The Western Cape - Nelson Mandela's years in prison

The history behind the places of interest in this province

Mandela was to spend 27 years in prison, 18 of these on Robben Island, Cape Town.

Not even when his mother and eldest son died was he allowed to leave to attend funerals.

"Prison - far from breaking our spirits - made us more determined to continue with this battle until victory was won."

He was finally transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, and then to Victor Verster prison (now known as Groot Drakenstein Prison) before his release in February 1990, just nine days after the ANC and the PAC were unbanned.

During his imprisonment he rejected at least three conditional offers of release.

In 1991 Mandela was elected ANC President to replace Oliver Tambo and in 1994 he and President FW de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize.

He voted for the first time in his life in 1994 and was inaugurated as the country’s first democratically elected President.

Mandela would only remain in office for one term.

"In my country we go to prison first and then become president."

Must-See Sites in the Western Cape

  • City Hall and the Grand Parade
    Where? City Centre, Cape Town

    Cape Town’s City Hall is a grand Italian Renaissance sandstone building built in 1905. Beautiful architecture aside, it was here on the balcony that Mandela addressed thousands of people who flocked onto Grand Parade to see and hear him when he was freed from prison on 11 February 1990 (there’s a delightful story about how he didn’t have his glasses and had to borrow some to complete his speech). A new life-size bronze statue by artists Xhanti Mpakama and Barry Jackson of Mandela was placed on this balcony exactly where he stood in July 2018.

  • Robben Island
    Where? Off the coast of Cape Town

    Arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial, Mandela spent 18 years of his prison sentence on Robben Island, offshore of the V&A Waterfront. Now a major tourist attraction, the island has served as a place for banishment - a leper colony, animal quarantine station and prison for political activists. Today former prisoners serve as tour guides. You can read all about Mandela’s account of Robben Island in his book Long Walk to Freedom, but Ahmed Kathrada, who served 26 years along with Mandela said the hardest thing for him was "the lack of children [on the island]... it was the worst deprivation, absence of children."

  • Nelson Mandela Gateway Museum
    Where? Waterfront

    If you don't have time to visit Robben Island, at least head to the museum complex from which the tours depart. The museum’s focus is the struggle for equality and is worth a visit in its own right.

  • Nobel Square
    Where? V&A Waterfront

    Have your photo taken with the slightly stocky version of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu at Nobel Square at the V&A Waterfront. This little square on the edge of the water pays tribute to the four Nobel Peace Prize winners - Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Nkosi Albert Luthuli and FW de Klerk. The larger-than-life statues are by artist Claudette Schreuders. The other statue is Peace and Democracy by Noria Mahasa, a tribute to the women and children of the struggle.

Additional Sites of Interest - if you have the time

  • Giant billboard of Mandela
    Where? Civic Centre

    A vibrant portrait of Mandela in his colourful shirt dominates the east-facing window wall of the Cape Town Civic Centre. It’s best angle is driving into Cape Town on the Nelson Mandela Boulevard. Joined in 2017 by a similar portrait of Tutu, the two watch over Cape Town.

  • Houses of Parliament
    Where? Company’s Gardens

    The president’s office, Tuynhuys, and the houses of parliament are where Mandela routinely appeared during his time as president (1994 - 1999). It was here too that laws of apartheid were legalised. You can buy tickets to the public gallery during parliamentary sessions (Jan - June) and there are guided tours of the houses of parliament during the week. Elegant Tuynhuys is the president's home when in Cape town, but also where PW Botha and Mandela first met after his years on Robben Island.

  • Drakenstein Prison
    Where? on the R301, Franschhoek

    Mandela spent the last 14 months of his 27 year prison sentence in a private house inside this low-security facility. Back then it was called the Victor Verster Prison, now it’s politically correctly called a ‘correctional centre’. It lies in the Dwars River valley between Paarl and Franschhoek and the house where he lived is now a national heritage site. Just outside the prison gates is a statue of Mandela.

  • St George’s Cathedral
    Where? Wale Street, Cape Town

    The oldest cathedral in Southern Africa, the sandstone St George’s Cathedral is nothing short of magnificent. It stands on the edge of Company’s Gardens its stained glass windows a tribute to all people of all races, its doors open to all, even during apartheid. It was here that a memorial service was held for Madiba upon his death in 2013 at 95 years of age. The bells were to toll with 95 hand and backstroke gongs.

Sites for the Mandela Enthusiasts

  • St Mary's Cathedral
    Where? 16 Roeland Street, Cape Town

    Mandela gave a profound speech at this church during Helen Joseph’s funeral in 1993. It’s also a beautiful building, designed by Sir Herbert Baker and Frank Fleming. The church was active in the resistance against racial discrimination during apartheid.

  • Tutu's house - Bishopscourt residence of Anglican archbishop
    Where? 20 Bishopscourt Drive

    Every Mandela fundi knows of the friendship between Madiba and the Arch (Desmond Tutu served as Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 until 1996 when he was given the honorary title of archbishop emeritus). Bishops Court is the home of the Anglican Bishop of Cape Town. Mandela spent his first night of freedom after his release from prison in 1990 in the Bishopscourt Estate with Tutu. He gave his first press conference from its garden. He later had a house in Bishopscourt for his use when in Cape Town.

  • Mandela Rhodes Building
    Where? corner of St George's Mall & Wale Street

    This historical building was originally built for De Beers by Cecil John Rhodes and designed by Herberg Baker in 1902. Known as Rhodes House, Nicky Oppenheimer then gifted the building for the use by the Mandela Rhodes Foundation (a partnership set up between Nelson Mandela and the Rhodes Trust and it was renamed Mandela Rhodes Building. Pop inside and you will find an over-lifesize chicken wire sculpture of Mandela, and just outside the building is a piece of the Berlin Wall, gifted to Mandela on a visit to Germany in 1996.

  • Pollsmoor Prison
    Where? Steenberg Road, Tokai

    You won’t be able to visit the maximum security Pollsmoor, but you can drive past it on your way to the Tokai forest or to visit one of the wine farms on the Constantia Wine Route. The prison is surrounded by some of the country's oldest wine farms in the middle of an upmarket suburb of Cape Town. Mandela was sent here after 18 years on Robben Island. He’s been quoted as saying that the prison had a "modern face, but a primitive heart."

  • Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
    Where? off Rhodes Drive, Newlands

    There's a head and shoulders sculpture of Mandela in the gardens and a yellow strelitzia was renamed ‘Mandela’s Gold’ in honour of a visit Mandela paid to the gardens.

  • Newlands Stadium
    Where? 8 Boundary Road, Newlands

    South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup and went on to win the cup. The famous moment that won the hearts of the world was when Francois Pienaar, the team captain, posed alongside Mandela with the trophy in both their hands. The movie, Invictus, starring Matt Damon as Pienaar and Morgan Freeman as Mandela immortalised the moment.

  • Mandela Memorial Square
    Where? Plein Street, Stellenbosch

    There’s a laser-cut steel silhouette of Mandela’s face right in front of the Town Hall and Council Chambers in Stellenbosch. Designed by local artist Strijdom van der Merwe it was unveiled in October 2013. The sides of his face also shows a map of the eastern part of South Africa, highlighting important places in Mandela’s life, like Qunu, Rivonia and Johannesburg. Embedded in granite on the lawn are the words:

    "Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another."

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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