Places of Power: South Africa’s Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Secret Places of Power

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Monday, 29 August 2022 12:56, updated on Wednesday, 7 September 2022 12:06

South Africa's Belmond hotel (photo: @southafricauk)

There is some irony in Winne Madikizela-Mandela choosing a hotel that is the namesake of her former husband to celebrate her 80th birthday in 2016. Their separation 24 years prior wasn't a friendly one, but by then, he had been dead for three years and this had been shifted to the background.

This is part 1 of a 7-part series

President Cyril Ramaphosa, then deputy president, and his wife, Tshepo Motsepe, flanked her at the main table, while then president Jacob Zuma was absent but represented by his youngest wife, Bongi Ngema-Zuma. There were opposition leaders too like Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters and Dali Mpofu, who was part of Madikizela-Mandela’s defence team in her 1991 trial for the kidnapping and assault of four young men in her home. Both have denied persistent rumours that Madikizela-Mandela had an affair with the man 28 years her junior.

Madikizela-Mandela roasted friend and foe alike amongst her guests in the speech she gave at the event, which took place in the hotel’s Planet Bar, which was added to the hotel in 2003. It’s billed as a champagne and cocktail bar and also serves as a restaurant, the style a mixture of historic and urban chic.

Exclusive beginnings

The Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel had been hosting A-list guests in South Africa ever since it opened its doors on 6 March 1899 as an establishment catering exclusively for the well-heeled first class passengers of the Union Castle Shipping Line, both owned by shipping magnate Sir Donald Currie.

The pink colonnaded grandeur of the Mount Nelson Hotel at the foot of Cape Town’s Table Mountain provided the setting of my encounter with a famous political figure

At the time, it was described as “even better than its London counterparts”. The property’s name appeared as Mount Nelson for the first time in 1806, taking inspiration from British Admiral Horatio Nelson, who died in the Battle of Trafalgar the year before, and Table Mountain, next to which the land is situated.

Directly opposite the hotel is the Company’s Garden, which was founded by Dutch settlers in 1652.

Wartime

Seven months after the hotel opened, the South African War broke out and the British used the hotel as the headquarters for its military campaign, while Lords Roberts, Kitchener and Buller frequented the corridors. Winston Churchill, as a young journalist, wrote his war correspondence from there.

In New History of South Africa, Hermann Giliomee and Bernard Mbenga write that the end of this war “marked the end of the long process of British conquest of South African societies, both Black and White”.

At the end of another conflict – the First World War – in 1918, the hotel was painted pink, in celebration, by its second manager, the Italian Aldo Renaldo, to remind him of the houses in his home village in Italy. To this day, the pink remains and ‘Mount Nelson Pink’ is now a paint shade. Madikizela-Mandela’s birthday was in the same year that the ‘Pink’ had its centenary celebrations.

Palms and presidents

In 1925, the hotel added another of its enduring defining features: a palm-lined driveway, specially constructed for a visit by the Prince of Wales.

Inside the Mount Nelson Hotel is the Sherwood Room – then called the Jubilee Room – where Princess Elizabeth (now queen) held her 21st birthday cocktail reception on 22 April 1947.

It was in the same room that the newly-elected Mandela welcomed global leaders for the first World Economic Forum to be held on African soil, in 1994.

The room also played host to functions frequented by government ministers and diplomats, such as some of the US embassy’s cocktails.

In 1998, the mighty trees again triumphed when then US president Bill Clinton considered the hotel for a state visit to South Africa, the first ever by an American president. The hotel, however, refused the request by his advance security team that the palms be chopped off. Consequently, Clinton stayed at the Cape Grace on the V&A Waterfront instead, a five-star hotel on the harbour billed the ‘top hotel in the world’ by Condé Nast Traveller in 2000.

Three years before, Queen Elizabeth had stayed on her yacht in the harbour and not in the Mount Nelson, also due to security reasons.

Love and political weddings

In 2001, then leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, Tony Leon, married Michal at the hotel and they had a number of notable guests, even from the opposite side of the political spectrum, such as Tito Mboweni, then Reserve Bank governor.

Leon also brags about his lunch with former US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, next to the swimming pool, in 1996, but says the last political gathering he’d attended at the Lord Nelson was in 2019.

“The pink colonnaded grandeur of the Mount Nelson Hotel at the foot of Cape Town’s Table Mountain provided the setting of my encounter with a famous political figure,” Leon says in his book Future Tense.

The person was former president FW De Klerk in front of a “well-heeled audience” where they spoke about yielding power to a club of the ultra-rich, who included the Oppenheimers, the Ackermans and the Motsepes.

Leon’s wasn’t the only wedding of a political nature.

In 2009, just before the general elections, there was a five-day ‘marriage’ between Leon’s successor in the party, Helen Zille, and academic Mamphela Ramphele, who was leading a small opposition party, but agreed to run as the DA’s presidential candidate to counter Zuma.

The ‘marriage’ floundered fast.

Aspirations and other tales

In the men’s bathrooms of the hotel there is an exhibition of 19th century spy cartoons with all the major South African figures in the Cape parliament, including Cecil John Rhodes.

In 1836, Harry Schwarz came to South Africa as a refugee of German-Jewish parents, and they were poor. He walked past the Mount Nelson every day on his way to school and vowed to himself that he would one day have enough money to stay there.

He eventually became an immensely wealthy lawyer and businessman, and in 1974, he was elected to Parliament and stayed there the entire session just to show that he had made it.

Another politician with delusions of grandeur – this time on taxpayers’ money – was former communications minister Siphiwe Nyanda.

In 2009, Nyanda, now South Africa’s high commissioner to Mozambique, stayed at the Mount Nelson and other top notch Cape Town hotels when he was in the city for parliamentary business, costing the state R500,000 ($29,520). He argued that his official home in the parliamentary village wasn’t ready for living in.

In addition to his accommodation, he racked up a considerable bill for his fine dining on oysters, springbok loin and wine at the Cape Colony Restaurant, and fine Hennessy French cognac at the Planet Bar.

Declining influence

In 2010, the Taj Cape Town opened at a building that was the erstwhile Reserve Bank in St George’s Mall, and became the new hangout of provincial politicians, members of parliament, judges, and spooks. The hotel is a walking distance from all their offices.

A lot of political broking took place there, a politician says.

 

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Some of the functions for politicians also moved here and the Lord Nelson’s influence declined a little. Later, the spooks would move to a restaurant-bar hangout, called Cubana, where the music is loud enough for bugging devices to be blocked from picking up conversation. There is also the Pepper Club.

The Mount Nelson closed for a while, during the Covid-19 lockdown, and only in recent months has business started picking up again. Due to a fire that wrecked a large part of the parliamentary buildings, and many sittings now being conducted in a hybrid format, its influence is likely to decline more as politicians are unlikely to come back, at least in the next couple of years.

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