Driving through the green and rolling Natal Midlands and trying to find a roadside sculpture, we got lost and ended up in a small rural village.
There were goats and chickens about and small brick houses that lined the bumpy country road.
An African man was mowing the lawn outside his house in the overcast, misty morning.
This image – of a black man mowing his own garden – struck me with some force. As a child I’d only known black men that mowed the lawn of white folks. We called them “garden boys” even though they were grown men.
It was a small reminder of how much has changed in South Africa in the last 20 years and also a reminder of my sheltered, privileged upbringing in a white, Jewish home.
We eventually found the right road and reached the ‘Capture Site’ marked by a poster with the words “Mandela” imprinted alongside photos of the great man depicting him during various stages of his life, from young tribesman to elderly world’s statesman.
It was on this ordinary piece of road, three kilometres outside the town of Howick, on August 5, 1962 that Nelson Mandela, posing as a chauffeur for the impeccably dressed Cecil Williams, (a freedom fighter and theatre director), and on the run for 17 months, was finally captured by the apartheid police.
For the next 27 years, following his trial and conviction, he would disappear from public view.
The actual monument to this pivotal moment in the democratic struggle can be seen from the roadside, but not really seen at all.
All you see is a seemingly abstract arrangement of 50 steel columns designed by South African artist Marco Cianfanelli.
We park the car and walk down the red-brick walkway towards the steel columns, the rolling hills a backdrop. A car passes behind every now and then, a reminder of events 52 years ago.
On that fateful day in August 1962, the Austin Westminster Mandela was driving was stopped and he was asked by the police if he was indeed Nelson Mandela.
“I am David Motsamayi,” Mandela replied, using the alias he acquired on his travels to Morocco and Ethiopia.
Later, after some questioning, Sergeant Vorster of the Pietermaritzburg police said:”Ag. You’re Nelson Mandela and this is Cecil Williams and you are under arrest!
Mandela would recall that earlier he had seen a Ford V-8 filled with white people shoot past and that “in that instant I knew that my life on the run was over; my seventeen months of ‘freedom’ were about to end.”
About 35 metres from the steel columns, an optical illusion occurs, the distinctive profile of an elderly Nelson Mandela emerges, looking out contemplatively towards the green hills.
Behind him, you can see the spot where he was captured.
While the 50 steel columns mark the 50 years from the time of Mandela’s capture to the sculpture’s completion in 2012, Marco Cianfanelli says they represent much more:
[They] suggest the idea of many making the whole; of solidarity. it points to an irony as the political act of Mandela’s incarceration cemented his status as an icon of struggle, which helped ferment the groundswell of resistance, solidarity and uprising, bringing about political change and democracy.‘
It is a wonderful tribute to the moment of Mandela’s capture and its significance in the struggle to free the country from the shackles of apartheid.
It’s one of many beautiful and powerful reminders: museums, monuments, institutions that have sprung up since 1994 to keep the story alive of the struggle, of what was sacrificed, what was painfully endured and why.
Having spent some time gazing at the face of Mandela, we returned to the car park and had lunch in the tea rooms. An old friend, who lives nearby, joined us for lunch.
She told us that on the day Mandela died – just over a year ago on December 5, 2013 – she went with a young friend to place flowers at the monument. Many others who live nearby, had done the same.
“A few years back, when it was under construction,” she said, “locals were up in arms. The government was spending all this money and all you saw were these steel poles.”
The visit to the Capture Site was one of the last things we did in South Africa. We flew back to Melbourne a few days later after a wonderful holiday.
Of all the things we saw and did over almost four weeks – some inspiring, some depressing – the Capture Site memorial reminded me of the country’s incredible ability to tell stories, to make the past come alive for future generations and of its creativity and spirit.
Footnote, travels through apartheid history
I recommend the following for anyone visiting South Africa who is interested in exploring its history and democratic evolution:
– the Apartheid Museum, which tells the story of inhumane racial policy of separation and degradation and the freedom that was eventually won,
– the Hector Peterson Museum and Memorial in Soweto which pays tribute to the students who died in the 1976 riots against forced education in Afrikaans,
– Constitution Hill in Hillbrow, a former fort and jail where Mandela and Ghandi were imprisoned and now the home of South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court and
– Liliesleaf Farm in leafy Rivonia, the secret headquarters for the resistance movement in the 1960s.