Nelson Mandela’s international activism for peace brought a spotlight to Johannesburg, and it’s still shining, thanks to murals painted at grand scale across many city walls and buildings. President Mandela, beloved for leading his country out of apartheid, is portrayed everywhere, from a 10-story Shepard Fairey mural in Braamfontein to a former water cooling tower in Soweto, complete with bungee jumping.
In fact, street art is so popular in Johannesburg, it has inspired the graffiti gallery (and spray-paint store) Grayscale, and arts festivals that showcase street art across the city.
These are a few of the must-see tributes to Mandela.
In 2014, Shepard Fairey, creator of the iconic Barack Obama Hope poster, created a spray paint and acrylic 10-story Mandela Mural on Juta Street in the Braamfontein neighborhood.
It looks out over the Nelson Mandela Bridge and portrays a beaming Mandela in his role of international statesman for peace with the words “The Purple Shall Govern.” Purple became the color of anti-apartheid after a protest in Cape Town where police had turned a water cannon spraying purple-dyed water onto protesters (to push them back and identify them as protesters). A protester took hold of the cannon and diverted the spray to nearby buildings including national party headquarters.
The mural was created to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Purple Rain Protest.
The Maboneng district also commissioned a massive Mandela mural that was completed in 2013. The 10-story shadowboxer on Access City at Staib Street and Beacon Road was created by Ricky Lee Gordan (also known as street artist Freddy Sam), and portrays Mandela boxing.
It’s inspired by the photos Bob Gosani took of a young Mandela on a rooftop for Drum Magazine. As a young lawyer, Mandela worked with the African National Congress in Johannesburg setting deep roots into the community. Next to Chancellor House (where he practiced law), the Shadow Boxing sculpture by Marco Cianfanelli quotes Mandela: “In the ring, rank, age, colour, and wealth are irrelevant.”
Johannesburg’s most massive artwork covers the 33-story Orlando Towers, two decommissioned coal cooling plants in the former mining district of Soweto. The murals feature images of South African culture ranging from music to sports, and Mandela is portrayed smiling and waving.
For a leap of faith, head up to a bridge strung between the art-covered towers and bungee jump down 300 feet. (Base jumping is also offered but only for experts.)
Down at street level in the Soweto region, there’s a Mandela mural with the following captions: 1993 Nobel Peace Prize / 1994 First Black President / 2008 90th Birthday. The nose of the middle image is almost worn off, but his smiles still remain.
Another Soweto mural also portrays three Mandela milestones: Free 1990 / 1964 Rivonia Trial / Born 1918.
During apartheid, Mandela lived among Soweto’s row upon row of tiny homes segregating black families. He was there from 1946 until his imprisonment, and his family continued to live there while he was in exile. Street art paying tribute to his legacy still springs up near his former home at Vilakazi and Ngakane streets.
Book a stay at the artistically inclined African Pride Melrose Arch, Autograph Collection, where your concierge can recommend a guide to take you to the historic district to view the Mandela murals.
Look for Mandela’s likeness to pop up in street art after each Back to the City Festival, a hip-hop festival that hits Joburg in April and leaves vibrant murals from national and local artists in its wake.
Take the Past Experiences Graffiti Tour to see iconic images, including Mandelas splashed all over the Newtown arts district. Johannesburg is a world leader in supporting street artists, so its arts scene will stay red-hot for the foreseeable future.
Johannesburg’s Hugh Masekela sang: “Bring back Nelson Mandela / Bring him back home to Soweto / I want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa tomorrow.” You can still feel both of their spirits on the streets of Joburg through vibrant murals.