Looking For Mandela In Brooklyn

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By Christopher Alessi

In 1994, shortly after Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s president in the country’s first democratic elections, Mark Henegan returned home from the United States to a nation that seemed to him to have “changed overnight.” He had been gone for six years, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to leave again.

“It was the first time I had been in South Africa when black and white people could go to the same restaurants, when there were no more separate black and white bathrooms,” Henegan said.

Tapestry inside Madiba restaurant. (Alessi/Brooklyn Ink)
Tapestry inside Madiba restaurant. (Alessi/Brooklyn Ink)

He had spent the previous six years working on and off in the restaurant business in New York. But mostly he had been living the good life – partying, traveling cross-country on Rt. 66, getting married in Santa Fe for his Green Card – and thinking very little about the volatile country he had left behind.

But now Henegan faced a dilemma. While his marriage of convenience had ended (leaving him with a permanent visa), he had met an American girl who he was serious about, and he was beginning to make a life in New York. It might have seemed a no brainer, except that the South Africa he had returned to was an altogether different place than the one he had left. It was brimming with excitement and a sense of opportunity—and it was also home. Henegan was torn. However, he was convinced he could find a way to combine his old world with his new life.

Now 43 years old, Henegan is a slightly stocky, gregarious man with a thick South African accent. It doesn’t take much to get him to open up. From the start, it’s clear that Henegan is proud of how far he has come since his childhood in South Africa during the 1970s and 80s—the height of apartheid. It was a period when the Afrikaans-dominated National Party government was at its most repressive, and Mandela was vilified routinely – from primary schools to the national media – as a terrorist who was out to massacre the country’s whites.

But like most other white South African children, Henegan knew little about politics. The only black people he encountered daily were the servants in his home in Benoni, a small suburb outside of Johannesburg. He also knew a few black kids from the town, but they were only allowed to play outside until the state-imposed curfew for blacks kicked in at 5:00 pm.

Henegan vaguely remembers some black riots in Benoni, and a few bomb scares at school. But he knew little about the brutal policies suffocating his country and countrymen. “We never discussed politics at home, and we [children] were not supposed to talk about these things,” Henegan said. He added, “My parents were probably just as ignorant as we were about these things because the media was very one-sided.”

By the time Henegan was in high school in the 1980s, the policies of the National Party government were as rigid and militaristic as ever. His family had moved to Durban, hoping to escape some of the boiling racial tension surrounding Johannesburg. But even Henegan’s British school was “run like the military,” he said, because it ultimately answered to the regimented Afrikaans government. “If your hair even touched your collar, you got hit.” As he got older, the government increasingly left Henegan disillusioned. He knew he needed to get out.

But then came the actual military. After graduating high school, Henegan, like all white males, was forced to complete a two-year mandatory stint in the South African army, a prospect he had loathed. But there was a silver lining. It was in the military that Henegan learned perhaps the most valuable skill of his life: how to cook.  “I told the officers that I was against violence and that if I was given a gun I would run away from the enemy,” he recalled. “So they put me in the kitchen.”

He quickly became a pro, preparing formal banquets for the army’s top officers. He made cray fish, steaks, and roasts, which, he admits, were “amazing.” But the more time he spent with the army, the angrier he became at his government. Once, when preparing a formal dinner at the state president’s house, he rebelled by stealing fancy salt and peppershakers off the dining room table. It didn’t do much to challenge government policy, but it did make a nice Mother’s Day gift.

Luckily, Henegan left the army with more than salt. The culinary training he had received had given him the equivalent of a degree in the restaurant and hotel business. And, ultimately, a future in the United States.

Henegan was 21, a year out of the military, when he received a one-way plane ticket in the mail from his sister who had been working in New York as an au pair. “I was excited. It was my first time traveling by myself,” Henegan said. “And, my parents were just happy to see me get out of South Africa.”

The flight was an emotional blur. All he can remember is thinking: “I’m going to be the king of New York City.”

He got a job waiting tables at Pierre’s, a French bistro on Christopher Street in the West Village. He worked hard in the restaurant business, but in spurts, saving up money so he could travel. When he would run out of money he would return to New York, to one of his old restaurant jobs, and work until he had enough money to get back on the road.

Henegan’s traveling buddy was a black man from France, Serge Jules, who he had met at Pierre’s. They went from California to Mexico to Hawaii—and back again. To some, they were an odd couple: a white South African and a black European.  “People were always confused because they thought Serge was the South African and I was the French guy,” Henegan said.

During his first years in the U.S., being South African embarrassed Henegan; he felt most Americans automatically viewed him as a racist. But everything changed after Mandela rose to power. Henegan was in awe of Mandela’s ability to forgive his enemies, in his desire to unite all the races of South Africa. He was for the first time in his life inspired by his country and its leaders. And he was finally eager to return.

“I remember crying on the first night I got home,” Henegan recalled. “I didn’t realize how homesick I had been—everything, the people, the music, the vibe.”

But there was at least one string keeping Henegan tied to the New York: Jenny. It was Valentines Day weekend of 1994, a couple of months before Mandela would be elected. Henegan was working at a restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan when he spotted a lanky, brunette model from Massachusetts dining with some friends. They started dating almost immediately. And when Henegan made his prodigal return to South Africa at the end of the year, Jenny came with him.

Although she had grown up, admittedly, “not knowing anything about Mandela,” Jenny instantly caught the South Africa bug. “When I got there, I was totally impressed,” she said, noting the varied landscape, the wildlife at Kruger National Park, the art scene in Cape Town, and the infectious warmth of the people. “Mark and I fantasized about moving to Cape Town.” And Henegan dreamed of opening a French bistro there. But, in the end, it was too far from Jenny’s family. And South Africa, for all its progress, was still in a bumpy transition. “If it had not been for so much political strife and crime we would have stayed,” Jenny said.

Henegan acknowledged that his life was no longer in South Africa. So he returned to the U.S. determined to “create a homesick place” for himself—a “South Africa outlet” in New York.

Madiba restaurant on Dekalb Avenue in Fort Greene. (Alessi/Brooklyn Ink)
Exterior of Madiba restaurant. (Alessi/Brooklyn Ink)

For Henegan, like so many immigrants before him, the most obvious way to bring a part of his country to America was through food. His advantage was that he’d been cooking and working in restaurants since he was 18.

For years following his return from his first visit back to South Africa, Henegan planned – and ultimately built with his own hands – a restaurant in the city that would be a tribute to his home country and to the man who had made him truly proud of it, Mandela—or, the clan name by which most black South Africans refer to him, Madiba.

In August 1999, Henegan and Jenny, who was now his wife, opened Madiba restaurant in an empty storefront next to a bodega on Dekalb Avenue in Fort Greene, just down the road from the apartment they shared with their new baby. There were few restaurants in the area at the time, and it was unclear how they would be received. When Henegan first rented the space the landlord apparently said, “You’re a white guy opening a South African restaurant in a totally black neighborhood? You’re crazy!”

Over 10 years later, Madiba is thriving and, Henegan says, business is better than ever. The consistently glowing reviews and long lines to get a table suggest that he isn’t exaggerating.  Inside the dark, rustic restaurant, makeshift wooden tables – some with green tops, others blue – are typically packed. One of the Henegans is always there managing the place on weekends, dolling out greetings and handshakes, and patiently answering questions about the various South African masks, statuettes, and other trinkets that adorn the entryway.

The dining room is tight, but cozy, and people at neighboring tables are forced to mingle, recreating a sense of South African communal dining. And everywhere one looks, Mandela is watching. Vivid and colorful portraits of South Africa’s most famous leader hang from the dining room’s uneven walls, a testament to how far the nation has come. But, also, a symbol of Henegan’s long journey, and his need to hold on to a piece of home.

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