Soweto, South Africa – In the heart of Kliptown, the minimalist and modern Walter Sisulu Square stands in stark contrast to the crowded shantytowns and improvised street vendors that surround it.
The plaza, now a national heritage site, also holds history, tangible links to the country’s past struggles and its most famous freedom fighter Nelson Mandela.
The oldest suburb of the formerly black township of Soweto, Kliptown was at the forefront of the battle against oppression and minority rule.
Its secret corners and crumbling facades are saturated with lesser-known stories about Mandela. Tales of the country’s aging hero are held in the very bricks used to build the city’s Freedom Square.
“That is the same window Nelson Mandela jumped into to hide from the police in 1955,” said local businessman Sam Takolia as he gestured to an opening in the half-demolished green and blue structure that was once his family home.
Sentiments like this are common in close-knit communities across Johannesburg. The former president is still an ever-present narrative in the land he fought to build.
Roads, bridges and landmarks bear the Mandela name and image. Whispered legacies and personal anecdotes slip into almost every story told about the anti-apartheid struggle.
Nelson Mandela, the man, has already become part myth.
Nowhere is the presence more evident than in the streets of Johannesburg – neighbourhoods such as Kliptown, Ferreirastown and Sophiatown where Mandela forged his political career more than five decades ago.
and no one really knew how he looked. He was a banned man at the time, and even his picture was not allowed to be published.”]
Today, at the centre of Walter Sisulu Square, a towering monument to the Freedom Charter stands in commemoration of the guiding principles of the anti-apartheid movement. Its outer walls were constructed from the leftover bricks of multiracial suburbs that were demolished by the apartheid government.
Kliptown earned its place in history in June 1955, when some 3,000 people gathered in the square for the Congress of the People.
The racially inclusive summit was the first formal step towards making the Freedom Charter, a manifesto for the anti-apartheid movement. The Charter is widely seen as the basis for the country’s constitution, which was implemented after the changeover to democracy in 1994.
On that weekend in 1955, Mandela, under banning orders and not allowed to attend public gatherings, came to the summit incognito.
“Hardly anyone saw Mandela [during his banning] and no one really knew how he looked,” recalled Takolia, whose family has run businesses in the centre of Kliptown for three generations. “He was a banned man at the time, and even his picture was not allowed to be published.”
When the apartheid security police surrounded the square in an attempt to break up the meeting, the story goes that Mandela hid in the nearest house he could find.
“There was a window that was open, Mandela jumped in, and my father hid him … That’s why the window and the door [are] still intact,” Takolia, now 70, said matter-of-factly as he navigated his way between table-top traders whose small businesses now line much of the square.
Kliptown in the 1950s, he said, was “a place where nobody looked at what you were wearing or what you were doing and every house was an open house”.
“These ANC [African National Congress] guys used to come and have their meetings on our stoep [Afrikaans for porch]. My father knew these people. Although we weren’t politically pro-active people, we weren’t on the other side from them either.”
Stories abound about Mandela and other anti-apartheid icons. Jeff Gama, a Soweto local who works as a tour guide, said it is difficult to tell the truth from the Mandela mythos.
For example, there are innumerable versions of the events of that day in 1955. One story claims Mandela disguised himself as a milkman to avoid the police. Another tale relates that the ratified Freedom Charter documents were stashed in the ceiling of a local business while the police raided the square.
Yet another story has Mandela’s fellow struggle icon and organiser of the Congress of the People, Walter Sisulu, hiding out at a nearby house, watching the events unfold from the top of a coal heap.
“I know there are lots of stories behind these things,” said Gama. “But some of them are just made up.” He conceded that guides have been known to concoct a few far-fetched stories to wow international visitors.
“Mandela was hidden by a number of people,” said Essop Pahad, the former president’s good friend and fellow anti-apartheid activist. “People have different memories, some more hazy than others. People will make all kinds of claims, so any number of these stories could very well be true, and others perhaps not.”
Pahad said his parent’s apartment in central Johannesburg’s Ferreirastown was used as a location for resistance meetings, and Mandela attended many of them.
“Mandela used to come to my parents’ flat all the time. Ever since he started getting involved in the struggle in the ’40s he came,” he recalled, adding that the flat was on the same street as the law practice the former leader shared with fellow ANC great Oliver Tambo.
“You don’t get it now, but he was immensely, immensely impressive. He was very tall, very handsome and had a fantastic bearing. So when you were young and you saw him, he immediately made an impression.
“You already had the feeling of somebody’s greatness. If Mandela ever walked into a crowded room, people’s heads would turn because of his presence, his charisma,” Pahad said.
Mandela’s work as a lawyer, and his participation in the 1950’s Defiance Campaign, took him to another Freedom Square, this time in Sophiatown.
was one of the more dynamic areas in Johannesburg, one of the areas in which Africans, Indians, coloureds tended to live together.”]
The township west of Johannesburg’s city centre soon became a cultural hub, and a key battleground, in the anti-apartheid struggle.
“Before the forced removals of 1956, it was one of the more dynamic areas in Johannesburg, one of the areas in which Africans, Indians, coloureds tended to live together before the Group Areas Act was forcibly imposed on people,” Pahad recalled.
He said Sophiatown, by necessity, became the main hub for Mandela’s work. “They had to do a great deal of work in Sophiatown because of the forced removals campaign in the ’50s. And then Sophiatown became the centre of the attention and the real campaign against forced removals that the ANC got involved in.”
The vibrant area also attracted the more radical voices opposed to the apartheid regime. The dissent came from a multiracial mix of artists, musicians and journalists, all of whom called the township their home.
Much-told stories also place Sophiatown’s Freedom Square as the first place where Mandela alluded, in public, to the use of armed resistance and violence in the fight against the apartheid state.
For a sustained amount of time, Sophiatown was the last remaining freehold settlement in the city. This meant anyone was allowed to own land there.
It did not last. Later, the apartheid government forcibly removed the residents and dismantled the area, renaming it Triomf [Afrikaans for Triumph] in what many considered a clear display of arrogance.
“The government didn’t like the concept of mixed areas, so they moved [black] people to Meadowlands, Soweto. After the forced removals, Sophiatown was demolished,” said Tshepo Mokone, a tour guide.
Sophiatown reverted to its original name in 2006. It is again a mixed-income, mixed-race area. Still, many feel it lacks the energy, vibrancy and community it once held. The same is true in Kliptown. In both places, older residents lament the change since the original communities were disrupted by the apartheid government.
“There was a community there before [the forced removals] in Sophiatown and Kliptown,” Takolia said. “We had no prejudices with one another. We mixed freely with one another. But, when they started segregating the people … the ties were lost after that.”
Today these two areas, both landmarks of the anti-apartheid movement, are still struggling to navigate their disrupted identities. They are bound by history: Mandela, who attended the adoption of the Freedom Charter in Kliptown, also worked on the Defiance Campaign in Sophiatown.
Like the tales of Mandela, however, the legacy of forced removals still lingers.
It seems that, for now, the contrasts between the old South Africa and the new will not be confined to the glaring visibility of its public plazas.
Follow Sumayya Ismail on Twitter: @SumayyaIsmail