Dusty sweeps of the American West filled with dashing cowboys mounted on cantering horses bring to mind the term “Magnificent Seven”, recalling the 1960 film of the same name. South Africa has its own association with this moniker, referring to seven anti-Apartheid activists, namely: Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni and Elias Motsoaledi. This term was affectionately assigned during the filming of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – celebrating the seven men and the actors portraying them. We take a look at seven sites across South Africa that formed an integral part of the country’s struggle for freedom in the 20th century.
The name Soweto is an acronym for south-western township and refers to its location in relation to Johannesburg. It is imbued with a history simultaneously triumphant and dark, and is also famous for Vilakazi Street: the only street in the world to have been home to two Nobel Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. In June 1955, people gathered in Kliptown, Soweto for the ANC’s Congress of the People, which resulted in the Freedom Charter, a manifesto underpinning the battle for liberation. Today it is a national heritage site and has been named the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication. The township was also the site of the 1976 Soweto Uprising. Starting as a protest by black schoolchildren against the enforcement of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, the day ended tragically when police opened fire on the protestors. The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in Orlando memorialises the infamous event.
Running from the oppressive government earned Mandela the nickname “Black Pimpernel”, inspired by Emma Orczy’s famous fictional master-of-disguise. Mandela assumed many disguises while on the run, but was eventually captured at Howick in KwaZulu-Natal in 1962, posing as a chauffeur to Cecil Williams. The moment is commemorated by the Nelson Mandela Capture Site, which features an incredible steel sculpture designed by Marco Cianfanelli, with the help of Jeremy Rose. From a distance, the sculpture merely looks like a random collection of steel poles, but as you come closer the poles fuse into an image of Mandela’s face.
3. Liliesleaf Farm
A focal part of the history of the Magnificent Seven, Liliesleaf Farm is situated in Rivonia, Johannesburg. It was a hideout for political activists during the liberation struggle, purchased in 1961 by Arthur Goldreich. He masqueraded as its white owner in an attempt to disguise its true intent as a safe house. In 1963 it was raided by security police. All of the seven (bar Mandela, who had already been captured) were arrested on the farm along with Goldreich and several others, before going on trial in Rivonia. The Liliesleaf Farm Museum, dubbed “a place of liberation”, opened in 2008. It includes exhibitions and serves as a conference centre, with plans under way for a boutique hotel and a learning centre.
Perched atop the hill in days gone by was a sprawl of buildings known collectively as the Old Fort. Located in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, it included isolation cells, a women’s prison and a building reserved for those awaiting trial. This was where the Rivonia defendants were held during trial. Today it is home to the Constitutional Court, portions of its inner walls having been built out of bricks from the demolished fort. In the new South Africa, Constitution Hill amalgamates history, education and business, offering guided tours through its various museums, as well as offering facilities for banquets and conferences.
5. Apartheid Museum
Visiting the Apartheid Museum in Jo’burg is an in-depth journey through South Africa’s past as a divided nation. The museum has various individual exhibitions and includes film footage, photographs and artefacts. The all-encompassing experience starts with your entry into the museum, where tickets are randomly assigned as “Native”, “Coloured”, “Asian” or “White”. Visitors are then ushered into the museum according to their classification in order to give them an idea of the separation that was wrought across the nation. The exhibitions span across the decades of this period of history, stretching all the way to the triumphant highlight of the country’s birth as a democratic nation; while also shedding light on the country’s current endeavour to rebuild and reconcile.
6. Robben Island
One of South Africa’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Robben Island was once a leper colony and later on a prison, to which all of the Magnificent Seven were confined for many years. Located just off the coast of Cape Town, visitors to the city can explore the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront before embarking on a ferry to the island and taking a tour led by a former political prisoner, gaining further insight into the spirit of hope and courage that blossomed despite the harsh and isolated life on the island.
7. The Union Buildings
In 1994, Nelson Mandela became the first president of a democratic South Africa. He was inaugurated at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, which forms the official seat of the government, as well as the office of the president. Visitors are able to stroll through the beautiful gardens and admire the sweeping view of one of the country’s capitals; while Freedom Park, just a stone’s throw away, is a commemorative site with features such as Isivivane, a symbolic resting place for those who gave their lives to the freedom struggle.
Featured image by Jorge in Brazil. Constitution Hill.