Nelson Mandela's South Africa [PHOTOS]

Nelson Mandela's South Africa [PHOTOS]

Where to go to literally walk in the footsteps of the visionary leader

December 06, 2013


Few statesmen are as intertwined with their country's identity as Nelson Mandela and South Africa are. Lovingly known as Madiba (his clan name), Tata ("Father" in Xhosa), and the Father of the nation, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela emerged at a young age as a leader in the struggle against the injustices of apartheid and its codified racism. As we reflect on his tremendous legacy in the wake of his passing, some may consider planing a voyage to the land where he spent his long, impactful life.

Visitors to South Africa inevitably want to learn more about its social justice movements, and Mandela's inspirational life story features prominently. Jo Buitendach of Past Experiences in Johannesburg says that about half of the people who take her walking tours are foreign travelers, and half are South Africans keen to learn more about their young democracy's history.

Although Mandela retired from public life a decade ago, his presence is still palpable in day-to-day life. While his image is everywhere—even the money now bears his picture—and most South Africans know the basics of his life, many want to experience visiting the places he frequented. 

Here are our suggestions on how to do just that.

Robben Island

Cape Town, Western Cape

In 1964, Mandela was convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment. During the Rivonia Trial—so named for the Johannesburg suburb where the arrests were made—Mandela made the following testimony: "I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have carried the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Ultimately, Mandela served a 27-year sentence, much of it on the maximum-security prison on Robben Island.

Today, the 3.5-hour trip to Robben Island is a cornerstone of Cape Town tourism. Ferryboats depart from the V&A Waterfront several times daily. Guided tours by former political prisoners include a look at Mandela's cell, the limestone quarry where he performed manual labor, and a museum.

Constitution Hill

Johannesburg, Gauteng

The cluster of buildings at Constitution Hill represents amazing transformation. One of the city's oldest buildings, The Old Fort, was used back during the Anglo-Boer War. Before his transfer to Robben Island, Nelson Mandela was held here for two weeks—the first black political prisoner in what had been a "whites only" jail. Many other political prisoners, including Mahatma Gandhi, also served time here.

Today, the adjacent Constitutional Court—which houses a South African art collection that rivals those in museums—decides on key democratic issues.

Excellent exhibitions, which include some of Mandela's diaries and letters that he wrote in prison, lend well to self-guided tours.

Chancellor House

Johannesburg, Gauteng

Nelson Mandela and fellow leader Oliver Tambo ran their law office, Mandela and Tambo Attorneys, from Chancellor House in the 1950s, in what was then an area designated for Indians rather than black people. Their clients often needed legal assistance for breaking apartheid-era laws, such as not carrying the infamous passbook (or "dompas") used to restrict freedom of movement.

After years of disrepair, the city recently restored the building, working from archival photos. A replica of the original business sign hangs in a second-story window. A street-level external exhibit provides visitors with information about the practice and the area. A new statue of a young Mandela commemorates the time he spent shadow boxing on nearby rooftops in the Ferreirasdorp area.

25 Fox Street (corner of Gerard Sekoto), Ferreirasdorp, Johannesburg

Cape Town City Hall

Cape Town, Western Cape

Cape Town's City Hall, situated in a busy, central location with Table Mountain as its backdrop, has a long and storied history. The King and Queen of England greeted crowds there during their visit in 1947.

But in 1990, Mandela emerged on its balcony in his first public appearance in nearly three decades, marking a pivotal transitional period in the dismantling of apartheid. He spoke to the masses gathered on the Grand Parade before him and to millions more around the world eager to hear what he had to say.

"I stand before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people," he said in his address. "Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands."

City Hall, Darling Street, Cape Town

Mandela House

Soweto, Gauteng

Mandela's Soweto home in the 1940s and 50s—and briefly in the 1990s—features on any heritage tour of Soweto. Right nearby is the home of former neighbor and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The small brick house has been converted into a museum displaying various artifacts from his days as a freedom fighter.

A few blocks away at 8287 Khumalo Street is the Hector Pieterson Museum, named for the 12-year-old killed during the student uprisings in June 1976. Sam Nzima's image of the just-shot youth being carried by his classmate appeared in newspapers around the world.

8115 Vilakazi Street, Orlando West, Soweto

Capture Site

Kwa-Zulu Natal Midlands

During the drive from Howick to Johannesburg in 1963, Mandela was captured on this lonely stretch of road, and ultimately disappeared from public life for 27 years. More of a detour than a destination, an exhibition center and restaurant explore Mandela's role in contemporary South African history.

Marco Cianfanelli's unique sculpture of Mandela—some 50 steel columns create an ethereal portrait—is memorable.


Qunu, Eastern Cape

Although born in nearby Mvezo in 1918, Mandela's family soon moved to rural Qunu, where he was raised and attended primary school. (An elementary school teacher dubbed him "Nelson.") Over the years, Mandela continued to visit his family in Qunu; it is expected that he will be buried there.

The Nelson Mandela Museum is worth a look if already in the area, but die-hard historians will likely want to search out the remains of his school and the church where he was baptized. The museum can arrange off-site tours for the surrounding area, including the University of Fort Hare, where Mandela attended classes. Roaming through the tranquil trails give a sense of the pace of life.

-Rebecca L. Weber



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