Mention the name Nelson Mandela and everyone seems to have something good to say about him.
Now, his country retreat, within the Shambala Private Game Reserve North of Johannesburg, has been opened to groups of up to 12 guests to hire. It’s a unique and exciting prospect, but the reality is even more astonishing.
The villa came into being at the turn of this century when Mandela was in his eighties. His longstanding friend, the flamboyant South Africa-born insurance magnate Douw Steyn (he of Compare the Market/Meerkat and now worth £700 million), bought almost 10,000 hectares of land in Limpopo Province, fenced it, made a vast dam and filled the reserve with the “big five” and other animals to create a self-sufficient ecosystem.
As well as his own country retreat, he built a hacienda-style single-storey villa by a waterhole for the then-83-year-old former president and his third wife, Graça, to enjoy. Both a family retreat and a tranquil place where Mandela could convene and mediate with dignitaries around a boardroom table, the building became known as the Nelson Mandela Centre for Reconciliation (NMCR).
One wing of the villa houses five en-suite bedrooms alongside the Mandelas’ spacious five-room apartment; the other wing was for his staff and security. Guests today arrive from Johannesburg either on a 45-minute helicopter ride over the sprawling townships of Pretoria and above the foothills of the Waterberg Mountains, or by a two-and-a-half-hour car journey. Once inside the reserve, you pass the villa’s armed checkpoint and drive up to the entrance. Hanging in a verandah are colourful paintings and mosaics by local artists, all chosen by Nelson and Graça and providing your first inkling that the villa is very much as the couple left it: understated, elegant, comfortable, homely and peaceful, albeit with hippos in the garden, elephants ambling past the drive and lions roaring at night.
In the hallway, a collection of Mandela’s paperbacks lines a modest bookcase. You are invited to thumb through the guest book, where his friends Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey have scrawled lines of thanks. An attendant whisks your luggage off to the presidential suite – this time the term is legitimately used and refers to Mandela’s former bedroom.
Here, you can kick off your shoes and relax with a drink around Mandela’s coffee table, in front of his open fire, on his white-linen upholstered sofa. In a corner, his old TV and DVD player sit where they have always sat, and if you ask for a copy of the film Long Walk to Freedom the staff will find one for you. I watched it late at night wrapped in one of his cosy faux-fur throws; it was thrilling to still feel the presence of this inspirational man. The natural materials of wood, stone, plaster, leather, silk, wool and thatch are a backdrop to the magnificent portraits of Xhosa women (Mandela’s clan) by the artist Laura Fraser, bringing colour and drama to the social spaces. Did Mandela love them for their depiction of the soul of Africa, their maternal power or intense sense of pride? So many questions linger, but his private retreat still retains some secrets.
Nelson and Graça lived out his final dozen years in the Nelson Mandela Centre for Reconciliation (his Soweto “matchbox” house is now a museum and a must-visit prior to your arrival), and it is still owned by Douw Steyn.
The building was closed following Mandela’s death in late 2013 but was made available for private rental for the first time in 2015 and is now a member of Steyn’s Saxon Collection.
A member of Leading Hotels of the World, the collection also comprises The Saxon Hotel in the upmarket district of Sandhurst in Johannesburg, and another property within Shambala Private Game Reserve named Zulu Camp. The latter is a hideaway of eight high-ceilinged, romantic, Zulu-meets-antique-French, thatched huts overlooking a waterhole.
Greg Cloete hosts special guests for the Saxon Collection and met Mandela several times. The Saxon was originally Steyn’s Johannesburg mansion and Mandela worked on his autobiography there. Converted into a hotel in 2001 and expanded for the World Cup in 2010, it features six swimming pools, discreet villas for business colleagues and families, and an indoor-outdoor spa.
Back at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Reconciliation, I hang my few clothes in Nelson Mandela’s vast dressing room. I admired his beautiful swagged silk curtains and hand-beaded bedspread and cushions, all made in Soweto by Margaret Fine.
“For a hotel opening, it was probably the easiest ever,” Greg Cloete says. “We just took down the curtains, gave them a steam and checked everything was working.”
Staying in the property and reflecting on Mandela’s legacy is a moving experience and one can’t help but compare his life of hardship and struggle to the scandal engulfing South Africa’s current president Jacob Zuma.
South Africa remains a deeply complex country, but a sense of optimism and wonder is still palpable in the Nelson Mandela Centre for Reconciliation. This is not a museum; this is not a hotel; this is a home-from-home, and a remarkable opportunity to walk in the footsteps of a humble man, touched by greatness.