Fantastic boutique hotel celebrates the legacy of Nelson Mandela
“Welcome home.” As a greeting from strangers in a place you’ve never been to before, this is an odd place to start, but it is immediately also a wonderful foundation for a stay at Sanctuary Mandela, a place set up – carefully – to pay homage to a man who was not only South Africa’s greatest statesman, but also, by all accounts, a pretty spectacular human being.
The boutique hotel is a reimagining of the Houghton house Madiba stayed in from 1992 to 1998, at which point, among other things, his wife Graça Machel is said to have made some leading comments about a paucity of cupboard space for her wardrobe (ex-President, maybe, but not necessarily in charge) and the couple moved around the corner to the home where they lived until the end of Mandela’s life in 2013.
Images displayed behind the reception counter show the state of the building before it was converted, which tell a sad story of neglect. This helps to underline the purpose of the current institution, which involves preserving a legacy unlikely ever to be equalled in this country, using décor (a huge photograph of a young Tata as a boxer), John Meyer paintings and other framed items including sheet music written by Quincy Jones and Lionel Richie in Madiba’s honour.
Recipe for success
As ever, the best stories about someone come from people who know them well. Xoliswa Ndoyiya, who was Mandela’s personal chef for over two decades, still works in the Sanctuary Mandela kitchen and might be coaxed out to chat about her memories for guests interested in the fascinating events taking place in the house 30 years ago.
“I first met him in this house,” she recalls. “I was recommended to him as a cook by a friend who worked in the place where he stayed while writing Long Walk To Freedom and then had to go through all the top ANC guys at Luthuli House. There were so many security questions! I was not looking for a job at the time, so it was all hypothetical. They would only tell me I would be cooking for an ‘icon’ and that I could never be distracted while preparing his food in case a stranger came into the kitchen. “When they brought me here to the house – the driver made a joke about getting into a car with a stranger! – I saw Mr Mandela for the first time and started shaking. He calmed me down by asking me about my clan name and about cooking traditional food.” Mam’ Xoliswa, as everyone in the hotel affectionately calls her, has dozens more reminiscences, but many of the most interesting stories have to do with small details relating to respect – both ways. “I remember meetings over meals with Ahmed Kathrada and George Bizos, where Tata asked me to pack takeaways for them to take home. He would also always refuse to take credit for the meals served to his guests, insisting that they thank me for my work, showing respect for my role.”
Such deference needed to be returned, though. “When I started, Madiba wanted coffee at 3:30am – he was used to it from prison – and he respected time incredibly. If I was not on time, even if I was on the way up the stairs to his room right then, he would not accept the coffee. There would still be affection and graciousness in his dealing with you straight after that, but that was one of his ways of instilling discipline.”
Fed and pampered
Having heard that, being exactly on time for dinner in the Insights restaurant is a no-brainer. Staying there is equally easy, as the food is staggeringly good, in that you will stagger afterwards. The menu is influenced by Tata’s favourite meals but adapted as haute cuisine. Madiba loved his oxtail – here it’s resurrected as a Braised Oxtail Tortellini starter. The Grazing Lamb main might’ve grown sleek in the meadows around Qunu (ok, so that’s poetic licence). And the Opera Cake dessert is a tribute to Mandela’s relationship with the late Queen Elizabeth II – and it would’ve surely been accorded the Royal Warrant had Her Majesty had the chance to pop in… She wasn’t one of the big names who visited Madiba at the house – royalty on the guest list included the King of Pop Michael Jackson and Queen of TV Oprah Winfrey – but if you stay at the Sanctuary now, you’ll know what it is to feel like a head of state. The service simply outstrips all the clichés usually thrown around in such situations, and joyfully so (on two separate occasions, staff behind the reception counter are spotted dancing while unaware that they’re being watched). Sbu is the ultimate barman, a teller of stories, a keeper of secrets and an eagle-eyed supplier of pick-me-ups (including bespoke cocktails involving rosemary or edible Cape flowers) he knows will most please each individual guest, as he remembers everyone’s favourites, and somehow knows when you’re getting to the bottom of your current glass, even if you’re out of sight.
The suite life
Suite 1 is called ‘The President’ and, though it’s been updated since Tata’s time, it is still his old bedroom, which allows for a special, different way to connect with what has happened here before. Given the venue’s tranquillity and their encouragement to visitors to spend
downtime in contemplation, nobody is – nowadays, anyway – likely to spend their time here drafting new constitutions or negotiating with politicians. A window near the bed is high and circular, like a porthole. The reason has to do with that part of the contemporary room being where the bathroom was, but such facts get in the way of feeling momentarily like you’re on a cruise, which, when you’re swanning around in a supersoft bathrobe, sipping on a cappuccino that’s been delivered to your room because Sbu sensed you wanted one, rounds out a five-star experience that makes you feel like a national treasure. You can’t compete with Madiba, of course, but that part of his magic remains in this place.