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Cape Town Celebrates Nelson Mandela’s Legacy With Powerful Tributes and Landmark Trail

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On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster prison after 27 years of imprisonment by South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Photo by Lindsay Lambert Day

On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster prison after 27 years of imprisonment by South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Following the 30th anniversary of Mandela’s release from imprisonment, here’s where to follow in his footsteps across landmark sites in South Africa.

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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, following 27 years of imprisonment by the country’s apartheid regime. Here, from a jam-packed balcony overlooking Darling Street Mandela delivered his first remarks as a free man on February 11, 1990. “Comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all,” he said to a jubilant crowd of thousands. This speech is widely considered to be one of the most significant events on Mandela’s path to the South African presidency, which led to the end of South Africa’s brutal apartheid system in 1994 after almost a half century. 

Exactly 30 years to the date after Mandela’s galvanizing address, the country’s current president, Cyril Ramaphosa—who held the microphone for Mandela during his 1990 remarks—returned to the same City Hall site to deliver a speech in which he referred to Mandela’s address as a “speech that birthed a nation.” Following the 30th anniversary of his release from imprisonment, here’s where to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s legacy across South Africa.

Remembering a historic figure

On July 24, 2018, to mark the centenary of what would have been Mandela’s 100th birthday, 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 debut a life-size, bronze statue of Mandela on the same balcony where he delivered his address in 1990. 

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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 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.”

The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg is an essential stop along South Africa’s Madiba Legacy tourism route.

Where to honor Mandela’s legacy in South Africa

In addition to serving as a visual reminder of the City Hall speech, the statue—created by artists Barry Jackson and Xhanti Mpakama—is also a part of a South African tourism trail dedicated to Nelson Mandela’s legacy. The free Madiba’s Journey app (available for download on iOS and Android), provided by South Africa’s tourism board, outlines 100 historical landmarks that influenced Mandela’s life on an interactive map and provides narrated audio with historical context for each site.

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City Hall is also included on the list of South African landmarks. Here, two permanent exhibitions titled “The Life and Times of Nelson Mandela” and “Unthreading Mandela” offer perspectives on the complexities of Mandela’s life, as well as other freedom fighters from the apartheid era. Nearby at the parliament buildings where Mandela made frequent appearances during his presidency from 1994 until 1999, a bust of Madiba, also created by artists Jackson and Mpakama, is on display. Key spots in and around Cape Town include the UNESCO-listed Robben Island on Table Bay, where Mandela spent 18 years of his 27-year sentence; visitors today can take guided tours of the cells where Mandela and other activists were imprisoned. 

Today, visitors can take guided tours of the cells at Robben Island, where Mandela spent 18 years of his 27-year prison sentence.

Outside of 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 home in the township of Soweto, where Mandela and his family lived from 1946 to 1996. The trail also includes the Nelson Mandela Capture Site in the KwaZulu-Natal province, where Mandela was arrested on August 5, 1952, while posing as a chauffeur on a trip between Durban and Johannesburg (after evading apartheid authorities for 17 months). Today, the capture site is marked by a monumental sculpture, which was unveiled on the 50th anniversary of Mandela’s arrest.

In the Cape Winelands (about two hours inland of Cape Town by car), visitors come to pay their respects to Mandela at Drakenstein Correctional Centre—the new name for Victor Verster prison— where Mandela spent the final 14 months of his imprisonment. At this facility, a giant bronze statue of Mandela is erected in the very place where he took his first steps as a free man. (There are also reportedly plans to turn the house at Drakenstein Correctional Centre where Mandela lived while imprisoned into both a museum and a national heritage site.)

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Travelers can take self-led trips along the dedicated Nelson Mandela trail. However, many tour companies in the country also organize related travel packages. South African Airways Vacations, for example, offers a 10-day “Mandela’s Journey to Freedom” package that takes travelers to significant sites related to Mandela in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and beyond. The dedicated itinerary includes a guided tour of the prison cell where Nelson Mandela was held captive nearly three decades and also features a stop at Langa, the oldest black township in Cape Town. From $2,999 per person

The Nelson Mandela Capture Site marks the spot where he was arrested on August 5, 1952, in the KwaZulu-Natal province, while traveling between Durban and Johannesburg.

Of what likely would have been Mandela’s reaction to his enduring legacy at large, Christo Brand, a former warder and unlikely friend to the late president during his incarceration on Robben Island, said at the 2018 debut of Mandela’s City Hall statue, “[It’s] like a celebration of Mandela’s life, and also to tell the youth what he was standing for.”

“But [Mandela] would have said, ‘I’m not a hero.’ He was a humble man,” he continued. 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. 

This article originally appeared online in July 26, 2018; it was updated on February 11, 2020, to include current information.

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