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A smiling Nelson Mandela looks down on Johannesburg’s central business district.

Tracing Nelson Mandela’s path a century after his birth

A travel writer visits some of the places that shaped the anti-apartheid icon’s life.

By Tim Johnson

It seems far too pleasant a day for such a terrible place. Under a cloudless blue sky, with just a hint of autumn in the air, it feels like a walk through a meadow, tracing a line of pines, the surrounding hills forming a panorama around me. But in fact, it was right here, just north of Durban, down by the road, where one of the world’s great leaders was handcuffed and spirited away, entering prison a fiery young man, not to emerge until decades later, hair full of grey.

“Nelson Mandela was arrested here in 1962, and disappeared from public life for 27 years,” says Christopher Till, director of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, here to supervise the construction of a new museum on the site. Gesturing down the hill, he adds, “Take the long walk to freedom, and at the end, you’ll see the face of Mandela.”

I’m in South Africa, following in Nelson Mandela’s footsteps on the centenary of his birth. Exactly 100 years ago (July 18), he was born poor and disenfranchised in a remote part of the Eastern Cape, improbably rising to become the revolutionary and iconic figure known globally today. Along the way, Mandela left his mark across this country, and I’m here to find his many faces — character, comrade, prisoner, negotiator, statesman and leader.

My journey begins where Mandela’s long prison term began, at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. My guide Phineas takes me through the site, originally a military fort, and commissioned as a prison until 1983. 

The famous Mandela Shadow Boxer statue near Constitution Hill.

It was a terrible place that was once home to some very fine people, including Mahatma Gandhi, who lived in South Africa and struggled for human rights there for more than 20 years before returning to India, and Oliver Tambo, a prominent leader of the African National Congress who led guerrilla campaigns during the struggle against apartheid — the largest airport in the nation now bears his name. 

But many of those locked up here were just common people caught up in the system, including Phineas’ own uncle. “Their only crime was being black,” he explains. “People were arrested for nothing — for not having their ID with them, and they sent you here. Sometimes they put you in jail and forgot all about you.”

And apartheid’s strict separation by race extended even to incarceration. Whites were fed better food and given white-collar clerical jobs, not the hard labour assigned to the black prisoners. And the latter were held in cells designed for 35 that housed 300. “If you woke up in the morning, you thanked God to be alive,” Phineas says.

We see the solitary cells, a row of tiny barred enclosures — just a couple seconds inside is enough to induce claustrophobia — some prisoners spent up to six months here. Even with beatings and lashes on the list of daily horrors, Phineas confirms that solitary was the worst punishment. “It was a deep, dark hole.”

But he adds that, for those in general population, at term at Constitution Hill could be a transformative experience. “That was the mistake of the apartheid government — those who were sent here became politicized.” He adds that, for just this reason, Mandela was kept separate, serving his time here with the white inmates. “They were afraid he would turn the other prisoners — they were very afraid of him.  

The solitary cells at Constitution Hill.

I jump around on Mandela’s life timeline as I travel around the country. Still in Johannesburg, I see a home in the swanky Hillbrow neighbourhood that he occupied later in life, complete with a garden outside filled with rocks painted with messages of hope, placed by those who swung by to pay tribute, which Mandela would walk through for inspiration.

When he died in 2013, South Africans gathered on the street outside to sing, dance and celebrate Mandela’s life. And in Soweto, I walk down the street from Desmond Tutu’s home to Nelson Mandela’s first house with his first wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.  

The small, tidy bedroom at Mandela House in Soweto.

Bullet holes from harassers still scar the exterior, but you can almost feel the couple’s presence inside, the bed still made in the bedroom, smiling photos of them everywhere, back in the days when they were young and optimistic about their chances of changing the world. In one, a dog jumps up on a smiling Nelson, another features a quote where he names this happy little home as “the centrepoint of my world, the place marked with an X in my mental geography.”

Still another features a young Winnie raising a fist, calling her the Mother of the Nation, with a quote: “I am the product of the masses, of my country and the product of my enemy.”

Recently deceased, Winnie still has her enemies and critics, both here and abroad. A controversial figure, she remains a hero of the underclass. While Nelson famously moderated his political views after his release from prison, Winnie remained faithful to the communist cause, believing it to be the only way the great majority of South Africans could move forward and succeed.

The Long Walk to Freedom, near Durban.

But Nelson’s acclaim remains almost universal here — his portrait and his quotations are everywhere, like a national god and guiding force. On a safari in the Madikwe Game Reserve, my guide tells me that Mandela’s words are still treated as gospel, quoted by all sides in parliament and painted on posters as words for everyone to live by.

In Port Elizabeth, at the end of the famous Garden Route, not far from Mandela’s birthplace in the Eastern Cape, I follow Route 67, a path with 67 steps inspired by his 67 years of public service, decorated all along the way by works in tribute to Mandela by local artists.

And not far from Durban, I walk along the Long Walk, descending toward the road, finishing at an imposing sculpture where 50 columns, together, form an image of Mandela’s face, looking west, his face, greater than the sum of its parts, tight in quiet contemplation.

Sparks, a former political prisoner, shows us the prison yard on Robben Island and the wall behind which Mandela hid his memoirs.

My tour ends, as many do, on Robben Island. Just off the shores of Cape Town — so close you can see its fabulous skyline, backed by the iconic Table Mountain, from its forlorn beaches.

I ride a ferry from the Victoria and Albert waterfront, only 30 minutes but a world away, the beaches on the island dotted with tiny penguins. Arriving at the austere and depressing, low-slung barracks, I join a former political prisoner named Sparks, who served seven miserable years here on the Alcatraz of Africa until his release in 1990.

He takes me to the actual, communal cell where he spent the majority of his incarceration, where two toilets served 60 prisoners, where the slanting rain came through the open bars in winter and the sun scorched him — and his fellow inmate, Mandela — in the summer.

Mandela’s austere prison cell on Robben Island.

Even the fundamentals were denied them. “Even Nelson Mandela, he spent 18 years here, with no socks, no shoes, no jacket,” Sparks remembers, noting that he was reduced to a number: 5683. Mandela was 46664. But despite the misery, the beatings, the very intentional malnutrition and overcrowding and mistreatment that took place here, some things, Sparks says, are simply more important.

“We cannot have grudges toward those who tortured us,” he tells me, right at the end of the tour, summing up my entire journey, and Mandela’s mission, in one statement. “Because we fought for peace. And now we have our democracy.”

 All photos by Tim Johnson 


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