BACK in the old days, a visit to Mthatha dictated that we kids from the surrounding small towns dress in our Sunday best to be on par with the "city" people.

Before we left for Mthatha, the former capital of Transkei, our parents used to give us a crash course in etiquette on how to carry ourselves in front of the "city" folk. And woe betide any child who broke these rules.

Mthatha was like heaven to us. We used to brave the hard-slapping winds on the back of my father's bakkie just to see the then glorious town.

The thought of seeing a tarred road, tall buildings, beautiful homes, the renowned schools (where only brainy kids went), the University of Transkei, Radio Transkei, the street lights, and the prospect of seeing white people, kept us children on our best behaviour.

Given its illustrious past, the town that was once a thriving centre of commerce and public administration has become a sickly shadow of its former self.

The heydays of the 1990s seem to have bypassed this Thembu town. The once-prosperous place is characterised by potholes as big as bathtubs, daily power blackouts, regular water cuts and an increasing crime rate.

Those who could have left the town for better places such as East London and Port Elizabeth.

It is not all gloom and doom, though. Some places have survived. Mthatha's Circus Triangle Shopping Centre has returned to its former glory. It has been renovated and there is a newly built mall called Mthatha Plaza. The mall has created many jobs and has given the dilapidated town a facelift.

It is also comforting that Mthatha has retained many of its neoclassical-style buildings so popular in colonial times. These include the town hall - a sandstone building that was completed in 1908.

The Nelson Mandela National Museum, housed in the historic Bhunga building, which functioned as the seat of the United Transkei Territories general council, Transkei legislative assembly and the Republic of Transkei parliament during the territory's nominal independence in the apartheid era, is the biggest tourist attraction in town.

A number of gifts given to the world icon by other nations while he was president are displayed in the domed building.

Smaller satellite museums have been set up in Mvezo, Mandela's birthplace, and in Qunu.

If you are not into the political stuff and you want to relax, the best spot is Mthatha Dam, which hlothive of water sports.

If chilling at a dam is not your thing, then chill at the popular Mthatha Country Club, party at the equally popular Brick Yard tavern at the Old Savoy building or Antons, a hot spot at the Southernwood Pick n Pay complex.

And don't leave Mthatha without visiting Lalini in North Crest. This is a bar with an African theme where the who's who in the town quench their thirst.

Other places of interest include the Madiba hiking trail. There are also a number of nature reserves in the area.

Close to the town are two charming nature reserves, the Luchaba Nature Reserve, 5km north, and the Nduli Nature Reserve, 3km south.

Mthatha Airport is getting a facelift.

The first phase of the upgrade started late last year. The R56million project is expected to be completed in May.

The upgrade is one of the projects that has been earmarked to contribute to tourism in the region during the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

The airport will hopefully make visiting the town much easier for tourists.

High-quality accommodation at hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs is also available at reasonable prices.

Fact File

l The earliest inhabitants of this region were Bushmen and Hottentots, who were driven out by the Xhosa when they moved into the area in the 17th century.

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, the interests of the Boers, British and Xhosa came into conflict and after the bloody Kaffir Wars in 1879, the territory was incorporated into the Cape Colony.

The Transkei was granted internal self-government in 1963.

l Mthatha on the Mthatha River, was founded in 1879. It has a number of imposing public buildings. One of them is a fine Anglican cathedral.

The university, originally founded in 1976 as a branch of Fort Hare University, now accommodates 000 students.

l There are also a number of interesting craft centres including the Hilmond weaving mill where you will find the finest mohair wool and the Izandla pottery centre, to which a craft school is attached.

Both of these are on the Queenstown road on the R61.