Tracing Nelson Mandela’s Footsteps in Cape Town

Retrace Nelson Mandela’s footsteps during your visit to Cape Town
Retrace Nelson Mandela’s footsteps during your visit to Cape Town | © Assunta Del Buono / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Andrew Thompson
Freelance Writer - February 2020

Few individuals have transformed the future of their nation as Nelson Mandela has. Culture Trip takes a look at the Cape Town landmarks closely associated with the man they call Madiba, in the city where he led the charge for change.

Nelson Mandela has strong ties to Cape Town. Most visitors to South Africa know he was imprisoned on Robben Island for 18 of the 27 years he served, but there are several other unique Cape Town locations where his footsteps can be traced. If you want to feel a sense of Mandela’s struggle when visiting South Africa’s capital, these destinations are essential.

Robben Island

Robben Island is the most obvious starting point if you want to retrace Mandela’s steps in South Africa’s Western Cape. Mandela spent 18 years of his life imprisoned on the island, along with other political prisoners. Ferries depart for the island from the V&A Waterfront, and once on the island, you will be given a tour by an ex-political prisoner. The tour will take you through the most important parts of the island and Mandela’s stay here, including the opportunity to view his now-famous cell. As seats on the ferries are limited, it pays to book online to avoid disappointment.

Robben Island lighthouse, South Africa
Nelson Mandela spent 18 years imprisoned on Robben Island © Greatstock / Alamy Stock PhotoVisitors to the island can even view Mandela's prison cell © JohanSjolander / Getty ImagesThe island is easily reachable by ferry © Hoberman Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Nobel Square

Though not an official destination visited by Mandela, Nobel Square at the V&A Waterfront is an unmissable stop for anyone looking to retrace the history of South Africa’s famous leaders. Here, you’ll find life-size statues of South Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize winners Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Albert Luthuli and FW de Klerk.

Nobel Square features statues of Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Albert Luthuli and FW de Klerk | © LH Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Cape Town City Hall

Nelson Mandela made his first public speech at the Cape Town City Hall. He stood on the balcony of the grand Edwardian building on 11 February 1990 and addressed a crowd of thousands, who packed the Grand Parade to see their newly freed icon speak publicly for the first time in years. The speech is perhaps the most momentous in the country’s history, and to commemorate the moment, the city has erected a new life-size statue on the very balcony from which he spoke.

Bronze statue of Nelson Mandela at City Hall, Cape Town.
Statue of Nelson Mandela by Xhanti Mpakama and Barry Jackson
The bronze statue of Nelson Mandela was created by Xhanti Mpakama and Barry Jackson © Greg Balfour Evans / Alamy Stock PhotoThe Town Hall is a grand Edwardian building © Photopat / Alamy Stock Photo The statue stands on the balcony of Cape Town City Hall © Suretha Rous / Alamy Stock Photo

South African Parliament

Cape Town is home to South Africa’s parliament, and it is from here that Mandela ran the country as president. Between 1994 and 1999, he served as South Africa’s first democratically elected ruler from this building, and it’s open to the public for free tours. A walking tour of the precinct not only stands as testimony to the country’s turbulent political past, but also to Mandela’s ability to transition the country into a peaceful democracy.

President Nelson Mandela ran the country from 1994 to 1999 | © DeAgostini/Getty Images

Mandela Memorial Square

Mandela Memorial Square, in the town of Stellenbosch, is another good location in the Western Cape to remember the life of Nelson Mandela. It’s a walkable installation that features iron silhouettes of Mandela’s face, as well as a map that indicates important locations in his life.

The Town Hall lawn in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape is adorned with images of Mandela | © Eric Nathan / Alamy Stock Photo

Drakenstein Correctional Centre

Many people are unaware that Mandela spent the last 14 months of his prison sentence not on Robben Island, but at Drakenstein Correctional Centre in the town of Paarl. He was restricted to a house on the prison grounds, and it’s here that many of the initial negotiations took place before his official release. Visitors can tour the house, and although it’s a quick stop, it forms an integral part of the Mandela trail through the Western Cape.

Nelson Mandela served the last 14 months of his 27-year imprisonment at the Drakenstein Correctional Centre | © RODGER BOSCH/AFP via Getty Images

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