Stephen Bailey
Discovering Nelson Mandela's Roots
Discovering Nelson Mandela's Roots
Stephen Bailey

Along a rutted highway cars slowed their pace. The surrounding landscape looks rugged; circular Xhosa huts stand among fields of wandering goats and women carrying planks of firewood. Everyone looks left from their vehicles at this point on the road, taking in the original family home of Madiba. Much of his family still lives here and I was surprised at the visibility and openness of his house.

Most famous people retreat into obscurity as they make a distinction between their public and private life. Not Mandela. I found that throughout the country there are very living reminders of where South Africa’s father came from.

As we passed through Qunu I noticed nothing remarkable. It looked like many Xhosa villages in the Transkei region. Huts stand isolated on the rolling green hills, allowing ample space for their cows to roam. This traditional region was semi-independent during apartheid and even in 2013 continues to stick to its rural farming roots. Generation after generation continue to follow the same path.

Mandela’s house stands out, rebuilt to be an exact replica of the warder’s house at Pollsmoor Prison. Across the street, the Nelson Mandela museum tells an enthusiastic story of the village’s famous son. In his early years Mandela’s behaviour earned him the nickname “Rolihlahla,” or trouble maker. He was a rebel argues the museum, but even then he always stood up for what he believed in.

Two months later I was in Soweto, the world’s second largest slum. In the 1940s Mandela moved to Johannesburg and his old house stands in its original condition. Small, simple, and unremarkable; 8115 Velekazi Street would be easily missed if it wasn’t for the street kids selling curios outside.

Soweto is marked by vibrancy, every house and door painted with a random concoction of colours. Murals cling to shop walls, and two iconic industrial towers have been transformed by elaborate paintings. Even the urinals in Soweto have been painted rainbow colours. But Mandela’s house is just plain red brick. In fact, it stands out because it is so unremarkable. Every other house fights for attention, Mandela’s does not.

It’s been turned into a family museum and opened to the public. After his release from prison Mandela has tried live in this house but had to abandon the plan after two assassination attempts. Down the road is the house of his great friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, making this the only street in the world that is home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto

I stayed in Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers and couldn’t fail to notice certain personality traits in the owner. Lebo used to make curios and try selling them to the coachloads of tourists who arrived at Mandela’s former house. But he disliked the lack of interaction between residents and visitors. At first he took tourists to stay in his Grandma’s house. A decade later and his backpackers is one of the most successful in the country.

Every evening residents and tourists met over huge fires in the garden. Like many tourists I was initially fearful of staying in Soweto, but four days taught me that it was safe as anywhere I’d ever stayed, as long as you remembered the golden rule. At all times say hello to everyone you pass. That showed you were open and immediately endeared you. The European method of head-down-ignore-eye-contact gave off an impression of mistrust.

Over beer and roaring flames a man offered to show me more about Mandela. He took me to a poorer township, a place that fulfilled the squalid images of makeshift shacks and decaying sewage systems. Before Mandela upgraded to his rented Velekazi Street house, he had initially arrived as an economic migrant in Alexandra.

There were no signposts and rubbish was strewn across most streets. There weren’t even street signs or names and many shacks still didn’t have electricity. Mandela’s first township home still has a scrap metal roof, although a small plaque indicates that we were in the right place.

Alexandra could seriously benefit from the tourism that visits Soweto. But my new friend said that it wouldn’t be safe to come here without a local guide. I still find it remarkable that such an important piece of the country’s history can go so unnoticed.

But nearby, the owners of a farm are determined that their historic attraction is never forgotten. Lilisleaf Farm was where ANC leaders secretly met as they tried to overthrow the apartheid government. The farm was raided and 18 leaders were tried for treason. Poignant and intriguing, the farm is now dedicated to telling the story of the early political fight against apartheid.

Among the tales of liberation is an original signed copy of the 1955 Freedom Charter, the political document that stated the core principles of the anti-apartheid political alliance. It hangs proudly and I picked out the famous signatures. The documents seem realistic. It opens with “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white” and it’s first demand is that “the people shall govern.”

But history reminds us that before freedom Mandela spent 27 years in prison. 18 of them were on the maximum security prison on Robben Island, living in a matchbox cell and receiving one visitor for 30 minutes twice a year. From the top of Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain, the outline of Robben Island is clearly visible. Even from a distance it appears as a lonely isolated land.

Ex inmates conduct tours, revelling in their roles as historic orators. Witnessing the conditions furthered my admiration for the man. I had read about tiny prison cells and seen them in films, but only when I stood inside one and the door clanged shut could I begin to understand the darkness and depression.

Robben Island is a popular attraction. But I always remember a different prison. Mandela spent his last incarcerated years in Drakenstein Correctional Facility, an hour from Cape Town. A large statue stands proud outside and it was here that Mandela physically walked to freedom. Tentatively I recreated his steps, walking down a lonely country road past dozens of vineyards. After half a mile a stranger pulled up in a pick-up truck and eyed me curiously. He was black. “Why you walking?” he asked. But before I could answer he had offered me a lift…

Stephen Bailey spent 18 months living in South Africa.

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