South Africa: Hope and fear in a land of Nelson Mandela memories

No part of South Africa has been untouched by the life of the first post-apartheid  president. But different parts were affected in different ways

Instructions on feeding Robben Island’s prisoners have been reproduced in one of the cells. They are a reminder of the racism by degrees on which apartheid was built.

Category B inmates (coloureds and Asiatics) were to get half an ounce more sugar and fat than category A (blacks). Standing in the middle of the room the former political prisoner number 3889, Dede Glen Ntsoelengoe, is recreating the daily routines he lived through. He tells visitors that some of the white prison guards were sadists who enjoyed their work and others were more humane – “they never lasted long”.

Someone asks how much white South Africans knew about apartheid and a friendly couple in their 50s from Durban on the east coast of South Africa venture to answer. Debora and Gavin had come to the prison colony off Cape Town because its most famous former inmate, Nelson Mandela, is critically ill and they wanted to understand his life.

Their own lives had been sheltered, they explained, almost stiflingly so. “There were rules and you followed them; it was how our parents raised us,” she says. They recalled being shocked at the freedom they found on their first trip outside South Africa to the United States in the late 1980s. They are grateful to Mandela for delivering them out of the country of their past.

Although they have come to the same place for similar reasons the couple’s past naivety and optimism grates with Serojnee Muller, an Asian South African travelling with her German husband and their two children. As part of a mixed-race couple, she feels the racism that marked her childhood is still “absolutely rife” and feels it most keenly Cape Town: “It’s beautiful but it’s cold. Cape Town is a vision from apartheid.”

She argues that the hope engendered by the transition to democracy in 1994 has not been fulfilled and that economic apartheid still divides the country. She refuses to blame the 94-year-old former President for these failures and instead wishes that he had served a second term where more might have been achieved.

There is a mixture of hope and fear over what his death will bring: “I hope that Mandela’s passing will provide a reflection point where the people who participated in the struggle will realise that things have gone off course.”

Leaning into the winds that swirl around the old prison, Glen Ntsoelengoe talks of his own troubles in adjusting to the new South Africa he found after release. Years of unemployment followed and the decision to return to his place of incarceration to work was taken heavily, he says. “The only thing that brought me back here was that I needed a job.”


Any road trip across South Africa brings home the extraordinary geography of the country and the grinding repetition of its town planning. Wealthier centres, some colonial, some modern, give way to affluent suburbs and then to satellite townships. Kwazakhele is one of them. It lies a short drive from the charming Cape Dutch architecture and neat lawns of Port Elizabeth’s plusher areas like Summerstrand. Originally conceived as a dormitory township for the factories of the port city it now reflects the daily life of millions of black South Africans 20 years after they first voted.

Tarred roads and rows of two-room houses built by the government since the end of apartheid make Kwazakhele unrecognisable from slums in much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. But it also reeks of piled rubbish and wasted lives.

Zoleka Makhubalo is an unemployed mother-of-two who gets by largely thanks to a monthly child support grant totalling £40 – a benefit that extends to some 13 million South African children. She has been out of work for more than five years, and this is not the life the 34-year-old hoped for. She laughs at herself when she recalls her high hopes in 1994 when she voted for the first time: “I thought I would go to Summerstrand and choose a house where I wanted to live.”

That is not what happened. While there is substantial poverty among some sections of South Africa’s 4.2 million white population, the majority live on the more comfortable side of an economic chasm from township dwellers.

“They still have the power,” Ms Makhubalo says. “And I did think things would be better, but you can’t blame them [whites]; this is what their parents planned for them.”

She is also reluctant to blame the man elected in 1994. “When I think of Mandela I think of Jesus Christ and Moses who took the Jews to the Promised Land.”

Others are to blame for the state of the Promised Land, she insists. Her two girls both go to a mixed-race school, something forbidden when she was growing up. Along with other township residents she has formed a committee that hopes to persuade the government to renovate a disused community centre. They want to try and teach people skills like accounting and carpentry that might bring jobs. But answers are slow in coming from officials more concerned with eye-catching public projects. Some members are annoyed at expensive plans to build a statue of Nelson Mandela in nearby Port Elizabeth. “If I’m hungry I can’t go to a statue and ask it to feed me,” Ms Makhubalo says.

No one is worried that the passing of Mandela will trigger violence; people’s fears are more parochial. Kwazakhele is dangerous after dark, she warns. An elderly neighbour of hers was raped and murdered in her home last week. She is so frightened that she locks the front door at night and barricades it with the sofa.

Fort Hare

The alumni of South Africa’s Fort Hare University are a Who’s Who of African liberation movements. Kenneth Kaunda, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Robert Mugabe and, of course, Nelson Mandela. Until the 1960s it was the only university in sub-Saharan Africa that offered a high standard of education to Africans. Mandela referred to it in his memoirs as “Oxford and Yale rolled into one”. These days its prestige has dimmed. It sits next to the tiny town of Alice whose seedy streets of wooden houses are rotting slowly into the fields and where locals queue for lottery tickets in the winter drizzle.

Almost every building on campus has a plaque from an ANC hero and Fort Hare is still a popular stop on the campaign trail. The President, Jacob Zuma, and the controversial former youth league leader-turned-outcast, Julius Malema, have both been here recently.

Ntsika Gogwana is one of a surprising number of students who is fed up with hearing about Nelson Mandela and past glories.

“We hear Mandela, Mandela, Mandela. His story has supplanted everyone else’s story and at some point it’s enough,” says the agricultural science student. “We can’t have everything named after him, every street, every hospital. And commemorative gold coins? What’s that got to do with freedom?” he asks.

As he speaks the students around him nod approvingly, a young woman admits she’s irritated with hearing about the icon of the struggle. Gogwana continues: “They all come here to make their political speeches but they don’t get their rich buddies to give something back.”

After it spawned a generation of troublemakers the apartheid authorities decided to run Fort Hare into the ground. They converted it into a provincial university for the Xhosa people and starved it of funds. Today it is open to students from all over Africa once more, but the resources never returned. There are only a handful of white students.

“There are black places and there are white places. White people don’t choose to come to black places.” Gogwana says.


The clouds have closed over the Transkei in recent days. A cold wind blows over the hills prompting those sitting outside to hug their blankets closer. The Khwetshube clan has been waiting for nearly a decade to hold a ceremony to commemorate their ancestors and will not be stopped by a cold snap. A cow and two goats have been slaughtered and pots boil away on wood fires. Hooves blacken in the flames and the clan elder comes and goes with a bucket of millet beer.

Simon Koloswene, a 34 year-old mine worker has returned from Rustenburg, more than 12 hours to the north, to be present. His normal working day means descending more than a kilometre into the platinum deposits. Koloswene had not wanted to leave Qunu.

“There was no other choice but mining. There are no jobs here so I had to go, I have a family to pay for.”

From the hillside where the Khwetshube have gathered you can see the pink-walled residence of Qunu’s most famous clan, the Madibas. Security vans are parked outside the sprawling mansion and workmen have poured a concrete tomb in a nearby field in preparation for the biggest funeral the village will every see. Koloswene will not be here to see the mass crowds, the broadcast vehicles and the accompanying circus. He has to return to the mine.

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