Review: Sanctuary Mandela Boutique Hotel

14 Jun 2024
Many places around South Africa commemorate Nelson Mandela's contribution to South Africa’s democracy. However, there’s only one where you can sleep in the room he once called his abode, dine on dishes prepared by his personal cook of more than 20 years, and sit by a pond, simply to reflect, in the same way he did for six years.

Built from the bones of the home on 13th Avenue in Houghton where Mandela lived between 1992 and 1998, Sanctuary Mandela is an elegant, five-star boutique hotel where visitors are offered the opportunity to ponder Madiba’s life, enjoy a glass of wine with a good meal, and settle in for a comforting night’s rest.
The Pond of Reflection at Sanctuary Mandela. Photo: Supplied

“Welcome home” came the greeting as soon as we stepped through the front door (the original, we’re told), ready to check in and enjoy the hotel’s tasteful weekly Jazz Sundays event, a lovely way to spend the afternoon and experience the hotel without staying the night. But if you decide to book a room and linger a little longer, there’s plenty to uncover about the house’s history, the years Mandela spent here, and those that came before.

At once, the hotel is reminiscent of a homely residence with grace and charm, and entirely impressive with modern touches such as steel beams and large, glass panels that frame the corridors leading to the rooms on the top floor. The expansive glass ceiling over the central part of the hotel revealed the soft patter of March rains on the afternoon we visited, and a beautiful collection of art and photographs add a thoughtful human touch that speaks of history – painful and triumphant.
Modern touches marry with old bones at Sanctuary Mandela. Photo: Supplied.

The contrast between the old and new is noticeable without being disorientating. Harmonious, one might say, in a somewhat unexpected way.

Another unexpected detail comes from the pictures framed on the wall behind the reception desk. The images of the dilapidated bathroom, rundown staircase, and terribly neglected rooms show the state of the house before work on it began in 2018 to turn it into what it is today.

Mandela loved the house and filled it with life; his grandsons Mandla, Mbuso, Ndaba, and Andile lived here with him. He found respite between its walls during the trying talks that would lead to South Africa’s democracy and lived here when he was elected its first president. He even received visitors like Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jackson here.

After he married Graça Machel in 1998, the pair moved into a new home on 12th Avenue, leaving the old house to become the headquarters of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. When the foundation outgrew the space and moved to its headquarters in Central Street in 2001, their plans to turn the house into a memorial site failed to materialise. The house stood vacant and was eventually occupied by squatters and fell into disrepair before the Motsamayi Tourism Group stepped in and assisted the Nelson Mandela Foundation in turning the forgotten landmark into a well-considered boutique hotel.
Coronation bricks from the old structure feature in the reception desk. Photo: Supplied,

As many of the original fixtures as possible were preserved. The wooden window frames on the façade of the house are original and bricks built into the reception desk are Coronation bricks found on site. Outside, a green bench was kept where it was found and the pond, like the rest of the house, is meant to offer “a place of reflection”.

The house was extended to the back to allow for more rooms, a large dining area, and a kitchen. But even with the additions, old touches were kept. The boardroom (one of two meeting rooms available to book out) bears the marks of the original foundation of a rondavel Mandela had constructed on the property as his office. A section of the original wooden flooring has been turned into a work of art that hangs in Insights Restaurant where breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served; a nod to some of Mandela’s favourite dishes and still cooked by his personal cook for more than 20 years, Xoliswa Ndoyiya.
Dining with elegant details at Sanctuary Mandela. Photo: Supplied.

Daily menus sealed with wax and an 'SM' seal offer dishes like beetroot salad, mushroom and samp 'risotto', Cape Malay fish, and South African truffle. Be prepared to pay for these, though. Starters average R135 and mains R275.

For some rest and relaxation, you can turn to the heated swimming pool or unwind over drinks at the bar. But really, it’s in uncovering the space that the unique quality of this boutique hotel lies.

A tour of the house reveals many interesting details. There’s a framed, seven-page letter Mandela wrote to President P.W. Botha on Feb 13, 1988, which was also signed by comrades Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada, and Andrew Mlangeni. In the foyer hangs a picture of Mandela reading a newspaper – the inspiration for a bronze on the front porch made by André Prinsloo (who also created the towering nine-metre statue of Mandela that stretches out over the lawns of the Union Buildings).
Beautiful portraits of Nelson Mandela in the Sanctuary Mandela Insights Restaurant. Photo: Supplied.

In Insights Restaurant hang portraits of Mandela taken throughout his life: him as a young man in traditional clothing, as an eager lawyer dressed in a suit, accepting a glass of wine over dinner post his release from prison, and as an affectionate old man making a funny face at a baby. He was, after all, admired for his love of children.

His story is further told by a collection of 16 biographical paintings by artist John Meyer, each one relaying a key moment in Mandela’s life and executed in great detail: Mandela as a young boy running free between the grasses of the Eastern Cape, him “prepared to die” in court, and “facing the night” on Robben Island. Insights hangs in the restaurant, having inspired its name. Meyer met Mandela on several occasions and in these paintings, he attempted – and managed most movingly – to capture Mandela’s humanity.
Sanctuary Mandela's Tata King Suite. Photo: Supplied.

The artworks and items around the hotel are all meant to provoke questions, such as who the warden is in one of Meyer’s paintings and why his presence is significant.

The name of the room we stayed in, Tata, derives from the isiXhosa word for 'father' that South Africans love to use as a term of endearment for the statesman. It’s one of nine names attributed to each of the rooms that describe Mandela in one way or another. Mr President is most fitting for the Presidential Suite while names like Rolihlahla, Nel, and Nelson speak to his given name, and Accused No. 1 and 466/64 of his time in court and prison. Who was David Motsamayi, you may ask? It’s another of those interesting titbits to be uncovered.

Apart from the Presidential Suite, guests can choose from a Deluxe Studio, Deluxe King Room, and King Suite. As a King Suite, Tata boasted beautiful pressed ceilings (recovered during renovations), an emerald green accent wall, plush carpet, and a desk. Spacious yet intimate, it invited a warmth to make ourselves right at home, as per our earlier invitation.

In the bathroom, a luxurious bath and local Cape Island products ensured that pre-bed preparations were blissful. But it’s the comfort found between the covers of the king-sized bed that works the magic of relaxation you’re looking for in a night at a boutique hotel.
A bedtime chocolate brownie at Sanctuary Mandela. Photo: Sanet Oberholzer.

Then there were the chocolate brownies enclosed in small glass domes with “on this day” notes delivered to our room with turndown. Apparently, 27 years ago on the day of our stay, Nelson Mandela met Princess Diana in Cape Town. Another bit of history fuelled by humanity, presented as small details that make all the difference.

If you need a tad more pampering, in-room treatments can be arranged through the mobile spa. Sanctuary Mandela can also arrange transfer services and guided tours.

Room rates start from R4,400 for two people sharing and include breakfast. For reservations and booking enquiries, email or or visit the website.

*We were invited to stay at Sanctuary Mandela. The views expressed here are our own. 


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