The Nelson Mandela Youth and Heritage Centre sits on a hill in Qunu, a small village in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. It is enveloped by a vast expanse of hills, grasslands dotted with thatched, conical-roofed houses of the Thembu community the freedom fighter belonged to.
At the spot where we stand is a rock, the same one on which Mandela sat as a young herdsman. “He’d slide down this very same rock,” our guide tells us, coaxing us to sit on a plastic seat and give it a try. I sit on the worn-out tray and propel myself into motion with my hand and feet. It easily picks up momentum and for the next five seconds I feel like a bird, landing on the soft, auburn grass bed.
As South Africa celebrates Mandela’s centenary year, this is an ideal place to begin our journey, a three-hour, country-road drive from East London. He grew up here, a few kilometres from Mvezo, where he was born. In 1941, he fled to Johannesburg to work in the city around its goldmines. That’s where we are headed.
The entry point to the Apartheid Museum has two distinctly demarcated lines. My ticket reads ‘Blankes’ which means whites in Afrikaans and allows me to enter through the first corridor. Others have tickets that say ‘Nie-Blankes’ (non-whites) . A taste of racism is my first understanding of Apartheid. Between 1948 until the early 1990s, when Apartheid was in full effect, people were categorised as: African, coloured, Asian and white.
Walking up to the musuem, there are benches that allow only ‘white’ ticket holders to sit on. Inside, we see videos of the ‘young lions’ or the youth of South Africa protesting in the streets, fighting Mandela’s battle on the ground. We hear testimonies from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a justice body assembled in South Africa after the end of Apartheid, bring victims face-to-face with their perpetrators.
Our tour guide, Charles, has been part of a similar reconciliation meeting. “I was six years old when my mother was abducted in 1986, owing to a state of emergency that imposed a ban on black people meeting in groups. It was the last time I saw her.” Today he has accepted the reality, and got closure. “As a tour guide, I am a storyteller of my country,” he adds.
As I get in line to view the miniature replica of the Mandela installation made by Marco Cianfanelli at the Nelson Mandela Capture Site in Howick, all I see are black iron rods. A few steps later, the profile of a smiling Mandela comes into view. The museum ends at the thought garden where visitors are encouraged to choose a coloured stick—each represents a choice of one of his quotes—and plant it in the grid to create a progressive colour installation.
We head to Soweto next, the largest black township near Johannesburg. Our guides welcome us with a Zulu song, “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.” As they snap their fingers and tap their feet to match their deep, soulful voices. A youngster in the group corrects his senior: “We like to sing, the lion roars tonight,” connecting the lyrics to the uprising of the youth that led to the nation’s freedom, and gave momentum to Mandela’s struggle when he was imprisoned for 27 years in Robben Island, Cape Town.
We have signed up for a cycling tour and playing tourist here is humbling, especially at the Hector Pieterson Memorial Site, where 20,000 children protested the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of education in largely English speaking areas. On June 16,1976 police firing killed 176 children. A photograph by Sam Nzima became the symbol of that brutality, showing a dying Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbusiya Makhubo accompanied by his sister Antoinette Sithole. Our guide points to an elderly lady taking a group around the memorial. “Do you recognise her?” he asks. “She is Antoinette, 42 years on. She volunteers at the site.”
With a setting sun on our backs, we cycle past homes of iconic freedom fighters Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Masediba Ngoyi (who led 20,000 women in protest against the Pass Laws). One notices a convergence of the country’s past, present and future here. Young children in school uniforms play on the streets, kicking balls or eagerly waiting to high-five the tourists.
Next morning, a statue of Mandela has him in a boxing pose, opposite the Chancellor House where he got his first job under mentor Oliver Tambo. Close by is the Constitution Hill where Constitutional Court of South Africa stands. This is where human rights violations were regular occurences at Number 4, a prison. Black political leaders were imprisoned here, forced to sleep like sardines in a can.
The ways to torture were many: restricted food ration, unhygienic conditions and the most feared—solitary confinement. Located in a line at the end of the building, I step into a heavily padded cell. A few seconds later claustrophobia rises inside me. There is hardly any light, nor room to hold my arms out. I step out hastily, filled with horror at the thought that detention lasted 90 to 450 days.
The Rivonia Trial of 1963, considered to be the trial of the century, takes us to the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, an hour from Jo’burg where Mandela and 11 others were sentenced to life imprisonment. Our guide hands me a hefty iron key to a door, below the court. The door squeaks as I open it, and inside is a room that lodged the prisoners. On one wall, in Mandela’s handwriting, is the preamble of the freedom charter.
The last leg of the tour is a flight to Cape Town and a 45-minute drive through a picturesque French village Franschhoek to the Drackenstein Correctional Centre, where Mandela spent 14 months under house arrest before he was released in 1990. Past prison blocks, farm patches and barbed-wired buildings, the house has a peach-coloured façade, a swimming pool that Mandela used just once, a garden area he loved to sit in and his favourite purple sofa in the living room intact.
A meeting with his last jailor, Jack Swart nicknamed Blackie, adds a fitting end to my Mandela trail. Blackiere calls an incident with the microwave. “One day, he called me and asked: ‘What is this television doing in the kitchen?’ I heated a jug of water in it and made him dip his finger inside. He was so amused!”
As we leave, a bronze statue of Mandela at the gate has him raising his hand in victory. Our guide gives us with an interesting last nugget: “He got the height of the platform lowered because he wanted to be level with his people.”
Emirates, Air India and Singapore Airlines have daily connecting flights from Delhi to Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Where to Stay
>The Maslow Hotel, Sandton, in Jo’burg offers 4-star services (from ₹9,000).
>AHA Gateway Hotel, KwaZulu Natal is ideal for business travellers (from ₹9,000).
>The Capital Mirage offers modern rooms and apartments in Cape Town (from ₹14,000).
What To See & Do
>In Johannesburg, Charles of Kgokare Tours (+27-847013654) is the guide you want. Ask him to impersonate Madiba.
>Take a guided tour of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Houghton, which houses the very office where former South African president worked during his last years in public service.
>Visit Lebo’s Backpackers for an African lunch of grilled meats and pap in Soweto, followed by a guided bicycle tour.
>Thoko (+27-824760726) from Jikileza Tours in Durban will give you the best time. Have dinner with a Zulu family or consult a sangoma reader.
>Take a break from history at the Tala Private Game Reserve for an afternoon safari. It is the smallest game reserve in KwaZulu Natal, a wildlife sanctuary spanning over 3,000 hectares.
>In East London, ask for Velile of Imonti Tours (+27-834878975) to plan your trip to the village of Qunu where Mandela grew up.
> From Cape Town, drive to Drakenstein Correctional Services for a tour of the prison complex, conducted by Madiba’s last prison warden.
What To Eat
>In Durban, dig into a bunny chow, a South African delight.
>In Cape Town, eat gemsbok and kudu dried meats, decadent desserts and beer at the V&A Food Market.
>In Cape Town, try the samosas from street vendors and buy spices from the markets in Bo-Kaap, known for its colourful Malay homes.
>Definitely try mogodu, tripe stew with hot pap (a maize porridge).