Top Nelson Mandela Sites to Visit in South Africa

There are plenty of reasons to visit South Africa: the landscape, the people, the food, the wildlife…all amazing. But no less deserving of your interest is South Africa’s rich, yet turbulent history. Between 1948 and 1994, the African majority of the country was under the stranglehold of apartheid, a legalized system of racism and oppression forced upon them by minority Afrikaners.

As you know, Nelson Mandela was one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Under his inspired leadership, millions of people showed strength and resiliency through terrible violence, poverty, and discrimination.

My doctoral research studying South African libraries and their role in alleviating information inequality has taken me to this fascinating country six times. Throughout my travels, I have been able to visit many sites dedicated to Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy. Here are some that I suggest you visit on your next trip!

1. Robben Island, Cape Town

A must-see when in South Africa. Once a leper colony and a military base, Robben Island became the prison in which Mandela was held for 18 of his 27 years in captivity. From Cape Town’s lovely Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, visitors take a 45-minute ferry ride to the island, which offers outstanding views of Table Mountain! Once there, they begin on a guided bus tour to see military remnants, gravesites, and the community where many ex-employees of the prison still live.

After disembarking the bus, visitors are led on an extraordinary guided tour led by a former captive of the prison. To me, this is the best part of the tour: to hear what life was really like for the men held there, directly from the source. Visitors are able to hear about what prisoners ate, see where the slept and worked, and even see the cell in which Nelson Mandela himself was held. Overall, Robben Island should be on the top of your list when visiting South Africa. Tip: Get tickets online ahead of time so you are not disappointed. Fees charged; allow a half-day for the trip.

2. Mandela House, Vilakazi Street, Soweto
Head to 8115 Vilakazi Street in Soweto to visit the Mandela House Museum. Mandela lived in this house with his first and second wives, as well as briefly after his release from prison in 1990. It’s been restored to its 1946 state and for a modest fee, you can get an informative guided tour.

Vilakazi Street boasts the honor of being the only street in the world on which two Nobel Prize winners have lived. One is Mandela; do you know the other?? When there, be sure to walk the street, visit the vendors and get a bite to eat at Sakhumzi. Also visit The Hector Pieterson Museum (just a couple of blocks away on Moema and Vilakazi) and other area sights. Allow one hour for Mandela House or 2-4 hours for it and the broader Vilakazi Street area, or make this part of your day-long visit to Soweto!

3. Liliesleaf, Rivonia
A lesser-known but no-less important historical site outside of Johannesburg in Rivonia, Liliesleaf is where members of the African National Congress (ANC) hid out and met secretly during the height of the anti-apartheid movement. On 11 July 1963, Liliesleaf was raided and 19 ANC members were arrested and charged with sabotage and the resulting trial, dubbed the Rivonia Trial, would change South Africa forever. This is an interesting site and I highly recommend it. There are several buildings and the exhibits are very well-done. Guided or self-guided tours are available for an entrance fee. Allow around two hours to make your way through the grounds.
4. Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg
The Apartheid Museum is located in Johannesburg and is dedicated to telling the often heart-wrenching story of apartheid in South Africa. The museum is filled with exhibits that tell the full story of apartheid so that the visitor can get a look into what the system was really like. Effectively done, the museum is at once stark and full of hope. A special Mandela exhibit is not to be missed. Entrance for a fee; cafe and gift shop on site. Allow at least 2-3 hours.
5. Chancellor House, Johannesburg
Located in downtown Johannesburg, Chancellor House was the building that housed Mandela’s law practice with Oliver Tambo in the 1950s. Recently fully renovated, a pictorial timeline in the windows of the building is available for visitors to browse at no cost. Allow 30 minutes minimum.

6. Mandela Capture Site, Howick 
A bit off the beaten track, the Mandela Capture Site is affiliated with the Apartheid Museum, and totally worth the drive. Near Howick, between Johannesburg and Durban, the site is minimal but includes an exhibit as well as a beautiful and unique sculpture commemorating Mandela’s capture at the site in 1962. The site is free; allow one hour.

7. Constitution Hill, Johannesburg
Located in downtown Johannesburg, Constitution Hill is one of my favorite historical sites in South Africa. While it was once a fort and then a prison where many, including Mandela, spent time in transit to other prisons, in the 1990s it was chosen as the spot for the new Constitutional Court. Visitors can now get an informative guided tour of the complex’s buildings including the prison facilities as well as the new building where South Africa’s highest Court meets and hears cases. This is a building filled with symbolism, from the giant wood entry doors, to the bricks in the Court chamber. Fee-based; allow two hours minimum.
​These are only a few of the sites that commemorate Mandela and his fight for freedom in South Africa. Whether you can visit site one or all, you will find the spirit of Madiba graces every corner of this nation and lives on in the people who will never forget him.

Have you been to any of these sites? What are your favorites? Did I miss any? Please comment below!

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