Memories from Mandela House, 8115 Vilakazi Street, Soweto


Demola Ojo

“In judging our progress as individuals, we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education…but internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being: humility, purity, generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve your fellow men – qualities within the reach of every human soul.”

The above words are excerpts of a letter written from jail in Robben Island by Nelson Mandela to Winnie Mandela in 1977. Constrained to two letters and one visit a year, many of Mandela’s words are preserved as commemorative plaques on the walls of Mandela House, a museum on 8115 Vilakazi Street, Soweto.

One of South Africa’s more popular tourist attractions, Mandela House was where Nelson Mandela lived between 1946 and 1962. It was also home to the Mandela family till the 1990s. Following Nelson Mandela’s marriage to Winnie Mandela in 1958, the couple took up residence in the home, where Winnie raised their two daughters, prior to her banishment to Brandfort in 1977 while Mandela was incarcerated.

Mandela came back to the house after his release from prison in 1990. At a rally welcoming him home to Soweto his opening words were, “I have come home at last.” However, after 11 days back at the house he moved out again.

He later wrote in his autobiography: “That night I returned with Winnie to No. 8115 in Orlando West. It was only then that I knew in my heart I had left prison. For me No. 8115 was the centre point of my world, the place marked with an X in my mental geography.”

Mandela House and by extension, Vilakazi Street, have once again come into focus with the recent passing and interment of Winnie Mandela, who later lived close by at Masedi Street. Both streets are in Orlando West, Soweto.

Today, the Mandelas’ humble abode in Vilakazi houses memorabilia dating back to the 1950s. Apart from honorary doctorates conferred on Mandela and his family, there are works of art, photographs, mementos and various awards.

The displays include gifts like Sugar Ray Leonard’s world championship belt, while a pair of Mandela’s old boots lies on a shelf.

Especially notable for this writer was a certificate of conferment of a traditional chieftaincy title from Akwa Ibom State in Nigeria. The honourary warrior title of “Otuekong” was conferred on May 14, 1990.

A red-brick ‘matchbox’ house built in 1945, bullet holes can be seen in the walls of Mandela House, as are scorch marks from petrol bombs thrown at the house while Mandela was in prison.

The house was declared a national heritage site in 1999, and was placed in the hands of the Soweto Heritage Trust. It has since been refurbished and renovated and includes a visitors’ centre and various exhibits.

Just about every tour through Soweto stops at Vilakazi Street. This because, apart from Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu grew up here, making it one of the few places, if not the only one, that can lay claim to two Nobel Prize winners living same street.

There is more to Vilakazi Street. Around the corner is the Hector Pieterson Memorial, where the 1976 students’ uprising began. Even closer to the Mandela home is the actual spot where Pieterson was felled by police bullets.

“We who are confined within the grey walls of the Pretoria regime’s prisons reach out to our people. With you we count those who have perished by means of the gun and the hangman’s rope. We salute all of you – the living, the injured and the dead. For you have dared rise up against the tyrants might…”

The above – also on a plaque – are excerpts of another letter written by Mandela from Robben Island, in response to the Soweto uprising of 1976.

Dr BW Vilakazi, after whom the street is named, was a poet, novelist and intellectual, who wrote in numerous indigenous languages. He was also the first black man to teach at Wits, the University of the Witwatersrand, even if he had to be employed as a ‘language assistant’ because of bureaucracy that did not allow black lecturers. Later, armed with a PhD in literature, he helped develop the written form of both isiZulu and siSwati, and helped put together the isiZulu dictionary.

Now, because of Vilakazi Street’s popularity, it includes a couple of well-known restaurants that serve local cuisine to tourists, help spread the local culture and benefit the local community economically. Nambitha, Sakhumzi and the Wine Bar are a few of them. The latter was where the group I travelled with had lunch and – you guessed right – lots of South African wine.

There’s a feel-good air on Vilakazi Street which contrasts with the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. Our party visited the Apartheid Museum right before proceeding to Mandela House.

The Apartheid Museum focuses on the history of South Africa and events of the apartheid. The displays include film, pictures, posters, and vehicles. While also a great history lesson, it is an extremely sobering and humbling experience.

Vilakazi though, has a more upbeat and positive vibe. Brightly-coloured pimped out cars cruise slowly by, blasting trap music from loud speaks. Bikers and cyclists too, as well as pedestrians, including Europeans, taking a leisurely walk.

According to our tour guide, Vilakazi Street and much of Soweto is very safe, even more than Johannesburg. The reason is obvious; Mandela House and the other attractions here means there’s special attention paid to security. The host community benefits from the influx of visitors though, so they help keep the peace.

Over the past month, tourists visiting Vilakazi Street have also been going to Masedi Street where Winnie Mandela lived. Knowing how well South Africa preserves and recounts its history, warts and all, it wouldn’t be surprising if Masedi Street also becomes a famous tourist spot in the mould of Vilakazi.