Madiba’s Joburg

2012-07-14 15:49

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Number 46 in Alexandra’s Seventh Avenue doesn’t look like paradise, but it’s a place that holds a special place in Nelson Mandela’s heart, writes Lucas Ledwaba.

The three men sitting on the stoep of a shop on the corner of Richard Baloyi and Seventh Avenue in Alexandra township smile.

“Ah, there, that is the place. Are you looking for the house where Nelson Mandela used to live?”

None of them was born when Mandela rented the small room at stand number 46 in Seventh Avenue between 1941 and 1944.

One of the men is Walter Nkuna (64).

His mother, Anna, who lived there, was one of the few who remembered the former president’s stay there. She died last year aged 92.

But Nkuna, who still lives there, reckons Mandela’s presence can still be felt.

He has hazy memories of newspaper reports of the Rivonia Trial in 1964.

“We still feel his inspiration even though he has been gone from here for a long time. It’s a blessing that he once lived here. He is a gift from God, an angel. There is no world leader who is loved like him. That should tell you something,” says Nkuna.

The yard overlooks an imposing building that forms part of the Mandela Yard Interpretation Centre, which is being developed into a Heritage Site.

When Mandela lived there, the house was owned by John Madzeka Xhoma and his wife, Harriet.

Mandela wrote in his memoirs from prison about Alexandra, which was his first home in Johannesburg after he fled an arranged marriage in Transkei: “Alexandra occupies a treasured place in my heart. It was the first place I lived away from home . . . I regarded the township as a home in which I had no specific house.”

Alexandra’s bus boycotts in the 1940s played a big role in developing Mandela’s political consciousness.

He described his room as “a tin-roofed room at the back of (Xhoma’s) property, no more than a shack, with a dirt floor, no heat, no electricity, no running water. But it was a place of my own and I was happy to have it.”

The property is no different from others in the crammed, populous township, which celebrated its centenary this year.

Mongezi Xhoma (19) still lives in the main house where his great-grandparents rented a room to the young Mandela, who had a crush on one of their daughters.

Mongezi smiles when asked if he wonders if life would have been different had Mandela won his great-aunt’s heart.

“What I have been told is that she turned him down because, although Mandela was a tenant, he was regarded as part of the family, so in her eyes he was like a brother,” says Mongezi.

On one of the walls in the lounge of the main house hangs a picture of a recipe made by Mongezi’s grandmother, Gladys, and mother, Nomalizo.

“They say this was Mandela’s favourite meal when he lived here,” says Mongezi about the dish of pig’s head and gravy.

The property is a favourite stop for tourists who want to catch a glimpse of where Mandela lived in his early years in Johannesburg.

“He left us a lot of memories. I was obviously not there, but I have read and listened to the elders talk about this,” he says.

Every year the property hosts a birthday party for the great man and this year will be no different.

In May 2009, Mandela, accompanied by his wife, Graça Machel, visited the property.

“He looked very old,” recalls Emily Bopape (54), who has lived on the property since 1958.

“He walked with difficulty, but we were so happy to see him. He belongs here.”

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