Mandela's Joburg

Mandela 654

Nelson Mandela moved to Johannesburg as a young man in 1941. He lived first in Alexandra, before moving to Soweto with his bride. There are many places that mark his presence in the city he came to call home. Together, they make a museum without walls.

As South Africa bids farewell to its beloved father, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela – Madiba, the Johannesburg Development Agency looks back at landmarks bearing the former statesman's iconic name in honour of his great achievements.

He died at home in Houghton, Johannesburg on 5 December, but Madiba's name lives on in the city he adopted as a young man. A Freeman of the City of Johannesburg, he was 95 years old at the time of his death. The Presidency has announced an official 10-day mourning period, culminating in a State Funeral in Qunu on 15 December.

Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in the village if Mvezo in the Eastern Cape and grew up with two sisters in his mother's kraal in the village of Qunu. In 1941, Mandela made his way to Johannesburg and his first job in the city was that of a night watchman at Crown Mines. Madiba was later introduced to the realtor and African National Congress (ANC) activist Walter Sisulu, who got him another job, this time as an articled clerk at the Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman law firm.

A strong believer in education, Mandela signed up to study by correspondence through the University of South Africa, for his Bachelor's degree. Earning a minimum income, at the age of 23 he rented a room in the house of the Xhoma family in Alexandra Township. The yard and that humble abode was developed into what is now known as the Mandela Yard Interpretation Centre. It is on the corner of Hofmeyer Street and Seventh Avenue, and is occupied by a local family at present.

Xhoma owned his own house in Alexandra. He had six children and to make ends meet, he built "a tin-roofed room at the back of his property, no more than a shack, with a dirt floor, no heat, no electricity, no running water", recounted Mandela in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. "But it was a place of my own and I was happy to have it."

After passing his exams in early 1943 to earn his Bachelor of Arts degree, Mandela set himself on a political path as a lawyer in Johannesburg.

Mandela in the inner city and Soweto

In 1952, Mandela and his lifelong friend, Oliver Tambo, established the first black law firm in the country – Mandela & Tambo. They had rooms in Chancellor House on the corner of Fox and Gerard Sekoto streets, opposite the magistrate's court in Johannesburg. Chancellor House was one of the few buildings in which black tenants could hire offices. The building was recently restored.

Mandela met Evelyn Mase, an ANC activist from the Transkei, who was training to be a nurse and the couple married in 5 October 1944. They lived at 8115 in Orlando from early 1946 to 1957. After their divorce in 1957, she moved out. When Mandela married Winnie Madikizela in 1958, she joined him at the Soweto home. The humble house in Orlando West, Soweto has been restored and returned to its former stature, and is now called the Mandela Family Museum.

The museum, a house comprising four inter-leading rooms, contains a rather higgledy-piggledy assortment of memorabilia, paintings and photographs of the Mandela family, as well as a collection of honorary doctorates bestowed on Mandela from universities and institutions around the world. There's also a boxing belt from champion Sugar Ray Leonard, a multi-coloured cloak presented to the former president and a row of his old boots.

When he was released, Mandela refused to move to the more opulent home, also in Orlando West, that Madikizela-Mandela had built during his incarceration.

The couple separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996. Although her ex-husband handed the house to the Soweto Heritage Trust, Madikizela-Mandela refused to relinquish it and instead she turned it into the Mandela Family Museum in 1997 and set up a pub and restaurant across the road.

He wanted only to return to the house of his memories. However, after his release, he stayed there for a mere 11 days, as he was moved around from one secret location to the next until he settled into his present Houghton residence, where he lived with his third wife, Graça Machel, the widow of former Mozambique president Samora Machel, who while died in office.

The Mandela Family Museum is on Vilakazi Street, where Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu lived. Both men were Nobel Peace Prize winners and Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world with homes of two laureates on it.

Mandela Bridge

The Nelson Mandela Bridge, which links two of the city’s business areas – the stylish Braamfontein and Newtown, Joburg’s arts, heritage and cultural hub – was officially opened by Mandela on 20 July 2003. It is 284 metres long, 42 metres high at the north pylon and 27 metres high at the south pylon. Engineers used structural steel with a concrete composite deck to keep the bridge light in weight. It has two traffic lanes in each direction, a walkway in each direction and a reserved lane for bicycles. Its light-emitting diode (LED) lighting technology alternates between a range of colours.

The long bridge crosses over 42 operational railway lines in linking Braamfontein and the north of Johannesburg to Newtown in the heart of the city's central business district. Its construction was part of an inner city renewal project driven by the province's economic development initiative, Blue IQ.

The Old Fort, high on Constitution Hill, is where Mandela spent two weeks in the Awaiting Trial Block on the hill in 1956, before he was transferred to Pretoria, for the remainder of the lengthy Treason Trial. In April 2004, a huge bronze statue of a smiling Mandela was unveiled in Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton. The Nelson Mandela Theatre in the Joburg Theatre Complex is also a tribute to Joburg's most famous resident.