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Cape Town Celebrates Nelson Mandela With Powerful Tributes and a New Visitor Trail

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The statue is situated on a significant balcony.

Photo by Lindsay Lambert Day

The statue is situated on a significant balcony.

Mandela’s centenary has been marked with speeches, statues, and new ways to follow in his footsteps.

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Just hours after his release from Victor Verster prison on the outskirts of Paarl, South Africa, Nelson Mandela made his way to Cape Town’s City Hall. Here, from a jam-packed balcony overlooking Darling Street in February 1990, he delivered his first remarks as a free man to a jubilant crowd. Although the speech is among the most significant events on Mandela’s path to the South African presidency, the spot hasn’t been marked by any obvious monuments.

That changed on July 24, when officials from the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town, as well as close friends and confidantes of Madiba, as he was affectionately called, gathered to unveil a life-size, bronze statue on that same balcony.

The unveiling was one of dozens of events celebrating Mandela’s centenary this summer. Former U.S. president Barack Obama delivered the 16th Nelson Mandela Lecture in Johannesburg on July 17, South African Tourism relaunched the Madiba’s Journey app, and the Nelson Mandela Foundation updated its travel and planning tips for 100 historical landmarks and sites that influenced Mandela’s life.  South African Airways Vacations, meanwhile, has launched a 10-day “Celebrating Mandela’s 100th” package that takes travelers to significant sites related to Mandela in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and beyond.

Remembering a historic figure

The unveiling of the bronze Mandela came just six days after what would have been his 100th birthday. Desmond Tutu was among the dignitaries who spoke inside City Hall prior to the unveiling. The 86-year-old Nobel Peace Prize recipient gingerly approached the podium following a moving a cappella performance by the Cape Town Opera Chorus to declare that the statue was a symbol of Mandela’s role in bringing a sense of dignity back to all South Africans.

“To me, his greatest triumph was restoring our pride and self-belief,” Tutu said. “The journey to discovering ourselves began here, this place, on that February day in 1990. That is what we celebrate today.”

Cape Town’s mayor, Patricia de Lille, called Mandela’s 1990 appearance on the City Hall balcony—mere hours after the end of his 27-year imprisonment—a symbol of the triumph of a generation of leaders who had sacrificed everything for South Africans’ freedom. “This is a fitting tribute to an extraordinary leader and will be a physical reminder to current and future generations of the sacrifices he made during the liberation struggle,” de Lille said.

Barack Obama, meanwhile, used his Nelson Mandela Lecture on a clear, cool day at Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg a week earlier to lay out guideposts for the future, drawing from Mandela’s life and work.

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“Madiba shows those of us who believe in freedom and democracy we are going to have to fight harder to reduce inequality and promote lasting economic opportunity for all people,” Obama told a spirited audience of 15,000 that frequently interjected with cheers, applause, and affirmations.

The Apartheid Museum is an essential stop.

New ways to explore Mandela’s legacy

In addition to serving as a visual reminder of the City Hall speech, the statue—created by artists Barry Jackson and Xhanti Mpakama—will also become part of a new Madiba Legacy tourism route. It will include several key spots: Robben Island and Drakenstein Correctional Centre (the new name for Victor Verster prison) where Mandela spent part of his 27-year incarceration; the parliament buildings, where Mandela made frequent appearances during his presidency from 1994 until 1999 and where a bust of Madiba, also created by artists Jackson and Mpakama, is on display; and City Hall.

A communal cell at Robben Island
The route, which visitors will be able to explore on their own as a self-drive tour or through packages and tours offered by travel companies, is intended to draw more visitors to the Western Cape, and, as a result, the region’s minister for Economic Opportunities Alan Winde said, create more jobs for South Africans.

Two new components are also in development: a permanent exhibition at City Hall that will open in October and focus on the life and times of Nelson Mandela in Cape Town, as well as other freedom fighters from the apartheid era, and, at Drakenstein Correctional Centre, the opening of Mandela House, where Mandela lived while imprisoned and where he conducted talks with government officials about the unbanning of the African National Congress.

In the meantime, visitors to South Africa can also arrange their own visits to the route’s individual locations. Outside Cape Town, travelers can trace Mandela’s footsteps in places such as Johannesburg, which is home to the Apartheid Museum and the late president’s former family home in Soweto, and his capture site in KwaZulu-Natal, where in 1952 Mandela was arrested while posing as a chauffeur after evading authorities for 17 months.

The Nelson Mandela Capture Site marks the spot where he was apprehended in 1952.
Of what likely would have been Mandela’s reaction to the new statue and his enduring legacy at large, Christo Brand, a former warder and unlikely friend to the late president during his incarceration on Robben Island and later at Pollsmoor Prison, said, “The statue is like a celebration of Mandela’s life, and also to tell the youth what he was standing for, what he was fighting for. But [Mandela] would have said, ‘I’m not a hero.’ He was a humble man.”

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Humble, perhaps, but an unequivocal hero in the hearts and minds of millions of South Africans—those who lived to witness his fight for freedom, and the “born free” generation who came of age in the democratic country he worked tirelessly to shape. At the unveiling ceremony, professor Njabulo Ndebele, chairman of The Nelson Mandela Foundation, said, When we unveil the statue today, it will be useful to remember that we are not only just unveiling someone who is no longer with us and therefore is associated with the past . . . but to remember that we are also unveiling a sense of the future that we envisage.”

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