The Birth Place of Nelson Mandela

When I drive to Sedgefield to stay at my cottage, I always wonder where exactly the development in Qunu are.

Qunu (as a town) is easy enough to identify, and so is Nelson Mandela’s house, but I’ve never seen any signage to the new Museum. I have seen the new pavilions illustrated in architectural magazines, designs that won a Regional award from the Border/Kei Institute for Architects. So I have always had a picture in my mind, a general idea of how it would look on those rolling fields, scattered with houses and the odd school; church or shop and of course dotted with cattle and goats that graze so peacefully on the green land.

Last week I drove back from Sedgefield with a friend and we had the chance to have both our eyes open and wait for the signage. The road at present is in excellent condition and we whizzed along, and found it!The Information Centre is a building close to the road, and I believe the other new parts of the Museum are in the same vicinity. The structure is a plain pavilion/verandah: built with simple materials, raised slightly above the ground (500mm or so) to the underside of a 200mm thick concrete slab (floating) approximately a square in plan, high monopitch tin roof on an exposed metal frame supported on chunky single pole unwrot timber poles. On the side away from the road the floor slab at the bottom almost touches the ground, as the land slopes slightly towards the road. One has to take at least this one step to arrive on the podium. I think most people alight from the front, as it were, where there are 3 broad concrete steps.
There is no particular ‘front door’, and the whole place has a very open transparent feel to it; there is a small plain glass box at the back. One of the photographs in the little office is a larger than life size picture of the man himself, standing where I have been on the verandah, smiling. How did he get there I ask the curator? “It was difficult” he said. The windows at the back are screened from the afternoon sun by knitted wattle poles, as are the light fittings in the main part of the pavilion, in a plain dropped horizontal panel. It would be interesting to see it at night: is it flood lit? or just from inside? I notice the opening times are in daytime. There is no perimeter fence. There are walls, freestanding, which screen it from the feeder road, painted a pale earthy pink. A junior school nearby has just finished their school day, and the school children with bright blue jerseys come tumbling down the dirt road, on both sides of the pavilion, through the fairly tall grass, moving in the light breeze, in the unusually lush landscape.“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” Nelson Mandela

(I was disappointed that this professionally-built building, built in 2006, by a team of great professionals) should still ignore the simple need for it to be accessible. This can still be achieved, retaining the same ethos, on the side where the platform is closest to the ground and on the same side as the toilet facilities, with a contrasting dry material: but I wonder if it will ever be done. It is devastating to think that this basic right of accessibility is ignored here and at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, both showpieces for this country as a whole. The signposting to this place should also be more aggressive, so that one can stop as a bypasser, instead of having to do a dedicated visit.

What a beautiful place. I shall try to take time to see the other pavilions on my next drive-by.

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