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An Insight into Nelson Mandela’s South Africa

An Insight into Nelson Mandela’s South Africa

By Sam Lucas

The name Nelson Mandela is synonymous the world over with ideas of freedom, equality and resistance.  His reputation and continued popularity among the peoples of a once deeply divided nation are testament to his enduring legacy as a healer of wounds and a unifying figure.  Nationalist, politician, anti-apartheid revolutionary and international statesman; it is not for nothing that the people of South Africa refer to Mandela as ‘Tata’, or ‘Father’. 
 
Born on 18th July 1918 in the village of Mvezo, on the banks of the Mbashe River, Mandela was originally known by the name Rolihlahla, a colloquial term meaning ‘troublemaker’.  It was not until he attended school aged seven, whilst still working as a cattle-boy, that he was given the English name Nelson by his teacher.  Mandela grew up hearing stories of his ancestor’s bravery during previous wars of resistance and was drawn to the belief that he could make a valuable contribution to the freedom struggle of his people.
 
This deeply ingrained belief in equality and the ability of people to change their situation culminated in Mandela’s expulsion from university for taking part in a student protest.  In 1944, the ‘troublemaker’ became a key figure in the formation of the African National Congress’s Youth League, an organisation which called for civil disobedience and strikes in protest at the new apartheid system.
 
In August 1962 Mandela was arrested just outside Howick, around 50 miles south of Durban.  Despite appeals for his release from the UN, Mandela and his co-accused were deemed to be violent communist agitators and were sentenced to life imprisonment.  It was from this point on that Mandela would begin his incarceration on the now infamous Robben Island, lying just off the coast of Cape Town. 
 
Mandela spent 18 years on the island; imprisoned in an eight by seven foot damp concrete cell, he slept on a straw mat and was granted only one visit and one letter every six months.  His days were spent breaking rocks into gravel and working in a lime quarry.  Despite such harsh conditions, Mandela and his fellow prisoners continued their struggle for freedom, setting up the ‘University of Robben Island’  and attempting to convert white guards to their cause by teaching them Afrikaans. 
 
After his eventual release from prison on 11th February 1990, Mandela worked to end white minority rule and in 1993 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, before casting his first ever vote a year later.  ‘Tata’ became South Africa’s first democratically elected President in May 1994, and would serve in this role for the next 5 years.  After leaving politics in 1999, Mandela became heavily involved in rural development, school construction and combating disease. 
 
No one man encapsulates the energy and spirit of the new South Africa nearly as much as Nelson Mandela.  To people of all ages and backgrounds he is the father of the ‘Rainbow Nation’, a symbol of both the dark past and bright future that lies ahead.  Mandela is closely linked to the history and culture of many parts of the country; his rise from working on a small rural farm to the Presidency, via practising law in a Johannesburg suburb and imprisonment in different areas, means that no part of this vast country remains untouched by the Mandela experience.  A trip to South Africa is not complete without visiting some of the sights that celebrate and honour his life and work. 
 
Robben Island
 
Lying just12km from Cape Town harbour, Robben Island is a mere 5km² and rises just a few metres above sea-level.  Flat and undulating, the island provides views across Table Bay and allows visitors to fully appreciate the scale and beauty of Cape Town and Table Mountain.     
 
Ever since Mandela’s imprisonment on the island in 1964, the prison on Robben Island has become a symbol of cruelty, injustice and repression.  The island was the site of the notorious maximum security prison for 30 years and housed its most famous inmate for 18 years of his 27 year imprisonment.  Mandela’s cell, where he spent the majority of his incarceration, is open to visitors, as is the quarry where prisoners were forced into hard labour.  A tour to the island allows visitors to gain a sobering insight into the lives of its inmates and, with the assistance of guides who were themselves interned in the prison, provides an informative and thought-provoking look at the site where South Africa’s future was plotted.
 
Robben Island has much to offer in addition to its political and historical significance.  A 13,000 strong colony of African Penguins live on the island and they are just one of the 132 bird species that inhabit the area.  The boat trip to the island provides the opportunity to spot whales and dolphins and on arrival visitors may see ostriches, geckos, tortoises and even South Africa’s native springbok. 
 
Nelson Mandela Museum
 
Opened 10 years to the day after Mandela’s release from prison, the Nelson Mandela Museum is divided between two sites: Mthata and Qunu, the village where Mandela spent his childhood.  Set in the foothills that rise from the banks of the Mbhashe River, the Nelson Mandela Youth and Heritage Centre at Qunu provides visitors the opportunity to see the primary school where Rolihlahla became Nelson, to gaze upon the ruins of the church where he was baptised and to wander through the pastures that Mandela once roamed as a young shepherd.  Mandela’s childhood home is also situated here.  Outdoor cultural entertainment, including traditional dance, stick fighting and the preparation of food is also available on request. 
 
The Bhunga Building at Mthata is the home to a number of temporary exhibitions that shed light on Mandela’s life and times.  Displays include ‘Gift to the Nation’, which showcases gifts he has received from people, governments and institutions around the world.  Due to a major renovations project, the Bhunga Building site will re-open in March 2014.  During this time, the exhibition will be located at the site in Qunu. 
 
The Mandela House
 
Number 8115, Vilakazi Street, Orlando, Soweto, is possibly the most famous address in South Africa.  It was at this address that Nelson Mandela lived, on and off, for more than 14 years.  Upon returning here after his release from prison, Mandela described the house as “the centre point of my world”.  Repaired and restored between 2008 and 2009, the house has now quite rightly assumed its place as one of the foremost heritage sites in the country, and provides visitors with an immersive audio-visual experience that tells the story of the Mandela family during and after apartheid.  Visitors are able to walk around the house in its original state, whilst guided tours, films and a new visitor centre provide a meaningful look at the former President’s life and his work to promote tolerance, democracy and human rights. 
 
Constitution Hill
 
A precinct of the city of Johannesburg, Constitution Hill is now the centre of South Africa’s legal system.  This new moral and just purpose hides a darker past, however, as the new court stands on the site of the Old Fort Prison Complex.  Situated on a hill overlooking the suburbs of this bustling and vibrant city, the prison was once home to common criminals, Boer military leaders and political activists, including Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi.  Various exhibitions and guided tours provide a deeper insight into how the apartheid system made criminals of black men and women.  A permanent exhibition dedicated to Mandela is housed in his former cell and documents his time at both the Old Fort and Robben Island, including his communication with the outside world.  Other exhibitions use the experiences of ex-prisoners to shed light on the conditions that made the fort one of South Africa’s most notorious detention facilities. 
 
Monuments
 
As befits a leader of Mandela’s stature, many statues and monuments have been dedicated to his life and story.  Most notably, the striking ‘Face of Freedom’ sculpture is situated at the spot where he was first arrested.  50 steel bars, representing captivity, are arranged to create the image of Mandela’s face when viewed at a certain angle.  The Nelson Mandela Bridge in the heart of downtown Johannesburg fittingly links the old and new parts of the city and is situated close to a number of culturally and historically significant sites.  Also in Johannesburg, the Nelson Mandela Square is a hive of activity and houses many luxury shops and restaurants.  More significantly for tourists, the square contains a six metre tall statue of the former President, providing many photo opportunities with the imposing figure.  When in Port Elizabeth take time to visit the Voting Line statue, a 36 metre long, 14 ton sculpture depicting the long lines created by South Africans during their first, free democratic elections in 1994.  Headed by Mandela himself in his typical arm-raised, fist-clenched pose, the statue is a fitting tribute to a lifelong struggle for freedom that is well worth a visit.                             

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