Airbnb boosts Madiba legacy

An ex-warder and amateur tour guides help Airbnb to personalise tourists’ experience of the late Nelson Mandela with a novel approach, writes Anna Hart of The Telegraph of her trip to Cape Town

Cape Town

Nelson Mandela’s face greets you with a wide smile wherever you go in Cape Town. He’s beaming down from a frayed poster tacked next to the drinks hatch of Fanie’s Place tavern in the township of Langa.

In Nobel Square, his statue gazes benevolently at iPhone-clutching tourists.

There’s even Mandela Rhodes Place Hotel & Spa, which celebrates “Mandela’s life in 14 stages” with a series of portraits stretching from the gleaming foyer onwards.
Four years after the statesman’s death, there is no sign of his popularity diminishing.

But despite all the memorials and fervour, it has until now been hard for travellers to get a true sense of the man whose personal journey of rebellion, incarceration, reconciliation and forgiveness parallels South Africa’s long walk from apartheid to freedom.

As any previous visitor to Cape Town will tell you, Robben Island, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of incarceration, is a bit of a circus, with thousands of tourists ferried to and bused around the island every day.

Cape Town

This is where Airbnb comes in. Last year it launched an “Experiences” category alongside its rental accommodation listings.

It lets locals set themselves up as amateur tour guides, capitalising on their expertise in foraged cocktails, say, or dressmaking, or street art.

The experiences that shine are those where an ordinary person has something extraordinary to share.

One of them is 70-year-old Jack Swart, Mandela’s prison guard at Robben Island, his chef at Victor Verster prison, and finally, his friend. I meet Jack on a gusty ferry platform at Cape Town’s waterfront at 7am, and as we bounce around on slate-grey waves on the 30-minute trip to the island, he opens a battered binder to show me and four other guests pictures of himself and Mandela through the years.

Hours before the tourist ferries arrive, we are able to wander freely around this chilling monument.

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela and Jack Swart

It is Jack’s personal connection to Robben Island that lifts the velvet rope for us.

Stepping alone into cell 466/64, where Mandela was incarcerated, is profoundly moving. A tall man, he could barely stretch out fully on the matting that passed for a bed.
It is moments of quiet reflection like this that bring the past into the present and turn an icon into a human again.

This is what persuaded Jack, who has just retired from his day job as a driver, to take tourists on these weekly excursions into his past.

From Cape Town’s waterfront we drive out to Drakenstein Correctional Facility (formerly Victor Verster) for lunch at A La Carte, the on-site restaurant, where Jack cooked for 11 years.

Meals are prepared and served by inmates being trained up in the hospitality industry. Jack knows everybody in the room.

After lunch, another gate is opened to us, and Jack takes us into the famous salmon-pink house where Mandela spent the final 14 months of his imprisonment.

In the kitchen Jack recalls Mandela asking why there were “two TVs” and pointing at the microwave. He talks openly about Winnie Mandela’s visits, and points out the spots in the building where wiretaps had been concealed.

All this is possible because of Airbnb’s partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation. As a result, 100% of the profit on the £210- per-person (R3643) fee for the day (which includes lunch and all transport) goes directly to the charity.

Robben Island
Robben Island

“We are a non-profit devoted to the memory of Nelson Mandela,” says Sello Hatang, the young chief executive of the foundation. “What Airbnb is offering is a chance to give people a much more in-depth and meaningful appreciation of Mandela’s legacy.”

The following night, I stay at a £19-per-night (R330) Airbnb homestay in the township of Langa. My host, Nombulelo, opened her lime-green two-bedroom home to backpackers and students in 2006.

She proudly shows me her Airbnb business card and tells me how many of her friends and neighbours are also hosts; there are currently 15 Airbnb homestays in Langa.

She steers me to Fanie’s Place down the road, which is blaring ’60s R&B, and brings me a blanket in case I get cold. In fact, Castle milk stout keeps me cosy enough.

Posters on the wall depict not just Mandela but other local heroes, including jazz singer Brenda Fassie, who lived just a few streets away.

Another character in the story is Tony Elvin, a London-born social-enterprise pioneer who used to work with Jamie Oliver on his restaurant and hospitality training scheme, “Fifteen”. He is now the architect of Langa’s social enterprise quarter, which has a café, gallery, craft shop, artists’ studios, and co-working and educational space.

Elvin was also instrumental in bringing the “black plaque” scheme to Langa, a terracotta twist on the blue heritage plaques that adorn London doorways. Nombulelo’s home bears one, being the former abode of the musician Victor Ntoni.

During the rest of my week in Cape Town, the stories come thick and fast over a braai at the home of food writers Nikki Werner and Brandon de Kock. Subjects range from Mandela and apartheid to the challenges facing the country.

On a Stellenbosch wine tour with local David Geary, he tells me how he met Mandela through Winnie, the statesman’s wife for 38 years. He recounts how Mandela dropped in on his daughter’s graduation party to wish her the best in her career as a lawyer.

Often, it is smaller stories like this that are the richer ones.

Robben Island
Robben Island
  •  For more information about Airbnb Experiences, see
  • Jack’s Prison Warder experience in Cape Town costs £211 (R3671) per person, including meals, admission costs and transport to and from Robben Island and Drakenstein Correctional Facility.
Robben Island
Robben Island



This award-winning museum brings to life the chapter of South African history when the ruling government declared this area “whites only”. More than 60000 residents were forcibly taken from their homes and shipped out to the Cape Flats, and their homes were then demolished. Mandela spent a lifetime opposing such injustices.


On February 11 1990, just hours after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela made his first public speech from the balcony of the Cape Town City Hall. Built in 1905, this grandiose building is located on the Grand Parade. It is also the home of the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra.


As South African leader between 1994 and 1999, Mandela hammered out the details of the 1996 constitution and laws cementing the country’s democracy were passed. Tours are free; booking ahead essential.

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