The Eastern Cape - Nelson Mandela's early years in brief

The history behind the places of interest in this province

Madiba’s birthplace and early years were spent on the grasslands of the Wild Coast as a cowherd. He was born in the modest rural village of Mvezo near Mthatha in 1918.

"The hills above Qunu were dotted with large smooth rocks which we transformed into our own rollercoaster. We sat on flat stones and slid down the face of the rocks. We did this until our backsides were so sore we could hardly sit down."Extract from Long Walk to Freedom

Born the son of a Thembu chief, one who acted as counsellor to the Thembu King, he was to get his education at Christian mission schools.

Hi father died early and Mandela was taken into the Royal family and raised by King Jongintaba Mtirara, receiving a privileged upbringing and the best possible education at the time.

Between 1939 and 1941 he attended the University of Fort Hare, then a tertiary institution for black African students (predominantly South African).

He managed to get expelled from the university after demonstrating in a student protest whereupon the king decided to arrange marriages for both Mandela and his cousin, Justice, similar in age and studying with Mandela.

Both men left the countryside in defiance of this arrangement to journey to Johannesburg (Jongintaba apparently tracked both men down, ordering them back to the Eastern Cape. Justice was to return and succeed his father, but Mandela remained becoming embroiled in politics).

Mandela was to complete his BA through UNISA a couple of years later, and finally his LLB some 50 years later whilst in prison, through the London University. He was to say about education:

"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."

Must-See Sites in the Eastern Cape

  • The Voting Line Sculpture
    Where? Donkin Reserve, Port Elizabeth

    The Voting Line Sculpture is a 38 metre laser-cut steel silhouette sculpture of a long line of voters - of all shapes and sizes - connected together in a queue at the end of which is a separate cut-out of Nelson Mandela, his fist raised in the air. The work is by artists Anthony Harris and Konrad Geel and the Mandela figure is the logo for the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Madiba Trust. You’ll find the sculpture in the Donkin Reserve, on one of two routes - the Donkin Heritage Trail, or Route 67 where the Voting Line Sculpture is one of several artworks celebrating Mandela’s 67 years of public life.

  • Route 67
    Where? Port Elizabeth

    Route 67 is a tourist route filled with 67 artworks that form part of a wonderful self-guided walking tour peppered with quotes from Mandela (stop at the Visitor Centre at the Donkin Reserve and ask either for the booklet, or engage a guide to walk with you). The 67 artworks are inspired by Mandela’s life and represent his 67 years of public life. It’s not difficult to do either, as the local Eastern Cape artworks all lie within 67 giant steps, between the Campanile in Strand Street and the Great Flag in the Donkin Reserve. Really worth doing.

  • Nelson Mandela Museum
    Where? Bhunga Building, Mthatha

    What most people don’t know about the Nelson Mandela Museum is that it’s in three parts - the Bhunga Building (the heart of the museum where you can follow self-guided activities) in Mthatha, the museum in Qunu, and the open-air museum in Mvezo (where Madiba was born and only the museum can arrange with the chief of the area for a visit to Mvezo). A visit can include Madiba’s primary school, the pastures where he was a shepherd, his original home in Qunu and hikes in the surrounding areas (there are five tour options). Contact the museum directly before visiting.

Additional Sites of Interest - if you have the time

  • Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum
    Where? St George’s Park, Port Elizabeth

    While Mandela has no direct connection with the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, it changed its name from King George VI Art Gallery in favour of Madiba in 2002 as a tribute to him. It deserves a visit for the rich display of South African art, and specialisation in Eastern Cape Province art. Its three exhibition halls are re-hung throughout the year with rotating collections and special exhibitions. They’re closed over weekends and on public holidays. Route 67 ends at the art museum.

  • Nelson Mandela Youth and Heritage Centre
    Where? Qunu

    Only a few hundred metres from Mandela’s house in Qunu, the Nelson Mandela Youth and Heritage Centre is on the ruins of his primary school. Donations are welcome, although there is no visitors fee. Organise a visit through the museum in Qunu.

Sites for the Mandela Enthusiasts

  • Fort Hare University
    Where? Alice

    The university doesn’t have any tribute museum within its grounds to warrant a visit for Mandela fans, but for hardcore enthusiasts a drive-by is not out of the question. Mandela enrolled at what was then the University College of Fort Hare in 1939, considered one of the most reputable universities on the African continent, and it was here he met Oliver Tambo with whom he would later set up legal offices in Johannesburg.

  • Qunu

    If you're a Mandela fan, then rural Qunu is a pilgrimage of sorts. This is where Mandela grew up, he attended school here, and he's buried near here (his inkaba, or umbilical cord, is buried near Mvezo in accordance with Xhosa tradition). If you’ve read Long Walk to Freedom then the place will have come to life for you. You’ll be able to see a few basic exhibits at the Nelson Mandela Youth & Heritage Centre, but you're advised to hire a local guide who can take you to the remains of his school, the church in which he was baptised and the hills where he was a herder.

Until I was jailed, I never fully appreciated the capacity of memory, the endless string of information the head can carry.

Nelson Mandela

Fascinated with Past President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela? Nelson Mandela is one of the world's most remarkable leaders. Find out more about his past and his impact on South Africa's present and future, and follow in his footsteps with our curated Mandela Route of South Africa.

A Tribute to Nelson Mandela

The Mandela Route

In the Footsteps of Madiba

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