The official mourning period is over; the memorials and funeral have taken place; and with the passing of one of the most inspirational figures of our time, South Africa has become the subject of renewed attention from politicians, historians, biographers and travellers.
As people clamber to pay tribute to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, former South African president and anti-apartheid revolutionary, the country’s stellar museums and historical sites are taking on a new importance. From Mandela’s humble boyhood home to the prisons that later held him, travellers can follow this unofficial route through the freedom fighter‘s life, stopping off at crucial sites in three key regions to learn more about the man South Africans refer to as Madiba (his clan name) or simply, Tata (father).
Eastern Cape: The childhood years (1918 to 1930)
Before partaking in the pilgrimage to Mandela’s birth and final resting place, get a grounding on the great man’s life at the Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha, a sizeable town some 400km southwest of Durban. Located in the Bhunga Building – former home to the local parliament – the exhibits tell the story of Mandela’s autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, and detail the key events of his life. Once you have a factual foundation, take some time to check out the honours and gifts bestowed on the much-loved leader throughout the years.
The museum has a satellite complex in Qunu, a miniscule hamlet 30km southwest of Mthatha, now the focus of international attention with visitors wanting to pay their respects at Madiba’s final resting place. Book a guided tour at the Qunu museum to explore the significant sites of Mvezo, Mandela’s birthplace located 22km south of Qunu; and his two boyhood villages, Qunu and Mqhekezweni, just 10km from each other. All can be visited independently, but a local guide brings the sites to life in a way that simply reading Mandela’s autobiography cannot.
Johannesburg and Soweto: The resistance years (1941 to 1964)
From the rolling hills of the rural Eastern Cape, head to the hectic streets of South Africa’s largest city. Start in central Johannesburg, where the one-time law offices of Mandela and fellow political activist and African National Congress (ANC) member Oliver Tambo are now the site of a simple outdoor museum, Chancellor House, located on the corner of Fox and Gerard Sekoto Streets. As well as detailing Mandela’s life, information panels look at the bigger picture, recounting what was happening throughout South Africa during the 1950s, particularly with regard to the oppressive pass laws that severely restricted the movement of non-white citizens.
Perhaps the most informative and convenient way to get around is on the new double decker City Sightseeing bus, launched in February 2013, which delivers historical commentary as it travels the streets of downtown Jo’burg and beyond. Make sure to stop off at Constitution Hill: today, this is the site of the South African Constitutional Court, but visitors will also learn about a rather less cheery era in the country’s history. Its Old Fort is a former prison that operated from pre-Boer War times in the late 19th Century and throughout the apartheid era until its closure in 1987. Mandela spent short stints here in 1956 and 1962 while awaiting trial, and although the cells he occupied have since been demolished, a recreated one contains a permanent exhibition documenting his stay both here and on Cape Town’s Robben Island, largely through correspondence written during his incarceration. The one-time prison also offers a chilling look at the apartheid regime, where deep racial inequalities permeated even the penal system.
The sightseeing bus then takes you on an equally emotional ride to the excellent Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg South, where the exhibition is as superbly moving as it is distressing. Understanding the political system that ruled South Africa from 1948 to 1994 is essential to understanding Mandela himself, and a couple of hours spent walking through recent history will help untangle the extent of the complex web of laws that segregated every aspect of South African society.