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Driving the Mandela-Moroka route in a WRX

Inspired by an important 1952 road journey taken by the late Nelson Mandela, we get behind the wheel of the Subaru WRX ES Premium CVT to replicate the trip.

Driving the Mandela-Moroka route in a WRX

Sixty-seven years ago, a young Nelson Mandela set out on a journey to the home of Dr James Moroka, then-president of the African National Congress. It was a serious mission: An 830-kilometre round trip from Soweto to Thaba ’Nchu in the Free State to hand-deliver an important letter. As someone who loved driving, Mandela relished the journey. He details the trip in A Long Walk to Freedom.

“Once I could legally drive, I became a one-man taxi service. It was one’s obligation to give rides to comrades and friends. I was thus deputised to take the letter to Dr Moroka. This was no hardship to me as I have always found it enjoyable to gaze out the window while driving. I seemed to have my best ideas while driving through the countryside with the wind whipping through the window.”

Madiba doesn’t mention which car he drove on this particular journey. From the book we know he later drove a “colossal Oldsmobile”, but that was only after his recorded trip to Dr Moroka’s home.

As an aside, Oldsmobile was founded in 1897 and only stopped manufacturing in 2004. In the 1950s, this pioneering automaker was renowned for its Rocket V8 engine with an overhead valve design. This formidable piece of technology made Oldsmobile the performance leader of the time. It was a fitting car for our charismatic future president who was also a promising boxer.

Weapon of choice

For my trip, I chose the Subaru WRX ES CVT, a performance car for those who demand an immersive driving experience. Its 2-litre, 4-cylinder boxer engine is good for 197 kW and 350 Nm and the car can sprint from 0 to 100 km/h in just 6.3 seconds. Plus, fuel consumption is a respectable 8.6 litres per 100km. The young attorney would have approved.

“… at 3 A.M. the roads are empty and quiet, and one can be alone with one’s thoughts. I like to see the coming of dawn, the change between night and day, which is always majestic.”

Despite my enviable ride, the map shows it won’t be easy to replicate a road trip that happened 67 years ago. In those days, the N1 followed a different path, running through the agricultural town of Brandfort. Today, the mighty highway bypasses this little spot, where Winnie Madikizela-Mandela spent almost nine years after being banished there in 1977.

My destination is Thaba ’Nchu, a small town about 65 kilometres east of Bloemfontein. It’s located in the shadow of a large mountain, known to the Sesotho-and Setswana-speaking people as Thaba Ntsho (black mountain).

I start my trip just south of Johannesburg, stopping in Grasmere for fuel and caffeine. Petrol attendant Thabang Mofokeng, intrigued by the car, strikes up conversation about my tour. “What would you say to Tata Madiba if he stood before you today?” I ask after exchanging pleasantries. “I would thank him for teaching us not to use violence and that we all share the same blood,” Mofokeng says. “Also, for improving our lives and uniting people.”

Big-sky country

My next stop, Kroonstad, is 150 km away. I open the Audible app via Android Auto on the car’s touch-screen and listen to Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

The WRX feels connected to the road. It’s as if its wheels are wired to the nerve endings in my fingers that curl around the leather steering wheel. Piloting it feels visceral, as if there’s a soul in all that metal, leather and man-made materials. Just over an hour later I exit the highway and drive into Kroonstad, a node on Mandela’s original route.

Here, I meet a young teacher, Pulane Mokoena, by chance. We talk for an hour. She explains that while she honours the memory of Ntate Madiba, other heroes shouldn’t be forgotten. “Mandela was not the only one who fought apartheid,” she says firmly. Madiba would have liked her, I think to myself.

“With its flat dusty landscape as far as the eye can see, the great blue ceiling above, the endless stretches of yellow mealie fields, scrub and bushes, the Free State’s landscape gladdens my heart no matter what my mood.”

Mandela’s route took him via the Free State town of Excelsior, where his car ran out of fuel. This tiny farming enclave gained notoriety in the late 1971 when 19 people (known as the Excelsior 19) contravened the Immorality Act. Author Zakes Mda’s The Madonna of Excelsior skilfully details these events. Madiba’s visit, however, passed without incident as he sourced petrol from a local farmer to get him to Thaba ’Nchu.

Wary of the notorious, pot-holed tar roads between Winberg and Thaba ’Nchu, I change tack and opt to stick to the N1. I gun for Bloemfontein, bypassing Excelsior, its checkered history and its sandstone Dutch Reformed church.

The last light fades as I reach the entrance to Naval Hill, the highest point in Bloemfontein. It seems fitting to visit the 8-metre tall bronze statue of Mandela, on the southern end of the hill’s flat surface. Here, the giant statesman looks out over the south-east corner of the city. He’s seldom alone, a magnet for children and adults   posing for photographs. Afterwards, head to the Naval Hill Planetarium for a presentation on the cosmos. (Tickets available via Computicket; search for Naval Hill.)

“When I am there, I feel like nothing can shut me in, that my thoughts can roam as far and wide as the horizons.”

The good doctor’s house

The next day I motor east on the N8 towards Thaba ’Nchu. The recently upgraded road stretches long and straight before me, rising in altitude in parts. Once you crest the highest section of the road it descends gently. Golden plains and the imposing mountain reveal themselves to the traveller.

Once in Thaba ’Nchu I seek out Dr James Sebe (JS) Moroka’s home.

“… a doctor, and one of the wealthiest black men in South Africa. He had studied at Edinburgh and Vienna,” Mandela wrote. “Because the letter was to go out under the name of Dr Moroka, and Dr Moroka had not participated in the writing of it, I was instructed to take him the letter…”

It’s a dignified, yet modest, single-storey house. A long driveway curves around a decorative pond as if it were a small traffic circle. Where would Mandela have parked, I wonder, and was he welcomed by the excited shouts of children, elated at seeing him?

I walk hesitantly up the stairs to the large tiled porch. I knock on the door and wait. There’s no sound from inside. I peer through the lead-glass panes in the door and make out a corridor in the half-light. I phone regional tourism numbers I find on the web, but nobody answers.

I leave the empty house, and detour to the home of a dear 73-year-old Tswana woman who played no small part in raising me. As is custom, I arrive bearing small gifts and a few delicacies. Then I start the ignition and head back to Bloemfontein, giving the Black Mountain a few longing glances.

From previous visits, I know there’s an otherworldly yet benign presence on that mountain. Its surface is almost flat, but it has a rim, as if it’s a shallow basin. The views from there are mesmerising. Permits are available at the farm that is home to the mountain at R50 (subject to change) from the owner, Lefu Rasebonang. Ask the locals for directions to the farm or navigate there.

A sort of homecoming

The next day, the drive from Bloemfontein to Soweto takes just under four hours. As I arrive in Vilakazi Street in Orlando West, two car guards grant the Subaru VIP parking next to a vendor’s colourful clothes stall. Before I can get out the car, three car guards sing me a welcome song.

I stop at a small café and order a black Americano from the friendly manager, Lorraine Mogadimo. There are no other patrons, so she joins me at my table for a few moments. Business is slow and a woman, Skhona Tshabalala, from a neighbouring shop joins our spontaneous tea party. We talk about Mandela. I ask my new friend the same question I asked Thabang at Grasmere. “I would thank him for the freedom and opportunities he gave us and that he fought for a united South Africa,” she says. “He made it possible for me to be friends with all people, and for other nations to experience South Africa.”

The winter shadows are growing long, and a late afternoon chill drifts in. As I walk up the road, towards 8115 Vilakazi Street, where Mandela lived from 1946 to 1962, I feel Madiba magic in the air. It hums and vibrates and pulses like a heartbeat.

“It was the opposite of grand, but it was my first true home of my own and I was mightily proud. A man is not a man until he has a house of his own.”

As I stand on the pavement at Madiba’s house tourists from the Americas, Europe and Africa bustle on either side of me There’s an air of generosity and camaraderie in the street but it’s still a place of calm reflection, apt for a pilgrimage. Somehow, this modest corner feels like the nexus of humankind and all that is good about it.

Inside the house and the yard, tourists are respectfully quiet, making it easy to imagine Mandela’s humble homecoming after his mission to Thaba ’Nchu.

“The meeting with Dr Moroka proved far less eventful than my journey there. He approved of the letter and I made my way back to Johannesburg without incident. The letter to the prime minister noted that the ANC had exhausted every constitutional means at our disposal to achieve our legitimate rights, and that we demanded the repeal of the six ‘unjust laws’ by February 29, 1952, or else we would take extra-constitutional action.”

Quotes (in italics) are from The Long Walk to Freedom.