Monday, July 29, 2013

Cape Town - Walk to Freedom

"Here's the cell where Mandela was imprisoned for  18 years", said our guide on Robben Island.
Then he quickly pushed us along after less than a minute to view the cell.  I had really wanted to stand there and contemplate the small cell but it was not to be.  (And very frustrating given that we were hustled away only to spend almost an hour waiting for the ferry back to the mainland.)  When we were there, it was not expected that Mandela would recover and there were several banners in Cape Town wishing him well.  It was a particularly poignant time to be visiting Robben Island.

Our guide had been incarcerated on Robben Island for almost a decade, but he was rather disappointing as a tour guide, not managing to bring a personal perspective on what it was like there, or the dimensions of the struggle that brought him there.  I guess it's the luck of the draw which guide you get, because my daughter had visited years ago and found it one of the most moving experiences of her life.

The trip to Robben Island was part of the Cape Town Walk to Freedom tour, focusing on the history of non-whites in SA.  Our tour guide was himself a very interesting guy, describing himself as 'coloured' which he considers not to be denigrating but simple statement of fact.  His German grandfather had fathered children with a black woman who worked in the house.  He eventually left his wife and married her - a highly scandalous action in those days.  His family varied in skin colour, and some were able to register as whites, which entailed them breaking all contact with their darker skinned relatives.  A family split, with our guide growing up in a coloured township and paler relatives growing up in Cape Town with the whites.  His personal history brought home the impact of apartheid in a very meaningful way.

District Six in Cape Town was a melting pot of all different races, including former slaves, and many Malay immigrants brought to South Africa by the Dutch East Indies Company.  The District Six museum brought to life a vision of that quarter before it was razed by the apartheid government in the 70s to make room for more development for whites only.  About 60,000 people moved to outer townships for blacks and coloureds.  However, a public outcry prevented the area from being developed and it was mostly covered in grasses.  There were a few homes there and some development being planned and offered to people who can provide proof they were evicted.

Visiting Langa Township was an eye-opening experience.  Many of the people evicted from District Six ended up in Langa Township.

 Our guide talked about seeing a different Big Five here (the traditional Big Five being lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo), namely in the range of housing.  The range of housing was much broader than I had expected and consisted of
  • Older townhouses.  These looked in 'pretty good nick' as they say in South Africa.  It was only once we went inside that we understood that the number of people squeezed in made them pretty awful.  We visited an apartment where 15 families lived, sharing a communal kitchen with primitive facilities, and the small room where 8 people lived, shown below.
  • Modern new townhouses, which stood empty.  Intended for people to upgrade to, they were simply too expensive for township residents.  You can see some of these in the corner of the next picture.  These little girls walked up to our granddaughter and walked along with her for a while, speaking very good English, before skipping away to play somewhere else.

  • Containers being used as houses.  Ironically, I've read of discarded containers being recycled as pop-up stores in urban areas after being fitted out with electricity and water.  I bet these containers were not so well equipped.  And I'm guessing they'd be murderously hot in the summer.

  • Shacks put together with odd materials, and open cooking fires.  To be honest, I had envisioned the whole township would be like this.  Here was the beginning of putting something together with 'found' materials.

  • So-called Beverly Hills:  a street of modest but attractive bungalows in warm red brick that would not be out of place in any suburb.  Apparently the people living here could afford to live elsewhere but chose to live where they had close cultural and family ties.

It was hard to tell from our curtailed tour what proportion of the people lived in each of these categories, although clearly Beverly Hills was the minority.  

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