Tracing Nelson Mandela’s Legacy

Nelson Mandela’s legacy looms large in South Africa; as an anti-apartheid activist, prisoner of conscience, and then President of the Republic, his spot in South Africa’s history books had been secured.

Every year thousands of international tourists visit the sites where Mandela lived, worked and suffered throughout his life. Since his death in 2013, interest has increased exponentially. (For example, Robben Island, the site of the prison where Mandela spent nearly 20 years in isolation, has seen a surge in visitors.)

For those interested in walking in Madiba’s footsteps while touring South Africa, here is a roundup of key sites from his life and work.

qunu village

Qunu village, South Africa (Salym Fayad / Flickr)

Qunu: The small village in the Eastern Cape where Mandela spent his youth hasn’t always been a major tourist attraction, but that’s bound to change now that Madiba has been laid to rest there. Visitors will no doubt make pilgrimages to pay their respects to the man who had such humble beginnings, yet rose to international prominence in the fight against apartheid.

The village is home to the small but interesting Nelson Mandela Museum. In addition to a collection of images and artifacts that illustrate his life, the staff also offer organized tours to places he frequented as a young man. These include the granite “sliding” rock he used to play on with friends, the stone church where he was baptized, and the ruins of the primary school where his teacher gave him the name “Nelson” on his first day. Qunu is also where Mandela, his two sons, daughter and parents are buried.

Since the village is quite remote, visitors may want to stay overnight. The museum offers 60 units of “upscale backpacker-style” accommodation as well as six conventional hotel-type rooms.

Alexandra: When Mandela first moved to Johannesburg in the early 1940s, he lived in a scruffy room in the township of Alexandra. Though there’s not much of touristic interest in the area, it’s worth exploring with an outfitter like Alexandra Tours if only to get a feel for the type of neighborhood most tourists never see. The tour visits the yard where his room was located, a local shebeen, and a school. A new Mandela museum is being built behind the yard, but the opening date is not definite yet.

Mandela House (Wikimedia Commons)

Mandela House (Wikimedia Commons)

Soweto: After Mandela left Alexandra, he eventually moved to the nearby township of Soweto. He lived at 8115 Vilakazi Street on and off from 1946 to 1962 (part of that time with second wife Winnie), and the house is now a museum. Interestingly, Archbishop Desmond Tutu also lived on Vilakazi Street for a time, making it the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Dozens of companies offer bus, bike and foot tours of Soweto and the Mandela-related sites there, and there are numerous small inns and B&Bs if you want to stay the night. Not far from Soweto is the excellent Apartheid Museum, which features audio-visual displays and photographs that recreate the harrowing, brutal world of apartheid. Among the video reels is footage of Mandela’s 1961 interview with the BBC (recorded while while he was in hiding), and chilling footage of Hendrik Verwoerd, the “architect of apartheid,” justifying why he felt racial segregation was necessary.

Liliesleaf, Rivonia: Liliesleaf farm was the secret headquarters and hideout of the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, of which Mandela was a member. When the farm was raided in 1963, authorities found enough evidence to convict Mandela (who was arrested months earlier) and detain several other anti-apartheid activists. Though Mandela had been imprisoned and released many times in years past, the Rivonia trial resulted in a life sentence, and marked the beginning of his many years in the infamous prison at Robben Island.

Visitors can tour the interactive museum at the preserved farm, which is located at 7 George Avenue in Rivonia. The collection includes video of an attempted jailbreak by some of Mandela’s co-conspirators, in which they bribed a guard to let them out, and an old safari vehicle that was covertly used to smuggle AK-47s and grenades from exiles abroad.

Howick: The place where Mandela was arrested in August 1962, after 17 months of eluding authorities, is now the site of a striking monument. 50 steel poles are arranged in a pattern that creates an image of Mandela’s face as you walk toward it, and allude to solidarity — of many uniting into one. The capture site, which marked the beginning of 27 years in prison for Mandela, is just outside of Howick. To get there, take the N3 highway, which runs between Durban and Johannesburg, to the Tweedie/R103 turnoff toward Lions River. The sculpture is 5 minutes from the N3 turnoff and is well signposted.

mandela prison cell robben island

Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island (Wikimedia Commons)

Robben Island: Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison on Robben Island, which is just off the coast of Cape Town and is now one of the most popular stops on the Mandela tourist trail. Tours, which are guided by former prisoners, are interesting but the quality is inconsistent. If you can put that aside, it is worth going to see the lime quarries where the prisoners worked, the tiny cell where Mandela spent so many years, and the barracks where the less-famous prisoners were housed. Ferries leave from the Nelson Mandela Gateway on the V&A Waterfront at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm. It’s best to pre-book online, as tours fill up quickly.

Tour packages

Several tour operators offer comprehensive Mandela-themed tour packages that take in many of the sites mentioned above.

Thompsons Holidays Africa has a “Long Walk to Freedom” package that include the site of Mandela’s arrest, his house in Soweto, Robben Island and Qunu.

Great Safaris has an 11-day trip called “Madiba’s Journey: In Nelson Mandela’s Footprints” which includes visits to Soweto’s Vilakazi Street and the Nelson Mandela House Museum, Kliptown, the Apartheid Museum, Constitution Hill and Lilies Leaf. The journey continues through Cape Town, where the tour will focus on key areas such as Robben Island, Parliament, City Hall & the Grand Parade.

South African Airways Vacations is offering a 10-day “Mandela’s Journey to Freedom” package, which includes a cultural tour of various townships in Cape Town, a trip to Robben Island, a tour of Liliesleaf, the Hector Pieterson Museum and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

Additional resources

South Africa Tourism recently developed a Madiba-inspired tourism map, which includes all of the above sites, plus many more. It can be accessed here.

Related articles on AFKTravel:

Honoring Mandela, One Year Later

15 Milestones in the Life of Nelson Mandela

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