South Africa: Mandela’s path


What kind of world produced Nelson Mandela? Follow Emma Gregg and travel from South Africa’s rural Eastern Cape province to the dynamic cities of Soweto, Johannesburg and Cape Town, tracing the former president’s life story every step of the way. 

The Voting Line statue in Port Elizabeth

The Voting Line statue in Port Elizabeth (Photo by Emma Gregg)

This article was published in Issue 64 (Autumn 2013)

In Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela wrote: “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.”

Nature or nurture? Birth, environment or a complex combination of circumstances? Many have wondered what it was that shaped Mandela’s remarkable qualities: optimism, clarity, compassion, forgiveness, leadership and strength.

Before Long Walk to Freedom was published South African state censorship made information scarce. Public archives were practically non-existent. But with the advent of democracy in 1994 a network of museums, exhibitions and heritage sites began to unfold. They tell stories, heal wounds and reveal fascinating details of the lives of Mandela and his contemporaries.

Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum covers a broad arc of South African history, and is a superb place to start or finish a journey of discovery. It’s heart-wrenching, but it ends on an optimistic note.

To dig deeper, you can explore the rural and urban landscapes where Mandela spent time as a child, lawyer, activist, prisoner and president. Here, you’ll find smaller sites, focused on specific timeframes or themes.

Some, such as Liliesleaf, the Old Fort and the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg, are treasure troves of original letters, diaries and artefacts, while others, like Mqhekezweni, Qunu and Robben Island, evoke thoughts and memories by letting their surroundings speak for themselves.

Point your head toward the sun, keep your feet moving forward, and you can piece together the story of a life that changed the course of history.

1918-1920: Mvezo Great Place
“Mvezo was a place apart, where life was lived much as it had been for hundreds of years.”

On 18 July 1918, in a tiny, remote Transkei village, the third wife of Chief Gadla Mandela gave birth to a son. He was given the Thembu name Rolihlahla, or Troublemaker; the name Nelson was to come later. He remained in Mvezo for the earliest months of his life.

Today Mvezo is still small but it’s no longer quite as remote. Nelson Mandela’s grandson and heir Mandla, who reclaimed the chieftaincy on his grandfather’s behalf in 2007, has placed it firmly on the map. Perched on a hillside with superb views of the Mbashe River and the wild, undulating grasslands that surround it is Mvezo Komkhulu, a striking new traditional council building, lodge and museum of Thembu culture. It’s set to open in 2014.

At the time of writing, a family quarrel over the final resting place of Nelson’s offspring is raging. Mandla believes they belong in Mvezo. But for him, this is just part of a big picture. “Our intention is to unmask the heritage of the Thembu people,” he explains. “Mvezo Komhkulu will explore the customs and values which influenced my grandfather and which shape our understanding of what democracy should be.”

1920-1927: Qunu
“I was no more than five when I became a herd-boy looking after sheep and calves in the fields. Qunu was all that I knew, and I loved it in the unconditional way that a child loves his first home.”

When a local dispute forced Gadla Mandela to relinquish his chieftaincy, Rolihlahla and his mother moved 18 miles from Mvezo to the larger village of Qunu, to seek support from relatives.

From the striking Qunu offshoot of the Nelson Mandela Museum (, you can gaze out over the pastures that Rolihlahla grew to adore. Clustered here and there are Xhosa rondavels painted white, apricot or turquoise. In the distance, beside the highway, is the country mansion that Mandela commissioned in the early 1990s.

You can stroll down to the steep rock that local kids still use as a slide, just as Rolihlahla and his friends did in the 1920s. Generations of makeshift toboggans have polished its surface to a shine. And you can visit the site of Rolihlahla’s primary school. Just the outline of his classroom remains. It was here that a teacher called Miss Mdingane gave the seven-year-old Rolihlahla an anglicised name: Nelson.

1927-1941: Mqhekezweni Great Place
As a leader, I have always followed the principles I first saw demonstrated at the Great Place. I have always endeavoured to listen to what each person had to say before venturing my own opinion.”

While much is made of Mandela’s affection for Qunu, the place that shaped him as a future leader was Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo’s “large and gracious” homestead at Mqhekezweni, six miles away. When Nelson was nine, his father died and his mother delivered him into Jongintaba’s care. Mqhekezweni remained his home during his secondary education.

The simple rondavel Nelson shared with his older cousin Justice has been carefully preserved. It’s a few steps from the stand of gum trees where the boys would listen in on tribal meetings, observing Jongintaba’s skill as an arbitrator and absorbing the principles of decision-making and debate. Community leaders still gather in the shade of these trees today.

1941-1944: Alexandra
“Life in Alexandra was exhilarating and precarious. Walking home at night was perilous, for there were no lights, the silence pierced by yells, laughter and occasional gunfire. So different from the darkness of the Transkei, which seemed to envelop one in a welcome embrace.”

The prospect of being married off against their will prompted Nelson and Justice to hotfoot it from Mqhekezweni to Johannesburg and seek work instead. Nelson, set on a career in law, found digs in Alexandra township: first on Eighth Avenue, then in a tin-roofed room at 46 Seventh Avenue.

In Mandela’s day Alex attracted gangsters as well as jobseekers. Even now it’s a place where a mixed bag of Jo’burg newcomers converge, and its reputation for crime lingers on. But Jeff Mulaudzi, an enthusiastic young guide who offers bicycle tours of the neighbourhood (, claims it’s far safer than commonly assumed. “My guests aren’t always sure what to expect,” he says, “but within minutes of riding around, they see that people are really friendly.”

His tours take in the concrete barrier that once acted as a colour cordon (“a bit like the Berlin Wall”), an immaculate state-funded high school, a busy junction where minibus taxis hoot for trade, and the yard where Mandela’s former home still stands. Opposite, a heritage centre is nearing completion.

“Alexandra is the oldest township, and I love it,” says Jeff. “The lifestyle is so different from Soweto. It feels really genuine. Everyone talks to everyone.”

1946-1990: Orlando West
“The house was identical to hundreds of others built on postage-stamp-size plots on dirt roads. It had the same standard tin roof, the same cement floor, a narrow kitchen, and a bucket toilet at the back. It was the very opposite of grand.”

A little over a year after Mandela married Evelyn, his first wife, the couple moved into a simple municipal house on what would later become Vilakazi Street, Soweto. It was to remain Mandela’s home for 44 years.

His political commitments and lengthy imprisonment meant he spent very little time there. Nonetheless, after his release in 1990, he and his second wife, Winnie, returned to Vilakazi Street with a profound sense of homecoming.

The house afforded little privacy, though, and the constant attention of press and onlookers quickly took its toll. After just 11 days, the couple moved to the secluded suburb of Houghton. Their family stayed on until 1996, when the house became the Mandela House Museum (

In the 1980s, while Winnie was a political target, the house was petrol-bombed and shot at. Since then it has been altered, and the street has changed beyond recognition: tourist buses flock here, ANC flags flutter from flagpoles and Sakhumzi Restaurant does a brisk trade in gentrified township fare. But the house has a poignant atmosphere, enhanced by photographs, memorabilia and recordings of interviews with Nelson and Winnie’s daughters.

1952-1960: Chancellor House
“’Mandela and Tambo’ read the brass plaque on our office door in Chancellor House. It was the first black law practice in Johannesburg. Every day we heard and saw the thousands of humiliations that ordinary Africans confronted every day of their lives.”

In the 1950s, it wasn’t easy for black professionals to rent offices in Johannesburg, but Mandela and his partner Oliver Tambo managed to find premises in Chancellor House, an Indian-owned building near the magistrates’ court.

Following years of chronic neglect, the building has been carefully restored. A striking contemporary statue of Mandela boxing now stands on the opposite pavement. It’s one of the key stops on the inner city walking tours offered by Jo Buitendach and Tania Olsson of Past Experiences ( Passionate and down-to-earth, their insights bring this former no-go area of Johannesburg to life.

“I love the way the ground floor windows have been turned into an exhibition space”, says Tania. “Under apartheid, most people were barred from museums. And these days, many can’t afford to visit them. But the windows of Chancellor House are accessible to all, 24/7, and that’s great.”

1955: Kliptown
“Circulars were sent out to townships and villages all across the country. ‘If you could make the laws… what would you do?’ they said.”

On a sunny weekend in June 1955, over 3000 people braved police intimidation to gather in the dusty village of Kliptown. Their purpose was to ratify a people’s manifesto, the Freedom Charter. Hovering inconspicuously on the edge of the crowd were Mandela and Walter Sisulu. As known activists, their movements were severely restricted.

Kliptown is now part of Soweto, and the hardware store where the charter was drawn up is a vivid little museum, dense with information. Nearby is The Soweto, the township’s first luxury hotel. It flanks the broad expanse of Walter Sisulu Square, where monuments celebrate the charter’s lofty ideals and traders chat behind stalls loaded with fruit and traditional remedies.

1956 & 1962: Constitution Hill
“Just after dawn on the morning of 5 December 1956, I was woken by a loud knocking on my door. I knew immediately that it was the security police.”

Johannesburg’s Old Fort prison was a notorious institution, ruled by gang violence, deprivation and fear. Many political activists including Mahatma Gandhi, Joe Slovo and Robert Sobukwe endured sentences here. Mandela suffered two.

Held in the Awaiting Trial Block before bring tried for treason in 1956, he was shocked by the conditions, remarking: “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones – and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.”

For his second stint, Mandela was given a larger, more comfortable cell. It now holds a small but fascinating exhibition of his diaries, correspondence and prison records.

The prison complex, renamed Constitution Hill (, has become a stirring heritage site, rich in symbolism. Using fragments from the past to build a better future, bricks from the Awaiting Trial Block were incorporated into the Constitutional Court of South Africa, which opened here in 2004.

1961-1962: Liliesleaf
“Living underground requires a seismic psychological shift. One has to plan every action. Nothing is innocent. Everything is questioned.”

To escape the authorities, Mandela disguised himself as the caretaker of a suburban homestead, Liliesleaf Farm. It became a Communist Party headquarters and a hideout for MK, Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC and the Congress Alliance. In a fateful decision, Mandela left a number of incriminating notebooks here. They were seized in 1963, when Liliesleaf was raided and his colleagues arrested.

An excellent combination of archive footage and witness accounts makes Liliesleaf one of South Africa’s most interesting museums ( Among the exhibits is an overland truck that plied the route from Kenya to the Cape in the 1980s. Little did the tourists on board know that hidden under the seats were weapons and explosives destined for MK.

1962: Mandela Capture Site
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

On 5 August 1962, Mandela’s time on the run ended abruptly. A police sergeant arrested him on the road to Johannesburg, north of Howick, in the region now known as the Midlands Meander. It was to be his last glimpse of freedom for over 27 years.

In 2012 the first stage of a new museum ( opened directly opposite the spot. Its centrepiece is a remarkable sculpture by Marco Cianfanelli and Mashabane Rose, the architecture and design practice behind the Apartheid, Hector Pieterson, Liliesleaf and Mandela House museums. The sculpture is composed of 50 irregular steel columns that, as you approach on foot, merge into a portrait of Mandela. In an intriguing twist, the portrait appears imperfect until you view it through a camera. The lens of a smartphone renders it perfectly, as if to remind us of the fragile dynamic between record and reality.

1963 & 1964-1982: Robben Island
“It evokes all sorts of memories, but I’m concentrating on the pleasant ones.”

Mandela’s bitter acquaintance with Robben Island began in the depths of the winter of 1963, when he was sent there for two weeks. A year later, he returned under the cloud of a life sentence. He ended up spending the best part of the next 18 years on the island.

The prisoners endured hardships and cruelties and had minimal contact with their families. Nonetheless Mandela described it as a time of comradeship. He and his fellow inmates found opportunities to smuggle crucial items in and out, study, debate, write, and make plans, in preparation for the time when they would lead South Africa into democracy.

Since becoming a museum in 1996 the island has become one of South Africa’s busiest attractions ( As such, its tours can feel crowded and rushed, but the chance to see Mandela’s tiny cell and ponder its significance is overwhelmingly powerful.

1990 & 1994-1999: Cape Town
“Cape Town, more than any other city in South Africa, has been home to people from different cultures for a long, long time.”

On the day he was released, 11 February 1990, Mandela gave a public address from the front balcony of Cape Town’s City Hall. A crowd of 250,000 had waited in searing heat to witness this moment, and Mandela thanked them for their support during the long years that he’d been an invisible resident of their city.

Cape Town has yet to commission a significant Madiba statue, but the main highway into the city has been renamed in his honour, the Civic Centre is hosting a photographic tribute until 2014, and there are small statues on Nobel Square and in the atrium of Mandela Rhodes Place. Book a walking tour with Footsteps to Freedom (, and you can see this and other important sites, including the elegant parliament buildings where Mandela made a series of historic presidential speeches before, with characteristic humility, stepping down after just one term.

Getting there:
South African Airways (, British Airways ( and Virgin Atlantic ( all have direct flights between London and Johannesburg.

Most visitors can travel to South Africa without a visa for up to 90 days. Make sure your passport has at least two blank pages for official stamps – this is very important.

Getting around:
You can visit all the key places associated with Nelson Mandela’s life by travelling from Johannesburg via KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape province to Cape Town, or vice versa. It’s over 2000km by road, with the option of covering part of the route by air: flights run from Johannesburg to Durban or Mthatha, from East London to Port Elizabeth and from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town. The Fair Trade Travel Pass (, a transport, accommodation and activities package for backpackers, covers many of the points on this route. Alternatively, you could visit a selection of sites in chronological order.

Where to stay:
Sibuya Game Reserve ( With a beautiful river setting and sound responsible tourism credentials, this is a good option for those wishing to break their journey with a safari.
Nelson Mandela Museum ( The Qunu branch of the museum has smart guestrooms with self-catering facilities.
Bulungula Lodge ( Learn about Xhosa culture at this remote but delightfully simple and eco-friendly community tourism project.

The Soweto Hotel ( Set in a gritty but historic area, this is a chic hotel, decorated with portraits of anti-apartheid heroes.
Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers ( Laidback budget option with a fresh, friendly atmosphere.

12 Decades ( Edgy urban hotel with huge artist-designed rooms inspired by South African history, in Maboneng, an area buzzing with cafes and street art.
The Munro ( Sleek, boutique hotel in the affluent northern suburb of Houghton, which is Nelson Mandela’s base in Johannesburg.

Mandela Rhodes Place ( Comfortable hotel with exhibitions and resources devoted to Mandela’s life and legacy.
Daddy Long Legs ( Funky budget hotel on lively Long Street. Each room has been individually styled by a different contemporary artist.
The Backpack ( Popular and easy-going hostel.

Find out more:
Apartheid Museum (
Constitution Hill (
Footsteps to Freedom (
JMT Tours (
Liliesleaf (
Mandela House Museum (
Mulaudzi Tours (
Nelson Mandela Capture Site (
Nelson Mandela Museum (
Past Experiences (
Robben Island Museum (
Soweto Bicycle Tours (



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