Nelson Mandela’s long involvement with Pietermaritzburg and his profound influence on the history of South Africa led to the city fathers bestowing on him the Freedom of the City in 1997.
A frequent visitor to the city long before his incarceration on Robben Island, he became known as the “Black Pimpernel” because of his ability to evade security police and travel around the country in disguise to attend meetings and encourage ANC supporters.
He and Walter Sisulu visited Pietermaritzburg often, staying over at the 433 Boom Street home of Dr “Chota” and Mrs Rabia Motala. One of his favourite stories is of the time he came to the house so heavily-disguised in overalls and a cap that not even Mrs Motala knew who he was and kept him waiting outside until Dr Motala returned home.
In March, 1961, Mandela delivered the keynote speech at the All-In-Africa Conference, held in the Plessislaer Arya Samaj Hall, now part of the Zibukezulu School in Imbali. More than 1 400 delegates from all over South Africa attended the conference at which Mandela made a clarion call for a “non-racial, democratic constitution” to be drafted at a national convention. It was to be his last public speech before his arrest the following year.
After his arrest near Lion’s River in the Midlands on 5 August 1962 police drove Mandela to Pietermaritzburg.
The 50th anniversary of his capture was marked by the unveiling of a monument and museum at the site by current president Jacob Zuma on 4 August 2012.
In his “Long Walk to Freedom” autobigraphy, Mandela writes that he spent the night in jail, and that Fatima Meer brought some food to him there. News of his arrest was suppressed until 7 August, when he was taken to Magistrate J. Buys’s office in the old Magistrates Court Building in Commercial (now Chief Albert Luthuli) Road, and was remanded for trial in Johannesburg. Both the old prison where he spent the night, now a museum, and the old magistrates’s building have been restored.
Pietermaritzburg had to wait until he had been released, after 27 years in jail, before seeing Mandela again. He paid a courtesy visit to Mayor Pat Rainier at the City Hall on 7 October 1990, before addressing a rally at Wadley Stadium in Georgetown. He visited Wadley Stadium again for the funeral of Reggie Hadebe in October 1992.
On 6 June 1993 he was back in Pietermaritzburg for the unveiling by Archbishop Desmond Tutu of the Gandhi statue in Church Street. He also addressed numerous local groups in the central and northern areas of Pietermaritzburg, including a packed City Hall audience, in the run-up to the 1994 election.
After the election, the newly-elected President Mandela addressed a stormy regional conference of the ANC, held in the Edendale Lay Ecumenical Centre.
He returned once again to speak at Harry Gwala’s funeral in July 1995 at the then Jan Smuts Stadium, later appropriately renamed the Harry Gwala Stadium.
President Mandela’s next important visit to Pietermaritzburg was to receive the Freedom of the City on 25 April 1997. The city came to a standstill as thousands of excited well-wishers and school-children lined the streets for a glimpse of the President and to hear him speak.
At the same time the Freedom of the City was bestowed posthumously on Mahatma Gandhi, commemorating Gandhi’s eviction from a train at the Pietermaritzburg Railway Station on 7 June 1893.
There are few cities which have such a rich Mandela legacy.