Cape Town's Date & Time

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

(1/19 & 1/20) Waterfront and Freedom Tour

Yesterday (1/19) I explored downtown Cape Town. We spent time in Victoria Wharf, an enormous mall, as well as V & A Waterfront Marina. It was a major contrast to my day today.

Today (1/20) was intense. Our entire program, Interstudy, did the Inkululeko “freedom route” tour, which entailed the District 6 museum, visiting the Langa Township, and touring the infamous Robben Island. Our day started relatively early as we were already heading into down town Cape Town by 8:30 to the museum. We had tour guides who stayed with us throughout the day and were extremely informative.

At the District 6 museum we not only got a history lesson of the District 6 area, but also a history of the oppression within Cape Town (and South Africa). South Africans all had different internal passports used to define which race that person was. One would be identified as either white, Cape Malay, Indian, coloured, or black. In 1952 the Pass Laws were declared requiring all blacks to carry a form of the pass-book at all times, called a dompas (literally translating to stupid book in Afrikaans). Other laws were quickly passed, such as the mandatory living segregation by race, which became complicated because many families of mixed race were split up and many people were incorrectly labeled due to subjective rulings (for exampled the “pencil test” was used to distinguish blacks from coloured; if a pencil could be placed in one’s hair and it doesn’t fall out that person was black and if it did fall out they were coloured).

District 6 is an area that was occupied by mainly colours; however, on February 11, 1966, bulldozers began clearing (bulldozing) the area for the future inhabitance of whites only. Thousands protested for the right to stay, but everyone was eventually displaced. Thousands of families were moved to townships miles from the city and their homes were destroyed. It took over 15 years to completely excavate the area, leaving only government building or places of worship (churches and mosques). After the area had been completely wiped out, plots of land were supposed to be sold to whites, but few whites were willing to move into the area due to the protesting and destruction; therefore to this day the land remains desolate in the midst of a metropolitan city. The museum is built in a Methodist church that was not destroyed and houses photos and stories of the families displaced. Since the end of aparthied government, the new government has offered to move families back into the area, but many of the families are not willing to be relocated because they have a strong sense of community within their township.

After the museum, we headed out of the city to the Langa Township. We began at the town center and then proceeded to tour a 3-block radius of homes, hostels, a bar, market, and pre-school. I felt uncomfortable at first walking through this community taking pictures of their poverty, but our tour guide was from Langa and introduced us to his neighbors and really lightened the mood of the tour. The unemployment rate in Langa is 25% and the HIV/AIDS rate is even higher, but there is an interwoven sense of hope as new homes are being built and policies are changing for the better. Condoms are distributed for free throughout South Africa at clinics and in public bathrooms, but there is still a weird stigma about HIV and there are huge education efforts attempting to spread awareness about the seriousness of HIV/AIDS and destroy any myths (having sex with a virgin can cure you). The market had meat literally chilling in the heat; refrigeration is just not as used or really desired here. The homes were un-comprehensibly nicer than the hostels, which were used to house 15 families in 6 rooms and a living space. Each room houses 3 twin size beds that are shared among 3 families. The elders sleep in the bedrooms at night and all the children sleep in the living space. The hostels were built originally to house young single men, but as they grew older and had families the hostels’ populations swelled. There is no running water inside and the bathrooms are outside. It was overwhelming to see the living conditions. The pre-school was incredible. The kids sang for us the South African national anthem and danced for us. We were able to play with them for thirty minutes during their “recess.” Their school was just one room and lots of kids, but they were adorable. Again, it broke my heart to be holding a camera that was worth 2-3 months rent for their parents. The housing being built by the government was supposed to be done before the World Cup but they ran behind schedule. There are paintings on the doors for the number in line that family is for receiving a new home. The new plans have outlined for all the housing to be completed by 2014. We were able to see some of the new houses and they were nice; still very small, but using solar power and bathroom in doors. We stopped at a bar-like shop and our tour guide ordered us a traditional beer which sits out to be fermented for 7 days. It is literally served in a giant bucket and all 50 of us shared it. It tasted interesting, granted it was warm, so I bet it would go down nice with some ice cubes. Our last stop was with the local medicine man. He had herbs and animal bones and apparently a large part of the community still prefers his medicine to the western medicine (which is offered for free). The medicine man sort of freaked me out, it was nothing he did in particular, I just would prefer someone who has some sort of infection to go to a clinical doctor and receive treatment than a remedy, but that’s just me.

Above: Langa Township

Middle: Dalukhanyo Pre-school

Bottom: Medicine man

From the township we headed back to the waterfront to take a boat to Robben Island. It was a thirty-minute trip and I felt seasick for the first time ever. Thankfully, we were able to sit out on the top of the boat and overlook Cape Town and breathe some fresh salty air. Once at the island we took a bus tour to all the different areas of the island before heading into Section B of the prison, where Nelson Mandela served 18 of his years in prison. The island is pretty large and quite a few ex-prisoners and ex-wardens live on the island together still to this day. Ex-political prisoners run the tour of the island and many have chosen to remain on the island after the conversion of the prison into a memorial/museum. I read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography A Long Walk To Freedom right before coming to South Africa and it was incredible being able to see all the places he talked about while describing his experience on Robben Island. We were able to see his cell and our tour guide described his experience while in prison in the 80s before being released in 1991 (a year after Mandela (or he is often called Matiba)). While on the island we saw penguins running around, apparently there is also a sole ostrich that roams the island. Robben Island had many different purposes before becoming a political and criminal prison. Robben Island translates to “Seal Island” in Dutch and originally served as an exile for people sick with Leprosy, which was incurable at the time of the exile. There are hundred of graves and many people believe the island to be haunted at night by the ghosts of buried. Although huge populations of the blacks in South Africa are Christian there is a huge aspect of mysticism still remaining in their spiritual beliefs. The ride off the island was horrendous. We were riding against the wind and I thought I was going to vomit (I still feel like I am rocking on a boat and its been a few hours).

Below: Nelson Mandela's cell

Overall, an intensely powerful day. I feel like my education here has already begun and I am yet to step inside a class room. It’s truly unfortunate the oppression that has happened to these people, but just like other oppressed groups of people, those who arise prove to be reminders to the world that all humans are capable of overcoming the harshest of times, but at the same time, in this day of age, it’s almost unacceptable. Blacks in South Africa have only received the right to vote within the last two decades and weren’t even considered South African citizens until after the Pass Laws were destroyed.

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