Winnie Madikizela-Mandela stepped into the front door of her tiny house at 8115 Vilakazi Street in Orlando West on Thursday, and re-lived some painful memories.
The Mandela House was restored at a cost of R9-million and re-opened to the public in March 2009. Madikizela-Mandela, her two daughters Zinzi and Zenani, and family members were present at the re-opening.
Nelson Mandela moved into the house in 1946 with his first wife, Evelyn Mase, and in 1958 brought his second wife, Winnie, to live in the house with him. He returned briefly to live in the house on his release from prison in 1990. He said in Long Walk to Freedom: “It was only then that I knew in my heart that I had left prison.”
Madikizela-Mandela led struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada, Gauteng Premier Paul Mashatile, various diplomats and other officials through the house, recounting memories of living there as she went along.
Afterwards she wrote in the visitors’ book: “Today is historical to the family, the preservation of our legacy could not have been better retained for posterity … We are proud of the achievements that have been made by the team.”
The R9-million restoration was undertaken by Soweto Heritage Trust, with donations from Standard Bank and Anglo American of R2.25-million each.
Curator Ishmael Mbhokodo, who accompanied Madikizela-Mandela on the tour, which excluded the media, said he felt she was extremely emotional but would not give in to tears in a public place.
‘This humble dwelling’
Zinzi Mandela-Hlongwane read a short speech from Mandela, who wasn’t present: “The heritage of this humble dwelling is of course one of struggle and sacrifice, but it is also one that demonstrates the ability of the human spirit to triumph over adversity.
“It is the heritage not only of one family, but that of all the people of Soweto and of our nation, who refused to bow down to tyranny or succumb to bitterness.”
Thousands of visitors
The Mandela House, which attracts thousands of visitors each year, has been returned to its former humble, three-roomed lay-out, with concrete floors and the corrugated roof visible from inside.
A wall of display cabinets are filled with documents and certificates. A kitchen dresser rests against one wall, a painting of Mandela on another, while a large photograph of Madikizela-Mandela ironing is visible as one steps into the front door. An old cast-iron coal stove sits against the wall of what was the kitchen.
Video and audio recordings
The site now boasts a visitors’ centre with ablution facilities and a small museum. The yard is enclosed in brick walling on one side and round steel fence poles, making it possible to look in on the house and small garden. Paving and low face brick walling demarcate the garden, which contains several trees of significance to the family.
Trustee Tina Eboka said the members of the Mandela family provided the trust with invaluable insight and support in the restoration of the house and the displays inside the visitors’ centre. “We are also grateful to the family for its help in unpacking and understanding the uniqueness of the site and what life was like during those years,” Eboka said.
The house is largely bare of furniture, giving it a deceptively spacious feel, despite its smallness. Marius van Blerck of the trust says all the original furniture has been stored, and the displays in the house will be changed and added to over time.
‘It was a safe haven’
About 100 people milled around the site while the tour of the house was being conducted. Sixty-four-year-old Mlungisi Nhlapo, who attended school with Mandela’s sons in Swaziland, came from Mofolo to attend the opening.
The house, he said, “brings those good bad memories back. This is where we used to hibernate, it was a safe haven.”
Sixty-five-year-old Selma Mkhabela and her husband, who have lived across the road from the Mandela House for 33 years, dressed up for the opening, waiting patiently to get a glimpse of Madikizela-Mandela. “This is wonderful to me,” Selma said, referring to the restoration process. She reminisced about the party Mandela held when he returned from prison in 1990.
The restoration of Mandela House is only a small part of a much bigger intervention in Orlando West. The Vilakazi Street precinct, when finished, will encompass a large triangle of rejuvenation of the area, with four gateways marking the entrance to the precinct, which has been described as an “outdoor living museum”.
The area is also significant because it’s where students took on the apartheid police on 16 June 1976, and where the set of photographs of the 12-year-old dying Hector Pieterson was taken, an image that came to symbolise the repressive actions of the government. The nearby Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial commemorates the sacrifice that Hector and other students made on that day and the days that followed.
The project will take the present ad-hoc arrangement of paving, lighting, kerbs, signage and landscaping in Vilakazi Street and standardise them. A number of trails around the precinct will be created.
‘If these walls could talk’
Mayoral committee member for community development Nandi Mayathula-Khoza said that “if these walls could talk, they would tell a story … of the brutality of the past regime … of how this house was raided, how this house was once petrol-bombed by the forces of darkness.
“This brutality did not break our spirit as a nation,” Mayathula-Khoza said. “U tata u Madiba symbolises our triumph as a people. We triumphed because of the sacrifices he made, but he also taught us that we should not adopt a triumphalist approach. He taught us reconciliation, and nation building. This house today embodies all that u tata U Madiba stands for.”
Gauteng premier Paul Mashatile said before the tour of the house: “We meet here today to witness the launch of a world-class tourism facility that, in many ways, is a fitting tribute to the icon of our liberation struggle and one of the founding fathers of our democracy, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and his family.
“The house also stands as a monument, reminding us of our unhappy past but also … reminding us of the power of reconciliation and nation building.”
Mandela House is open Mondays to Saturdays from 9am to 5pm, and Sundays from 9.30am to 4pm. Entrance is R40 for adults, R20 for scholars and seniors, and R5 for children under 6. Non-South Africans pay R60. For more information, visit www.mandelahouse.co.za.