Beyond Robben Island: ways to explore Mandela’s life and legacy in South Africa
By South Africa specialist Cara
On July 18th South Africa (and, indeed, the world) celebrated the centenary of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s birth. In his home country the day was celebrated with public concerts and people donating their time to volunteer for charitable causes to honor his life of service. Barack Obama also paid a visit to give the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg the day before his birthday.
If you’re planning to visit South Africa this year, it’s (unsurprisingly) a particularly good time to explore the places associated with Mandela’s life. And, there’s a lot more to see than you might expect.
All of the Mandela-focused experiences and places I mention below can be worked into a wider tour of the country (such as the trip outlined here) — Johannesburg, for example, makes for a good endpoint for a trip. You’ll find more ideas for what your South Africa trip might involve in this guide.
Footsteps to Freedom walking tour, Cape Town
Cape Town is an airy, walkable, European-feeling city. Its famed V&A Waterfront area bursts with up-to-the-minute architecture signalling the country’s 21st-century confidence.
One of the most notable recent arrivals is the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, a grain silo turned concrete-and-glass cathedral-like space. It places contemporary African and South African artists at the forefront of its collections, something which Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu referred to at the building’s opening ceremony. (He also joked that he’d received a phone call ‘from upstairs,’ in which Mandela approved of the project).
Most visitors to Cape Town feel compelled to make the journey across the water to Robben Island, where Mandela served part of his 27-year prison sentence, and where his Spartan cell has been carefully preserved.
But, I always suggest taking the ‘Footsteps to Freedom’ tour as an accompaniment to seeing the penitentiary. This walking tour (which can either be done on a private basis or as part of a small group) takes you on a leisurely peregrination of the city’s streets and landmarks, while explaining the city’s history from Dutch and British colonialism through to apartheid and after.
What I like about this tour is that guides put apartheid into context in an intelligent and moving way, while also giving you a great introduction to the city. You’ll stop at the stately Edwardian City Hall, where Mandela gave his first public speech hours after being released from prison. You’ll also see the waterfront’s Nobel Square, with its bronze sculptures of the country’s four Nobel Peace prize laureates — including a meditative Mandela — as well as South Africa’s Parliament buildings.
‘Joburg’ is undeniably gritty in a way that Cape Town is not, but it’s increasingly sloughing off this image. It’s home to a number of central suburbs, districts, and gated communities which are brimming with galleries, outdoor markets, independent boutiques and alfresco eating places.
I particularly like Maboneng Precinct, which has a relaxed, arty ambiance — it’s the kind of place where you’d happily linger with friends over a three-hour brunch.
Maboneng is also home to some of the city’s most illustrious street art, and you can opt to see its highlights on a walking and driving tour with a local guide.
One of the most famous pieces is by Capetonian artist Freddy Sam. His mural of a young Mandela in boxing gloves, eyes narrowed in concentration mid-spar, bestraddles the side of a tower block, and stands ten stories high. It’s a novel and poignant alternative to the beaming, venerable statesman you’ll see depicted almost everywhere else.
The township of Soweto, located just south of the city, is a good starting point for anyone interested in learning more about Mandela’s life. On a private guided tour of the township, you can see the home where Mandela lived with his family before his first arrest age 44, and visit the Apartheid Museum, which helps explain Mandela’s role in the eventual abandonment of the policy.
But, if you really want to walk in Mandela’s footsteps, I’d encourage you to go a little further and visit two more places in Joburg’s vicinity: Liliesleaf Farm, located in the suburb of Rivonia, and the former prison of Constitution Hill.
For me, this once-pastoral site is one of the best historic monuments in South Africa, although it has now been swallowed up by Johannesburg’s urban sprawl. This privately owned farm was used as the covert meeting place for the ANC’s military wing. You can still see the thatched cottage where members held their last meeting prior to being raided (and arrested) by apartheid police in 1963.
You’ll see the room in which Mandela stayed, disguised as a manual worker, and the original 1955 Freedom Charter, the political touchstone for the ANC and their allies. The farm also recreates the raid and the subsequent Rivonia Trials through powerful audio-visual displays.
This former prison complex was built around a 19th-century Boer fort, which the British subsequently turned into a prison. It sits slightly apart from the rest of the city on a grassy knoll, but its whitewashed walls and crinkle-cut ramparts give way to the skeletons of shower blocks and cells that once housed many political and common-law prisoners, including Mandela and Gandhi.
In the ‘Old Fort’ section of the complex, you’ll see handwritten letters from Mandela. (After his second arrest in Kwazulu-Natal (see below), he was held among white prisoners, being deemed too dangerous and influential to be held in the section reserved for black prisoners).
Be prepared to witness some harrowing sights, especially in the section reserved for black prisoners. You’ll step into dark, dank cells with no natural light (and so narrow in width, I couldn’t even stretch my arms to their full span when standing inside). Then there are the rooms in which 30 to 40 men were penned up together, and isolation cells, which were constantly illuminated in a bid to discombobulate their occupants.
The best statues and sculptures of Mandela, and where to find them
Nelson Mandela Capture Site
It’s easy to take in some of the many statues of and sculptures depicting Mandela during a wider tour of South Africa.
If you’re spending time in the Winelands, you can make a short pilgrimage to the still-functioning Groot Drakenstein Prison (previously the Victor Verster Prison). Located almost equidistant from the towns of Franschhoek and Paarl, it was here that Mandela spent the final months of his imprisonment. Today, a jubilant, fist-pumping bronze of Mandela stands outside its gates.
The Drakensberg Mountains is an area I’ve really enjoyed spending time in – I explain more about hiking there in this article. If you find yourself driving from the mountains, or the Battlefields of Kwazulu-Natal, to Durban or the Midlands, you could make a detour to the Nelson Mandela Capture Site. In 1952, Mandela was caught by apartheid police as he drove along a lonely stretch of road near the town of Howick.
At the site, you follow a sinuous path (representing the ‘Long Walk to Freedom’) before finding, at its endpoint, a two-dimensional image of Mandela’s profile created entirely through the strategic placement of laser-cut steel bars. It’s a strangely fragile sculpture, in some ways, despite its stolid metallic materials: his image disappears entirely unless you view the sculpture from a certain angle.
Finally, I particularly like the statue outside Pretoria’s Union Building, where, on sunny days, you’ll find an open-armed, almost messianic Mandela silhouetted against a bright blue sky.