Less than 10 miles from Nelson Mandela’s opulent home, where thousands are gathering every day to pay tribute, is another house once inhabited by the anti-apartheid icon. This one has only one room, no toilet, no running water, and is in the heart of one of the city’s poorest and most politically volatile enclaves, Alexandra.
There are no mourners singing and dancing outside, no people of all colors waving South African flags. Trash is strewn out front, near a few bouquets of flowers left by neighbors. Drunks stagger around in the afternoon.
But in this forgotten corner, there’s a sense of overwhelming pride. The house was Mandela’s first residence after he left his ancestral village of Qunu in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province in 1941 for Johannesburg, where he eventually launched his career as a lawyer — a journey that will come full circle next weekend when he is buried in Qunu. The house was the anchor of a crucial chapter of Mandela’s life, when he evolved from an heir of a tribal kingdom to revolutionary leader.
By his own account, Mandela spent some of his happiest days in Alexandra. Yet the former township, over the years, has been largely overlooked as areas such as Soweto, Robben Island, Houghton, and Qunu became famous as epicenters of Mandela’s life, bringing waves of tourists and revenue.
Nevertheless, residents of Alexandra have set aside, if briefly, their woes — lack of jobs, education, proper housing and basic services — to quietly remember a man who many here say forged his moral foundation and sense of duty in this sprawling enclave of tin shacks and crowded streets.
“We are not that important. That’s why they are neglecting us,” said Nomalizo Xhoma, 42, whose family has long owned the house. “But for Mandela to start his life in Johannesburg, he started here. For him to one day live in his big house in Johannesburg, he started here.”