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In Praise of Nelson Mandela

“Free Nelson Mandela!” A common shout during the 70s and 80s in the UK and other parts of the world. Student Unions were named after the ANC leader. Wembley Stadium held a huge concert in his honour. Even the Peckham tower block featured in Britain’s favourite sit-com, Only Fools & Horses, was named after the great man.

On February 11th, 1990 the wishes of millions of people around the globe came true as Nelson Mandela was made a free man after 27 years imprisonment. Since that historic day, he has become one of the most recognised and respected statesmen on the planet. Even now, four years after supposedly “retiring” from public life, the former President is arguably still the most influential man in South Africa, adored by millions of people, young and old, for transforming the country and providing freedom after years of apartheid rule.

As well as having both a political and social influence, “The Old Man”, as he is affectionately referred to throughout the country, has also had a major effect on the country’s tourism. Anything associated with him and his life has become a major tourist attraction. In every major city there is a house, museum or statue which is somehow linked to him.

Two of the most significant places on the “Mandela Map”, are Robben Island, just off the coast of Cape Town, and Soweto, the centre of the “new” South Africa (according to the guidebooks).

A trip to Robben Island is a must for any visitor to Cape Town. You take a 45-minute boat trip from “The Waterfront”. It is best to buy a ticket for the boat a day in advance as there are limited spaces. If you get a clear day, the views of Cape Town, with Table Mountain towering over the city, are truly awe-inspiring. On arrival, you are put onto a bus that takes you for a ride around the island, stopping off at the island lighthouse and, more interestingly, the limestone pit in which Nelson and his fellow prisoners worked in the blistering heat for days on end. Along the way, you will see ostriches and springboks roaming the land.

The next part of the trip, is a tour around the prison in which Nelson spent 18 years of his sentence. You are shown the minute rooms in which the prisoners were held. It is a humbling experience as you see inside the cell in which Nelson spent so much of his life. I also found myself thinking of certain other global political figures who would perhaps actually benefit from spending a bit of time in a cell. I’m not convinced that they would be as forgiving and understanding to their captors as Nelson has been since his release.

On returning to the main land, a visit to the District Six Museum, located near the Castle of Good Hope, is worthwhile to help you gain a better understanding of life under apartheid rule and the struggle for freedom which Nelson was the symbol of.

A place, which has even greater symbolism, is Soweto, located about an hour’s drive from Johannesburg, in the north of the country.  The most effective and safest way to see the city is to go on an organised tour with a local guide. This allows you to be educated about the sometimes-harrowing history of the place and also the dramatic transformation that has taken place over the last ten years. One guarantee is that during your tour, you will be told, on probably more than one occasion, that Soweto is in the only place in the world where you have the homes of two Nobel Prize Winners, Desmond Tutu and the “Old Man” himself, down one street. Tutu still resides in his house when he is in the country and Nelson’s has been converted into a small museum. Other places to see are Freedom Square, scene of the 1976 uprising, and the Hector Pieterson Memorial.

After a visit to Robben Island, Soweto and other parts of South Africa, one can begin to gain an appreciation of what an amazing man Nelson Mandela is and the remarkable life he has led, as well as what a beautiful country he resides in. To aid the experience, I would recommend reading his autobiography “A Long Walk to Freedom” (an abridged version is available).

It was indeed a very long walk that Nelson took but it is one that has finally resulted in a freedom for millions and the start of a new era for this “Rainbow Nation”. It was definitely worth all the shouting.

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