Following the Nelson Mandela trail


From the island prison where he lived for 18 years to his post-presidential archive in Johannesburg, from rural childhood scenes to a house in South Africa’s busiest township, Nelson Mandela left a rich trail across the country for the discerning tourist to follow.


Beginning life as he did in the Eastern Cape, it is only natural that the “Nelson Mandela route” begins in the province.

Starting in King William’s Town, which began as a missionary station in 1826, the route includes the town’s Amathole Museum, which has a Xhosa Gallery, Missionary Museum and a German Settlers display. The town is also home to Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko’s grave.

Passing through Bhisho, the seat of the provincial government, the route moves down the N2 on to Mthatha, where the first phase of the Nelson Mandela Museum is located; it includes two other places: Qunu and Mveso.

Mthatha features a display on the life and times of Mandela in the Bhunga Building of the Nelson Mandela Museum. It also displays thousands of the gifts that Mandela has received from presidents, organisations and ordinary citizens, with letters from children and bejewelled camel covers among the treasures.

The Community Museum and Youth & Heritage Centre in Qunu constitutes the second phase of the museum and allows tourists to step back into Mandela’s childhood.

They can see what is left of his primary school, the rock he used to slide down with his friends and the graveyard where several members of his family are buried.

A photographic exhibition covering significant events in Mandela’s life at a thatched open air museum in Mveso makes up the third part of the Nelson Mandela Museum. The remains of the homestead where Mandela was born and raised are also nearby.

There are free guided tours of all three phases of the museum, which can be arranged at the Bhunga Building in Mthatha.


Mandela left the hills and dales of the Eastern Cape for the bright lights of Johannesburg in 1941 and found himself in the bustling township of Alexandra, about 12 kilometres northeast of the city centre.

Nelson Mandela Yard Interpretation Centre

When he arrived in Alexandra township, Mandela found lodging in the house of a local reverend. He later moved next door to a one-room house with no electricity or water, on the corner of Richard Baloyi and 7th Avenue.

“Alexandra occupies a treasured place in my heart,” he said in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. “[It is] a home where I had no specific house.”

Declared a heritage site, renovations on the yards surrounding Mandela’s one-room house were started in 2004 and the area was turned into a precinct.

To celebrate the centenary of Alexandra in September 2012, President Jacob Zuma visited the precinct to plant a tree.

Mandela Family Museum

Situated at 8115 Vilakazi Street Soweto, the Mandela Family Museum is the house Mandela returned to after his release from prison in February 1990.

“It was only then that I knew in my heart I had left prison,” he said in Long Walk to Freedom. “For me, no. 8115 was the centre of my world, the place marked with an X in my mental geography.”

It houses a variety of memorabilia, paintings, photographs and collection of honorary doctorates bestowed on Mandela from universities around the world.

Chancellor House

A three-storey building that housed the offices of Mandela & Tambo Attorneys in the 1950s, Chancellor House was refurbished by the Johannesburg city council in 2011 and now stands as a living space in honour of Mandela, Oliver Tambo and various other lawyers who worked in the building.

Situated at the corner of Fox and Gerard Sekoto Streets in Ferreirasdorp, the building also houses a museum and a library in the three offices of the old law firm containing digitised documents of legal cases handled by Mandela and Tambo.

Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory

The newly repurposed Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, which served as Mandela’s post-presidential office, will officially open in August or September 2013 to serve as a public and dialogue facility and a physical home for Mandela’s legacy.

The centre is situated at 107 Central Street Houghton. Entry will be free but by appointment only as the centre will not be able to cater for high volumes of people at one time.

Constitution Hill

The multi-purpose Constitution Hill heritage centre, situated at 11 Kotze Street Braamfontein, stands sentry over the city of Johannesburg, telling the story of South Africa’s past through interactive exhibitions and guided tours.

Mandela spent two weeks in the Awaiting Trial Block, now demolished, in December 1956, before being transferred to Pretoria for the remainder of the lengthy Treason Trial.

He holds the distinction of being the only black man to be detained in the “whites only” Old Fort prison, built in 1893.

He spent a few weeks at the hospital in August 1962, not because he was sick, but because of his status, and it is suspected that warders believed he could escape more easily from Number Four, where the other male black prisoners were kept.

There is a permanent exhibition documenting Mandela’s time as a prisoner on Robben Island and at the Old Fort.

Housed in his reconstructed cell, the exhibition displays items such as a stack of wooden boxes that form part of a sample of the 76 boxes used to hold about 70 000 pieces of correspondence between Mandela and the prison authorities over his 27-year incarceration.

Apartheid Museum

Mandela features in a permanent exhibit about his release from prison in 1990 at the Apartheid Museum, which is situated at the corner of Northern Parkway and Gold Reef Roads in Ormonde.

“The exhibits have been assembled and organised by a multi-disciplinary team of curators, filmmakers, historians and designers,” the museum says on its website.

“They include provocative film footage, photographs, text panels and artefacts illustrating the events and human stories that are part of the epic saga known as apartheid.”

Liliesleaf Farm

Even though Mandela was not at the now-famous Liliesleaf Farm on the day the other Rivonia Trialists were arrested on 11 July 1963, he lived there for a time, disguised as a gardener and cook called David Motsamayi.

The farm is situated at 7 George Avenue Rivonia. The farmhouse and outbuildings were restored and opened as a museum on 9 June 2008. The Liberation Centre and Liliesleaf Resource Centre were added later.

Mandela statues

Mandela’s character and famous “Madiba jive” are captured in a 6-metre statue at the upmarket shopping destination Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton.

A five-metre tall sculpture based on Bob Gosani’s famous 1953 photograph of Mandela boxing with professional boxer Jerry Moloi, done by artist Marco Cianfanelli, was also unveiled between the Magistrate’s Court and Chancellor House in downtown Johannesburg in May 2013.


Nelson Mandela Capture Site

On 5 August 1962, a quiet stretch of road along the R103, about three kilometres outside Howick in KwaZulu-Natal, suddenly took on profound consequence.

Armed apartheid police flagged down a car in which Nelson Mandela was pretending to be the chauffeur.

So began the process that would see Mandela incarcerated for the next 27 years of his life.

It has been turned into a memorial site – the Nelson Mandela Capture Site – where fifty steel column constructions align to form a portrait of Nelson Mandela against a backdrop of the Midlands’ rolling hills and valleys.

The sculpture was unveiled in 2012 on the 50th anniversary of the day Mandela was captured.

The uMngeni municipality, in partnership the Department of Co-operative Government and Traditional Affairs, has bought the property adjacent to the capture site on the R103, and has commissioned a plan for the establishment of a museum, multipurpose theatre and amphitheatre.


The windswept island about 12 kilometres off the coast of Cape Town became Mandela’s home for 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned.

It has since been turned into the Robben Island Museum, which was opened on 1 January 1997, and offers visitors the opportunity to delve back into the country’s turbulent history.

The island was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1999.

The museum offers workshops, tours and camps for adults and children.

Experiences include visiting the maximum security prison where political prisoners like Nelson Mandela were held from the 1960s, the quarry mines where prisoners were forced to dig, the church and the small village where the island’s main centre is situated.

Daily four-hour trips are offered if the weather permits, as there is a half-hour ferry ride there and back.

SAinfo reporter