Retracing Mandela’s footsteps in Cape Town

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Victor Verster Prison is on a winding road where not much else but one’s thoughts keep you company.

It is from this prison in the small farming town Paarl, located 40km from central Cape Town, that global human rights icon Nelson Mandela walked free on February 11 1990.

I was in Rio de Janeiro when news broke on local TV stations the night Mandela died on December 5 2013.

The next morning, I went to Nelson Mandela Street in the Botafogo beachfront neighbourhood, to ask Brazilians their thoughts about my country’s former president. Everybody had only good things to say. A bunch of flowers had been placed on the street sign bearing his name.

Nelson Mandela street in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A passerby placed flowers on the street sign the day after hid death on 5 December 2013. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Nelson Mandela street in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A passerby placed flowers on the street sign the day after hid death on 5 December 2013. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Driving back from the prison in Paarl to the city centre this week, thoughts about Mandela led also to a Paris park, named after the legend, that I stumbled upon earlier this year when visiting that city.

Nelson Mandela Park in Paris honours the anti-apartheid icon's legacy. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Nelson Mandela Park in Paris honours the anti-apartheid icon’s legacy. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

There is also Mandela’s statue that I’d taken a photo with in London back in 2009, when he was still alive.

Mandela is honoured the world over with similar gestures. Landmarks have been named after him, as a means to likely remember his legacy of compassion and forgiveness. Hopefully, to be inspired by it too.

Right here in the city of my birth, Cape Town, is where Mandela’s legacy is deeply engrained on the landscape. It is unfortunately where Mandela spent most of his life incarcerated behind prison bars; first on Robben Islan and then at Victor Verster Prison.

In the ordinariness of this city’s streets, one can retrace Mandela’s footsteps and stand where he once stood. The Internet with its endless references of videos, photographs and words can fill in the information gaps on this journey.

Starting to retrace Mandela’s footsteps from Victor Verster, one can imagine how Mandela must have felt when he saw thousands of people celebrating his release.

Nelson Mandela statue outside Victor Verster Prison near Paarl. Mandela was held captive in this prison. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Nelson Mandela statue outside Victor Verster Prison near Paarl. Mandela was held captive in this prison. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Archival video footage and photographs show him walking with his ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela down the highway. On every other day this is simply a scene of trucks delivering goods from the farms, locals making their way home, passersby speeding through Paarl to get to the N1 highway.

Driving back from Victor Verster into the city, a stop at the City Hall on Darling Street takes one to Mandela’s big moment, watched worldwide.

A walk up the City Hall’s steps leads to the balcony where Mandela stood and made his famous freedom speech on the day he exited Victor Verster.

Looking down at the Grand Parade, opposite the hall, one is witness to vendors, vagrants and the bustle of city trade.

It is from this balcony that Mandela spoke as a free man in almost three decades with his “friends, comrades and fellow South Africans”.

“I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all,” he said.

“I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”

He concluded with his “own words during my trial in 1964” as “they are true today as they were then”.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

Not far from the City Hall, at the Parliament building of South Africa on Plein Street, is where Mandela had also spent a number of years while being the first president of democratic South Africa.

Standing on the steps outside Parliament’s entrance, one is confronted with an empty courtyard that hosts a bust of Mandela.

Mandela's bust outside the South African parliament buildings in Cape Town. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Mandela’s bust outside the South African parliament buildings in Cape Town. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

He would not have seen this during his presidency, or even during his lifetime, as the bust was unveiled after his death.

The courtyard is quiet, unlike the noisy Parliament chambers where politicians have recently been misbehaving. A memory is triggered: it is this courtyard where I once met Mandela and shook his big, soft hands. His smile was warm.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, a short boat trip delivers one to Robben Island where Mandela’s legacy lingers. One can only imagine – because that is part of legend making – what Mandela must have thought or felt when looking from his small prison cell window.

From the small window of his prison cell, the freedom fighter must have longed for normality. It could not have been easy for any visionary to keep their eyes on the prize though. But fortunately for the rest of us, Mandela did just that.

In his autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, Mandela wrote “to survive in prison, one must develop ways to take satisfaction in one’s daily life”.

“One can feel fulfilled by washing one’s clothes so that they are particularly clean, by sweeping a corridor so that it is free of dust, by organising one’s cell to conserve as much space as possible,” he wrote.

“The same pride one takes in more consequential tasks outside prison, one can find in doing small things inside prison.”

A mural of Mandela adorns this building on Canterbury Street in central Cape Town. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

A mural of Mandela adorns this building on Canterbury Street in central Cape Town. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

While he was with friends like Ahmed Kathrada and others, the ANC leader remained stuck behind those prison cell bars while the rest of the anti-apartheid movement called for his release from the island.

Monuments, murals and roads named after Mandela across Cape Town bear testimony to his presence in this city. Perhaps he would have been surprised to see all these landmarks.

There’s Nelson Mandela Boulevard leading out of town to the suburbs, a statute of Mandela with other Nobel prize winners at the V&A Waterfront, and a blue mural with just his smiling face on Canterbury Street in the city centre.

These ordinary streets hold snippets of an extraordinary man’s story. It is lined with inspiration.

One hopes these ordinary streets could flow with Mandela’s call for a non-racial reality. With the constant racism still shoved in our faces daily in this city, one wonders how we could turn his vision into a collective vision.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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