But in this forgotten corner, there’s a sense of overwhelming pride. The house was Mandela’s first residence after he left his ancestral village of Qunu in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province in 1941 for Johannesburg, where he eventually launched his career as a lawyer — a journey that will come full circle next weekend when he is buried in Qunu. The house was the anchor of a crucial chapter of Mandela’s life, when he evolved from an heir of a tribal kingdom to revolutionary leader.
By his own account, Mandela spent some of his happiest days in Alexandra. Yet the former township, over the years, has been largely overlooked as areas such as Soweto, Robben Island, Houghton, and Qunu became famous as epicenters of Mandela’s life, bringing waves of tourists and revenue.
Nevertheless, residents of Alexandra have set aside, if briefly, their woes — lack of jobs, education, proper housing and basic services — to quietly remember a man who many here say forged his moral foundation and sense of duty in this sprawling enclave of tin shacks and crowded streets.
“We are not that important. That’s why they are neglecting us,” said Nomalizo Xhoma, 42, whose family has long owned the house. “But for Mandela to start his life in Johannesburg, he started here. For him to one day live in his big house in Johannesburg, he started here.”
Mandela arrived in Alexandra at the age of 23, in part to avoid an arranged tribal marriage. He initially stayed at a local Anglican church before renting the one-room residence in the back of the house owned by Xhoma’s great-grandfather, John Xhoma. In his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” Mandela describes the residence as “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.”
Mandela worked as a clerk in a law firm, where he would eventually be introduced to the freedom struggle. But his meager salary barely covered his rent, transportation, food and university correspondence course. Alexandra was where Mandela discovered the hard truths about the lives of nonwhites in South Africa. He described the place as “a slum, living testimony to the neglect of authorities” where “roads were unpaved and dirty and filled with hungry, undernourished children scampering around half-
“In that first year, I learned more about poverty than I did in all my childhood days in Qunu,” Mandela wrote.
The Xhomas often fed Mandela, although they were not wealthy. They would give him Sunday lunch, he wrote, adding that “those steaming plates of pork and vegetables were often my only hot meal of the week.” Mandela had a crush on one of their five daughters and thought of proposing to her. But he never did, he wrote.
The story of Mandela’s time at the house was passed down from generation to generation, said Nomalizo Xhoma, whose mother, Gladys, told her the story when she was in high school. On Saturday, she sat in the dining room where Mandela used to have lunch.
“That house used to be my uncle’s room. My great-grandfather moved my uncle to another room to accommodate Mandela,” Nomalizo said, adding that her great-grandfather, a deacon at the Anglican church, was asked by church officials to help Mandela find housing because “he knew no one and had no place to stay.”
“He was always studying his books, and he used to help my mother with her homework,” said Nomalizo, whose mother was 9 years old at the time. “They never thought he would become so powerful.”
One of Mandela’s favorite meals, she said, was a dish called pig’s head with gravy, a recipe that was passed down by her great-grandmother Harriet Xhoma.
Mandela left Alexandra in 1943 to study to become a lawyer, and he moved to Soweto. “Alexandra occupies a treasured place in my heart,” Mandela later wrote. “It was the first place I ever lived away from home. Even though I was later to live in Orlando, a small section of Soweto, for a far longer period than I did in Alexandra, I always regarded Alexandra Township as a home where I had no specific house, and Orlando as a place where I had a house but no home.”
Under apartheid, the policy of racial segregation and discrimination installed by South Africa’s white rulers, Alexandra supplied much of the black workforce for the upscale white neighborhood of Sandton, just across the highway. By the 1970s, it had become a focal point for anti-apartheid protests. Today, Alexandra is bustling with hundreds of thousands of people, mostly black.
After he was released from prison in 1990, “we all went crazy,” said Nomalizo. Mandela visited the house in 1993 and saw his old room. “He was asking for my uncles and my great-grandfather, but we told him they had all passed on,” she said. Mandela made several more visits to the house, the last one in 2009.
“I saw Mandela come in the yard. It was a dream come true. Everybody was screaming,” recalled Nomsa Buthelezi, 30, a television actress who lives in the compound of 17 houses.
“Madiba,” she said, referring to Mandela by his traditional clan name, “was an anchor for Alexandra people. He was the one who paved the way for us.”
As a teenager, Buthelezi said, she used to brag that she lived in Mandela Yard. “It meant so much to me. It was a boost for me,” she recalled.
When she learned that Mandela had died, Shaia Nape said, she felt a profound loss. At 82, she was his peer, and she had long been a loyal member of the ruling African National Congress. But most important, she felt proud because Mandela had lived just down the road from her.
“He was our idol,” said Nape, who lives in a one-room house with her son. There is no running water, and she keeps a supply of candles ready for the sporadic electricity blackouts. She uses a communal toilet. But none of that has extinguished her pride.
“I have fond memories of him on Seventh Avenue,” she said, referring to the street where Mandela lived, although she could not elaborate on those memories.
Moments later, she searched through her cupboard and found two commemorative pins emblazoned with Mandela’s face. She also searched for a dress made in the colors of the ANC — black, green and gold. She plans to wear the dress and pins to a memorial service Sunday for Mandela at the Anglican church where he stayed before renting from the Xhomas.
Today, a woman and two children live in the residence, Nomalizo said. Although local authorities have declared it a heritage site, little has been done to preserve it. Across the road from the house, a heritage center to showcase the area’s rich anti-apartheid history, started years ago, remains unfinished. For some residents, the neglected property symbolizes the lack of progress and the challenges facing South Africa.
“We are still poor,” said Emily Mahlatji, a neighbor. “We still live in one-room houses. The museum is not finished. There’s a drinking house there. People do drugs over there. There’s 90 percent youth unemployment. There’s nothing finished in Alexandra.”
Other residents say a better appreciation of Mandela’s time in Alexandra might alleviate their woes. Buthelezi said she would like to see a statue of Mandela in the compound, if only to motivate Alexandra’s lost generation of youth.
“They need to see something that Mandela was here,” she said. “It would give them a sense of hope, a sense of belonging, that there was an icon that once walked among us.”