[This article first appeared on Vacay.ca on December 5, 2013, the day Nelson Mandela died.]
Naively, I arrived in South Africa three years ago thinking it would be difficult to find anyone in the nation who didn’t love Nelson Mandela. The first person who I interviewed taught me a lesson. “I didn’t like Mandela much,” said the man, a former diplomat who asked not to be identified when he spoke about his political career. He was present with Mandela at numerous high-level meetings in the 1990s, during the leader’s presidency. “Behind closed doors, he had little tolerance for dissent or opposing views. But I do respect him, tremendously. How could anyone not?”
So, I was asking the wrong question. For all the idolatry around him, Mandela was human and susceptible to the range of emotions as everyone else. Rather than inquiring about the ubiquitous of adoration for him, I should have sought a person in the nation who didn’t appreciate what he did for South Africans of all ethnicities. Such a person I didn’t find; however, somewhere there must exist a dissenter, a boorish individual opposed to the ideas of anti-apartheid and the Rainbow Nation. Largely, though, South Africa is a nation of Mandela acolytes, white, brown, and black.
“It’s like meeting an angel,” Sebastien Qweshe, a driver at the posh Michelangelo Hotel in Johannesburg told me about his encounter with the Nobel laureate.
Maria Sekwane, a member of the African National Congress, remembered February 11, 1990, when Mandela was released after 27 years in prison, as a night of unmatched celebration. “We sang and we danced, but we were also expecting that we would soon have to fight,” she recalled. “For days we were collecting money to buy guns and then Mandela said each and every gun must go into the sea. We couldn’t believe it. But he insisted that had to be the way. That we could not look backward and that had to happen for the country to go forward.”
Her friend Gloria Pikitsha, who was raised during the worst of the Soweto riots in the 1970s and ’80s, called Mandela “a gift from God.”
“He was blessed with a great mind, wisdom and humility,” she said. “Who on earth would sacrifice that much for his country?”
For some, his passing on Thursday at age 95 is horribly painful because they consider him divine. For others, a today without Mandela is a much less dignified and gracious day than yesterday. The legacy he leaves, though, is one so deep, rich, and interesting that South Africa will continue to benefit from his remarkable achievements for decades ahead. A Mandela tourism industry, a phenomenon that was only budding three years ago during the World Cup, seems poised to flourish.
These are the five Nelson Mandela attractions visitors to South Africa will have to make a point of seeing.
This 12-square-kilometre dot of sand and limestone is where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years of incarceration.
The island is three kilometres off the coast of Cape Town and for many years was miles from humanity. It became known as Mandela University, because the lawyer would educate both inmates and prison guards. Tours that include a round-trip ferry ride and a discussion by a former prisoner cost 400 rand (about $43). From those ex-inmates, you learn about the degradation of apartheid that occurred inside the prison, where the subordination of black political prisoners was constantly reinforced. Prisoners who were Indian or mixed race, for example, would be given six ounces of meat with their dinner, the blacks five.
Mandela’s prison cell attracts a crowd, making it the only lock-up in the world people are eager to get into. They can’t. Its bars remain shut but visitors can step into a similarly cramped pen a few cells down the tight hallway that fills with echoes. Just about everyone who walks in spreads their arms to get a sense of the space. You’ve been in walk-in closets that are larger.
“I could walk the length of my cell in three paces,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. “When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side.”
When you leave Robben Island, you can stop at the gift shop to purchase Mandela merchandise, including a “presidential collection” line of shirts similar to those he wore during his presidency. Another set of fashion blares “466/64”, his prison number. It indicates he was the 466th prisoner to arrive on Robben Island in 1964.