile too,’ she recalls.

In her book she writes about the moments leading up to the surgery and how she went into the bathroom, shed her robe and took photos of her chest from every angle in order to capture the final moments she had with her breasts. ‘A part of the reason it was so difficult to say goodbye to my breasts was because of what they meant to me throughout my life. They had fed my children. They were the connection I had with them.’

Zoleka wrote intimately, and with great detail, about her ordeal with cancer. From diagnosis to the surgery, to her relationships with family and her partner Thierry. Surely reliving it all was painful for her? ‘I did it so that people know what to expect when they are diagnosed,’ she explains. ‘I believe that women need to know what their options are. Many women treated for breast cancer, especially in the public sector, aren’t always aware of the choices available to them.’

Sharing her experiences has also been a catalyst for personal growth and healing, she says. ‘I remember when I shaved my hair because of chemotherapy. I decided to put a photo of it online. I was so surprised by the feedback I received. People were so supportive. And they were proud because I was talking about things nobody wanted to talk about: being sent into early menopause because of the medication, how sore your body is, and how painful sex can be.’

This confident Zoleka is a far cry from the young, troubled woman she used to be. She found it easier to keep quiet about her pain and problems in the past, she says. ‘It was really easy to remain silent about all the things I was dealing with. That’s why I would usually fall into a deep depression or turn to drugs, alcohol or sex.’ I tell her how amazing it is that she is able to take such a positive stance after what she went through. She quickly adds, ‘People sometimes look at my story as a novelty, they look at what I survived. But they have to remember that many women out there have it much worse.’

Although she beat cancer, fear of it returning is something that still lingers. [A year ago, Zoleka had a second cancer scare that required further treatment, from which she is still recovering]. ‘I downplay it a lot, because I don’t want to live my life thinking about it constantly, but the truth is that it is a threat, and it does cross my mind a lot. I have to work on positive thinking every day. There are days I really struggle to get out of bed – especially in June, which marks the month two of my children passed away,’ she reflects. But despite these fears, Zoleka says she lives her life to the fullest, embracing an active, healthy lifestyle while balancing being a mother, a wife and a student (she is currently continuing her studies).

Zoleka’s face lights up every time she talks about her family, which includes her three-year-old daughter Zanyiwe and 13-year-old Zwelami, her son from a previous relationship. Motherhood is what gives her the most pleasure in life. ‘I am so thankful that I have the opportunity to better myself as a mother now. I hope Zenani [her daughter who passed away] is proud of me.’

Zoleka talks about the incredible support her whole family has given her throughout her journey with breast cancer. Particularly her aunt Zenani and grandmother, Winnie. This gets us talking about the Mandela family and what it means to be a part of it. Zoleka shares with me childhood memories of how Winnie would make achaar in large pots, and how her grandfather would take her along on state visits. But there are downsides too, she reveals. ‘Being born into this family,’ she says, ‘I am sometimes painted with the same brush. But I am Zoleka and I have my own life and my own passions. And there are things I’d like to do to better myself as a mother and there are things I want to do to contribute to the world.’

Zoleka comes to life in front of the camera and oozes confidence. However, this wasn’t always the case for her. ‘I had such low self-esteem as a child,’ she recalls. ‘I grew up feeling different from everyone else, and I think that’s a part of why I carried so much ugliness inside for so long.’ It’s hard to believe that this confident woman who is so at ease in front of the camera ever struggled with poor self-image. I ask her if it’s something you ever really outgrow. ‘Oh no, that’s something you take into your adulthood. You have to work at it every single day. It’s like staying sober. It’s something you have to work on continuously.’

Time is running out fast and there is still so much to talk about. I think about the ‘old’ Zoleka and ask what advice she would give her now that she has found her path. Zoleka smiles and thinks for a moment. ‘I’ve blamed myself for so many things for so many years… I would tell my younger self that none of it is her fault. I would tell her that she can ask for help, that she has a voice and it’s okay to use it.’

When Hope Whispers, Jacana Media, R363, is sold at Exclusive Books.