Three properties showcase African design at its best



Several years ago, I had the pleasure of staying at the luxurious, award-winning Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Saxon is the creation of Douw Steyn, a South African entrepreneur who was a good friend of the late South African president and statesman Nelson Mandela. In fact, it was at this hotel—Steyn’s private residence at the time—that Mandela edited his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom. The interiors, by internationally renowned South OUT OF AFRICA BY MARY K. LOVE 402 CSD three properties showcase african design at its best African designer Stephen Falcke, are a gift to lovers of Africaninspired design.

Steyn owns other remarkable properties. One is Zulu Camp, an assemblage of thatched “chalets” modeled after a traditional Zulu village. Another is the Nelson Mandela Centre for Reconciliation, which Steyn built in 2001 as a haven of tranquility for the former president and his family. Both properties are part of the Shambala Private Game Reserve: 20,000 acres in South Africa’s rolling Waterberg mountain range, just a 2 1/2-hour drive north of Johannesburg.

Closed as a mark of respect since the former president’s passing in 2013, the Mandela Centre reopened to guests this summer. They will enjoy spacious, elegant lounges, five luxurious bedrooms with en-suite baths, outdoor decks with views of the bush, a private water hole, a covered heated pool and access to all the amenities the reserve has to offer—game drives, a spa, world-class cuisine, fishing and more.


At the request of Mandela, the house is simple in design and constructed with natural materials to create a uniquely African aesthetic and ambience. At the entrance, the twisting trunks of leadwood trees support the porte-cochère, while the front door, made of Rhodesian teak, features carvings by Mozambique artist, Matsemela ike Nkoana (a tribute to the heritage of Mandela’s third wife, Graça Machel).

Handwoven African carpets accent an interior awash in soft neutrals. Against this backdrop, striking portraits of women in traditional African dress loom large in the public rooms.

Design lovers will appreciate how the open-framed, thatched ceilings draw the eye upward. Below, a palette of whites, golds and creams afford the rooms an expansive feel as if they were extensions of the African landscape. In the spacious public rooms, grass cloth walls and woven fabrics add texture, while beaded chandeliers bespeak a playful elegance. Strategically placed medium-and dark-toned furniture and moldings provide a visual anchor.

Overall, the retreat, from a design perspective, is a masterpiece of understatement and, as Steyn intended, a “fitting tribute to an exceptional, yet humble, person.”

Zulu Camp, at the opposite end of the reserve, is a world away in style but shares the Mandela Centre’s African roots. Guests pass through an outer stockade and enter an intimate arched passageway that opens up to a beehive-shaped reception hall made entirely of thatch. In the center, a fire blazes on an open hearth, while lanterns, hung on curvaceous wroughtiron stands, illuminate the warm, chestnut-toned walls.

The individual suites, also built in Zulu style, are just steps away. Their round, low-slung entrances suggest a hobbit’s abode. Inside, however, the ceilings soar, giving the impression that you’ve stepped into a giant, upside-down basket. Thatch walls swirl gracefully down from the ceiling’s apex, like a spiraling nautilus shell. It’s held together in a traditional style with horizontal wood banding.

The incredible story of how these buildings were made has yet to be told. What is clear, however, is that the execution was flawless. The suites offer every luxury—from heat and air-conditioning (rare in a bush camp) to the finest soaps and lotions. The bathroom is enormous, complete with a soaking tub and 2-person shower. There’s a private outdoor shower, as well.

Unlike most safari camps, the compound is enclosed and guarded, so at night guests can walk unescorted to the kraal (the center of a traditional Zulu village) where they’re welcomed by a bonfire before enjoying a meal overlooking a tranquil, flowing river.

What unites the these properties is one man’s love of all things African, a love he shared with South Africa’s president and, now, with guests from around the world.

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