Mandela's House - a symbol of liberation

Friday, March 20, 2009

If the walls of the old house of former President, Nelson Mandela in Orlando West Soweto could speak, they would tell vivid stories of the liberation struggles fought during apartheid, writes Nthambeleni Gabara.

The four-roomed house at 8115, on the corner of Vilakazi and Ngakane Streets, in Orlando West was built in 1945 under the then council's tender for new houses in Soweto.

The house, which is situated in an area with a significant history of the liberation struggle, was petrol bombed several times and often raided by members of the police force during the apartheid.

Next to the house lies the Morris Isaacson High School where the June 1976 uprisings began.

The house is also situated in close proximity to the Hector Peterson Memorial, the very spot where Peterson fell after he was fatally wounded by the police force. On the other side of the Vilakazi Street stands Desmond Tutu's house.

Madiba's house was identical to hundreds of others built on postage stamp-size plots on dirt roads.

They all had the same standard tin roof, the same cement floor, a narrow kitchen, and a bucket toilet at the back. The bedrooms were so small that a double bed took up almost the entire floor space.

Mr Mandela moved into the house in 1946 with his first wife, Evelyn Ntoko Mase. They divorced in 1957, and from 1958 he was joined in the house by his second wife, Winnie Madikizela- Mandela.

He spent little time at the house, as his role in struggle activities was consuming and he was forced underground in 1961, living a life on the run until his arrest and imprisonment in 1962.

After his release from Robben Island in 1990, Mr Mandela returned to his house for 11 days before finally moving into his present house in Houghton.

Ms Madikizela-Mandela, herself imprisoned several times, lived in the house with her daughters while Mr Mandela was in jail, until her own exile to Brandfort in 1977, where she remained under house arrest until 1986.

The family continued to occupy the house until 1996, when the Mandela's were divorced.

In 1999 the house was declared a national heritage site. However, it did not meet the tourism attraction standards in terms of management, conservation and visitor experience.

On Thursday, the house received a R9 million facelift to meet the standards of a national heritage site. The facelift included a number of improvements such as a new visitor centre displaying memorabilia, paintings and photographs of the Mandela family.

Renovations to the house were conducted by the Soweto Heritage Trust, in partnership with Standard Bank and Anglo American, who each contributed R2.25 million to the project.

The opening ceremony was attended by Ms Madikizela-Mandela, their two daughters, the family's grandchildren, business people, politicians and neighbours.

Mr Mandela, who has retired from the public eye, was unable to attend the event.

His daughter Zinzi, accompanied by her sister Zenani, delivered a speech on their father's behalf, in which Mr Mandela described his former family home as a "heritage, not only for his family, but for all the people of Soweto".

In his message he said: "The heritage of this humble dwelling is of course one of struggle and sacrifice, but it is also one that demonstrates the ability of the human spirit to triumph over adversity.

"It is the heritage not only of one family, but that of all the people of Soweto and of our nation who refused to bow down to tyranny or succumb to bitterness," the message read.

Opening the newly renovated house, Gauteng Premier Paul Mashatile said the Mandela house stood as a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit against all adversities.

He said the house also symbolised the victory of people united by a common desire for freedom and equality for all over a system condemned by all of humanity.

Mr Mashatile described the house as a monument, reminding the nation about their unhappy past, but also about the power of reconciliation and nation building.

"With this initiative, we are seeking to preserve Madiba's legacy as well as to ensure that it is passed on to the future generations in the country and the entire world.

"Mr Mandela's selfless sacrifices made it possible for us to achieve freedom in our lifetime. We remain indebted to you and your generation of leaders and we pledge to uphold your proud legacy," he said.

Tina Eboka, a Soweto Heritage Trust trustee and Corporate Affairs Executive at Standard Bank Group said preserving the country's heritage and teaching young people about their history were critical elements of nation building.

"Redeveloping the Mandela house and visitors centre is an example of the cooperation we need. This is a true public private partnership and the Standard Bank Group has been privileged to be able to contribute," she said.

The Mandela house will be turned into a world-class visitor attraction and a leading centre for the preservation, presentation, and research of the history, heritage and legacy of the Mandela Family.

The mission of the house is to provide an effective, efficient and meaningful experience to all visitors, informing them of Mr Mandela's story in manner that promotes human rights, democracy, reconciliation, mutual respect and tolerance amongst South Africans.