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Madiba's Soweto home being restored
18 September 2008

The tiny home Nelson Mandela shared with his family before he was imprisoned is undergoing a major restoration as part of a project to create an outdoor living museum in the Vilakazi Street precinct.

Mandela's return to the house in 1990
Mandela's return to the house in 1990

"IT was the very opposite of grand, but it was my first true home of my own and I was mightily proud. A man is not a man until he has a house of his own."

So said Nelson Mandela of his three-roomed home in Soweto, number 8115 Vilakazi Street, Orlando West.

"The house itself was identical to hundreds of others built on postage-stamp-size plots on dirt roads. It had the same standard tin roof, the same cement floor, a narrow kitchen, and a bucket toilet at the back," he says in Long Walk to Freedom.

"Although there were streetlamps outside, we used paraffin lamps inside as the homes were not yet electrified. The bedroom was so small that a double bed took up almost the entire floor space."

He had moved into this home in 1946 with his first wife, Evelyn Mase, and in 1958 brought his second wife, Winnie Madikizela, to live in this house with him, he recounts in his autobiography.

"I did not know then that it would be the only residence that would be entirely mine for many, many years."

The tiny house looks naked now - built around 1944, it is in the throes of restoration, a process that is likely to be completed in February 2009. Its roof has been removed, the walls have been stripped of the wood panelling that covered them, the cement floor is covered in soft sand to protect it, and there are gaping holes where doors used to be.

It is to be restored to how it looked when Madikizela-Mandela and he lived there, says curator Ishmael Mbhokodo.

Original house
It consists of three rooms in a row - a 5m by 5m living room combined with a kitchen sandwiched between two slightly larger bedrooms, with a small shower room coming off the kitchen. Originally a low wall divided the living room and kitchen but this was removed at some point.

The original stoep and rich red walls, to be restored
The original stoep and rich red walls, to be restored

The kitchen had a coal stove and chimney which were also removed and replaced with an electric stove. There was a toilet in the yard. A small front stoep was part of the design, finished in shiny red polish. Later a bathroom was added to one of the bedrooms.

The house was finished in a rich red brick, with a red corrugated iron roof and metal-framed windows. The floors were concrete, and the walls were originally plastered.

It was to this house that Mandela returned on his release from prison in 1990.

"That night [13 February 1990, two days after his release from prison], I returned with Winnie to No 8115 in Orlando West. It was only then that I knew in my heart that I had left prison. For me, No 8115 was the centrepoint of my world, the place that marked with an X in my mental geography. The four-roomed house had been soundly rebuilt after the fire," says Mandela.

In 1988, it was razed to the ground by the local community, in a conflict between it and Madikizela-Mandela's Mandela United Football Club. Before this the house had been fire-bombed and damaged several times by the security police.

"When I saw it, I was surprised by how much smaller and humbler it was than I remembered it being. Compared with my cottage at Victor Verster [Prison], No 8115 could have been the servants' quarters at the back. But any house in which a man is free is a castle when compared with even the plushest prison."

Mandela lived with his second wife in the house for just 11 days before he moved to her mansion in Orlando West Extension, just over the koppie. He then moved to Joburg's northern suburbs, where he spent time finishing his autobiography. He subsequently moved to Houghton, where he still lives.

Original design
The house will be restored to its original design, says architect Gareth Jankelow, of Mashabane Rose Associates, but will also take account of the changes made over the years.

The original plan of the house, dated 1944
The original plan of the house, dated 1944

The Mandelas covered the walls of the three rooms and ceilings with pine panelling, in an effort to hide the blackened fire marks. The living room and bathrooms also had a formica wood ceiling. A small pantry was incorporated into the kitchen.

A section of pine panelling will be restored in one of the bedrooms, but otherwise the walls will be restored to their original plastered look. The ceiling rafters and roof will be replaced.

Brick paving will be placed around the house, while steel pole fencing will be erected at the street. Several black wattle trees in the garden will be removed but two other trees, planted by Zinzi Mandela-Hlongwane, the couple's daughter, will remain. A crooked tree will be preserved because it has traditional significance - the children's umbilical cords are buried at the tree's trunk.

Behind the house a visitor centre will be built, says Jankelow, using red brick and concrete, to blend with the house. The centre will be the point of entrance for visitors, with a ticket office, toilets and an exhibition. A small enclave with a bench will be placed opposite the front door of the house.

Personal items of clothing, a selection of the many gifts the Mandelas have received, his boots, awards and photographs will be on display in the house. The two bedrooms will have films running, showing excerpts from a recent interview conducted with Madikizela-Mandela and her two daughters, Zinzi and Zenani, by Sarah Haines, research content developer and the person responsible for the exhibits in the house.

Haines says that during the interview Madikizela-Mandela was surprised at how many details she had forgotten, saying, "I didn't realise - I had forgotten so much."

Haines said: "She was very generous with her memories, very honest and very funny."

Madikizela-Mandela and her daughters are very happy that their stories are going to be told, Haines confirms. "That tiny house is such a symbol," she says.

Vilakazi Street
But the restoration of the Mandela House is only a small part of a much bigger intervention in Orlando West. The Vilakazi Street precinct, when finished, will encompass a large triangle of rejuvenation, with four gateways, marking the entrance to the precinct, described as an "outdoor living museum".

The proposed Vilakazi Street precinct, encompassing many historic sites (click on image for higher resolution)
The proposed Vilakazi Street precinct, encompassing many historic sites
(click on image for higher resolution)

The four gateways are the Klipspruit Gateway on the corner of Vilakazi and Kumalo streets, the Hector Pieterson Square Gateway, on the corner of Pela and Moema streets; the Vilakazi West Gateway, on the corner of Butshingi Street and Mahalefele Road; and the Koppie Gateway, on the corner of Moema and Malie streets.

Buses and cars will park at these points, and visitors will be taken on various walking trails through the precinct.

The idea behind the project, says architect Jonathan Manning of Ikemeleng Architects, is to "conserve the significance and interpret the memory" of the street. Vilakazi Street also houses Desmond Tutu's home, on the corner of Bacela Street, making it the only street in the world containing homes of two Nobel Peace Prize laureates.

The area is also significant because it's where the students met the apartheid police on 16 June 1976, and where the set of photographs of the dying 12-year-old Hector Pieterson was taken, an image that came to symbolise the repressive actions of the apartheid government. The nearby Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial commemorates the sacrifice that Hector and other students made on the day and the days that followed.

"The heritage will guide our interventions," says Manning.

The project will take the present ad-hoc arrangement of paving, lighting, kerbs, signage and landscaping and standardise them.

It will celebrate Soweto's character by maintaining the everyday sights, sounds and buzz of township life, at the same time making the precinct's stories visible to visitors, who will enjoy safe and uncluttered pedestrian trails.

There are to be several trails. Although June 16 was immortalised by the death of Hector Pieterson, another boy, Hastings Ndlovu, was the first child to be shot. The place where Ndlovu was shot, and where he was carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo to a waiting car and finally to the clinic, will be one trail.

The walk between the Mandela house and the Tutu house will form another trail - the Nobel laureate walk.

There'll be a koppie trail, in which visitors will walk along the contour path of the nearby koppie, ending up at the Mandela House. Along the way they will take in informal settlements, shebeens and spaza shops. The koppie itself has significance. In the 1970s and ‘80s the security police used to be stationed on it to monitor movements at the Mandela house.

The struggle trail will follow the confrontation between the students and the police, and the scattering of the students once the police opened fire.

And the everyday township experience trail will give visitors a feel for what life in Soweto is like for the ordinary resident.

Small-scale entrepreneurship
Manning says that small-scale entrepreneurship has been encouraged by means of establishing developmental guidelines to protect the heritage significance of the precinct. Local residents have been urged to diversify their offerings, so that for example, instead of offering curios from central Africa, rather offer unique Soweto souvenirs, or Soweto fashions.

The traders will be moved to the gateway areas, to leave pavements free of obstructions. "We want a more sombre tone to the precinct," reiterates Manning. Pavements will be two metres wide, with no signage obstructing the pathway, particularly for wheelchairs.

The gateway parking spaces will double as places for gatherings, like on Youth Day, or for street parties or performances.

This is phase one of the project which should start in mid-October, says Manning. Funding for this phase amounts to R52,5-million from the National Treasury, and a further R6-million from the Johannesburg Development Agency.

The idea is to make Orlando West a destination for a day or two, he emphasises, with visitors staying over in one of the bed and breakfasts in Vilakazi Street.

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Last Updated on 08 October 2008