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Exploring the legacy of Nelson Mandela in South Africa

A man walks past the Mandela House Museum, where former President Nelson Mandela lived in Soweto from 1946 to 1962.
A man walks past the Mandela House Museum, where former President Nelson Mandela lived in Soweto from 1946 to 1962.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Although South Africa is a land of majestic mountains, magnificent beaches, and modern cities, there was a time in the not-too-distant past when travel by Americans to that nation was discouraged because of South Africa’s repressive institution of apartheid. While many South Africans, including blacks, whites, and Indians, fought for generations to end the practice of apartheid, it is thanks primarily to the legacy of Nelson Mandela that South Africa once again is a popular destination for international travelers.

Visitors to South Africa have an opportunity to spend some time exploring Mandela’s legacy while also enjoying the nation’s many other splendors. A good place to start is Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for nearly 20 years in a cell measuring eight feet by seven feet.

Robben Island

In 1498, Portuguese sailors under the command of famed explorer Vasco de Gama paid a visit to Robben Island. Within three decades, the island was being used by the Portuguese to exile convicts. The island continued to serve as a prison site during Dutch and British colonial rule of South Africa, thanks to its close proximity to the Cape of Good Hope and the city of Cape Town, which was founded by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century.

In 1910, South Africa gained independence from Britain. Although roughly two-thirds of the country’s population was black, the minority white population was able to maintain control of South Africa for the next 80 years through a series of laws that suppressed the rights of all non-whites to take part in the political process. The most notorious of these laws were the apartheid acts that followed the nation’s 1948 election. The goal of these laws was strict racial segregation, including the forced relocation of non-whites from areas the government designated as for whites only.

It was in this context that Mandela became a young leader in the African National Congress (ANC), an organization founded shortly after South Africa became independent, which sought to combat the suppression of the black majority. One of the few allies the ANC had among predominantly-white political groups was the South African Communist Party and Mandela was arrested for the first time in 1952 under the Suppression of Communism Act. He was given a suspended sentence.

Mandela was arrested again in 1956 on charges of treason, but was acquitted. By 1960, the ANC was banned and Mandela was forced to continue his political activities underground. South African authorities caught up with him in 1962 and he spent the next 28 years in prison, serving the majority of his life sentence at Robben Island.

At first, Mandela was allowed only one visitor and one letter every six months. He and his fellow prisoners broke rocks into gravel during the day and slept on straw mats in their cells at night. In 1965, he was reassigned to work in a lime quarry on the island. He was denied the use of sunglasses, and the glare of the sun off the rocks in the quarry caused permanent damage to his vision.

Mandela was moved to a different prison in 1982, but Robben Island continued as a prison facility until 1996. Meanwhile, Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990 after the ban on the ANC was repealed and in 1994 he won the first presidential election in the country that was open to all races. Robben Island became a museum in 1997 and in 1999 it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ferries leave Cape Town’s Nelson Mandela Gateway four times a day to transport visitors to Robben Island. The cost of the round-trip ferry ride and a three-and-a-half hour tour of the island is 230 Rand (about $23) for adults and 120 Rand for children under 18. The tour includes a visit to the prison, as well as an opportunity to speak with a former political prisoner.

Mandela in Cape Town

Following his release from prison, Mandela delivered an important speech to the nation from Cape Town City Hall. He promised to work toward peace and reconciliation between races, but warned that the ANC would take up arms as “a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid,” if the government refused to end the practice.

Mandela spoke to the country again from City Hall four years later, following his election as president.

Built in 1905 with limestone imported from England, the City Hall is located on the Grand Parade, Cape Town’s main public plaza. One of City Hall’s unusual features is an organ made of mahogany, teak, and pine that uses 3,165 pipes, varying in length from 32 feet to three-quarters of an inch.

The Grand Parade started out as a drilling ground for soldiers. It received a major spruce-up prior to the 2010 World Cup, when it was the site of the FIFA Fan Fest.

In 1992, South African President F.W. De Klerk announced the end of apartheid from De Tuynhuys, the presidential office building. Mandela moved into De Tuynhuys two years later.

Construction of De Tuynhuys began in 1700. It started out merely as a storage building for vegetables grown by Cape Town’s Dutch colonists. It was later expanded to serve as a residence, first for important visitors to the colony, then for a succession of Dutch and British governors.

Tourists cannot go inside De Tuynhuys, but they can get a good look at it from Company’s Garden. As its name implies, this public space once was a garden owned by the Dutch East India Company.

Today, Company’s Garden delights visitors with beautiful flowers and trees, including the oldest cultivated pear tree in South Africa, dating from 1652.

Mandela in Johannesburg

Mandela was born in 1918 in the small village of Mvezo on the Mbashe River in what is now South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. Mandela spent most of his childhood, however, in another village nearby, Qunu.

In 1946, Mandela and his first wife, Evelyn, moved into a small house in the Soweto area of Johannesburg.

“It was the opposite of grand, but it was my first true home of my own and I was mightily proud,” Mandela said in his autobiography. “A man is not a man until he has a house of his own.”

Members of the Mandela family continued to live in the home until 1996, when Mandela divorced his second wife, Winnie.

In 2009, the house at Vilakazi and Ngakane Streets became a museum called Mandela House, with exhibits covering the life of Nelson Mandela. Admission is 40 Rand ($4) for adults and half that or less for children. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. every day of the year except Good Friday and Christmas.

Following the banning of the ANC in 1960, Mandela spent some time in hiding at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, a suburb of Johannesburg. The property was owned by members of the South African Communist Party and was purchased with party funds. Mandela lived there under an assumed name and was ostensibly employed as a caretaker.

Ironically, Rivonia today is an affluent municipality in still capitalist South Africa and is the home of many technological firms. Liliesleaf Farm has been preserved as a historic site. The standard guided tour is 110 Rand ($11) for adults and 30 Rand for children under 18. The site is open daily except for Christmas Day, Dec. 26, and New Year’s Day.

What would a trip to South Africa cost?

The price of round-trip air fare from Chicago and hotel accommodations for seven nights in Cape Town currently ranges from about $2,000 to $4,000 per person. Adding a side trip to Johannesburg obviously will add costs and may require a significant time extension. It takes about two hours to fly from Cape Town to Johannesburg. South African Airways (SAA) and British Airways (BA) are among the carriers offering non-stop flights between the two cities. A round-trip ticket will cost about $250 per person on SAA and $430 on BA.

A more economical option for travel between Cape Town and Johannesburg is the Shosholoza Meyl train. A one-way ticket costs 620 Rand ($62). The downside is it takes 26 hours for the train to travel the 900 miles between the two cities. The upside is the train journey takes you through some of South Africa’s most spectacular scenery.


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