Sometimes in my quest to discover all of Joburg’s hidden places, I miss out on the un-hidden ones. Such is the case with Mandela House, the Mandela family’s former home on Vilakazi Street in Soweto. It’s probably one of the top five tourist sites in Johannesburg and not only had I never blogged about the house before this, I’d never even visited.

Nelson Mandela and his family lived on Vilakazi Street between the 1940s and the 1990s. The house is now a museum run by the Soweto Heritage Trust. It’s a small, one-story red brick house and there’s nothing particularly remarkable about it, other than the fancy fence around the property and the many photos and plaques covering the walls inside.

Outside the Mandela House museum in Soweto
Outside the Mandela House museum.

Vilakazi Street is hugely popular with foreign tourists and student groups and it’s always choked with buses and souvenir salesmen. I’d also heard (although I can’t actually remember from who) that the house isn’t all that interesting. I guess that’s why I didn’t go for so long.

But I finally wandered in earlier this month and realized I’d been completely wrong. The beauty of this house lies in its simplicity and I think it’s a stunning tourist destination. I loved visiting Mandela House and I’m going to recommend it to everyone from now on.

A Walk Through Mandela House

This is the understatement of the century, but the Mandelas did not have it easy during their residence in Soweto. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island for most of the time, leaving his wife Winnie to raise their children alone and endure constant harassment from the authorities. Winnie herself was imprisoned multiple times, often in solitary confinement.

This will probably sound melodramatic, but as I walked through the three-room house (four if you count the shower room), I felt the presence of this family that made South Africa the country it is today. I’ve been to the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill and Liliesleaf and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but none of those places gave me that intimate feeling I felt at Mandela House.

The outside of Mandela House, with photo of Winnie Mandela
The entrance to Mandela House, decorated with a photo of Winnie Mandela as a young woman.
Inside Mandela House
Inside the house. I love the photo of Nelson Mandela with his dog, shot by legendary photographer Alf Kumalo.
Desk in Mandela House
I overheard a tour guide say all the furniture in the house belonged to the Mandelas. (Guided tours of the house are complimentary but I chose to walk around on my own.)
Back of Mandela House
The back of the house.

I visited Mandela House on a weekday (I strongly recommend this as Vilakazi Street is mad on weekends), which meant there were several school groups visiting when I was there. I think watching the kids was my favorite part. The children — many of whom were extremely tiny, and all of whom were born long after Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president — marched solemnly through the house and lined up outside to listen (some more attentively than others) to their guides explain the history of the Mandelas and their fight against apartheid.

Kids in the Mandela House garden with a statue of Winnie Mandela
Kids sit in the Mandela House garden near a statue of Winnie Mandela. The one boy has a temporary Nelson Mandela tattoo on his cheek.

In short, don’t be a fool like I was and wait nine years to visit Mandela House.

Mandela House is at 8115 Vilakazi Street. Admission is R40 for adults from African Union countries and R60 (about $4) for overseas adults. Children, pensioners, and students pay R20. Visit mandelahouse.com for more information.

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