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Jerome Starkey

The Times
Jerome Starkey  in Mvezo

It was built 13 years ago as a tribute to South Africa’s favourite son — an open-air museum in the place where he was born, designed to “inspire and enrich all who visit”.

But the Nelson Mandela Museum in Mvezo — where the former president began his long march to freedom almost a century ago — has now fallen prey to a tussle over his legacy, and the profits it could bring. Instead of a “living memorial to his values and vision”, as its website promises, the site in the Eastern Cape has been abandoned by the Government.

Goats sheltered between faded photographs and broken displays when I visited over Easter. Wooden screens were falling apart. Yet a few metres away, shrouded behind high walls, Mr Mandela’s grandson, Mandla, is building a sprawling £4 million visitors’ centre. Contemporary rondavels, or round huts, flank a large thatched mansion known as The Great Place, where Mandla, 38, often stays.

It is understood that Mandla, the leader of the Mvezo tribe, hopes his grandfather will be buried at the visitors’ centre, transforming the obscure village into one of the country’s main tourist attractions.

The ailing 94-year-old spent a sixth night in hospital yesterday, suffering from pneumonia.

It is the third time the Nobel Peace laureate, who spent 27 years in prison, has been admitted to hospital since December, prompting President Zuma to warn South Africans that his end may be near.

Officials said that he spent part of Monday with relatives at his bedside.

Mandla has also built a bridge over the Mbhashe river, linking Mvezo to the main highway that runs the length of South Africa’s Indian Ocean coast. The new road spares visitors a 90-minute drive over winding, potholed tracks.

“Things are different in Mvezo,” said a neighbouring chief, rather diplomatically. “Mandla is a bit more commercial.”

A statement on the museum’s website stated simply that it was no longer operating the site in Mvezo, although sister museums in Mthatha, the nearest town, and Qunu, where Mr Mandela lived between the ages of three and nine, are still open.

All three sites were opened in 2000, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Mr Mandela’s release from prison. Their mission was to help to safeguard South Africa’s heritage through a “fitting tribute” to Mr Mandela and his legacy, as well as to stimulate the economy in one of the poorest regions of the country.

“Relationships between Mandla and the museum are not good,” said a guide, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. “He says this is not a museum, this is my home.” (Read more…)