The village of Qunu, Nelson Mandela’s birthplace
Local residents in Qunu
The village of Qunu lies in South Africa’s Wild Coast region of the Eastern Cape, an area known for its untouched beauty, gently sloping green hills and unspoiled beaches. Qunu is also the home village of the much-loved and honored Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president and the Eastern Cape’s favorite son.
Lying just outside the town of Mthatha, Qunu is where Mandela spent the happiest years of his youth. There, he writes in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, he spent his days doing herd-boy duties, playing in the river and sailing down the “sliding stone”.
When his father was persecuted by the white magistrate and deposed as chief of Mvezo, where Mandela was born, the family took refuge at Qunu. It is the place where the young Rolihlahla, in colonial tradition, was named Nelson on his first day at school.
Soon after his 1990 release from 27 years in prison, Mandela built a small house on his family plot in Qunu. It is an exact replica of the dwelling where he spent the last years of his incarceration at Cape Town’s Victor Vester prison. He has since built a bigger house, where he stays when visiting his home town.
Qunu has now developed into a major tourist spot, attracting people from across the world.
“When people are down the Wild Coast and you mention to them that we’ll be driving past the birthplace of Mandela or past his house, it generates the most amazing interest. “And, of course, they want to hear about his life story,” says William Ross, CEO Wild Coast Holiday Association.
The Mandela Museum
Images of Nelson Mandela, from the Nelson Mandela Museum
The Nelson Mandela Museum, based in Mthatha and with satellite structures in both Qunu and Mvezo, Mandela’s birthplace, is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the area.
The Mthatha museum is housed in the magnificent Bhunga Building, which has functioned as the seat of the United Transkei Territories General Council, Transkei Legislative Assembly and the Republic of Transkei Parliament during the territory’s nominal independence in the apartheid era.
On display in the Bhunga Building are the many gifts and awards given to Mandela by different people, countries, groups, organizations and institutions the world over, when he was in prison and during his five-year term as SA’s president until 1999. The list of donors reads like an international who’s who.
The museum is visited by thousands of visitors every year, and considered one of South Africa’s most significant heritage institutions.
Mandela has insisted that the museum should not simply be a tribute to him, but also serve as a catalyst for the upliftment of the local community.
The Wild Coast is one of the poorest areas of South Africa, but is rich in natural beauty. In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela speaks of his love of the region and his fond memories of herding cattle in the rolling hills around Qunu.
“From an early age, I spent most of my free time in the wild playing and fighting with the other boys of the village,” he writes. “A boy who remained at home tied to his mother’s apron strings was regarded as a sissy.
“I was no more than five when I became a herd-boy, looking after sheep and calves in the fields. I discovered the almost mystical attachment that the Xhosa have for cattle, not only as a source of food and wealth, but as a blessing from God and a source of happiness.
“It was in the fields that I learned how to knock birds out of the sky with a slingshot, to gather wild honey and fruits and edible roots, to drink warm, sweet milk straight from the udder of a cow, to swim in the clear, cold streams, and to catch fish with twine and sharpened bits of wire.
“From these days I date my love of the wild, of open spaces, the simple beauties of nature, the clean line of the horizon.”
Ocean liners now anchor more often in East London, sending their passengers by road to Qunu and nearby resorts, through the spectacular Great Kei River Pass. The area includes the Shamwari game reserve, which has repeatedly been named the best game reserve in the world at the World Travel Awards.