Experiencing history

Add a touch of history to your next event for a memorable occasion.


If you want to give your event a head start in the memorability stakes, stage it in a venue steeped in history.

The instant kudos of bringing people into contact with a site commemorating Nelson Mandela or a cultural centre like Constitution Hill adds a gravitas that you don’t get in a bland hotel or conference centre.

There are certain difficulties to factor in, of course, since you have to work within the existing structure you can’t knock down walls or damage floors that have stood unharmed for centuries, or rearrange décor last touched by a famous figure.

Many historical and cultural centres are making an active effort to accommodate more functions, however, realising it’s a powerful way of keeping the sites relevant today as well as generating revenue.

“We have a programme to raise awareness of the sites and present them as public venues – not just places of pilgrimage and reflection of the past, but places to inspire for the future and places that we must preserve and be proud of,” says Barba Gaoganediwe, Head of Destination Promotions and Marketing for Gauteng Tourism.

Gaoganediwe is a great advocate for using historic sites as public venues and keeping history alive. Gauteng Tourism, the municipalities and the various sites implemented a strategy 18 months ago to increase footfall in key heritage sites by promoting them as venues for lifestyle events like fashion shows, comedy or cooking sessions, jazz festivals and activities for kids, he explains.

The Heritage Act sets out some dos and don’ts, stipulating that no activity can damage the information and artefacts, and that the events should be in line with the heritage.

“So you won’t necessarily have a strip show in Freedom Park, because it’s a solemn place,” he says.

Hiring out these venues for private events not only raises a substantial amount of money, it also enables the public to see them in a different light.

“We have seen an increase in footfall in our museums because if you go for a conference or a function you see it in a different way, and you might bring your family back once you have an idea of what it’s all about,” Gaoganediwe says.

Event organisers can work with Gauteng Tourism and the individual venue to craft an experience that weaves some history into their event to enhance the occasion.

“It gives them an opportunity to curate their event in line with what the museum is all about and we weave it into their story line,” Gaoganediwe says. “So it will not just be an award ceremony inside a dull hotel. It will be an award ceremony inside a place of history, and people will never forget that type of event.”

Constitution Hill is the most popular of Gauteng’s historic venues, thanks to the efforts of its managers and eventing teams to promote it as a space for public and private functions.

Its precinct contains the cells where political prisoners including Mandela and Gandhi were jailed during apartheid, and it’s now the base for high-powered judges defending our constitution.

It’s determination to remain relevant to all South Africans saw it stage the funky AfroPunk festival last year, an explosion of music, art and food celebrating multiculturalism.

The success of Afropunk has led to the development of a 10,000- seat People’s Park, a museum and a conference centre, alongside spaces for artists to stage permanent exhibitions and weekly activities.

“The idea is to energise the site and share its history and rich heritage not only with South Africans but with the international community,” says Jeanny Morulane, its General Manager of Marketing. “The relevance of the site is to not forget the painful experience and injustices of the past, and also to become a site of hope because we have the Constitutional Court at the centre of our democracy. It’s important to reach the youth and help them learn from the past, and festivals and events are all part of drawing in younger audiences.”

Morulane says there are no high barriers to entry for anyone wanting to hire its spaces. A dedicated venue hire unit handles the bookings, and the fees are helping Constitution Hill to become more self-sustaining.

A great result of staging an event here is memorability, Morulane promises.

“It’s unique. You will have your event within structures that used to be jail cells and the site of all kinds of injustices, with the Mandela cell and the women’s jail. All kinds of stalwarts came through our doors, including Ghandi. There is such a legacy and rich history that taking a walk through these doors to your conference adds such richness.”

Cape Town’s historic Castle Of Good Hope has also become a popular venue for private functions, and as the oldest building in South Africa, it has a history and prestige like no other.

“The experience is very special because the castle gives you a very different feel from the four walls of a hotel room – there’s a very different ambience,” says Doreen Hendricks, the castle’s Tourism and Marketing Manager. “When people come to a conference we can offer them something unique and take them on a tour and tell them stories about their history.

“It also has the most fantastic views of Cape Town all the way to Robben Island,” she says. “You are in the oldest building in South Africa where all the decisions made 300 years ago were announced from the balcony. It’s a very special feeling when you walk through the door. A hotel certainly doesn’t have that special impact and these stories do.”

The castle used to be seen as an exclusionary space. Two years ago, as part of its 350th anniversary, a new strategy was devised to let the public enjoy it.

“It’s a beautiful building and a shame that even most people living in Cape Town have never been here. So we developed a strategy about hosting events to change that,” Hendricks says. “Because it’s a National Heritage Site we have to be responsible when hosting events, but we believe that heritage facilities are not just for people to look at from a distance but to use and engage with.”

The castle has a target of hosting 30 commercial events and 10 non-commercial events every year to benefit the community. An events unit ensures that everything runs smoothly and a heritage manager drew up guidelines to adhere to, such as not drilling into the walls.

An in-house caterer was recently appointed to run its restaurant, and anyone staging an event must now use this catering company. The event team can recommend suppliers for other services or organisers can bring in their own.

“We are self-sufficient and don’t get money from the government so our biggest income is from tourism and these commercial events are the cherry on top,” Hendricks says.

The castle was built between 1666 and 1679 and has a variety of small, medium and large rooms for hire, including the Lady Anne Barnard Banquet Hall, which is a popular for events with a historic touch and can seat 101 people. You can also hire pretty courtyards and the grounds that hold up to 1,800 people. It has hosted gala dinners for incentive groups from around the world, and staged community events like concerts, fashion shows and arts and craft markets. These venues might not be as easy to customise as a hotel ballroom, but they offer something unique. Take your guests on a tour of South Africa’s heritage

Freedom Park

Freedom Park touts itself as an ideal venue for all events, with award-winning architecture, a panoramic view of Pretoria and a variety of venues for hire.

The heritage site was designed as a monument to human rights and freedom, and a memorial to those who gave their lives in the fight for liberty.

For a formal banquet or awards ceremony, the majestic Gallery of Leaders is a good choice. The Amphitheatre is ideal for outdoor concerts or celebration, while the Uitspanplek provides a serene park environment for a picnic style event. The Moshate is a high-level hospitality suite for smaller meetings or corporate retreats, while The Sanctuary offers a serene environment for faith-based gatherings or award ceremonies.


The Cradle of Humankind, an hour from Johannesburg and Pretoria, is a world-famous site where numerous hominid fossils have been unearthed. Maropeng Visitor Centre has a conference centre with three rooms that can be used on their own or in combination to seat up to 500 delegates. An events team helps with logistics like arranging shuttle services for the delegates, since it is well off the beaten track.

It’s a short walk from a 24-room boutique hotel, with great views of the countryside and four-star service. An unusual attraction is the option of meeting some of South Africa’s renowned scientists and palaeontologists and hearing their stories over dinner.

After-hours activities include exploring Maropeng Visitors Centre, which takes guests on a journey dating back seven million years, walking tours to view palaeontological digs, and a tour of Sterkfontein Caves. Another option is stargazing with astronomer Vincent Nettman. Delegates can also enjoy hot air balloon rides over the Magaliesberg Mountains. Sterkfontein Caves has a conference venue of its own too, for 36 to 120 delegates.

Union Buildings

For delegates seeking a sense of grandeur, try staging an event at Union Buildings, the official seat of government and home of the Presidency. The imposing buildings stand at the highest point Pretoria and were designed by Sir Herbert Baker and completed in 1913. In 1994, Union Buildings saw the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela Museum

A recent event staged at the Nelson Mandela Museum would have won the approval of the great man himself – a boxing contest!

Boxers came from Swaziland and Lesotho to exchange blows with their South African rivals to celebrate the life of Mandela. The venue in Mthatha is designed to record our history and promote economic development throughout tourism.

The Castle of Good Hope

Doreen Hendricks, Tourism and Marketing Manager. Tel: +27 21 787 1249; marketing@castleofgoodhope.co.za

Constitution Hill

Jeanny Morulane, General Manager of Marketing. Tel: +27 11 381 3150; jeanny@conhill.org.za

Gauteng venues such as Freedom Park, Union Buildings and Maropeng

Barba Gaoganediwe, Head of Destination Promotions and Marketing. Tel: +27 11 085 2500; barba@gauteng.net

Nelson Mandela Museum

Tel: +27 47 501 9500; info@mandelamuseum.org.za