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Inspired by Madiba: Finding Mandela in Cape Town

The world was transfixed when Nelson Mandela was finally released to freedom in 1990 after 27 years in jail for his role in the struggle to overcome apartheid. Twenty-three years later, in 2013, the eyes and cameras of the world were once again on South Africa as this former president, Nobel Peace Prize winner, statesman and father figure to millions was laid to rest. None of us will ever again have the opportunity of interacting with this great-yet-humble man but we can visit some of the places that shaped his life and that are indelibly connected with his story.

We begin the journey in Cape Town. The beauty of the Mother City is that it is reasonably compact and there are several sites that lie within walking distance of each other (see map below) in the multi-cultural city centre.

Mandela map of Cape Town

Cape Town City Hall, Darling Street

An imposing Edwardian edifice built in 1905 when Cape Town was the capital of the Cape Colony ruled by Great Britain, the City Hall is where Madiba addressed the world for the very first time after being released from Victor Verster Prison (now known as the Drakenstein Correctional Centre) on 11 February 1990.

Standing on the Grand Parade – originally the garrison inspection grounds for soldiers stationed at The Castle and today a car park and bus rank – look up at the small balcony below the clock tower. This is where he appeared to the ignite the hope of thousands of spectators and supporters who waited patiently all day. Space was so tight that people literally hung off the balcony’s railings to be close to their hero, whose voice had not been heard in public for nearly three decades.

Mandela in Cape Town - city hall
Supporters literally hung on to hear him speak as a free man.
Mandela in Cape Town - city hall today
The stately City Hall pays homage to Mandela.

Nelson Mandela Legacy Exhibition, Cape Town Civic Centre, Hertzog Street

The Cape Town Civic Centre, near the Artscape Theatre Complex and at MyCiti bus terminus, is hosting a free exhibition of art honouring Madiba’s achievements that includes everything from graffiti and photography to video installations. This is a fascinating way to explore what he meant to South Africans and to get a taste of South African art at the same time. Be warned: the Civic Centre lies in a very strong wind tunnel so hold onto your hat if you are visiting on a windy day! 

Mandela in Cape Town - city centre
Take a taxi to the Civic Centre or catch a convenient MyCiti bus to its doorstep.

Parliament, Parliament Street

A little distance away from the Civic Centre and the City Hall are the Parliament buildings of South Africa, where Mandela obviously delivered many speeches while president. Tours of Parliament are free and take place from Monday to Friday, on the hour from 9am to 12pm. On Fridays and when Parliament is in recess, there are further tours from 2pm to 4pm. All tours must be reserved and you will be asked to provide the passport numbers of everyone in your group. Email to book.

St George’s Cathedral Crypt Memory & Witness Centre, corner Wale & Victoria Streets

Opposite Parliament at the entrance to the Company’s Gardens lies St George’s Cathedral, known as ‘the people’s cathedral’ because of its role in the struggle against apartheid and because of its close ties to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Its crypt houses a moving photographic exhibition of a historic march held on 13 September 1989, when 30 000 South Africans of all races marched from here to the Grand Parade to call for an end to apartheid. Best-kept secret? Tutu regularly conducts the 7:15am service on Friday mornings and all are welcome to attend.

Mandela in Cape Town - parliament
Parliament's towering tributes to Madiba.
Mandela in Cape Town - St George's Cathedral
The Crypt lies beneath St George's Cathedral.

Nobel Square, V&A Waterfront

Tucked away in the bustling V&A Waterfront and across the bridge from the Cape Grace hotel is Nobel Square, a charming celebration of South African’s four Nobel Peace Prize winners: Mandela, Archbishop Emeritus Tutu, former President F.W. de Klerk and ANC stalwart Albert Luthuli. The statues are almost human-sized (some have commented that they look a lot like chocolate Easter eggs!), making them less intimidating for children and fun to pose with for photographs, with Devil’s Peak and the picturesque harbour in the background.

Robben Island

The V&A Waterfront is also home to the Gateway to Robben Island, from where ferries leave to transport visitors the 12km over the Atlantic Ocean to the prison where Mandela was held for 18 years. The journey can be cold and choppy so take a jacket and seasickness medication if you are prone to motion sickness (on a happier note, keep an eye out for dolphins, seals, huge, circular sunfish that live in the bay – as well as whales from about August until October). Since the 17th century, the island has been home to convicts, lepers and political prisoners but is today a small but thriving community. You will be able to stand in the very cell that Madiba lived in and see the lime quarry where he undertook hard labour, with the iconic silhouette of Table Mountain beckoning in the distance.

Mandela in Cape Town - Nobel Square
Mandela shares Nobel Square with his fellow laureates.
Mandela in Cape Town - Robben Island
Visit the old prison & Madiba's cell on Robben Island.

Drakenstein Correctional Centre, R301 between Paarl and Franschhoek

Formerly known as the Victor Verster Prison, Mandela lived on the grounds in a private house from 1988 to 1990, before he was released. A low-security prison, it was often used as a ‘stepping stone’ to facilitate the re-entry of political prisoners into public life. Mandela walked out of the gates, hand-in-hand with his then-wife Winnie Mandela, on 11 February 1990. Today, the house in which he lived is a national heritage site and there is a large statue of a raised-fist Mandela at the entrance. If you are visiting Franschhoek or the surrounding Winelands, consider a trip to stand in the spot where a pivotal moment in South African history occurred.

Written by Angela Aschmann

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