Route Mandela

Beautiful route to freedom

The larger than life statue of Nelson Mandela towers over Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton

Madiba fans can now literally walk the road the icon travelled on his long walk to freedom — the fascinating Nelson Mandela Route runs all the way from his birthplace in the Eastern Cape to Robben Island, his home for 18 years, writes BBQ magazine's Michael Meiring.

All the way from the Eastern Cape to Robben Island off the Cape Town shores, the main attractions of the Nelson Mandela Route spans over five South African municipalities, including no less than nine attractions, providing a solid tourist platform with serious tourism revenue. 

Heritage and Tourism Month has come and gone; The month of September does not only mark the arrival of spring, but also the time for South Africans to celebrate and reflect on their cultural values and identities with an emphasis on what we have to offer the rest of the world. With our turbulent past, we face a time in which it has been rightly noted to meet the challenge of establishing a newly reclaimed sense of pride in who we are. The theme for this Heritage Month was aptly chosen: “reclaiming, restoring and celebrating our heritage”, as per the Minister of Arts and Culture, Paul Mashatile.

The National Heritage Council CEO, Advocate Sonwabile Mancotywa, recently said, “Heritage is that which is preserved from the past as a collective memory by the people, not only to inform the present about the past, but as well as to equip successive generations for the future”. When it comes to our heritage, and the preservation thereof, the role of Local Government should not be underestimated. 

The big question remains: How can local government use this alongside the cusp of the much anticipated tourism boom as a leverage point to promote social cohesion, identity and economic growth. 

When looking at South Africa’s past one readily notes the iconoclasm imposed upon the country’s indigenous people as colonialism swept throughout the African continent. Dispossessed and disowned, the majority of South Africans faced a tough road to emancipation, and finally, freedom. Guised as a political activist, ex-prisoner and son of the Eastern Cape, a hero emerged amidst the struggle; reconciling, restoring and reinvigorating South Africans as the country took part in its first democratic elections in 1994. 

This icon and legend to people all over the world, Nobel laureate and father to a nation, is our beloved Madiba. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is celebrated this month as we embark on the Nelson Madela Route, following in the footsteps of the esteemed African leader. 

Coupling heritage with tourism, the route also serves as attraction to those wishing to learn more about our country’s history, with a special accent on Mandela’s life and times during and after the struggle. 

As Mancotywa recently announced, “heritage is about a sense of identity and continuity in space and time”. He distinguishes between tangible and intangible heritage, referring to those cultural and historical artefacts and objects that have a physical component as tangible, and those values, histories and traditions which occupies a more abstract role in our identities as intangible. 

The Nelson Mandela Route is a wonderful example of a union between both of the aforementioned types of heritage with the bonus of being a popular tourist attraction for our country. 

The route, spanning all the way from King William’s Town, passing through Mthatha to Johannesburg and finally concluding at Robben Island, opens many new avenues for economic growth through tourism for municipalities. 

Where Robben Island has an established presence in our tourism industry, smaller municipalities could make good use of this as a potential boost for economic growth and exposure through tourism.

Buffalo City Municipality

Our route kicks off in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape. The town, originally a London-based missionary station founded in 1862, sets the stage for the unfolding of this historical journey. 

Depicting the early colonial days, it gives visitors a feel for how the social and cultural landscape of this period in time looked, prefacing the start of the freedom struggle. Visitors can look forward to exploring the Amathole Museum as the first stop on the route. The museum comprises a rich cultural component with a Xhosa Gallery, Missionary Museum, German Settlers display and a host of other fascinating cultural elements. The town is also the final resting place of Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko, another struggle icon who is remembered for his role as defender and advocate for African identity. 

Buffalo City Municipality Executive Mayor, Zukiswa Ncitha, launched the Heritage Month celebrations this year at the East London Museum on 4 September. Her emphasis was on remembering those who fought to liberate this country and embracing the fruits of democracy. Economic empowerment, housing and infrastructure upkeep was also mentioned as the municipality celebrates Mdantsane’s 50th anniversary.

Invited guest MEC Xoliswa Tom is all for economic growth through tourism. “The government is committed to using our history and heritage as catalysts for socio-economic emancipation,” says Tom. 

King William’s Town and the Buffalo City Municipality, is possibly in the best space to benefit from Madiba’s extended legacy and make use of its tourist-based attractions to further economic growth, due to the fact that Mandela started his life in this region.

King Sabata Dalindyebo 

Leaving King William’s Town the route takes us through Bisho on a scenic drive along the N2 towards Mthatha. Here we find the Nelson Mandela Museum, its three components spread out over Qunu, Mveso and Mthatha. The first stop at Mthatha features the Bhunga building. It houses exhibitions based on Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, as well as a new development featuring both Nelson Mandela and Albert Luthuli. 

Next up we have the Nelson Mandela Museum in Mvezo, the birthplace of our great leader. The rural village is surrounded by a beautiful landscape with the Mbhashe River running through it. The open-aired museum is located close to the old homestead where he grew up. It boasts photographic displays and collages of significant events in Madiba’s life. 

From here the route  head towards Qunu. The Qunu Museum and the Mandela Youth and Heritage Centre, located in the village. It offers those interested in Madiba’s younger days a glimpse of what his childhood was like. The centre includes the Presbyterian Church, where he attended primary school, as well as important family graves (including those of his parents, son and daughter) and offers  educational youth camps on a regular basis. 

The King Sabata Dalindyebo Municipality is also in a very good position to benefit from  economic growth by promoting the area. Its  heritage sites have become amazing tourist attractions. 

According to the municipality’s Medium Term Revenue and Expenditure forecast, the local government will be focussing on branding the area around its stalwarts — King Sabata Dalindyebo, Nelson Mandela and others as a focal point in their tourism and destination marketing strategy.

The unique feature of the Hole in the Wall will be promoted and developed to be a National Heritage site and enhance its iconic status according to the report. 

The City of Joburg 

Moving on from the Eastern Cape to Gauteng, next on the route is Mandela’s home at 8115 Ngakane Street in Orlando West, Soweto. The house has been converted to the Mandela Family Museum and features an assortment of memorabilia, honorary achievements, paintings and photographs, which lends tribute to the leader’s life and accomplishments. 

Mandela House leaves visitors with an in depth understanding of Madiba’s story both in context of his home, as well as his life as a whole with an emphasis on democracy, reconciliation, human rights, tolerance and mutual respect. It is now managed by the Soweto Heritage Trust, a partnership project between the City of Johannesburg, the Gauteng Department of Sports, Arts, Culture and Recreation and the Standard Bank Group. This was Mandela’s family home from 1946 to 1990 after which he donated the house to the Soweto Heritage Trust. 

From here the route moves on to the City of Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum. The museum exhibits the rise and fall of the notorious South African Apartheid system with graphic film footage, text panels, photographs and artifacts in an evocative display which pays attention to the philosophic and humanistic injustices of the era. 

The museum is further accredited as being one of South Africa’s most ‘evocative museums’ with a lot of attention to detail. It offers an invaluable experience in terms of understanding South Africa’s past and present in context. 

This leg of the tour finishes at Nelson Mandela Square at Sandton City. Home to some of South Africa’s finest restaurants and designer outlets, this attraction blends local hospitality with the finest international trends. Adjoined to Nelson Mandela Square, we find Sandton City boasting some of South Africa’s most fashionable and elegant outlets with a statue of Madiba standing six meters tall. Sandton City and Nelson Mandela Square offers both local and international visitors a high-brow lifestyle experience.  

City of Cape Town 

Our route finally takes us to the Western Cape as we reach the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. One can have a look around at the multimedia exhibitions, visit the museum shop or have something to eat while waiting for the ferry to Robben Island at the Nelson Mandela Gateway. After being ferried to the island, a tour of the Robben Island Museum commences with a former political prisoner as tour guide. Personal accounts are shared and one acquires an in-depth understanding of the harrowing experiences faced by inmates. 

The tour also makes a turn at Nelson Mandela’s prison cell, which has been left in its original state. Following that, a bus will take visitors to the lime quarry where Madiba and other political prisoners were subjected to hard labour.  Additional stops at the Shrine of Tuan Guru (a Muslim leader), the Lepers’ Graveyard and the house where Robert Sobukwe was kept in solitary confinement for nine years.

Situated nine kilometres off Cape Town shore, it was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999 and in its time it has been used as a political prison, military base, mental asylum and hospital. To most however, Robben Island will be remembered as the place where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life as a political prisoner during the Apartheid era. 

Drakenstein Municipality (Paarl)

The final stop along the tour could include a visit to the Victor Verster Prison (now Groot Drakenstein). Situated between Paarl and Franschoek on the R301 in the Dwars River Valley, the prison was the place where Mandela spent his last three years in captivity.

On 11 February 1990, the day of his release, the prison was flooded by journalist from all over the world. Visitors to the area can embark on a wine tour from here, ending the day on a more relaxed note. 

Investing in time

Investing in the power of heritage and tourism, the City of Cape Town launched its campaign in honour of Nelson Mandela earlier this year, placing the focus squarely on heritage. Cape Town Executive Mayor, Patricia de Lille, said at the time, “It’s true that we have a special relationship with Madiba. It was here that he was unjustly imprisoned for trying to set us free. 

It was from here that he presided over the establishment of a constitutional order based on dignity and human rights. And it was here that he was given the freedom of this city in 1997, thereby ushering Cape Town into a new phase of its long history. 

“That relationship motivates us to honour him. But beyond that relationship, there is a civic duty to interrogate Madiba’s legacy and foster a public understanding of the man and his place in historic times. In so doing, we will be empowering people to retake ownership of the future we dreamed of in 1994,” De Lille said.

Anton Roelofse, Regional General Manager of small and medium business financier Business Partners Limited said South Africa is on the cusp of a major tourism boom, deeming it a “perfect spring”. 

In light of the challenges facing South Africans today, empowering the people of South Africa is a process, one which entails various aspects ranging from economic empowerment, access to resources and education.

“Educating our people about their past and keeping the memory of those who have fought for justice and freedom alive, together with a focus on cultural heritage, provides us with a platform that serves as foundation for our identities,” says Roelofse.

Michael Meiring

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