Exploring the culture that made Mandela

There are many options available to those interested in Nelson Mandela pilgrimage tours – one can visit Vilakazi Street, Alexandra, Liliesleaf and Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, or Robben Island and Parliament in Cape Town. Visitors can learn about the man, his party and philosophy, and the history of the struggle against apartheid.

But then there’s the culture that made the man. With its bespoke “Nelson’s Transkei” tour, Ukubona Africa immerses the visitor in the world that sculpted Mandela’s character.

Ukubona means “to see” in isiXhosa, explains Jasmin Johnson, the company’s co- owner and co-founder. And the aim of the tours is to open South Africa to visitors so they too can see the beauty and extraordinary people of the country.

Johnson, a German by birth, came to South Africa on holiday over a decade ago while still a student. She fell in love with the country – and a South African – and is still here.

Her husband, Neil Johnson – who has the isiXhosa nickname Khatazile, or “mischief maker” – is a partner in the company. He was born and raised on a farm in rural Eastern Cape and is fluent in isiXhosa. He has a deep understanding of African custom, heritage and landscape, and of a way of life based on the traditional philosophy of ubuntu – “I am, because we are”. This recognises that people are people through other people. Neil is able to provide an informed and insightful bridge between African and Western ways of interpreting life.

Ukubona Africa has designed its tour with Mandela’s memories of childhood in mind. It is a thoughtful, intimate wander through some of the places and stories of the great man’s youth, in the Eastern Cape countryside he loved:

    “I have the most pleasant recollections and dreams about the Transkei of my childhood, where I hunted, played stick-fighting, stole mielies on the cob and where I learnt to count.” – Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

Trip to Mvezo

Guests fly either to East London, Port Elizabeth or Mthatha, and are collected from the airport for the drive to Mvezo, on the banks of the Mbashe River – and Mandela’s birth place. It is the seat of the Mvezo Traditional Council, and the home of Mandla Mandela, Mandela’s grandson.

Mandla has built a museum about Xhosa history and the Mandela family. A hotel and backpackers lodge are also on the cards. There’s also the Mandela School of Science and Technology, built by Siemans after a promise was made to Mandela.

The landscape has changed little since Mandela’s infant years in the 1920s, and it is still dotted with hutted homesteads, cattle kraals and women cooking over fires.

The tour overnights in Mthatha before travelling through the gentle hills of Thembu tribal Transkei to the village of Qunu. Mandela moved here with his family when he was just two years old. It is where he grew up and to where he retired. Here, the tour visits the heritage museum.

“We always use local guides and local knowledge,” explains Jasmin. “This is important as we are interested in allowing people to explore the culture and customs.”

Mandela remembered a carefree boyhood in Qunu of sliding down rock faces and fulfilling his traditional role as a herd boy. “We visit the sliding rock at the museum and walk through the rolling hills to see the remains of the church where he was baptised, and visit the Mandela family burial site.”

The walk is an hour’s easy stroll, but it gives some idea of the terrain so loved and known by Mandela as a boy, and later as an elder.

Mandela is not buried in the original family burial site, Neil stresses. Mandela is buried across the road, and the grave cannot be visited at present. Plans are under way to create a garden of remembrance, where people will be able to pay their respects to Tata.

Lunch is eaten with a local family, and consists of the traditional dishes that Mandela’s mother would have made – samp (cooked white corn) and amasi (buttermilk). “Our guide, Zimisele Gamakhulu, has fascinating and amusing anecdotes about the great man and the history of the area.”

Jasmin adds: “Throughout the time spent in rural Transkei, we visit the small villages and rural homesteads, and immerse ourselves in the culture. The idea is cultural tourism; what we see is not staged but is the age-old rural way of life – it is the way of life led by a young Mandela.”

Mqhekezweni, the Great Place

A highlight is the trip to Mqhekezweni, the “Great Place” of the Thembu tribe that made the great man. After his father died when he was nine, Mandela and his mother walked to Mqhekezweni, or “place of learning”, where he was entrusted to the care of Chief Jongintaba, the Thembu regent. Under the regent’s mentorship he received an education and attended university.

“Mqhekezweni is key to understanding Thembu culture and custom, but also offers us a look at some special places in the ‘teenage’ Mandela story,” Ukubona Africa writes on its website. “For instance, we can still see the hut he shared with the regent’s son, Justice, and we visit the Bityi train station, from where the two planned to flee to Johannesburg to escape their arranged marriages.”

Visitors can stop at the school Mandela attended and the church where he learned to love gospel hymns. They can also picnic under the famous gum trees of Mqhekezweni and listen to the stories of the guide, as Mandela did to the elders of the Thembu tribe. Thembu elders today explain that tolerance of all people is a foundation of their tribe; Mandela was its proudest advocate.

It was here, sitting in on and listening to Jongintaba’s council, that Mandela learned his diplomacy – and democracy. Jongintaba gave every person a chance to speak; and everybody had to listen to the other’s opinion, explains Neil. Mqhekezweni is a very spiritual place. It is quite different from anything else you can experience on the more common Mandela pilgrimages.

Rhythms of life

The main attraction of the Nelson’s Transkei tour is to see how life unfolds. Visitors can follow his journey from Mvezo at birth, to Qunu at two with his family and then to Mqhekezweni at the age of nine with his mother.

From there, the tour drives to Port St Johns on the coast, about an hour away, to share in the traditional lifestyle and culture of the Amapondo. Here there are plenty of options for visitors: the sardine run usually takes place between June and August; there are sea safaris, cultural excursions, walks and hikes, and visits to a sangoma, where guests are able to get a better understanding of the Xhosa and Pondo cultures. The idea is that this is authentic learning about the culture that created Mandela.

Nelson’s names

Nelson Mandela was known by many names and titles:

  • Rolihlahla: literally meaning “pulling the branch of a tree” and figuratively meaning “trouble-maker”, this was his birth name.
  • Mandela: his surname, this was inherited from a kingly Thembu great- grandfather.
  • Nelson: this was the English name his teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave him.
  • Dalibhunga: meaning “founder of the Bunga (council)” or “convenor of the dialogue”, this name was conferred on him by tribal elders and Chief Jongintaba on his initiation in homage to his late father.
  • Madiba: this was his most tribally important name as this “clan” name or “isiduko” linked him to an ancestor, a 19th century Thembu chief.
  • Tata: meaning “father”, this is a term of endearment used by close family and comrades.
  • Khulu: meaning “great one”, this was said in tribal deference.
  • uBawomkhulu: meaning “grandfather”.
  • Black Pimpernel: this was coined by the press when he was on the run.
  • 46664: this was his prisoner number.

Madiba is probably his most universally known name, after his surname. Among the isiXhosa, this name is equivalent to an identity or family tree in one, and is more vital than a surname. Two people with the same surname but different isidukos are considered strangers, while two strangers with the same clan name are automatically close family. “Mandela noted that the common bonds of clan informed his appreciation of other cultures and their instinctive need to ‘belong’,” says Ukubona Africa.

Details and contacts

The tour is a three-night package, but it can be extended. It costs about US$200 per person per day (minimum two people), including some meals, guides and all entrance fees. The price excludes accommodation and some meals. Breakfasts and dinners are usually included in the accommodation prices in Port St Johns.