Nelson Mandela’s life on the run, captured


The site of Nelson Mandela’s capture in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands is commemorated by  a piece of art completed in 2011, it’s 50 columns symbolising the 50 years since Mandela’s arrest.

The walk down to the sculpture allows the visitor “a moment to reflect on the long walk” Mandela took, rooted as it is within the landscape. (Image: SA Tourism)

Lucille Davie

It was 17 months of “freedom”. This was how the Black Pimpernel described his time in disguise and on the run from the apartheid Security Police.

“Suddenly, in front of us, the Ford was signalling to us to stop. I knew in that instant that my life on the run was over; my 17 months of ‘freedom’ were about to end,” Nelson Mandela, the Black Pimpernel, wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

He had gone into hiding straight after the not guilty verdict of the Treason Trial, on 29 March 1961. In that trial, which began in 1956, 156 people were in the dock for treason. It ran for almost five years. “I did not return home after the verdict. Although others were in a festive mood and eager to celebrate, I knew the authorities could strike at any moment, and I did not want to give them the opportunity. I was anxious to be off before I was banned or arrested, and I spent the night in a safe house in Johannesburg. It was a restless night in a strange bed, and I started at the sound of every car, thinking it might be the police.”

His time as the Black Pimpernel – a reference to the 1905 play The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy – was over when that Ford stopped his car on 5 August 1962. In effect, he only experienced freedom 29 years later, in 1990, when he was released from Victor Verster Prison in Cape Town. Mandela had just paid a secret visit to the ANC president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Chief Albert Luthuli, in Durban, urging him to switch to armed struggle to end apartheid. He was on his way back to Johannesburg when the car he was in was stopped about five kilometres outside Howick.

He was sentenced to five years in prison for leaving the country without a passport and for inciting workers across the country to stage a stay-at-home. But it was in the Rivonia Trial shortly afterwards that he received a life sentence and was sent to Robben Island.

Mandela’s experience in the quiet, unassuming place where he was arrested, referred to as the Capture Site, is indelibly marked by a striking sculpture, consisting of 50 thin steel columns, each between 6.5 metres and 9.5 metres tall.

Steel columns

Completed in 2011, the 50 columns are symbolic of the 50 years since Mandela’s arrest. On first viewing they look like an emaciated, leafless mini forest, but at a certain point – 35 metres away – the gentle image of Mandela’s face comes into focus, looking west, with a faint smile playing around his lips.

“The 50 columns represent the 50 years since his capture, but they also suggest the idea of many making the whole, of solidarity,” says the artist, Marco Cianfanelli. “It points to an irony as the political act of Mandela’s incarceration cemented his status as an icon of struggle, which helped ferment the groundswell of resistance, solidarity and uprising, bringing about political change and democracy.”

Suggestive of prison bars, the serrated steel columns are made more oppressive by them rising into the sky almost 10 metres. (Image: SA Tourism)

The portrait was achieved “from interpreting composites of several portraits of Mandela, [and] is appropriately monumental, yet fittingly transient and delicate”.

Closely packed, the steel columns are suggestive of prison bars, made more oppressive by them rising into the sky almost 10 metres. Their edges are serrated, adding to a feeling of coarseness, but essential to create the image of the face.

Small museum

A small museum in a temporary shed, emblazoned with enlarged images of Mandela and the places of significance to him, from his childhood and early adulthood, begin the site. From there, the visitor is invited to take a long walk, of some 400 metres, down to the road, to view the sculpture.

It leads through a channel with grassy banks; drawing closer, the image becomes more apparent. Then at exactly 35 metres, Mandela’s face materialises, magically. He is looking westwards, down the road he would have continued along 53 years ago. Step beyond the 35m mark, and the face disappears again. In an extraordinary visual trick, the image is more defined once photographed, through a single lens. Through the naked eye, with two lenses, the detail is not as clear, says Cianfanelli.

Christopher Till, the director of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and the Gold Museum in Cape Town, and the person responsible for the project and site development of the Capture Site, says he is pleased with this dimension to the sculpture. “The camera lens brings it together,” he explains.

Till says the long stroll down to the sculpture allows the visitor “a moment to reflect on the long walk” Mandela took, rooted as it is within the landscape. He hopes it will energise the visitor.

The magic continues within the tall columns, an area of about five metres by 21 metres in size. They encase one, but at the same time have an air of ethereal lightness in their delicate thinness – perhaps it’s just the thought that here is the image of Mandela; here is the place where his life as a “free” but on-the-run black man in apartheid South Africa came to an end, and he disappeared from public life for 27 years.

Permanent museum and visitors’ centre

In early March construction of a permanent museum and visitors’ centre will begin, to be completed by August. A different trail will lead away from the sculpture, back to the museum, again giving an opportunity to stop and reflect. In the third and fourth phase of development an indigenous garden will be developed along the paths.

It is not known precisely where the actual site of arrest was, but it is fairly certain that it was here or near to this site. A small brick monument across the road from the sculpture is now a heritage site, as it would have been on the left side of the road that Mandela’s car would have been stopped, heading to Joburg.

The site is on the Midlands Meander, a network of routes in the rolling green hills of KwaZulu-Natal. The meander has a range of accommodation offerings, restaurants, outdoor events and activities, historic landmarks, wildlife spots, and numerous arts and crafts venues. It is not far from the battlefields that dot KwaZulu-Natal, and the Drakensberg, South Africa’s highest mountain range.

Cianfanelli has done another Mandela sculpture – outside Chancellor House in the Joburg CBD. It is a 5m tall metal sculpture of Mandela in boxing pose, a copy of a 1953 photograph by Bob Gosani. It was taken on the rooftop of the South African Associated Newspapers building in downtown Joburg. Mandela had law offices with Oliver Tambo, his partner in the practice, on the second floor of Chancellor House. The sculpture is entitled Shadow Boxing, and is done in flat steel in shades of grey and charcoal. It is a striking portrait of a young, energetic Mandela taking time out.

“The two significant public pieces I have done on Nelson Mandela are not conventional sculptures or commemorative portraits,” says Cianfanelli. “I felt quite a sense of pressure and responsibility to represent a great man, in an appropriate yet unique manner. It has been a humbling experience as well as an honour for me, to have so many people from different places and backgrounds, respond so positively, with excitement and emotion, to these works.”

Directions and map to the Capture Site are available online.

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