On 5 August 1962, an otherwise ordinary piece of road along the R103, roughly three kilometres outside Howick in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, suddenly took on profound consequence. Armed apartheid police flagged down a car in which Nelson Mandela was pretending to be the chauffeur.
Having succeeded in evading capture by apartheid operatives for 17 months, Mandela had just paid a clandestine visit to African National Congress (ANC) president Chief Albert Luthuli’s Groutville home to report back on his African odyssey, and to request support in calling for an armed struggle.
It was in this dramatic way, at this unassuming spot, that Nelson Mandela was finally captured, and proceeded to disappear from public view for the next 27 years.
Powerful new sculpture
Marking the 50-year anniversary of what began Nelson Mandela’s “long walk to freedom” – and the piece of land that, quite randomly, irrevocably altered the history of South Africa – is a quietly powerful new sculpture, set into the environment of this silently potent space.
The sculpture, the centrepiece of a new memorial site – the Nelson Mandela Capture Site – was unveiled by South African President Jacob Zuma during the site’s official inauguration on 5 August 2012.
The site was made possible by the Department of Co-operative Government and Traditional Affairs working together with the uMngeni Municipality, the Apartheid Museum and the KwaZulu-Natal Heritage Council in association with the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.
The extraordinary sculpture by artist Marco Cianfanelli comprises 50 steel column constructions – each between 6.5 and 9.5 metres tall – set into the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands landscape.
The approach to the site, designed by architect Jeremy Rose of Mashabane Rose Associates, leads one down a path towards the sculpture where, at a distance of 35 metres, a portrait of Nelson Mandela, looking west, comes into focus as the 50 linear vertical units line up to create the illusion of a flat image.
At once monumental and transient
The effect of Cianfanelli’s image is at once monumental and transient.
Cianfanelli says of the deliberate structural paradox: “The 50 columns represent the 50 years since his capture, but they also suggest the idea of many making the whole; of solidarity.
“It points to an irony, as the political act of Mandela’s incarceration cemented his status as an icon of struggle, which helped ferment the groundswell of resistance, solidarity and uprising, bringing about political change and democracy.”
The sculpture both affects and is affected by the surrounding landscape, visually shifting throughout the day as light and atmosphere behind and around it change.
An additional five smaller columns create an axis from the main sculpture to the monument site across the road.
Museum, multipurpose theatre in the planning
Christopher Till, director of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and a key figure behind the development and realisation of the Capture Site, said the sculpture stood out as “an example of how the installation of art into a site of history and heritage can be a catalytic and powerful force.”
The uMngeni municipality, with the assistance of the Department of Co-operative Government and Traditional Affairs, has acquired the property adjacent to the capture site on the R103, and has commissioned a plan for the establishment of a museum, multipurpose theatre and amphitheatre on the site.
Speaking at the unveiling, Zuma said: “We must encourage generations to visit this place to see Madiba’s last point as a free man. Those who do so will be inspired by the sacrifice, commitment and dedication to this country and its people.”
Zuma also noted that Howick was famous for its beautifual scenery and its proximity to the magnificent Howick Falls, a major attraction for tourists visiting or passing through the area.