18 March 2014 by Andrea Weiss

Madiba's Journey

An interactive map featuring Nelson Mandela’s 95-year life journey through South Africa was launched at the last place he lived before he was set free after 27 years of imprisonment. Those who attended had a behind-the-scenes tour.

The statue at the entrance to Victor Verster Prison (now known as the Drakenstein Correctional Centre), where Nelson Mandela walked to freedom on 11 February 1990

When Nelson Mandela arrived to live at a private house in the precinct of Victor Verster Prison (now Drakenstein Correctional Centre) between Paarl and Franschhoek in December 1988, it was his first taste of normal life after nearly 27 years in prison.

He was to spend only 14 months in the house – but this house, with its unprepossessing 1970s architecture, was to make a lasting impression on him because of its significance as a milestone in his life. It was here that he celebrated his 71st birthday, with his family for the first time since his imprisonment, as a not-quite-free man.

So deep was his attachment to it, that he had the plans of the house reproduced and a replica built at his childhood home in Qunu. He couldn't bring the people from his home village to the house, so he took it to them.

Most visitors think that the prison entrance is the direct route to Mandela's old house, but they would be wrong. In fact, a road some 3km away leads to the homestead. It was Mandela who chose to walk out of the main entrance as a symbolic gesture as he reclaimed his freedom, now marked by a statue with his arm lifted in the freedom salute.

The house was the venue for the launch of a tourist map, titled 'Madiba's Journey' (see below), which gives details of 27 sites of historical interest in the life of Madiba around the country. The map is a partnership between South African Tourism and the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

Madiba's Journey walkthough

A one-minute screencast of the main features of the Madiba's Journey interactive tool.

Those who attended were given a tour of the house, which is now a National Heritage Site and a prospective museum. Soon, hopefully, visitors will be able to come here for guided tours, but for now it's still not open to the public.

The prison's communications manager, senior correctional officer Manfred Jacobs, gave some fascinating insight into Mandela's last 14 months as a VIP prisoner.

Inside the house is the large main bedroom with a bed (below), which is indeed the same bed that Mandela once slept in. But what most people wouldn't know is that after almost 10 000 days in prison, he found this room too large and asked that the bed be moved to the much smaller study alongside.

The bedstead was too big, so only the bed fitted.

For a man who was incarcerated for so long, Mandela took great joy in the garden. Here he planted this lemon tree which, according to Jacobs, has even seen tourists take seeds back to Germany to replant and grow.

Adjoining the formal living room is this table where many important discussions took place around politics and what would happen after his release.

And outside, from over the wall close to the swimming pool, is a view of the Simonsberg, the mountain that overlooks Stellenbosch. Mandela was said to have taken his inspiration from this view, imagining that the mountain was the figure of a man in repose with his knees drawn up.

There are many anecdotes about Mandela's time here – about how, for instance, when he was learning but not quite mastering swimming lessons, he used to sit on the second step of the swimming pool in the company of four young goslings that had taken up residence there.

He was also said to have been very upset when someone set a trap for a mouse in the house, which he regarded as a friend.

Plans are afoot to open up the house to the general public, but for now tourists will have to be satisfied with spending time taking photographs at the prison entrance, one of the 27 sites detailed on the map.

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