Walking in Mandela’s Footsteps: A South African Experience

As president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela brought his country together after nearly 50 years of racial segregation. Long before his presidency, he won over the very people who kept him locked up.

On a special three-day Experience available through Trips on Airbnb, in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, former warder and cook Jack Swart takes you back to Mandela’s prison years and recounts for you how his most famous prisoner transformed the way he understood the world.

When Swart was 18 years old, he began working on Robben Island, a notorious prison off the coast of Cape Town, where Mandela was serving a life sentence.

Swart was instructed to stand at a guard post with a gun, and not to interact with any of the prisoners. “They told us that they were terrorists, and you don’t talk to them,” he says.  

He also was tasked with driving prisoners to and from the island’s quarry, where they worked all day. His was told to drive fast over the bumps and around corners, to make the ride as uncomfortable for the prisoners as possible.

One day, he recalls, “Mr. Mandela come to the window, and knocked on the window, and asked me, ‘What the hell do you think we are, bags of mealies?’”

Years later, Swart was transferred to Victor Verster Prison. There, he served in Mandela’s private home as his personal chef.

“I tell him about the bags of mealies story, and he said, ‘Oh, it was you,’” Swart recalls. Displaying the empathy that defined much of his public life, Mandela added, “I hope you’re a better cook than a driver.”

When you sign up for Swart’s Experience, he’ll take you to Robben Island and show you what life was like at the prison. He’ll take you to Mandela’s cell and the quarry where Mandela worked, and talk to you about his time as a warder.

You’ll also go with Swart to Victor Verster Prison, where he’ll show you his collections of pictures and notes from Mandela, and take you through the house where Mandela served his final 14 months.

It was in that house that Swart and Mandela’s relationship changed. “At first, we talked to each other strictly as a prisoner and warder,” Swart says. “But as the time goes on, it was starting as, ‘How’s your wife? How’s your children?’”

Swart cooked for Mandela’s many guests and tried to prevent the future president and Nobel Peace Prize winner from doing the dishes.

“Suddenly, we became more friends,” he says. “Like brothers.”

Swart was with Mandela the day he was released from prison. He remembers the helicopters flying over the house at Victor Verster and that final moment where Mandela left for the last time. “He just passed me and touched me on the shoulder,” Swart said.

Yet their friendship endured. Mandela invited Swart to his inauguration, to tea at his house, and to his birthday party.

To this day, Swart says, “I like to light a candle at his birthday.”