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Madiba Effect Draws Travelers to South Africa to Walk in Mandela’s Footsteps

One of the most universally recognizable leaders of our time, former South African President Nelson Mandela has continued to make headlines over a month after his passing. The anti-apartheid activist who became one of the world’s most respected politicians also continues to draw tourists to locations associated with his life.

Mourners and political leaders from around the world flocked to Mandela’s memorial service, held in the FNB Soccer Stadium in Soweto on December 10. In February 1990, days after his release from prison, 120,000 people packed into the same stadium to hear Mandela speak for one of the first times since his arrest 27 years earlier. The stadium is just one of the many destinations in South Africa that attract travelers seeking to walk in Mandela’s footsteps.

Nelson Mandela's prison cell, Robben Island. Photo from South African Tourism's Image Bank.
Nelson Mandela’s prison cell, Robben Island. Photo from South African Tourism’s Image Bank.

Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of South Africa’s biggest tourism attractions. Other popular destinations include the Mandela Museum in Mthatha, his former home-turned-museum on Vilakazi Street in Soweto, and the Voting Line Statue in Port Elizabeth, which commemorates South Africa’s first democratic poll on April 27, 1994.

“Nelson Mandela single-handedly put South Africa on the map for billions of people around the world…. Mandela opened up our beautiful country, once a pariah state, to the rest of the world and his name alone has attracted millions of tourists wanting to walk in his footsteps to South Africa every year.” South African Tourism CEO Thulani Nzima said in an official statement after Mandela’s death.

Tour companies have been profiting from travelers’ desire for Mandela-related pilgrimage sites, particularly in the lead-up to the biographical film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, released less than a week before the former president’s passing. The film, based on Mandela’s 1995 autobiography, chronicles his early life, political activism, and 27 years in prison. “Follow the footsteps of the founding father of the New South Africa,” reads a tagline for South African Airways’ “Mandela: Journey to Freedom” tour package. The 10-day journey takes tourists to Johannesburg, Robben Island, Cape Town, and a plethora of cultural landmarks and museums.

By Suzi-k (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Suzi-k (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
South Africa has seen a steady increase in tourism over the past 10 years, due in no small part to the 2010 FIFA World Cup. While Mandela-related tourist attractions have always had a pull for humanitarian tourists, these places are sure to see a significant rise in interest among travelers wishing to pay respects to the deceased leader and seeking an inspirational trek of their own. This boost to South Africa’s tourism will likely follow in the same path as Kolkata, India, where people travel to honor Mother Teresa, or Gandhi’s ashram on the western coast of the same country.

“Nelson Mandela will be sorely missed forever by every South African. We are however heartened that South Africans and the rest of the world can continue to be inspired and touched by him by visiting the places where he walked, talked, planned, dreamt, laughed, cried and ultimately changed the course of South Africa and the world’s history,” Nzima said in his statement.

In some small villages, such as Mandela’s hometown, Qunu, there are fears that the increased interest from travelers will taper off, causing distant communities to lose their appeal as tourist destinations. Nzima, on the other hand, expects a continued influx of tourists coming to South Africa, saying the country will “”welcome people from near and far who arrive to mourn Madiba’s [Mandela’s] loss with us.” It is safe to say that Nelson Mandela’s name will not soon be forgotten, and people will be making the journey to his homeland for years to discover the life of this enduring icon.

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