Johannesburg - Nelson Mandela's years of political activism in a nutshell

The history behind the places of interest in this province

Nelson Mandela left the slow, traditional countryside in which he had grown up for Johannesburg where he was exposed to racism in its full glory.

Here he became politically active almost immediately, joining the ANC (African National Congress) in 1944. He was instrumental in forming the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). In the same year he joined the ANC he was to marry the prominent Walter Sisulu’s cousin, Evelyn Mase and quickly rose through the ranks of the ANCYL.

He was charged and sentenced to nine months of hard labour for his role in a campaign of civil disobedience against six unjust laws, suspended for two years.

At the end of 1952, he was banned for the first time and became a restricted person.

Because of this he could only watch on the sidelines with the ANC adopted the Freedom Charter (“The People Shall Govern!”) in 1955 in Kliptown.

Interestingly a two-year diploma in law, together with his BA, allowed Mandela to practise law as a human-rights lawyer. He and Oliver Tambo set up the first black law firm in the country - Mandela & Tambo.

The marathon Treason Trial took place in 1956 after Mandela together with another 155 people, of all races, were arrested in a country-wide raid and accused of treason. This number was later reduced to 92.

The Treason Trial dragged on until 1961 when not one of the final 27 defendants, including Mandela, was found guilty.

The prolonged periods in detention worked against the government for relationships amongst the defendants were both strengthened and solidified in prison.

During the trials Oliver Tambo left the country and was exiled.

And Mandela married Winnie Madikizela in 1958 during the trial.

The country’s first state of emergency and the banning of the ANC and PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) followed the senseless killing of 69 in Sharpeville following a protest against pass laws in 1960.

At the All-in Africa Conference held in Pietermaritzburg just before the end of the Treason Trial, it was decided to write to Prime Minister Verwoerd to request a national convention on a non-racial constitution. A warning of a country-wide strike accompanied the request.

Mandela, once acquitted, went underground to organise the strike later called off in the face of a massive state security mobilisation.

The ANC was banned and abandoned its former non-violent stance, proposing an armed struggle. In 1961 Mandela helped establish Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation), which detonated a series of explosions in 1961.

Mandela now secretly left the country, travelling Africa and England enlisting support for the armed struggle.

On his return he was arrested in the now famous police roadblock outside Howick on the 5 August 1962. The police later raided Liliesleaf, a secret ANC hideout in Rivonia, Johannesburg, and arrested several ANC members.

The Rivonia Trial saw Mandela face the death penalty. Mandela’s famous speech from the Dock included the following quote:

"I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Mandela and seven others were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. All, other than Goldberg who was white and thus went to Pretoria Prison, were sent to Robben Island.

Must-See Sites in Gauteng

  • Apartheid Museum
    Where? Northern Parkway & Gold Reef Roads, Ormonde, Johannesburg

    An absolute must-do if you know little about South Africa’s history. The Apartheid Museum navigates the rise and fall of South Africa’s era of forced segregation using a broad range of media, giving an in-depth insight into the architecture of the apartheid system, and inspiring stories of the struggle for democracy. This is the backdrop to Nelson Mandela’s life.

  • Constitution Hill
    Where? 11 Kotze Road, Braamfontein, Johannesburg

    This is without doubt a must-visit historical site, not least for the inspirational exhibitions split over four locations - the Old Fort, Number Four Jail, the Women’s Jail and the Awaiting Trial Block (now virtually replaced by the Constitutional Court). The facts are brutal, but they offer a necessary understanding of the historical and legal developments of the apartheid era. Nelson Mandela is one of several high-profile political activists (including Gandhi) held here. Tours are about an hour long and cover Number Four Jail and the Constitutional Court.

  • Chancellor House and the Shadow Boxer
    Where? opposite the Johannesburg Magistrates Court

    Chancellor House is where Mandela and Oliver Tambo set up the first black law firm in the country back in 1952. Today the building is closed but there’s plenty of historical information posted on its outside, and across from Chancellor House is the Shadow Boxer, a six metre-high painted mild steel sculpture inspired by the Drum Photographer bob Gosani of Mandela as a young, amateur boxer (he trained as an amateur boxer in the 1950s), and constructed by South African artist Marco Cianfanelli.

  • Liliesleaf Farm
    Where? 7 George Avenue, Rivonia

    It was at this 'farm' that the high command of Umkhonto we Sizwe were arrested in 1963 for planning to overthrow the apartheid government, resulting in the Rivonia Trial at which eight accused, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Andrew Mlangeni, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Elias Motsoaledi, Raymond Mhlaba and Denis Goldberg, were sentenced to life in prison (Mandela had been arrested at Howick the year before and already sentenced to five years in prison; he was brought from Robben Island to stand accused). When you visit watch the video on the ‘great escape’ first and then browse the various buildings filled with history. It combines well with a visit to Soweto and the Apartheid Museum.

  • National Heritage Monument statues - The Long Walk to Freedom
    Where? Cradle of Humankind, Magaliesberg

    See the life-size bronze statues at the Cradle of Humankind in Gauteng. Of the four in the forefront of the tableau is Nelson Mandela with his closed-fisted hand punching the air. The other three are Albertina and Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo, the longest serving president of the ANC. Started in 2010 this monument - a relay race with the heroes passing the freedom baton from one leader to another’ will eventually accommodate 500 statues.

  • Mandela statue
    Where? Parliament Square, Union Buildings, Pretoria

    The bow-shaped Union Buildings, designed by Sir Herbert Baker and once an icon of the apartheid era, now form the backdrop for 3.5 ton, nine-metre-high bronze statue of Nelson Mandela unveiled in 2013, his arms outstretched in an embrace of the nation. It was at the Union Buildings that Mandela was inaugurated in 1994, and since then the buildings have been declared a national heritage site.

"I did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it. I was intrigued by how one moved one’s body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced oneself over a match. Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, colour and wealth are irrelevant. When you are circling your opponent, probing his strengths and weaknesses, you are not thinking of his colour or social status"

Additional Sites of Interest - if you have the time

  • Nelson Mandela Bridge
    Where? Johannesburg

    This elegant tribute bridge is the largest cable-stayed bridge in southern Africa, spanning 295 metres, and Johannesburg lights it up in style at night (except for the annual Earth Hour when it’s in total darkness). It links new and old Johannesburg across 42 railway lines of Braamfontein and was designed with the intent of rejuvenating downtown Johannesburg. It was opened by Nelson Mandela in 2003, and the bridge symbolises his bridging the apartheid divide and uniting South African society.

  • The Shadow Boxer Mural
    Where? Maboneng, corner of Staib and Beacon streets

    Painted by Ricky Lee Gordon and commissioned by the Maboneng precinct as a gift to the city in honour of Madiba, this 40 feet high mural depicts Mandela as the young amateur boxer he was in his spare time during the 1950s. You can catch a glimpse of it on the M2 going east, and on Joe Slovo Drive, if you stretch to see over the shorter buildings. It was painted in four days, just after Mandela’s death.

  • Nelson Mandela Square
    Where? Sandton, Johannesburg

    Right in the heart of the square you’ll find a bronze six metre high statue of Nelson Mandela. Other than that it’s a mall, a big mall filled with around 400 shops and good, if expensive, restaurants. So, besides a photo alongside the legs of Madiba of the statue said to be the first public statue of Mandela in the country, you’d be forgiven for giving this one a skip.

  • Magistrates Court
    Where? 225 Market Street, Johannesburg

    Both Mandela and Gandhi were to appear in Johannesburg’s Magistrates Court, admittedly half a century apart. Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, who set up office just across from the Magistrates Court, defended many cases here. Between Chancellor House and the Magistrate’s Court is the Shadow Boxer statue by artist Marco Cianfanelli (the same artist asked to design the striking piece for the Capture Site in Howick).

  • Mandela House Museum
    Where? 8115 Vilakazi Street, Soweto

    Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world that housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners - Desmond Tutu also lived here. The house in which Mandela lived with his family, on the corner of Ngakane Street, has been carefully restored. Known also as ‘the tiny house’, number 8115 is where both Mandela’s former wives lived (first Evelyn Mase, and second wife, Winnie Madikizela), although he spent most of the time on the run and away from home before his imprisonment in 1962. Most Soweto Tours, including the hop-on-hop-off open-top bus tours (we recommend a 1-day city tour & Soweto combo), stop at Vilakazi Street. Also here is believed to be one of Mandela’s favourite food spots - Sakhumzi Restaurant - which serves up samp and beans, tripe and steamed bread amongst its offerings.

  • Sharpeville Human Rights Precinct
    Where? just outside Vereeniging

    14 km outside of Vereeniging there’s a memorial for those who died in the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. A group of unarmed people protesting the dompas (pass laws forcing black people to carry passbooks when outside their ‘homelands’) were fired into by police killing 69 of them. Sharpeville Day is the same day as Human Rights Day in South Africa. The memorial was opened in 2001 by Mandela.

  • Palace of Justice
    Where? Church Square, Pretoria

    The place where Mandela was sentenced after The Rivonia Trial (easily the most famous trial in South Africa’s history), the beautiful Palace of Justice is the northern facade of Church Square, Pretoria. Whilst there look out for the The Old Raadsaal and the General Post Office - all of these buildings display the city’s beautiful historical architecture.

Sites for the Mandela Enthusiasts

  • Mandela statue
    Where? Hammanskraal

    You’ll find this statue just outside of Pretoria find this life-size memorial of Nelson Mandela. It’s claim to fame is that it was the first life-size memorial of Madiba, unveiled in honour of those who sacrificed their lives for a new South Africa.

  • The Saxon Hotel
    Where? Sandhurst

    Mandela spent six months here editing his A Long Walk To Freedom here. Back then it was home of Douw Steyn, who founded Auto & General and BGL, an insurance group, in South Africa - he and Mandela had been introduced by members of the ANC. Later Steyn converted his private residence into the Saxon Hotel. He also built a house in the Waterberg for Mandela.

  • The Old Synagogue
    Where? Paul Kruger Street, Pretoria

    Converted into a court of law, the Old Synagogue was where Nelson Mandela’s treason trial was held here between 1958 and 1961, after he was captured in Howick.

  • Nelson Mandela Foundation
    Where? 107 Central Street, Houghton

    The institution dedicated to the legacy of Mandela operates from Madiba’s post-presidential office, where he based his charitable works from the end of his term as president until he retired from public service in 2004. His post-presidential office remains intact, exactly as he left it.

  • Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory
    Where? 4th Avenue, Houghton

    This little museum and archive is run by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a stone’s throw from his residence in Houghton where he lived after he retired from the presidency. The exhibits at the Centre of Memory include personal items like his diaries and Nobel Peace prize. But by appointment only. You can book your spot online.

  • Dr Xuma’s house (now the Sophiatown Heritage and Cultural Museum)
    Where? 73 Toby St, Sophiatown, Johannesburg

    ANC President, Dr AB Xuma, was to host Mandela at his house, which Mandela apparently described as ‘grand’, whilst he was in the ANC Youth League. The seventh President-General of the ANC. Xuma’s house is one of only two to have escaped the mass demolition that destroyed the vibrant neighbourhood under the Group Areas Act of 1955. You can visit it as part of a tour to Sophiatown.

  • Mandela’s residence in Houghton
    Where? 9 12th Avenue, Houghton

    Mandela moved to 9 12th Avenue, Houghton Estate with his third wife, Graca Machel, in 1998 and lived here until his death.

  • Mandela's first home in Johannesburg
    Where? 7th Avenue, Alexandra

    Probably the most famous landmark in the township of Alex, this one room rented house was the 23-year-old Mandela’s first home in Jo’burg. Visit the house, some of the surrounding area and the Nelson Mandela Yard Interpretation Centre (which awaits completion after years in development) across the road with a guide.

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.

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