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Nelson Mandela’s Legacy is Alive and Well in South Africa

Protesting only a little — I couldn’t hold it in much longer — I agreed. In a mixture of English, mime and Xhosa (the last limited to the words for “please” and “thank you”) I communicated my request to the elderly lady. She graciously invited me in and pointed the way.

“Wow. I just peed in Nelson Mandela’s toilet,” I said to my travel buddies after. Not quite. The anti-apartheid leader never lived in this modern ranch-style bungalow in the Transkei, but in the mud rondavel hut next door, with Justice, when they were young boys.

But for a bona fide Mandela nerd like me any kind of Mandela connection is a good one. (Since my first trip to the county about 15 years ago, I’ve read just about everything I could about or by Mandela. I listen to his speeches online every six months or so for a special treat.)

The visit to his rondavel was just one stop in a footsteps-of-Mandela-style tour that South Africa Tourism invited me to take.

People taking a photograph of the Nelson Mandela capture site, where visitors can see a remarkable trompe l’oeil sculpture erected in his honor. (Photo Courtesy South Africa Tourism)

During 10 days of crisscrossing the country, including some of the world’s most Instagrammable scenery, and on highways that could teach our own TransCanada a thing or two about smooth (though occasionally made hazardous by crossing livestock) or grabbing easy South African Airways flights when it was too far to drive, I saw all the important places in the arc of Mandela’s remarkable life. The green hills of the Eastern Cape where, as a child he gathered cows, the underground hideouts, and the office of the country’s first democratically elected president.

I also discovered the outstanding, if out of the way, Steven Biko Museum which gave insight into the history of Black African Intellectualism. Our group visited Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, a Johannesburg suburb that was a nerve centre of African National Congress leaders and where Mandela, disguised as a farmhand, hid and met with fellow activists, many of whom were arrested at the farm. (We were shown around by Nicholas Wolpe, whose father, Harold Wolpe, was one of them.)

That’s not Nelson Mandela — it’s a Soweto woman who looks remarkably like the former South African president. (Karen Burshtein photo for VacayNetwork.com)

At Mandela’s capture site I was taken by a remarkable trompe l’oeil sculpture erected in commemoration. We also saw former prisons and courthouses all too well known to Mandela and his co-activists, now transformed into museums full of ideas and art. Constitutional Hill Precinct in Johannesburg showed how prisoners slept according to their status. And tears welled when we entered the school in the dusty town near Kwazulu-Natal where Mandela in 1994 voted for the first time (for himself).

Tracing Mandela’s Footsteps in South Africa

We visited coastal East London and charming Port Elizabeth (where we checked out the 67 Public Art Works symbolizing Mandela’s 67 years of work dedicated to the freedom of South Africa). And ventured farther into Mandela heartland, Mvezo and Qunu where he was born and lived as a child, places whose physical beauty bely their poverty, and which makes you see just how long his walk to freedom was.

It was, even I have to say, a lot of Mandela. His famous speech from the dock, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society. …” was on continuous loop at almost everyone of these stops.

In Soweto, I saw a woman who looked so utterly like the late president that I thought I was starting to hallucinate. I concluded she must be a relation or fellow clan member.

People walking around the Nelson Mandela statue at the Union Buildings. (Photos Courtesy South Africa Tourism)

I know that no one has been a greater boost to the tourism of his country than Nelson Mandela, and to capitalize on the world’s fascination and admiration of the late president is certainly justified. And, as much as the museums displayed thoughtful, absorbing exhibits (minus the Mandela House tour in Soweto, which we were rushed through and which was crammed with what seemed like random bits and pieces of stuff from his life with then-wife Winnie) what remained largely in my mind were little sketches of day-to-day life.

Even lingering at a service station during a late-night stop on the way to Qunu to see what snacks South Africans buy in the middle of the night at a remote road stop, or what they chatted about while waiting in line stands out as a memory.

As was meeting young new business owners: The lovely hosts of Dan’s Country Lodge in Mthatha, near Mandela’s hometown, for instance, who welcomed us with a delicious dinner as we pulled in at 11 pm and could not have been more gracious. I would have loved to talk to them more about running a business and helping to develop tourism in this remote part of the country.

But it’s the instances of burning, ad-hoc creativity of the “born free” generation that I remember most. In a still economically challenged South Africa, a new generation are madly, wildly entrepreneurial, determined to work their way into the middle class. Like the fashion mad young men in Soweto who call themselves The Smarteez (colourful on the outside, black on the inside); they design and even sew their own clothes and wear them to whichever urban space is hosting a pop-up day party in downtown Johannesburg that month; the dancers forming touring companies with pantsula, a once-outlawed protest dance of the townships, or the young design students in Cape Town and their project to  turn township homes into galleries and performance spaces.

Happily South African Tourism has since developed a new smart phone app, called Madiba’s Journey, that makes the Mandela legacy a little more attached to these bits of real life. The new app uses GPS technology to access “Madiba inspired tourist attractions” near to where the user might be.

A sculpture of a young Nelson Mandela shadow boxing stands tall near his old law office in Johannesburg. (Karen Burshtein photo for VacayNetwork.com)

So when you’re checking former no-go neighbourhoods, such as Maboneng Precinct in Johannesburg, which creatives have turned into a hub of arty shops, bars, music venues, and restaurants, the app will also point you to Mandela’s law office, nearby, now set up as an outdoor museum and with a fabulous sculpture based on the famous photo of Mandela as boxer. Or if you’e off to do the zipline between two cooling towers in Soweto, know that your app will alert you to your proximity to the museum devoted to the Soweto uprising.

Now, as you check out a pop-up art show inside Cape Town’s City Hall, you are alerted to the historic “I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all” speech Mandela gave at this same building, one day after his release from prison.

I think I can say with some confidence that the late president would want visitors to see this side of South Africa as much, if not more, as the monuments to him. The creative scene gives a handle on the South Africa of today, much the same way music in the 1960s and 1970s, was part and parcel of the struggle, when musicians like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba became the often exiled voices of apartheid-era oppression, and should be part of any Mandela legacy visit.

Note: The “Madiba’s Journey” app is available for download from the Apple iTunes store for iOS devices and the Google Play store for Android devices.

Featured Photograph: A young girl posing and mimicking the Nelson Mandel statue in front of the Union Buildings. (Photo Courtesy South Africa Tourism)

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