Nelson Mandela’s South Africa

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (or Tata Madiba, as he’s more affectionately known) left an indelible mark on the history and culture of South Africa. While some places related to his life have become tourist attractions over time, it’s the lesser-known spots—Jetty 1 in Cape Town, the Capture Site in Howick, and the Saxon Hotel (where he wrote Long Walk to Freedom)—that are really worth visiting. To learn even more about Madiba, time your trip to Nelson Mandela International Day, celebrated every July 18 in memory of his birthday. On this day, it’s become a tradition for South Africans living in urban areas to partake in various community volunteer projects.

Victoria Wharf, V&A Waterfront Shop No. 153, V & A Waterfront, Cape Town, 8002, South Africa
To the untrained eye, Jetty 1 is just another nondescript building on the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Look more closely, however, and you’ll see a small board next to the entrance, explaining that the building served as a passageway for everyone traveling to and from Robben Island during apartheid. For the prisoners, staff, and wardens, this was the last place they could see Cape Town before their ferry pulled away from the mainland and the city disappeared into the dark silhouette of Table Mountain.

Now a small museum, Jetty 1 houses information about the history of Robben Island, both before and after apartheid. It’s not typically crowded, so visitors can explore at their own pace and perhaps even sit alone inside the replica of a holding cell. Separate from the Robben Island Exhibition and Information Center, Jetty 1 is a must-see if you don’t have time to do the full Robben Island tour but are still curious about this time in Cape Town’s history. It’s also entirely indoors, so if you’ve visiting in the winter or the weather isn’t nice enough to visit Robben Island, it’s the next best thing. Entrance is free.
Fashion District, Johannesburg, 2001, South Africa
A modest three-story building in the Ferreirasdorp area of Johannesburg, Chancellor House once contained the first black law firm in South Africa, opened by Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo at the height of apartheid. It was here that the two attorneys fought for those accused of crimes against the state—many of which they were also held accountable for later in life.

Left to languish for years, Chancellor House was restored to its former glory in 2010 and now features a freedom struggle museum on the ground floor. One particularly fascinating display includes a timeline with photographs and interesting events from Mandela’s life, including a picture of him sparring with Jerry Moloi on the rooftop of the South African Associated Newspapers Building. Many of the displays are also visible from the street so passersby can learn more about Mandela and Tambo while exploring the surrounding neighborhood.
11 Kotze St, Johannesburg, 2017, South Africa
A living museum in the heart of Johannesburg, Constitution Hill was built on the 100-acre site of a century-old prison complex, where the leaders of every major South African liberation group—from Nelson Mandela to Mahatma Gandhi—were once detained. Today, visitors can tour the area and its many attractions to learn more about South Africa’s turbulent past and journey to democracy.

Start your visit at the Constitutional Court (the highest in the country), where you can witness a real case as well as an exceptional collection of South African artwork. Next, head to the Old Fort. One of Johannesburg’s oldest buildings, it served as a “whites only” jail during apartheid, with Nelson Mandela as its only black prisoner (his cell now features an exhibition detailing the time he spent here and on Robben Island). The Number Four building, on the other hand, was reserved for black men, and once housed prisoners like Mahatma Gandhi, Robert Sobukwe, and the students of the 1976 Soweto Uprising. In this same complex, you can also visit the Women’s Jail, where female political activists like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, and Fatima Meer were held.
Mandela Capture Site, R103, Howick, 3290, South Africa
You may have seen photos of Marco Cianfanelli’s Release, but nothing can prepare you for the interactive experience of visiting the sculpture in real life. Start your visit to the Nelson Mandela Capture Site in the museum, where tall panels detail the events leading up to his imprisonment on Robben Island. Then, walk down the Long Walk to Freedom pathway, which leads to Cianfanelli’s sculpture. The grass lining the pathway grows taller as you walk, almost completely muffling the sounds of birds and passing cars. Eventually, you’ll reach a marker indicating the exact point from which you can see Mandela’s silhouette in the sculpture. The work is made up of 50 steel columns to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s capture on August 5, 1962. When considered as individual pieces, the sculpture doesn’t quite make sense, but seen from the right place, it all comes into focus. Thought-provoking, indeed. Entry to the museum and sculpture is free, but donations are encouraged.
Robben Island, Cape Town, 7400, South Africa
One of South Africa’s most famous sights, Robben Island is located four miles to the west of Cape Town. Its history as a prison is almost as old as the first Dutch settlement on the cape, dating all the way back to the 17th century. Today, the island is a UNESCO World Heritage site and museum, offering guided tours by former prisoners. After visiting the graveyard and maximum-security facility, guests can finish with a stop at the cell of the island’s most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela. The half-hour ferry ride to Robben Island includes breathtaking views of Cape Town and Table Mountain. Just note that the ferry only runs three times a day in the low season; in the spring and summer, there’s an additional departure in the late afternoon. Book your tickets far in advance.

Northern Park Way and Gold Reef Rd, Ormonde, Johannesburg, 2001, South Africa
Opened in 2001, the Apartheid Museum powerfully—and extensively—documents the rise and fall of racial segregation in South Africa. Constructed on a 16-acre plot of land, the museum features a unique design—as you head through the gates, for example, you’ll notice separate entrances for whites and blacks. It’s quite an interesting way to start your voyage through the history of apartheid. The back gardens were designed by Patrick Watson and feature an impressive sculpture by William Kentridge. For anyone wanting to better understand apartheid, a visit to this moving museum is a must when in Johannesburg.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: United States
Journeys: Sports + Adventure