Madiba’s house sits on a breezy, tree-lined street in a well-to-do neighborhood in the western part of Johannesburg, South Africa. Stucco walls surround the nondescript property on a block filled with nothing but nondescript properties. Older couples take their afternoon walks nearby. Kids can be heard playing in the distance, and entire families drive by in station wagons and minivans. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were in any number of middle-class neighborhoods in southern California — not at the home of one of the 20th century’s greatest rebels.
Madiba is the common name for Nelson Mandela; it is the name of his family’s clan, carried by its elders as a sign of respect. And Mandela, of course, is the former leader of South Africa, celebrated anti-apartheid freedom fighter and global peace activist.
And 50 Cent and MTV News were standing in his driveway.
50 had just emerged from inside the home, where he had a brief meeting with the 89-year-old icon, one of the perks of being the biggest hip-hop star in the world. “That was amazing,” 50 beamed, in a way that belied the confident mugging and barrel-chested braggadocio that usually accompanies his on-camera appearances. “That was more than I actually expected.”
Mandela is unequivocally beloved in a country known for its deep divisions and tumultuous racial history. When we had arrived half an hour earlier, Mandela was just chilling in his living room, reading the newspaper by himself with a glass of water at his side. He was white-haired and frail, lacking the energy to make frequent public appearances. The day’s visit included just a quick exchange of greetings and a handful of photos. The glassy-eyed Mandela seemed to have only a passing recognition of who 50 Cent was, as opposed to the younger members of Mandela’s family who crowded around the rapper upon his exit.
All day, Mandla Mandela, Madiba’s 32-year-old grandson, had accompanied 50 as our pared-down entourage (Tony Yayo and Lloyd Banks had decided to skip the trip in order to get some much-needed sleep) traveled through Johannesburg and Soweto, visiting landmarks and museums memorializing South Africa’s struggle to overcome apartheid, a 42-year legal segregation between black and white South Africans that ended in 1990, thanks in large part to Mandela’s resistance and persistence.
Though their meeting was limited to just a few minutes, the experience of meeting Nelson Mandela had clearly moved 50 Cent. “There was a possibility when I woke up this morning that I could meet him,” he said. “I got up early thinking it might happen. But because he’s [nearly] 90 years old, he doesn’t get up like he used to, early in the morning.
“I’ve been enlightened in a lot of different ways,” 50 continued, referring to his tours of the Apartheid Museum and the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum with Mandla Mandela. “To have someone directly involved give me information was exciting. You know, I learn faster hands-on than I do from reading books. It’s exciting to be in a position where people [of the Mandelas’ stature] will actually take the time out to explain these things to me.”
Throughout our week in South Africa and Tanzania, sold-out arenas and the infectious fervor of the people of Africa had affirmed to us 50’s frequent boast that he is the most popular international star in hip-hop. But this trip to Africa, and South Africa especially, had an additional purpose, an unexpected, socially conscious one. It was part of 50 Cent’s agenda to witness firsthand the cultural landscape of this country and how it affects him as a black man in America.
“It’s way bigger than music,” he said. “Music has been an opportunity for me. It’s taken me places that I didn’t even think were possible for me to go. Right now, it feels like everything’s an option. If I have a personal interest in it, all I have to do is actually put my mind to it — allow myself to be available for it.”
That much would be apparent three days after meeting Mandela, when our entire entourage traveled by helicopter eight miles off the coast of Cape Town, the southernmost tip of the African continent, to Robben Island. For around 400 years, the island has been a place of exile, where governments and ruling parties have banished perceived criminals, lepers and troublemakers. During apartheid, many members of the African National Congress (of which Mandela was a leader) were imprisoned here under brutal conditions.
Today, the prison has been turned into a museum so that future generations will never forget the unforgiving lessons of apartheid.
The island itself is a barren landscape, with minimal vegetation and only the occasional deer or penguin; the silence that pervades the place was a constant reminder of just how far from home we really were. Our tour guide was a man who had been imprisoned there for 18 years for setting off a bomb in a suburban shopping mall, injuring 57 people (the resistance to apartheid was often a violent struggle). He took our entire group (including Yayo and Banks, who made it a point to participate in this day’s trip) through the prison and across the island. While the austerity of our surroundings made everyone quiet during the tour, it wasn’t until we were brought to Nelson Mandela’s prison cell that 50 Cent, Yayo and Banks seemed truly moved by the experience.
Mandela spent 27 years in the tiny cell, approximately 6 feet by 6 feet. It had been preserved as a powerful reminder of the conditions of Robben Island’s most famous — and resilient — inhabitant.
The cell had no toilet and no real bed, except for a small, thin foam cushion that resembles a yoga mat. “That’s the equivalent to the cushion they put under your carpet,” 50 observed. Our guide explained how authorities would often put political prisoners across the hallway from much larger cells that would house only a single dog “to demean them. To show them they weren’t even as valuable as a common dog.”
The rappers stood silent inside the cell, taking in the gravity and history of the space.
“I’ve been incarcerated before, and that prison cell made Rikers Island look like Great Adventure,” Yayo said later. “What they were sleeping on — no toilet, no bed, no nothing. We got it easy where we came from. This is real hard out here.”
Back in Cape Town, talk turned to Mandela’s constitution and how one could go through so much adversity and struggle and emerge as a man of peace. “How could you spend 27 years in prison and come out and not want to kill everybody?” Yayo asked.
“To endure so much and still be as peaceful as he is when you actually see him,” 50 said. “I guess you got options, and they can either drive you to become an animal, or you can become what he’s actually become. I mean, there’s a huge significance to Nelson Mandela and his struggle.”
And perhaps uncharacteristically, given his public persona, 50 Cent was drinking it all in.
Check back later this week for more stories from our trek through Africa with 50 Cent and G-Unit.