10 January 2006
South Africa’s Wild Coast region of the Eastern Cape is known for its unspoilt beauty, rolling green hills and pristine beaches. Now the area is getting a tourism boost from its ultimate attraction – the name of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president and the Eastern Cape’s favourite son.
Mandela was born and raised in the province, spending his early years in the small village of Qunu, just outside Mthatha (Umtata).
“Many tourists are coming here from all over the world,” Sinyiko Zimisele, a guide at Qunu’s Nelson Mandela Museum, told Business Day recently.
“People like Mandela,” Zimisele says. “They say he is a good man for reconciliation.”
Qunu is where Mandela has said he spent the happiest years of his youth, doing his herd-boy duties, playing in the river and sailing down the “sliding stone”.
When his father was persecuted by the white magesitrate and deposed as chief of Mvezo, where Mandela was born, the family took refuge at Qunu. It is the place where the young Rolihlahla, in colonial tradition, was named Nelson on his first day at school.
Soon after his 1990 release from 27 years in prison, Mandela built a small house on his family plot in Qunu. It is an exact replica of the dwelling where he spent the last years of his incarceration at Cape Town’s Victor Vester prison. He has since built a bigger house, where he stays when visiting his home town.
“We have found Mandela’s name to be a big drawcard,” Wild Coast Holiday Association CEO William Ross told Business Day. “Obviously the resorts along the coast will have to find out how they are going to use that drawcard to attract guests.
“When people are down the Wild Coast and you mention to them that we’ll be driving past the birthplace of Mandela or past his house, it generates the most amazing interest.
“And, of course, they want to hear about his life story,” says Ross.
The Mandela Museum
The Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha is now the biggest tourist attraction in the town.
“It’s a rather out of the way place that nobody really knows about, yet it’s a most fantastic museum once you’re in there,” Ross told Business Day.
The Mthatha museum is housed in the magnificent Bhunga Building, which has functioned as the seat of the United Transkei Territories General Council, Transkei Legislative Assembly and the Republic of Transkei Parliament during the territory’s nominal independence in the apartheid era.
Smaller satellite museums have been set up in Mvezo, Mandela’s birthplace, and in Qunu.
On display in the Bhunga Building are the many gifts, recognitions and awards given to Mandela by different people, countries, groups, organisations and institutions the world over, when he was in prison and during his five-year term as SA’s president until 1999. The list of donors reads like an international who’s who.
The gifts, recognitions and awards given to Nelson Mandela, on display in the Bhunga Building (Image: Nelson Mandela Museum)
The museum is visited by thousands of tourists every year, and considered one of South Africa’s most significant heritage institutions.
Mandela has insisted that the museum should not simply be a tribute to him, but also serve as a catalyst for the upliftment of the local community.
‘The simple beauties of nature’
The Wild Coast is one of the poorest areas of South Africa, but is rich in natural beauty. In Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, he speaks of his love of the region and his fond memories of herding cattle in the rolling hills around Qunu.
“From an early age, I spent most of my free time in the veld playing and fighting with the other boys of the village,” he writes. “A boy who remained at home tied to his mother’s apron strings was regarded as a sissy.
“I was no more than five when I became a herd-boy, looking after sheep and calves in the fields. I discovered the almost mystical attachment that the Xhosa have for cattle, not only as a source of food and wealth, but as a blessing from God and a source of happiness.
“It was in the fields that I learned how to knock birds out of the sky with a slingshot, to gather wild honey and fruits and edible roots, to drink warm, sweet milk straight from the udder of a cow, to swim in the clear, cold streams, and to catch fish with twine and sharpened bits of wire.
“From these days I date my love of the veld, of open spaces, the simple beauties of nature, the clean line of the horizon.”
The Eastern Cape has also produced many other anti-apartheid heroes: Walter Sisulu, Thabo Mbeki and his father Govan, Steve Biko, Chris Hani and Oliver Tambo.
“We are lucky to have the Mandela factor here,” Gary Anderson, a hotel owner in Coffee Bay, told Business Day.
“For many people this is the real Africa – it’s as authentic as you get it.
“Big tourism is being embraced by everybody. Room occupancy is on a steady growth pattern and it’s going to reach a pinnacle in 2010.”
Ocean liners now anchor more often in East London, sending their passengers by road to Qunu and nearby resorts, through the spectacular Great Kei River Pass. The area includes the Shamwari game reserve, which has repeatedly been named the best game reserve in the world at the World Travel Awards.
“The Mandela factor is certainly beginning to have an impact on tourism,” fisherman Tshungu Kennedy told Business Day. “In a few years I bet you tourists are going to be swarming in like ants.”