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July 17, 2016

Mandela Day 2016, heralded the beginning of an important new chapter in the legacy of former President Nelson Mandela with the reopening of a comprehensively refurbished national museum facility in Mthatha– with a vision of keeping the late statesman’s values alive.

The technologically equipped “new” Bhunga Building will enable the Museum to reach out from the Eastern Cape to a country and a world wracked by intolerance and prejudice.


When the Museum’s Council sat down to plot the institution’s future in 2014, following Mr Mandela’s transition from living icon to memory, it was with a strong sense of unfinished business. The earth seemed beset by fault-lines: Between East and West; the Judeo-Christian and Muslim worlds; the relatively rich north and impoverished south…

And there were growing signs that South Africans were battling to find each other, that our reconciliation, social cohesion and national unity projects required ongoing work. Events in 2016 have only served to underline the need.

The question the Council couldn’t help asking itself was: What would Madiba do?

In 2014, the Museum convened a series of national engagements across the country, in the form of lectures, seminars, colloquia and conferences, to consult South Africans on the meaning of Mr Mandela.

Two critical outcomes were distilled through the process:
1. An understanding of the essence of Mr Mandela’s values – a nation-building agent of change who promoted active citizenship in a non-racial and non-sexist society; and
2. The positive role the Museum can fulfil spreading understanding of Mr Mandela’s values to communities experiencing conflict – at home and abroad.

The consultative process helped guide the creation of a new five-year strategic plan.

At the heart of the new strategic plan is a determination to continue the discourse begun by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission was the beginning of a process of restorative justice personified in Mr Mandela’s values. The conclusion of the commission’s work signalled the beginning of broader society’s responsibility – but as a country we took our eye off the ball. The scourge of racist incidents witnessed this year bear testament to the necessity for ongoing work.

Our newly equipped Bhunga headquarters provides both the physical space and technical capacity for the Museum to reach out to communities – near and far – and engage them in discussions about peace with justice.

Because knowledge is key to development, the Museum has resolved to establish a network of partnerships with institutions of higher learning. We are already working with universities in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Gauteng and the United States and would like to spread this network across the country and the world. In addition, the Museum is investigating the means to establish a chair at one of the universities dedicated to promoting Mr Mandela’s legacy of social cohesion.

The basket of political, human and individual rights Mr Mandela embodied are timeless, and applicable to challenges that exist today in Palestine, Colombia, Myanmar, Libya, West Papua, Tibet…

In order to facilitate international dialogue on values-based servant leadership the Museum is reaching out to similarly minded heritage institutions across the world, from the National Civil Rights Museum (in the West), to Goree Island Museum (on the Mother Continent), to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum (in Poland).

In future, the Nelson Mandela Museum will form an important foundation stone of a South African Liberation Heritage Route. And the Mthatha region – Qunu in particular – will become a site of pilgrimage for national and international scholars and tourists.


The old Bhunga Building in central Mthatha has undergone a metamorphosis and is ready to re-open its doors as the thoroughly modern and fit-for-purpose headquarters of the Nelson Mandela Museum.

The Bhunga is inarguably the building with the richest history in Mthatha.

Originally designed in 1927 to house the United Transkeian Territories General Council, an expansion of the District Council system introduced by the ruler of the Cape Colony, Cecil John Rhodes, in the 1890s, it later saw service as the parliament of the Transkei Bantustan.

It must also rank as one of the Eastern Cape’s most flamboyant edifices. South Africa’s late Nobel Literature Laureate, Nadine Gordimer, described it as a, “doll’s house with its solemn paneling and gilded citations of democracy (that) became Transkei’s National Assembly, in return for the surrender of any claim for Transkeians ever to sit in the parliament of South Africa”.

After the advent of democracy, the Bhungabecame the home of the Kei District Council – until 1999, when the building was identified as a suitable home for the soon-to-be-established Nelson Mandela Museum.

It was President Mandela, himself, who mooted the idea of establishing a Museum in the Mthatha area. At a meeting at the residence of the Chief of Qunu in August 1995, chaired by the then-Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Bantu Holomisa, President Mandela requested that a home be found to house gifts he had received from well wishers across the world.

Their gifts, he said, should be publicly accessible as it was through the contributions of millions of “ordinary” citizens that South Africa had attained its freedom. The gifts were not rightly his, alone. They were “Gifts to the Nation”, President Mandela said. And that’s what we call the collection today.

Mr Mandela felt that locating the gifts in the poverty stricken Transkei would stimulate heritage tourism and provide local economic opportunities and jobs…

In February 2000, 10 years to the day after the now-former President’s release from imprisonment, the Nelson Mandela Museum was established as a project of the Department of Arts and Culture in the Bhunga Building.

About 10% of the total space in the building, including the old assembly Chamber,had been renovated to accommodate the Gifts to the Nation.

The Museum subsequently expandedits footprint in Mr Mandela’s footsteps, to include a youth-orientated campus in Qunu, opposite the former President’s home.


After 12 years of faithful – albeit limited – service to the Nelson Mandela Museum, the Bhunga Building was closed to the public for extensive restoration, refurbishment and technical modernisation. It has been a project of nearly four years duration, at a cost to the nation of R60m.

The Gifts to the Nation were packaged and moved into secure storage off-site, and the Museum’s administration relocated to Qunu.

The past four years have not been without challenges. The extraordinary emotional event of Mr Mandela’s passing, and burial in Qunu, in December 2013, triggered unprecedented interest in the Museum, with the number of visitors peaking at the very time that the Museum was constrained by the temporary closure of its Bhunga facility.

Ultimately, when we moved back into the Bhunga a few months ago to begin preparing for the re-opening, and saw the extent of the refurbishment, we felt the wait was worthwhile. We hope the rest of the nation, when it visits, will agree.

We are confident that the new Bhunga is fit to bear the name of the founder of the nation, the Nelson Mandela Museum. And, as custodians of Mr Mandela’s legacy, we are very proud of the new facility.

Structurally, because of the Bhunga’s heritage value, little has been altered. Internal walls that once divided the space into a labyrinth of offices,have been removed to create larger areas suitable for exhibitions. More than 80% of the total physical space is now available for permanent and temporary displays.

Added to the mix are four equipped multi-media rooms for onsight learning and research, a 400-person auditorium, a laboratory and quarantine room, reference library, and conferencing facilities including 35-seater breakaway rooms equipped to the highest international standards.

The library, originally mooted by former Council Chairperson, the late Professor Kader Asmal, contains a comprehensive collection of books written by and about Mr Mandela.

The historic records and bureaucratic documents once crammed from floor to ceiling in the basement below the Bhungahave been moved to the Provincial Archive, and the space equipped to store the Gifts to the Nation comfortably and securely. Equipment that has been installed includes mobile filing cabinets, garment cabinets, sliding rails for artworks and posters.

An international conservation standard climate control systemensures optimaltemperature and humidity throughout the facility.


Visitors to the Bhunga will experience a variety of permanent and temporary exhibitions relating to the former president and his life and times – besides a selection of Gifts to the Nation.

We have brought along a few examples of the gifts – to whet your appetites.


We call on South Africans to engage the Museum…

• To visit the sites of his childhood Mr Mandela described in Long Walk to Freedom…
• To immerse themselves in the values and landscape that formed our icon, and
• To rededicate themselves/ourselves to nation-building, active citizenship and a non-racial and non-sexist society…


• Department of Arts and Culture
• Department of Public Works
• Eastern Cape Provincial Government
• Mandela family
• Nelson Mandela Foundation
• Uncle Kathy
• Archbishop Tutu
• Dennis Goldberg


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