Some 30km from Mthatha, on the East London side, are the scattered dwellings of Qunu, where Mandela grew up. The N2 thunders through it, but his large and rather plain mansion, which you may photograph but not enter, is clearly visible on the roadside. Signs from the N2 direct you to the Nelson Mandela Youth and Heritage Visitors’ Centre, where you can pick up a tour by arrangement, and look around the craft centre. You can visit the remains of Mandela’s primary school, the rock he used to slide down with friends, and the graveyard where his parents, son and daughter are buried. Qunu is a village where the women still wear traditional clothing and young boys herd the family cows, and you’ll get some sense of the background and roots of the great man.
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Nelson Mandela and the Qunu connection
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in the village of Mveso, close to Qunu, on July 18, 1918. His father was a member of the Xhosa royal house – he was also chief of Mveso, until he crossed swords with the local white magistrate over a minor dispute. After his sacking, the family moved to a small kraal in Qunu, which Mandela remembers as consisting of several hundred poor households.
Mandela is often called Madiba – the name of his family’s subclan of the Thembu clan. The name Nelson was given to him by a schoolteacher, and Rolihlahla means colloquially, "troublemaker". Mandela has said that at home he was never allowed to ask any questions, but was expected to learn by observation. Later in life, he was shocked to visit the homes of whites and hear children firing questions at their parents and expecting replies.
Shortly after his father died, Mandela was summoned from Qunu to the royal palace at Mqhakeweni, where he sat in on disputes in court and learned more about Xhosa culture. At 16 he was initiated into manhood before enrolling in Clarkebury, a college for the Thembu elite, then Healdtown at Fort Beaufort, and finally the celebrated Fort Hare in Alice, which has educated generations of African leaders. Mandela was expelled from Fort Hare after clashing with the authorities, and returned to Mqhakeweni. In 1941, faced with the prospect of an arranged marriage, he ran away to Johannesburg and there immersed himself in politics.
It was only upon his release from prison in 1990 (at the age of 72) that Mandela was able to return to Qunu, visiting first the grave of his mother, who had died in his absence. He noted that the place seemed poorer than he remembered it, and that the children were now singing songs about AK47s and the armed struggle. However, he was relieved to find that none of the old spirit and warmth had left the community, and he arranged for a palace to be built there. This has become the venue for Mandela’s holidays and family reunions and has a floor plan identical to that of the house in Victor Verster prison where Mandela spent the last few years of his captivity. In his autobiography he writes:
The Victor Verster house was the first spacious and comfortable home I ever stayed in, and I liked it very much. I was familiar with its dimensions, so at Qunu I would not have to wander at night looking for the kitchen.