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The Best Way to See South Africa? With Nelson Mandela

Visit South Africa to learn about Nelson Mandela's life and legacy

Nelson Mandela’s legacy is unparalleled. During his journey from a remote village in the Eastern Cape to the presidency (by way of 27 years in prison), his unwavering commitment to racial equality literally changed the world. His death in 2013 prompted an outpouring of grief around the world and among his countrymen, who affectionately refer to him as Tata (literally “father”), or Madiba, his clan name.

Throughout South Africa, a number of sites celebrate Mandela and give visitors a glimpse of his life and struggles. A tour of the country—from Limpopo Province to Johannesburg to Durban—offers a chance not only to see today’s South Africa but also to learn about the country’s history and the man who changed it forever.

Rhinos at Shambala Private Game Reserve

Since you can’t come to South Africa and not go on safari, start your trip at Zulu Camp at the 330,000-acre Shambala Private Game Reserve, home to lions, cheetahs, hippos, zebras, warthogs, impalas, and giraffes. Smaller than Kruger National Park, this private reserve in Limpopo allows you to have a more intimate safari experience and is within two hours of Johannesburg. While at Shambala, visit the gorgeous Nelson Mandela Centre for Reconciliation, the holiday home on the preserve where Mr. Mandela hosted local and world leaders.

Telephone wire baskets for sale in Soweto

Next, head to Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa and Mandela’s adopted hometown. When Mr. Mandela moved here (to avoid an arranged marriage in his home village), he moved to the historically black township of Soweto. Although still recovering from the effects of apartheid, Soweto is a colorful and vibrant place that vibrates with the optimistic energy of its residents. You can go inside the modest brick house that Mandela called home, see his neighbor Archbishop Tutu’s house (two Nobel Peace Prize winners on the same street!), and pick up a basket woven with telephone wire at the market on Orlando West or a patterned bucket hat from Thesis.

Mural on the Orlando Power Station

While in Soweto, visit the two towers of the defunct Orlando Power Station, which have been converted into canvases for multi-hued murals depicting the Soweto’s past, present, and future. Below the towers you can find a laid-back sports bar, and if you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, you an even take a 125-foot bungee jump from a walkway strung between the towers.

Next, visit Liliesleaf Farm, the unassuming farmhouse where the armed struggle to end apartheid was planned—and where the core leaders of the liberation movement were arrested in 1963. The site is now an educational facility that uses interactive technology, film, and voice clips to tell the story of the movement.

The Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg

While in town, you can stay at The Saxon Hotel, where Mr. Mandela finished writing his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. It was his preferred place to stay when he was president, and the hotel is also a favorite of Oprah Winfrey, Kevin Spacey, and Will Smith’s. If a room there won’t fit in your budget, stop there for cocktails by the infinity pool or a world-class dinner at Qunu Grill. 

The beach in Durban

The next stop is Durban, a beachfront city with the world’s largest Indian population outside of India. Stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel to soak up the city’s relaxing beach vibe—and pop into the Oyster Box next door for a delicious buffet of 14 different curries. While in Durban, visit Ohlange High School to see where Mr. Mandela cast the first vote of his life in 1994—in the first election in South Africa that included the country’s black population.

90 minutes outside Durban is the Capture Site, where Mandela was arrested in 1962. The site is marked by a remarkable steel sculpture by Marco Cianfanelli, which definitely is worth the trip. On the way back, stop at the rustic Fordoun Hotel for a lunch made from fruits and vegetables grown right there on their organic farm and a treatment with renowned African healer Dr. Elliot Ndlovu who oversees their the hotel’s spa.

Former political prisoners serve as guides at Robben Island
And then on to Cape Town, where you can visit Robben Island, the isolated prison where Mr. Mandela spent 18 years of his 27-year prison sentence. Ferries to the island leave the Cape Town waterfront every hour; once you arrive on the island, you can see the prison, rock quarry, and lighthouse as well as a colony of penguins. Former political prisoners lead tours of the cells where Mr. Mandela stayed and give exceptional personal insights into the country’s struggles under apartheid. 

Download the Madiba’s Journey app to learn more about the Mandela-inspired tourist attractions throughout South Africa.

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