From a distance you see them, all lined up on the grass as you approach the Maropeng Visitor Centre at the Cradle of Humankind. You squint your eyes and look again before you ask yourself “what’s going on here, who are these people, where are they going?”
You try to count.
Is it 50? 60? No it must certainly be more…
The closer you get, the more intense the presence and goal-driven stature of 100-odd people fills the space that is just 50 km from the City of Johannesburg.
It is tangible. Visceral. Real.
And then it hits you that these are not just people, but heroes; all cast in bronze, marching in unison, towards freedom, towards the dawn of democracy, towards the future of South Africa.
Welcome to Maropeng, welcome to the long march to freedom, welcome to South Africa’s history.
Visit Maropeng’s Long March To Freedom
The idea of the Long March to Freedom exhibition stems from a conversation Mr Dali Tambo had when he visited Oliver Tambo’s grave, his late father, who was a South African anti-apartheid politician, freedom fighter and also the President of the African National Congress between 1967 to 1991. As a gesture of honour to his father, Tambo wanted to erect a statue but beyond the grave a voice came to him and said, “Don’t do it for me, do it for all of them.”
And he did just that.
The procession line starts with freedom fighters hailing from the 1600s like Autshumato – also known as Harry die Strandloper – who was the leader of the Goringhaikonas and the first political prisoner sent to Robben Island. Then there is Chief Tshwane, King Dingane, and Bishop John Colenso.
You move from one statue to the next, a visual journey to the years leading up to the rebirth of South Africa; you stand still and study every life-like statue, every line and expression on their face, you see the details like Olive Schreiner’s dog, the treasures hidden in Solomon Plaatje’s typewriter, the words written on Ida Fiye Mntwana’s hand.
Tangible. Visceral. Real.
All of them. Bram Fischer, Steve Biko, Bertha Mkhize and the formidable fearless Annie Silinga who refused to carry a pass.
Tangible. Visceral. Real.
Each person with a story, each person with a dream of a better South Africa, a better tomorrow.
The couples who fought together, stand together: Joe Slovo and Helen Slovo, Walter Sisulu and Albertinia Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Adelaide Tambo.
As you zigzag your way from hero to hero you reach the end of the procession line, the most pivotal moment in the history of South Africa, with Nelson Mandela and his renowned clenched fist in the air, raised in triumph, raised for the day that was 27 April 1994, raised for the future, raised for South Africa.
That is the story of South Africa, the history of our country, the journey of our democracy: tangible, visceral, real. And here, on a piece of grass outside of Johannesburg – at the Cradle of Humankind, the world richest hominin site – it all comes together, we all come together; humanity, freedom, education, women’s rights, human rights, Ubuntu… for the world to see, for the world to understand .
What stands today as procession of 100 bronze figures – all crafted and sculpted by a number of local artists – will grow into 400 statues, the world’s largest representational collection of bronzes. This year alone has already seen the likes of Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Martin Luther King and Ahmed Kathrada being unveiled as part of the procession, all figures who played an important role in the fight for freedom and spoke up against injustice, all figures who are worth remembering.
Walk side-by-side with South Africa’s heroes
These statues can be viewed at Maropeng, Cradle of Humankind, and it is open to the public at no charge. However, it is advised to fully indulge in the offering and experiences available at the Cradle of Humankind.
There is a visitor’s centre that opens the window to the beginning of the world with thought-provoking and interactive exhibitions taking you through the ice age to the pathway to humanity and the way forward in terms of technology and sustainability. Tours at the visitor centre are self-guided but guides are available upon request, opening hours are from 09:00 to 17:00 with the last boat departing at 16:00. Visitors can find a gift shop and take-away restaurant at the ticket office and there is another restaurant at the Maropeng Visitor Centre.
But a visit to the Cradle of Humankind is not complete without a visit to the Sterkfontein Caves where you live out your wildest Indian Jones dreams. The Sterkfontein Caves is a world-renowned excavation site where globally acclaimed fossils were found like Mrs Ples and the Australopithecus skeleton, nicknamed Little Foot, which is 3.67 million years old, the oldest hominid from the Cradle of Humankind.
The Details You need to Know
Both the Maropeng Visitor Centre and Sterkfontein Caves are open from 09:00 to 17:00 with the last tours departing at 16:00.
Visitors can purchase tickets for each individual site, or save a few pennies and opt for the combination ticket; children under 4 years of age can enter for free and there is a discounted rate for children between the ages of 5 and 18, for students as well as for pensioners.
The area of Magaliesburg makes for an excellent base for travellers who want to immerse themselves in humanity’s place of origin while still being close to a number of excellent restaurants and adventures on offer in the area such as rock climbing, hiking and hot air ballooning. And for those who need a place to overnight please book with us. See Magaliesburg hotels and accommodation.
With thanks to Anje Rautenbagh for the use of her fabulous photographs.
Photographs by and © Anje Rautenbagh