South Africa’s City of Gold Stirred Mandela Political Drive

Dec. 10 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium in Soweto, a township southwest of Johannesburg. (Source: Bloomberg)

Nelson Mandela spent his last days in a double-story villa in Johannesburg’s plush Houghton suburb, an area where he would only have been able to live as a servant to wealthy whites during apartheid.

From the formerly all-white suburb, where gardens with tennis courts and swimming pools are enclosed by walls and electric fencing, to the FNB Stadium, where U.S. President Barack Obama today joined thousands of mourners for Mandela’s memorial service, South Africa’s biggest city tells the story of its first black president’s political journey.

“When Mandela came to Johannesburg as a young man he was relatively apolitical,” Emelia Potenza, the curator of Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum, said in an interview yesterday. “It wasn’t very long before he became heavily involved in politics.”

In 1941, when a 22-year-old Mandela came to escape an arranged marriage, he stayed in the northern Alexandra township that was known as the Dark City because it had no electricity and several families living in tin-roof shacks shared a single outdoor tap. Mandela would stay up for hours reading by candle light.

“The roads were unpaved and dirty, and filled with hungry, undernourished children scampering around half-naked,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. “Pools of stinking, stagnant water full of maggots collected by the side of the road.”

Photographer: Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images

People pay tribute to former South African President Nelson Mandela outside his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, on Dec. 8, 2013. Close

People pay tribute to former South African President Nelson Mandela outside his home in... Read More

Photographer: Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images

People pay tribute to former South African President Nelson Mandela outside his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, on Dec. 8, 2013.

Bus Boycott

Mandela also witnessed his first successful political action in Alexandra, when residents boycotted buses in 1943 to reverse a fare increase. He was soon rubbing shoulders with some of the leading lights of black society, including Walter Sisulu, who became secretary-general of the African National Congress and Mandela’s prison mate for about 20 years.

“He came to the golden city and had an incredible guide in Walter Sisulu,” fellow Nobel Peace prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu told reporters yesterday. “He woke up and saw what it was like to be black.”

Mandela went to the University of the Witwatersrand in the city to complete his law studies, for the first time coming into contact with whites who opposed apartheid.

“This had a profound impact on Mandela, because until then he was still quite a nationalist,” Potenza said. “This marked a shift toward a more multi-racial approach.”

Black Pimpernel

Known as the Black Pimpernel for his ability to evade the police, Mandela posed as a chauffeur. He moved in the early 1960s to a farm in what is now Johannesburg’s northern suburbs where he formed the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and planned acts of sabotage to bring down the apartheid regime.

Though Mandela was arrested in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province in 1962, his cohorts were apprehended at Liliesleaf in Johannesburg the next year. Collectively they were charged with sabotage and conspiring to overthrow the government and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

Today, Liliesleaf is part of the northern Rivonia suburb, where affluent families migrated to get away from the crime-ridden city center.

Johannesburg was formed after the 1886 discovery of gold in the underground reef that runs along the city’s southern edge sparked a mining boom. Mine barons, known as the Randlords, lived in double-story white-washed mansions with high archways, pillars and steepled roofs perched on a ridge overlooking the city. Many houses featured turrets, wood paneling and were partially built from rough granite found in the area.

Gold Mines

Apartheid forced blacks to live far away from whites and the centers of economic activity. The South Western Townships, or Soweto, was Mandela’s home for most of his time in Johannesburg. Acres of marsh and mustard-colored shelves of earth dug up from the world’s deepest gold mines lie between it and the city.

Black mineworkers, who swelled Soweto to a size of more than a million in the search of work, nicknamed the city eGoli, or City of Gold, in the Zulu language. As Soweto grew, its inhabitants drew strength from their numbers and launched increasingly bold protests against the apartheid regime.

In 1976 students marched in protest of poor education and the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction. The police opened fire on the children, killing at least 176.

Sprawling Settlements

Today, most township dwellers spend hours traveling to work crammed into minibus taxis on choked eight-lane highways snaking around the cluster of high-rises that make up the city center as the government tries to build a public transportation network from scratch.

When apartheid ended and people were free to leave designated zones, colonies of cobbled-together shacks sprung up as shelter for the ever-growing number of people seeking work. Some of these have mushroomed into sprawling settlements with their own names like Diepsloot or Tembisa, which means “promise” in Zulu.

“The geography of apartheid is still very much with us today,” Potenza said. “The poorer people, still largely black South Africans, are on the periphery, generally much further away from where they work and therefore having to spend considerable amounts of what they earn on transport.”

Ubiquitous shopping malls have become more of a scene for racial integration as more and more black South Africans join the ranks of the middle class.

Days after Mandela’s 1990 release from 27 years of captivity, he again laid eyes on Soweto’s “postage-size plots” from a helicopter before landing at the overflowing FNB Stadium to address 120,000 people, he recounted in his book.

It was also the last place most South Africans saw him alive. Wearing a bear-skin hat, a black winter coat and leather gloves he sat next to his wife Graca Machel and waved at thousands of fans at the 2010 World Cup final as he was driven around the stadium in a golf buggy.

To contact the reporter on this story: Franz Wild in Johannesburg at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Nasreen Seria at

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