The story of how Nelson Mandela became the first President of the new democratic South Africa after being imprisoned for 27 years by the apartheid regime is an extraordinary one. To commemorate his centenary, both South Africans and international visitors are being asked to reflect on his life and indefatigable humanity, and find our own Madiba within. South African Tourism (SAT) and the Nelson Mandela Foundation have identified 100 must-visit Mandela sites across the country. The South African Department of Tourism says: “This initiative will promote travel and tourism through Mandela’s legacy.” In this vein, it urges people to take part in Madiba-inspired activities and “rekindle our common desire to do good and to help the less fortunate in practical ways, motivated by the legacy Mandela left to future generations”.
SAT has developed the Madiba Journey Mobile App that is designed to help you explore the places that shaped Nelson Mandela’s journey. The app enables you to find each location on your phone’s mapping system, follow directions to the site and be inspired. You’ll get all the information you need about operating hours, tours, ticket prices and contacts – and you can create a customised itinerary.
By making Madiba digital, under the umbrella #Bethelegacy, SAT is connecting people and places across the country and spreading the message that we should never lose sight of our collective humanity. Download the Mandela Journey Mobile App via Apple or Google.
Perhaps the most powerful way to experience the profundity of Mandela’s legacy is to visit his prison cell on Cape Town’s Robben Island, which is now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“I could walk the length of my cell in three paces,” wrote Mandela in his iconic autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. “When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet, and my head grazed the concrete on the other side.” The width of the cell was about six feet, the walls at least two feet thick, and it was to be his home for he didn’t know how long.
The white card outside his cell read “NMandela466/64”, which meant he was the 466th prisoner on the island in 1964. Mandela was to spend 18 years of his 27-year political imprisonment in this cell before the apartheid government finally gave way to local and international pressure for his release. To stand inside it is surreal and utterly humbling; to imagine 18 years in this frugal, damp stone cell, a prison within a prison on a windswept island some 14km from the mainland.
While Robben Island is irrevocably associated with Mandela’s life, he also left a great legacy in Jo’burg, South Africa’s biggest city. One of the most striking things about driving into Jozi, as it’s fondly known, is the 295m Nelson Mandela Bridge built in 2003 and lit up at night in the colours of the rainbow. It is undoubtedly a very different skyline from the one the young Mandela saw when he first arrived in 1941 with his close relative Justice Bambilanga – both recently expelled from the University College of Fort Hare for joining in student protests. They used proceeds from the sale of a cow (“borrowed” from their guardian, the regent) to fund their escape from the Eastern Cape to Jo’burg.
After a brief stint as a night watchman at the Crown Mines (he was dismissed when it was found out that he had run away from home and deceived the regent), Mandela went looking for work at a real estate agency in town, where he met Walter Sisulu, who would become his lifelong friend. Sisulu introduced Mandela to the law firm of Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman, where Mandela started his law articles while completing his Bachelor’s degree through the University of South Africa.
It was in Jo’burg that Mandela became increasingly politically involved. By 1949 he had been elected to the executive of the ANC, in 1952 he led the Defiance Campaign and also set up his own legal practice with Oliver Tambo at Chancellor House in Fox Street. It was in Jo’burg that he was repeatedly arrested, harassed and banned.
The most powerful starting point for an insight into the life and times of Mandela is Jozi’s unforgettable Apartheid Museum (apartheidmuseum.org), which provides the context of Mandela’s efforts to establish a free and democratic South Africa. The museum’s stirring and thought-provoking exhibits show the bitter realities of the apartheid system, and while it is an emotionally difficult experience, it is also hugely insightful.
No Mandela commemoration would be complete, of course, without a visit to the most famous street in all of Soweto, Vilakazi Street. You can visit the Mandela House Museum, originally a home he shared with his then-wife Winnie and their two daughters – Zindzi and Zenani – before he was sentenced to life in prison. The small museum is filled with various memorabilia belonging to the pair, including letters, gifts and awards, as well as some items of original furniture. And Vilakazi Street is also famous for being home to another Nobel Peace Prize Laureate – Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
After Mandela was arrested for the last time, he was held with his comrades in the notorious Old Fort, which is now a fascinating museum that stands alongside the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land, and is part of Constitution Hill (constitutionhill.org.za). Bricks from the old building were used to build the modern Constitutional Court, designed to be an open, transparent and welcoming space and housing an impressive art collection.
The cell that was occupied by Mandela inside the Old Fort building houses a permanent exhibition detailing his experiences of imprisonment both here and on Robben Island. You can see original copies of his prison diaries and excerpts from his manuscript for Long Walk to Freedom. You can take a “Walk with Madiba” tour of the complex, which details his life from his early activism to his years as South Africa’s first democratically elected President.
You can also do a walking tour themed around Joburg’s struggle history with Main Street Walks and Past Experiences. These tours offer an in-depth look at the places where Mandela and other South African heroes such as Sisulu and Tambo worked and lived and are a great way to find out more about the long walk to freedom. The walks include a visit to Chancellor House. The exhibition in the ground floor windows explain in great detail the activities which took place at Mandela & Tambo Attorneys, including a wealth of archival material, photos, letters and newspaper clippings.
Across the road from the offices and in front of the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court is an impressive sculpture named Shadow-Boxer. Made by Marco Cianfanelli, it’s based on a photograph of a young Mandela shadow-boxing on a nearby rooftop. The plinth of the statue is inscribed with a quote taken from Long Walk to Freedom: “In the ring, rank, age, colour and wealth are irrelevant.”
Another fascinating Mandela Heritage spot is Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, which gives you an understanding of the famous Rivonia trial in which Mandela and his comrades were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. This farm was the secret headquarters of the anti-apartheid movement in the early 1960s, and it was here that Mandela helped found Umkhonto weSizwe (the Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African National Congress. The museum is full of interactive displays which outline in great detail the lives of these incredible men and their efforts to
Poignant, too, is the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Houghton, where Madiba had his office in his last years of public service, a short walk from his final home in Houghton. This small museum and archive is run by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, dedicated to his life and legacy.
One of the most famous and frequently visited spots is the Nelson Mandela Capture Site in Howick, KwaZulu-Natal. It was here that Mandela, dubbed the Black Pimpernel, was eventually arrested in August 1962 after being underground for 17 months. Mandela had been travelling in disguise as the chauffeur of the car he drove and was on the R103 between Durban and Johannesburg when he was pulled over by security police.
The monument in Mandela’s honour is a dramatic sculpture created by Cianfanelli and Jeremy Rose, which comprises 50 laser-cut steel columns that are 6-9,5m tall and cover a width of almost 30m.
The columns line up so that, at a specific angle, they create a two-dimensional image of Mandela. The monument is at the end of a winding path representing the long walk to freedom.
In rural Qunu in the Eastern Cape, you can visit the childhood landscape of Mandela. He described the years he spent here as some of the happiest in his life. “The village of Qunu was situated in a narrow, grassy valley criss-crossed by clear streams, and overlooked by green hills,” he wrote. “There were no roads, only paths through the grass worn away by barefooted boys and women. The women and children of the village wore blankets dyed in ochre; only the few Christians in the village wore Western-style clothing. Cattle, sheep, goats and horses grazed together in common pastures.”
The Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha and Qunu is spread across three different sites – the impressive Bhunga Building in Mthatha, the spiritual Mvezo, where Mandela was born, and Qunu, the cultural village where he grew up. The Bhunga houses an international selection of diverse gifts that Madiba received during his presidency. At peaceful Mvezo, you can imagine life as it was then; and at Qunu, you can see the remains of the primary school where he started Grade 1. You can see, too, the remains of the old stone church where he was baptised, the granite rock where he used to play with his friends and the pastures where he roamed as a young shepherd.
In Nelson Mandela Bay, part of the Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality, the Donkin Reserve, just above the CBD, is home to multiple pieces of public
art that form part of a collection of 67 pieces of art throughout the city. This is the Route 67 (nmbt.co.za) arts journey that celebrates the 67 years of Mandela’s political life through a visual collection of works produced by local artists. This fabulous route includes exhibitions, museums and galleries. The Donkin Reserve is a monument to love – both Sir Rufane Donkin’s love for his late wife Elizabeth and Madiba’s love for his country. This reserve magically incorporates the old and new in an unbroken line of love.
There are many other Madiba sites across South Africa, and many different ways to engage with his remarkable legacy – whether you stop for a moment at a museum, have a cocktail under one of his statues, wear a Madiba T-shirt or perform a random act of kindness.