Taking the Nelson Mandela Route

The Nelson Mandela Route starts in the Eastern Cape, in King William’s Town, which began as a London-based Missionary Station in 1826 and provides a backdrop to early European influences in a struggle region of British, Boer and Xhosa conflicts.

The town’s Amathole Museum has a Xhosa Gallery, Missionary Museum and German Settlers display. The grave of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko is also in the town.

The Mandela Route moves through Bhisho, home of the provincial government, and takes a scenic drive on the N2 to Mthatha, which hosts the Nelson Mandela Museum.

The museum is a collection of heritage sectors spread across three locations: Qunu, Mveso and Mthatha. A display reflecting the life and times of Mandela can be found at the Bhunga Building section of the Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha.

Mandela has received thousands of gifts from presidents, groups and ordinary people. Accepted on behalf of the people of South Africa, they are in safe-keeping at the museum for the benefit and appreciation of the nation. Artefacts ranging from children’s letters to bejeweled camel covers say more about the donors than their famous recipient.

Scenes from Mandela’s childhood

The second sector of the museum is the Community Museum and Youth & Heritage Centre in the village of Qunu, where Mandela spent his childhood.

Here, tourists can view the remains of young Nelson’s primary school, the rock he used to slide down with friends, and the graveyard where his son, daughter and parents are buried – all set in the rolling hills of Pondoland, where Mandela grazed his family’s cattle.

Alongside the N2 is Mandela’s current home, where he entertains a steady stream of people from the neighbouring village and holds an annual party for children on his birthday. A tunnel running under the N2 allows visitors to “cross” the road in safety.

A thatched open-air museum at Mveso – the third sector of the Nelson Mandela Museum – shelters a photographic exhibition depicting significant moments in Mandela’s life. Nearby are the remains of the homestead where Mandela was born and raised.

Free guided tours of all three sectors of the Nelson Mandela Museum can be arranged via the museum in Mthatha.

The Mandela Route then moves back to East London, which has a museum housing a superb collection of southern Nguni beadwork.

Staying on the trail of the man himself, one has to leave the Eastern Cape, as he did.

Mandela in Johannesburg

The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg is a state-of-the-art tribute to the rise and fall of apartheid. Twenty-two exhibition areas take the visitor on an emotional journey through a state-sanctioned system based on racial discrimination.

It was put together on a seven-hectare site by a team of curators, film-makers, historians, designers and architects. Film footage, photographs, text panels and artefacts depict the epic saga of apartheid.

Mandela’s humble house in Orlando West, Soweto has been turned into the Mandela Family Museum. It houses an assortment of memorabilia, paintings, photographs and collection of honorary doctorates bestowed on Mandela from universities around the world.

This matchbox home at 8115 Ngakane Street was the abode that Mandela shared with his first wife, Evelyn Ntoko Mase. She moved out after their divorce in 1957, and when Winnie Madikizela married Mandela in 1958, she then moved into this Soweto home.

Mandela seldom stayed here as he was living life on the run as the “black pimpernel”. Nearby is the Hector Pieterson Memorial to the schoolboy shot during the June 16 riots of 1976, as well as the home of Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu.

Mandela’s larger-than-life character and famous “Madiba jive” are also captured in an outsize 6 metre statue at the upmarket shopping destination Nelson Mandela Square (formerly Sandton Square) – a prime photo opportunity for tourists.

This famous builder of bridges between people has also had the largest cable-stayed bridge in southern Africa named after him. It links the Johannesburg central business district of Newtown and the northern parts of the city.

Robben Island

Finally – or firstly? – to Robben Island, off the coastline of Cape Town.

The famous prison has incarcerated indigenous African leaders, Muslim leaders from the East Indies, Dutch and British settler soldiers and civilians, women and anti-apartheid activists, including South Africa’s first democratic President, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

Today it is a museum which acts as a focal point for South African heritage. Ex-political prisoners act as tour guides in a place of exile and imprisonment which epitomises the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.