RoadTrip | Celebrating 30 years of Madiba's freedom with a countrywide sojourn in a Merc GLS


• The RoadTrip celebrates Madiba's release from prison with a countrywide journey.

• A Mercedes-Benz GLS was used to replicate the 30-year-old event.

• The trip included stops at several Mandela landmarks.

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To celebrate Mandela Month and his release from prison thirty years ago, we reimagined Madiba's eventful life with a countrywide journey in a Mercedes-Benz GLS 400d. The trip included commemorating the handing over of a red Merc 500SE built for him by workers in the Daimler-Benz plant in East London.

It was on 22 July 1990, five months after his release from prison, that a brand-new red W126 Mercedes Benz S-Class was presented to Nelson Mandela during a special ceremony at the Sisa Dukashe stadium in Mdantsane, East London. 

In front of 30 000 people, Madiba took possession of the luxury car - recognised as the pinnacle of motoring excellence back then - built for him by the workers in their spare time. Whilst taking ownership, the iconic South African statesman famously said that the colour reminds him "of the blood spilt in the struggle for freedom."

Mercedes-Benz GLS,nelson mandela,madiba

Tracing Madiba's 30-year-old journey in a Mercedes-Benz GLS (RoadTrip / Ryan Abbott)

Humble beginnings

From humble beginnings as a herd boy in Mveso, Transkei, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela became a president and a celebrated world icon. Born into the Madiba clan on 18 July 1918, his esteemed legacy is now celebrated throughout the world on this date each year, and Mandela Month throughout July.

To commemorate these momentous and historical events, and pay tribute to the South African icon, we arranged for the latest GLS from Mercedes-Benz. We travelled to the Eastern Cape, arriving in Buffalo City on 21 July. 

We deliberately chose the large flagship SUV from Stuttgart for our journey, as in our view, this would have been the vehicle of choice for Madiba if he was still alive today.

Ideally, we would have liked the range-topping GLS 580 4Matic for our sojourn. Still, the 400d 4Matic AMG-Line, with its seven seats, presented itself splendidly in selenite grey with AMG twin-spoke light-alloy wheels, Night Package additions, and an optional panoramic sunroof.

Have you ever undertaken a countrywide road trip? Share your story and images with us!

Mercedes-Benz GLS,nelson mandela,madiba

Tracing Madiba's 30-year-old journey in a Mercedes-Benz GLS (RoadTrip / Ryan Abbott)

The journey starts

Early on Wednesday, 22 July, we were at the plant where, 30 years before, the 500SE Mandela-mobile was built. We initially planned to interview some of the workers involved with the project in 1990, but due to Covid-19 regulations, we could not get access to the plant or employees. 

However, we did manage to arrange a similar-specced silver-coloured W126 500SE through the Eastern Cape region of the Mercedes-Benz Club of South Africa (thank you, Erald Hohls and Pieter Moolman). After photo-magician Ryan Abbott gloriously captured the 1990 S-Class and latest 2020 GLS-Class in front of the plant, we left on the first part of our journey - to Qunu, the birthplace of Madiba, and Mthatha.

Because the life and times of Nelson Mandela have been chronicled comprehensively, our aim was not to contribute any new insights but rather to follow the tyre tracks of his red Merc. From the stadium in Mdantsane, along the Mandela Heritage route to Johannesburg in Gauteng, where the car is now displayed in the Apartheid Museum.

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Due to lockdown, the Sisa Dukashe stadium was also closed, so we joined the N2 highway just outside East London and headed for the Kei River. The undulating roads in Transkei befitted the torque-rich engine of the diesel-powered GLS. With a brutish 700Nm already available from only 1800rpm, the bulky beast flattened the rolling hills and sharp inclines with derision.

Our visit to the Nelson Mandela Youth and Heritage Centre in Qunu with its imposing reception centre was short and sharp. Opened ten years to the day after his release from jail, the museum site is currently closed for renovations and is set to open again next year. However, the ingenious Ryan managed to sneak some good images of our Benz at the centre.

We soon were in Mthatha but a visit to the Mandela Museum in the Bhunga Building, situated in the bustling city centre, was also scuppered by lockdown regulations. Having been there before, a visit is certainly recommended as it allows visitors to follow the footprints of a man whose long walk to freedom began in the foothills on the banks of the nearby Mbhashe River.

Mercedes-Benz GLS,nelson mandela,madiba

Tracing Madiba's 30-year-old journey in a Mercedes-Benz GLS (RoadTrip / Ryan Abbott)

Stunning Underberg

From Mthatha, we continued our trip on the N2 towards Kokstad in KwaZulu-Natal, before turning off on the R617 towards Underberg. Even in winter, the KwaZulu landscapes were stunning, with the brown, bronze, and red colours of the surrounding panorama reflected in the mirror-still water of the numerous lakes.

Our abode for the night was aptly named Sani Window, as it overlooked a manicured park and golf range and presented a fantastic view of the Drakensberg foothills. While we had to make do with a takeaway dinner, warm hospitality from the owners, and a hearty breakfast the next morning made up for it.

We stayed on the twisty R617 as our next destination was the Nelson Mandela Capture Site next to the R103 close to Howick. The low-profile rubber and advanced air suspension system on our big Merc made it easy to pilot quickly through the curves, but we had to watch out for potholes, as the road was badly deteriorated.

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The Capture Site, where Madiba was arrested on 5 August 1962 and led to the court case which saw him spending the next 27 years of his life in prison, was also closed but this time it worked in our favour. We managed to get permission to enter, and while we were not allowed access to the buildings (where an Austin Westminster, similar to the one used by the police when they captured Mandela, is displayed), we were free to take pictures outside. 

Without any tourists or visitors around, this was a fantastic opportunity that Ryan utilised to the full. The genesis of the Capture Site project was the installation of an internationally recognisable sculpture in response to the original modest plaque on the other side of the road. 

The sculpture, by Marco Cianfanelli and Jeremy Rose, acknowledges the 50th anniversary of the capture of Mandela and consists of 50 laser-cut steel columns between 6 and 9.5m high along a 30m length. It is the largest artwork of its kind in the country and has become an international symbol of the iconic status of Mandela.

With some fantastic images in the bag, we left for Gauteng - enjoying the ample grunt, supple ride, and relaxed motorway demeanour of the GLS on the N3, only stopping for fuel in Harrismith in the Free State. Surprisingly, given that we were pushing on, the diesel consumption of the huge SUV was less than 10-litres/100km.

Mercedes-Benz GLS,nelson mandela,madiba

Tracing Madiba's 30-year-old journey in a Mercedes-Benz GLS (RoadTrip / Ryan Abbott)

Liliesleaf Farm

After staying over at The Capital on Bath in Rosebank, Johannesburg, we visited Liliesleaf Farm the next day. Tucked away in the leafy suburb of Rivonia it was once the nerve centre of the liberation movement in South Africa and a place of refuge for its leaders. 

Opened in 2008, Liliesleaf today is one of the leading, award-winning heritage sites in the country. It pays testimony to the many lives that changed the political landscape of South Africa. However, the complex was closed, but incidentally, while we were there with our two GLS-models, we received news of the passing of Andrew Mlangeni, the last of the so-called Rivonia trialists.

From Liliesleaf, we skirted past Mandela House in Vilakazi Street, Soweto; the only street in the world where once two Nobel Peace Prize laureates (Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu) lived. We steadily made our way to the Apartheid Museum next to Gold Reef City in the South of Johannesburg, where the red, thirty-year-old Mercedes-Benz 500SE is now displayed.

It is here where the journey of the vehicle, incidentally the last W126 model to be built in East London and thus probably in the world, ended. It most likely will also be its final home where, as a symbol of the vast adulation Mandela still enjoys, it will be preserved for future generations.

However, our journey was only halfway completed. We still had to get back to Cape Town - adding another 1400km to the 1200km we had already completed. Yet we looked forward to the trip, as the GLS proved itself an immensely competent long-distance cruiser.

In Bloemfontein, we completed the last of our tasks with the big' Benz; driving up to the statue of Mandela on Naval Hill (do not ask how we got permission for this but we have the images to prove it). At eight metres tall, the statue, erected in 2012, is the largest of its kind around the world in honour of Madiba.

It was a fitting final tribute to a larger than life statesman on our long, cross-country excursion. Conversely, the Mercedes-Benz GLS also proved itself larger than life and a real role model in its class. We are sure Madiba would have approved.

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