Nelson Mandela was the first black chief executive and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election in South Africa. An icon, both in his native land and the world as a whole, he’s widely recognized as a leader in the fight for equality, democracy and peace. Born in 1918, a Xhosa member of the Thembu tribe, he helped to bring about an end to South African apartheid, through both peaceful protests (including opening South Africa’s first black law firm and offering free or low-cost legal counsel) and later, armed resistance (after the deadly Sharpeville Massacre). Imprisoned for decades, Mandela remained a powerful presence even behind bars and his celebrated release ultimately led to a new era of peace for South Africa, commonly referred to as the Rainbow Nation.
There are many rewarding sites to visit and pay homage to the great South African leader, including cherished murals and statues erected throughout the country and its largest cities. Here are a few must-see memorials and tributes:
Robben Island: A UNESCO World Heritage Site and a South African National Heritage Site, this island-prison just off the coast of Cape Town was once home to Nelson Mandela from 1964-1982. He was subsequently transferred to another prison before his release in 1990 – but here he was confined to a small concrete cell, without plumbing and only a straw mat for sleep. He and his fellow inmates had to do hard labor, breaking rocks into gravel and later, working in a lime quarry. Political prisoners were often jailed here, including Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma, who would also go on to the most powerful office in the land as future Presidents of South Africa.
The jail is now a museum, with tours led by former inmates who share their compelling stories. A visit inside Nelson Mandela’s cell, kept as it was during his incarceration is quite a moving experience. A multimedia exhibit encourages guests to learn more about the history of the island and prison.