The Mandela Route

The train station in Alice

The Transkei continued…>

Alice appears quietly, surreptitiously, stumbling into view from around a bend in the road.  Arriving from the South, the first visible building is the old train station, where the old signage lays about the pavement in disrepair.  Trains long ago ceased running along these rails and families have converted the former ticket offices and waiting areas to living space.

I have a soft spot for trains, an especially romantic nexus of movement and travel that are host to the jostling and crisscrossing of people’s lives.  I strolled along the platform picturing Nelson Mandela as an 18 year old, disembarking here for his first class at the nearby Fort Hare University.

We followed Madiba’s path from the train platform through town to the university.  With a special dispensation for entry gained with the help of our Xhosa-speaking friend, Bayanda, we found on campus the Nelson Mandela School of Law, and after much effort, the residence hall that was home first to Madiba and later, in remarkable contrast, to Robert Mugabe.  In its time, Fort Hare was the premier university for black African leaders, who came here to be groomed from across the continent.  Exams were finishing up; three male students washed a car in the courtyard.  This was the setting for the famous photo of Madiba as a young student.  I imagined him studying in one of the rooms.

Fort Hare Residence Hall

In Qunu, we visited the “sliding rock” where Madiba played as a child.  A path is worn from top to bottom, which we followed on chair backs severed from their base.  It reminded me of the kids at my university that would slide down the grass berm on cardboard sheets during football games.  The tour guide was working hard to curry favor from Bayanda, whom he claimed was his soulmate.

We stopped briefly at Mvesi, which is home to the house where Madiba stays when he is in the area.  The security guard laughed when I asked if we could enter and told us we were lucky he hadn’t shot us when we drove up.

The highlight of the villages was Emqhekezweni, where Madiba stayed with his cousin Justice under care of the Regent after his father died.  At the culmination of 30 km. of potholed dirt and gravel and several stops and queries for directions, stands the original rondavel where Madiba spent most of his childhood before running away for the mines and Johnannesburg.  I sat on the hardened mud floor and pictured him taking lessons from the Regent or leaving for his initiation.

A baby goat joins me in front of Madiba's rondavel in Emqhekezweni


Death by Kudu

Driving in the Ciskei is a test of nerves having little to do with road conditions or people, but livestock.  Apparently, kudu are attracted to headlights and like to lie in the road at night because it’s warmer than the earth.  We were told at least five times to avoid driving at night.

Tempting fate and trusting, perhaps too much, my driving instincts, we travelled from Grahamstown (home of Rhodes University) to Fort Beaufort in darkness, before settling for the night.  Our inkeeper was incredulous. “It’s the most dangerous road in South Africa from sundown to sunrise,” he warned.

The next morning, the sun rose on lush, rolling hills of green, filled with cattle and rondavels.  The highway swung up

and down and through a landscape that in my memory was a child’s painting.  Everything was represented in symbols.  The sun was a yellow ball emanating lines toward the earth.   Sheep were white balls with black sticks for legs.  Houses featured two windows and a door.  Yet, ultimately, it was the green of the land that dominated the image.  Stratified shades of the color darted toward every corner of the frame.  The title of Alan Paton’s book

crept into my mind, “Ah, but your land is beautiful.”

In Hogsback, we took a short hike to Madonna and Child Falls, absorbing the fairy tale beauty that led Tolkien to imagine such characters as the Hobbit.

The area known as the Ciskei and the Transkei are the ancestral homelands of the Xhosa people.  More recently, they were bantustans established by the apartheid government to enforce separate development of the races.  The bantustans have been abolished and the areas currently make up most of the Eastern Cape province.  Most significantly for my visit,

they are the home of many of the most prominent freedom fighters during apartheid.  My companions obliged my obsession with historical figures and so we daily chased the legend of the Transkei.  We were pilgrims of freedom.

Stay tuned this week for threads of the journey…