Nelson Mandela's Johannesburg

12 Jul 2023
While many visitors to South Africa associate Cape Town's Robben Island with the life of Nelson Mandela, Joburg is a city that is also indelibly associated with his life. Here, he found his feet as an anti-apartheid activist and began the brave struggle against discrimination that would lead him to the Rivonia trial and eventually, 27 years in prison. Following his release, Mandela again made Joburg his home, and in the days following his death in 2013 the world's leaders converged on the city to pay their respects to this most inspirational man. No visit to Joburg would be complete without experiencing at least one of these prominent places.


The most famous heritage site of the historic township, known locally as Alex, is Nelson Mandela’s first home in Joburg, a one-room rented house on 7th Avenue. He was 23 years old when he lived here – and fresh from his ancestral home in Eastern Cape province. The area surrounding the house is known as Mandela’s Yard. Sadly plans to develop it as a formal tourist attraction have not been realised, but still this house (privately owned) is a part of Mandela's history. We recommend that you only visit Alexandra with a knowledgeable guide.

One of the country's best, this extensive museum provides the context of Mandela's efforts to establish a free and democratic South Africa. The museum strives to show the bitter realities of the apartheid system from all angles and a visit is an unforgettable, thought-provoking, and at times difficult, but highly educational experience.

It is from this building in the city centre that Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo ran the city's first black-owned legal practice. The building has since been transformed into an open-air museum. Opposite Chancellor House and standing in front of the Johannesburg Magistrate's Court is an impressive statue erected in 2013 of a young Mandela shadow boxing, inspired by a photograph of Nelson Mandela (an avid boxer) sparring with Jerry Moloi on a downtown rooftop. Mandela's words are etched along the statue's plinth: “In the ring, rank, age, colour, and wealth are irrelevant.”

A great way to see many of the city's key sights in one day, this hop-on hop-off bus experience takes in Joburg's historic leafy suburbs but also stops at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Sanctuary Mandela – a boutique hotel that offers an authentic Presidential Suite experience. The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory is a publicly accessible archive of Mandela's work in obtaining social justice and the struggle for freedom. The centre is only two blocks away from his final home on 4th Street in Houghton that hosts temporary exhibitions of his contribution to the freedom of South Africa.

Nelson Mandela was briefly imprisoned in the Old Fort at Constitution Hill after he was arrested in 1956 and accused of treason. Mandela and 155 other key activists were detained in the Fort's communal cells, an experience that Mandela quipped in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom was "the largest and longest unbanned meeting of the Congress Alliance in years". The entire prison complex was converted into a museum after the end of apartheid and the area is named after the modern South African Constitutional Court which is also situated here.

The cell that was occupied by Nelson Mandela inside the Old Fort building now houses a permanent exhibition detailing his experiences of imprisonment on Constitution Hill and on Robben Island. The exhibition is complemented by original copies of his prison diaries and excerpts from his original manuscript for the iconic book Long Walk To Freedom. Constitution Hill also has a Gandhi Mandela Exhibition that consists of four spaces that include imagery of Mandela and Indian pacifist freedom activist Mahatma Gandhi at various stages of their lives. 

This landmark piece of architecture, linking Braamfontein to Newtown, is a physical reminder of Nelson Mandela in Joburg. Sadly it is is currently in a state of disrepair and we wouldn't recommend a walking visit. 

This is a small museum and archive run by the Nelson Mandela Foundation dedicated to Mandela's life and legacy and located just a short walk from his final home in 4th Avenue, Houghton. The exhibitions dedicated to Mandela's life history include interesting personal items such as his diaries and his Nobel Prize. Visitors can also see the office from which Mandela worked after retiring from politics. Visits are by appointment only.

Once home to Madiba from 1994 to 1999, Sanctuary Mandela was transformed into a luxury, tranquil boutique hotel that pays homage to the respected statesman. Inside this hotel, there are images and archives pulled together that detail the life and legacy of the former president. Now owned and run by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Sanctuary provides visitors with an experience of how he spent his days during his presidential term. 
Sanctuary Mandela.
Sanctuary Mandela, a boutique hotel that was formerly home to Nelson Mandela. Photo: Sanctuary Mandela. 

It would be remiss to not mention one of the most important historical moments in Nelson Mandela's legacy, the writing of his autobiography Long Walk To Freedom. The book details intimate events, experiences, and thoughts the former president had during his formative years in politics and his journey in fighting for South Africa's freedom. During the writing of his book Mandela stayed at the property, then South African billionaire-businessman Douw Steyn's home, as a guest. Mandela's name is so much part of local history at the Saxon that one of the suites is named after him. If combining history and luxury tickles your interests we recommend you book afternoon tea at the hotel, which gives you an opportunity to view the artwork displayed around the premises of the late struggle hero created by artist Dean Simon. Titled Foresight and Hindsight: The Five Faces of Mandela, the art pieces are located in the heart of this establishment. 

Probably the most famous street in all of Soweto, Vilakazi Street boasts the home addresses of two Nobel Prize-winning residents – Nelson Mandela (who lived here with his then-wife Winnie in the late 1950s and early 1960s) and former Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Soweto home which Mandela shared with his then-wife Winnie before he was sentenced to life in prison is now a small museum filled with various memorabilia belonging to the pair including letters, gifts, and awards, as well as some items of original furniture.


A number of tour companies offer walking tours that can be themed around Joburg's struggle history. These tours offer an in-depth look at the places where Nelson Mandela and other South African heroes such as Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo worked and lived and are an excellent way to learn more about Joburg's vital role in the country's long walk to freedom. Recommended guides include Joburg 360, MicroAdventure Tours, Tour Soweto, and JoburgPlaces

Nelson Mandela Shadow Boxing by Marco Cianfanelli. Photo: Justin Lee.
Nelson Mandela Shadow Boxing by Marco Cianfanelli. Photo: Justin Lee. 


Johannesburg has a generous collection of statues and artworks of Nelson Mandela, each of which represents a different time in his life. Tracking back to his younger years as a boxer, there is an incredible metal sculpture of Madiba in Fox Street, titled Shadow Boxing. Created by artist Marco Cianfanelli it faces Chancellor House, once the home to Mandela & Tambo Attorneys. It depicts a young Mandela in boxing attire, clenched fists ready to take a jab at his opponent. This sculpture is a reminder of not only his passion for boxing as a sport, but it symbolises what his life became, a tireless fight for freedom.

As you travel along the M2 highway in Johannesburg into the heart of Doornfontein (Staib Street) you'll catch a glimpse of a nine-story-high mural of Mandela on a face-brick building. The mural was created by Ricky Lee Gordon and also depicts Mandela as a boxer. The famous photo by Bob Gosani was the inspiration. It's a beautiful image to capture for any street-art lover looking to gain a sense of the city.

In Braamfontein, you'll be struck by the immense portrait of Mandela by Shepard Fairey – who is best known for his Hope graphic used for Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Titled The Purple Shall Govern it looks across the city from Juta Street


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