Pilgrimage to the house where South Africa's history was rewritten

Prison bungalow where Mandela negotiated with de Klerk to be turned into a museum
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The Independent Online

It is an unremarkable-looking house, but tomorrow it will be at the heart of the commemorations marking 20 years since Nelson Mandela's release from prison. His former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who held his hand as he walked out a free man on 11 February 1990, is expected to revisit the bungalow at Victor Verster prison near Paarl, and announce that it is to become a museum.

"We still owe Mandela so much," said Christo Brand, one of inmate 46664's closest former warders.

"When the government released him, their feeling was that he would not live long. Before his release, he had had a prostate operation, there was water in his lungs and he was anaemic. He was old and had arthritis. We thought he would live another two years. I am so happy that he is still around."

Mr Brand, who in his career as a warder worked at the three prisons in which Mr Mandela spent his 26 years of captivity – Robben Island, Pollsmoor and Victor Verster – is credited with having taught the political prisoner Afrikaans. "It was so touching, on the day Mandela was released, that he travelled into Cape Town and spoke to the crowd in my language," said the 50-year-old, who now works at the Robben Island Museum.

The island off Cape Town, where Mr Mandela spent 18 years, has become a tourist attraction. It receives about 300,000 visits a year from tourists who pay £20 for a boat trip and guided tour.

But since Robben Island ceased to be a prison in 1996 and became a museum the following year, it has been beset by management problems. So severe has the neglect of the site been that it is now overrun with rabbits, and a massive culling programme is in progress. Amid revelations that staff had stolen money from the gift shop and diesel from the Robben Island ferry, a new management was put in place, charged with salvaging the island's status as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

But the Victor Verster museum – named Madiba House after Mr Mandela's clan name – will be different, said Calvyn Gilfellan, a former political detainee. "This house was not only Mandela's last home as a prisoner, it was also where intense negotiations were held on dismantling apartheid and creating our constitution. Mandela was so attached to the importance of this place that, after his release, he had a copy of it built in his native village, Qunu.

"I would like to see the place evolve both into a museum and a centre for conflict resolution. I can well imagine African leaders sitting in that lounge just as Mandela and former President FW de Klerk did," said Mr Gilfellan, who is now a tourism official for the Western Cape.

The three-bedroom house, with sparse furnishings, a beige wall-to-wall carpet and portraits of Mr Mandela on most of the walls, is discreetly situated away from the main prison building. It can be reached both through the main gates of the prison and by a gravel road at the back.

"That was the beauty of the place," said Mr Gilfellan, himself a former inmate of Victor Verster. "Mandela could be taken out for meetings with the government and de Klerk and others could also come and see him, unnoticed. Even though, as prisoners, we were not supposed to know, we were all aware that Mandela was in the house and that things were going on."

Now renamed the Drakenstein Correctional Centre, the prison where Mr Mandela spent his last months in captivity has been downgraded to a medium-security facility. It runs its own farm and supplies 16,000 eggs and 25 tonnes of pork to Western Cape's prisons each month.

Mr Gilfellan believes Madiba House, which is close to the Cape winelands, will draw tourists who otherwise would only visit Robben Island and Cape Town. On Saturday, the marketing of the museum begins in earnest with the inaugural Freedom Run, a 27km race which starts beneath a statue of Mr Mandela, with each kilometre representing one of his years in prison.

How the 91-year-old icon of freedom will be marking the 20th anniversary of his liberation is the subject of intense speculation. Some have suggested that he may return to Paarl for a reunion with his old warders; others that he will be attending President Jacob Zuma's maiden state of the nation address at parliament in Cape Town. Or he may simply opt for a day at home, out of the limelight, leaving the commemoration to others.