It’s a long walk to freedom, especially if you start in Mvezo. We’d left the N2 some 10km back, past a group of circumcision initiates with painted white faces and pained expressions. Now, we were winding through pear green hills beside the chocolate brown Mbashe River, regularly passing concrete bus shelters bearing the image of Thembuland’s favourite son – though we didn’t see any buses and the shelter’s only occupants were donkeys and goats. Story by Matthew Holt. Images supplied by Matthew Holt & Mandy Ramsden
On prior road trips, I’d retraced the Voortrekkers’ wagon wheels and Imperial British Army’s marching boots. So, it was long overdue when I decided to follow the trail of Accused Number One, aka the Black Pimpernel and Prisoner 46664. I was accompanied by Mandy Ramsden, an aspiring photographer, if actual accountant.
We spot Mvezo some way off, courtesy of a large modern building blotting the skyline. This turns out to be the Welcome Centre at the museum, which is still under construction. ‘It will be ready in two months,’ insists the security guard. From the empty auditorium, he points out the simple rondavel in which Rolihlala Mandela was born in July 1918 – to the third of the village headman’s four wives. Though Mvezo was clearly proud of Mandela’s roots, he actually spent less than a year here, before moving with his mother to Qunu, some 30km away.
Although the young Mandela didn’t stay too long in Qunu either, he subsequently built a retirement home here – now containing his grave. We have to be content spying on it from the roadside. Qunu’s Nelson Mandela Museum is also closed. ‘It will be completed within 18 months,’ insists local guide, Phiko. In the interim, we inspect some wooden posts marking the footprint of the one-roomed school where the seven-year-old Rolihlahla was given his imperial name, Nelson. When his father died, two years later, Nelson was adopted by Chief Jongintaba, moving to the royal kraal at the challengingly-named Mqhekezweni, reverentially known as ‘the Great Place.’
Stones ding against the rental car’s undercarriage and we’re relieved to clatter up to a sign announcing we’ve reached the Great Place. Venturing inside the kraal, we discover we’ve timed our arrival badly, for the village chief – Jongintaba’s great-grandson – has just died, aged 43. His grieving mother greets us, assuming we’ve come to pay our respects, and we bashfully explain our quest. Holding back tears, she solicitously assigns a junior member of the family to show us the thatched rondavel which Mandela shared with Jongintaba’s son, Justice.
While not far for crows, it’s another jolting drive to Clarkebury Mission School, which the 16-year-old Mandela attended, as part of his grooming to become a royal adviser. We’re escorted around by Vuma, an alumnus and struggle veteran, who has returned to resurrect this once prestigious school. Vuma shows us Mandela’s former hostel, burned down during the 1970s; the headmaster’s house, also now derelict; and the new science lab, which contains a full-size cardboard Madiba in school uniform, with the dates of his stay crudely erased. ‘Unfortunately, they got them wrong, but it’s a good likeness,’ laughs the indefatigable Vuma, who can look beyond rubbish and ruins, to see hope and potential.
Our Transkei visit is a holistic South African experience: frustrating, saddening, inspiring and uplifting, plus on the way back to Mthatha we get a puncture. We arrange some fresh wheels, for there’s scant prospect of any trains from the ghostly Bityi railway station. In April 1941, Mandela came here in a hurry. Fleeing an unwanted marriage contract arranged by the chief, Mandela – along with Justice – stole and sold two oxen, using the funds to abscond. The station master refused to sell them tickets, however, so they took a taxi further up the line. Under slightly less pressure, we likewise head for eGoli, the City of Gold.
When Mandela arrived in Johannesburg, the city was booming, attracting a large influx of black Africans to work down the mines. Though we turn up in less favourable climes, there’s no lack of enterprise on Soweto’s Vilakazi Street, where we run a gauntlet of t-shirt vendors and cultural entertainers to reach No. 8115. Within a walled compound is the modest red brick bungalow where Mandela lived with his first wife Evelyn Mase, till the marriage crumbled after 14 years.
Completing his degree by correspondence, Mandela became a qualified lawyer and set up the first black law firm, with Oliver Tambo. We go in search of their old office in Ferreirasdorp, kangaroo-hopping through snarled traffic and broken robots to a three-storey building opposite the Central Magistrates Court. Recently reclaimed from squatters, Chancellor House has no apparent tenants, despite a sign in a top floor window nostalgically advertising ‘Mandela & Tambo Attorneys’. There are, however, some exhibits displayed in the ground floor windows, including the iconic photo of Mandela sparring on a rooftop. Better still, across the street stands a six metre-tall, sparring Mandela, cut in steel by local artist Marco Cianfanelli.
Marco Cianfanelli’s steel statue of Mandela sparring in front of Johannesburg’s Central Magistrates Court MANDY RAMSDENBlack Africans working in Johannesburg had cash and aspirations, but from 1948 came up against the National Party’s oppressive racial legislation. We pop into the Apartheid Museum at Gold Reef City to better appreciate the times, emerging several hours later traumatised. The Old Fort on Constitutional Hill, where many of Mandela’s clients were detained, is likewise sobering. In the main courtyard, black prisoners had to dance naked before warders, supposedly to show they didn’t have weapons concealed up their rectums. Despite the passage of time, the fort still resonates with humiliation and misery, and it’s a relief to climb onto the parapets for some fresh air and cityscapes.
Despairing with the racist legal system, Mandela got increasingly involved radicalising the African National Congress party and organising protests, including the so-called Congress of the People in June 1955, when 3000 activists gathered in Kliptown, Soweto.
On the lookout for the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication, described on its website as ‘a futuristic conceptualisation with a dynamic experimentation of township fever,’ we reach some concrete pillars guarding an unkempt grass square. Admittedly it’s Sunday, but there’s a lethargic air. A conical brick tower contains a steel podium inscribed with the principles of the Freedom Charter – which the attendees adopted before being disbursed by police. Shortly thereafter, the government arrested 156 activists, including Mandela, and charged them with treason.
Braving Hillbrow, we drive by the Drill Hall, where the Treason Trial was initially held. Though the tatty building is barricaded with garbage, there’s a banner over the locked doorway resolutely declaring ‘We Stand By Our Leaders’ – echoing those waved by supporters during the trial. Eventually, after five years, all charges were dropped, but by then many defendants had lost their jobs and marriages. Deciding to pursue more aggressive tactics, the ANC formed a military wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) and – as its leader – Mandela went underground.
While now surrounded by shopping malls and housing estates, the once semi-rural Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia still feels like a sanctuary. The rambling main house looks much the same as when Mandela and his co-conspirators hatched revolutionary plans here; while amongst the outbuildings is the room he inhabited, posing as a gardener, which his second wife Winnie Madikizela visited for trysts. Intriguingly, no one can locate the oak tree under which Mandela buried a semi-automatic pistol, given to him in 1962 during a clandestine visit to Ethiopia for a crash course in guerrilla warfare. The pistol possibly lies undiscovered next door, since part of the plot was subsequently sold. It’s a classic Highveld summer’s day and by the time we leave ominous thunder clouds are brewing.
It’s a long haul down the N3 to Howick, under the surveillance of the glowering Drakensburg. A few kilometres off the highway, a footpath snakes towards what initially looks like a steel security fence, but gradually morphs into Mandela’s face. Created by Marco Cianfanelli, it marks the spot where, in August 1962, Mandela was arrested driving back from Durban. Initially sentenced to five years’ in prison, this was increased to life after police raided Liliesleaf Farm, netting his co-conspirators and incriminating plans.
At Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, we join a polyglot queue boarding the Robben Island ferry. Mandela was sent there shackled in the hold, beneath a porthole through which warders urinated on his head. Though facilities on the ‘Sikhululekile’ appear better, we nonetheless hurry to the upper deck for the half-hour crossing. At first sight, Mandela thought Robben Island looked green, beautiful and more like a resort, which was a positive mindset given he was headed to South Africa’s most brutal prison. Confronted on disembarkation by burly warders shouting ‘This is the island, here you will die,’ he calmly asserted his authority by refusing to jog. Abandoning such dignity, we sprint down the promenade to join the first tour.
We’re ushered through the prison gates by a tall, stooped man in a floppy cream hat, who recounts how he arrived here in 1977 as 19-year-old Vuyani Conjwa to become Prisoner 7/77, serving a five-year sentence for sabotage. ‘What did you try to destroy?’ I ask. From beneath the brim of his hat, he scrutinises me closely. ‘What makes you think I just tried,’ he counters, breaking into a grin. ‘Government land, buildings, vehicles,’ he continues, as if ticking off a shopping list. ‘I was young then. It was fun watching them burn.’
The most senior activists were isolated in B Block such that, during his five years on the island, Vuyani only saw Mandela once. As we reverentially peer into the stark cell that was Mandela’s home for nearly 18 years, a pot-bellied tourist in our group repeatedly asks Vuyani to unlock the barred door, so he can go inside for a photo. Most of us are soon ready to punch him, but Vuyani just smiles munificently, demonstrating the Ubuntu spirit that the political prisoners cultivated. In a similar resilient vein, they recited plays and poems, with Mandela’s favourite being ‘Invictus’, which defiantly concludes ‘I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.’
Leaving Cape Town on the N1, we turn off at Paarl, following a lush valley penned between the Simonsberg and Drakenstein Mountains. Manicured golf courses, country estates and vineyards roll by, till somewhat incongruously we arrive at Drakenstein Correctional Centre, previously known as Victor Verster Prison. Meeting former warder Manfred Jacobs in the car park, we tailgate him through the prison gates. Skirting the compound, we come to a pleasant, salmon pink bungalow, shaded by trees. After his lengthy spell on Robben Island, followed by six years in Pollsmoor Prison, the septuagenarian Mandela was abruptly relocated to these slightly more pleasant quarters in December 1988, ironically because the apartheid regime was concerned he’d die in their custody.
Largely unchanged since Mandela’s stay, the interior is charmingly dated. Supplementing the original furniture are more recent photographs, including one of Jack Swart, the prison warder who served as his orderly, brewed him ginger beer and became a good friend. Manfred lovingly conducts us around, regularly pausing for anecdotes. There’s the kitchen, where Mandela mistook the microwave for a television; the palatial master bedroom, which he found too disorientating; the small box bedroom which he preferred; and the master bathroom, where some of the security force’s listening devices were subsequently uncovered.
At the prison gates, there’s a bronze statue of Mandela, striding with his arm raised and fist pumped. Finally released in February 1990, after 27 years’ incarceration, he went on to avert a civil war, negotiate a new constitution, win the first democratic election and preach reconciliation. Following Mandela’s long walk to freedom had been an instructive and humbling journey.