In the footsteps of greatness

Follow a route through the life of Nelson Mandela, a man who epitomised forgiveness and reconciliation – and inspired the world.

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.

Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, Mandela’s home was a simple dwelling on Vilakazi Street in Soweto, a thriving suburb 30km southwest of Johannesburg – though his underground political activities meant that he spent little time here with wife Winnie and their two daughters. Today, the house is preserved as a museum, and while the information panels go a long way to explaining this era in Mandela’s life, it is the impassioned guided tours that make this a must-see stop.

In those final years before his lengthy incarceration (1962 to 1990), Mandela also spent time in a farmhouse 28km to the north of the city. In the 1960s, Liliesleaf Farm was the headquarters of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the then-banned ANC. Today it has been transformed into a magnificent museum, where interactive exhibits draw visitors into a fascinating chapter in South African history. Information is abundant, so be sure to set aside half a day to fully appreciate the role that Liliesleaf played in the resistance movement.

Cape Town and around: Imprisonment and freedom (1964 to 1990)
After the Rivonia Trial, which began with the Liliesleaf raid in 1963 and wrapped up in 1964, in which 10 leaders of the ANC were tried for acts of sabotage designed to overthrow the apartheid system, Mandela was moved to Robben Island, South Africa’s answer to Alcatraz. Lying 7km off Cape Town’s coast, the island served as a jail, a leper colony and a World War II fortification before returning to its roots in 1961 as a maximum security prison with virtually no chance of escape. Today the building is a museum, and it’s is one of the main attractions in a city awash with activities and sights. Board a ferry at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront for the half day trip that takes in the choppy seas, tours the island and makes an all-important stop at the cell that held prisoner 46664 for much of his 27 years behind bars.

Towards the end of his incarceration, Mandela was moved between prisons in the Cape. Both Pollsmoor Prison and Drakenstein Correctional Centre (formerly Victor Verster Prison) remain in use, and the latter, 70km east of Cape Town in the Winelands, is worth a visit. It is here that Mandela spent his final days of imprisonment and where the memorable scenes of him walking free for the first time in almost three decades were shot. A bronze statue of the great man, hand raised in triumph, commemorates the moment. If you’re lucky, you might find a warden to take you on a quick unofficial tour of the cottage where he spent his final years of captivity.

Back in Cape Town, there is one more sight to see: the Edwardian City Hall facade overlooking Grand Parade. This large square is home to a daily bustling market, but on 11 February 1990, thousands gathered in this spot to hear Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela speak from the balcony as a free man for the first time in more than 27 years. Visit on a Sunday when the square is quieter and ponder the life of a man who epitomised forgiveness and reconciliation, and inspired not only a nation, but the rest of the world as well.