We’ve finished up our trip to South Africa and are now back to the daily grind in the Pacific Northwest. This week in my series I thought I’d focus on our last few days in Cape Town.
We said goodbye to Port Elizabeth and took the 12-hour journey to Cape Town. While there we decided to be as tourist-y as you can get and ride a sight-seeing tour bus. This ended up being a great way to see some of the area, as we had the opportunity to get off at various locations.
From this we got off and took a tour of one of the local townships. The townships are nothing like anything I’ve seen in America. In South Central Los Angeles, I’ve seen people living in low-income, run-down houses or apartments with bars on their windows. That is luxury housing compared to what the townships are like. We were guided through by a local so we didn’t get roughed up or stabbed. It can seriously be that dangerous walking through a township as a white person and we felt it a couple times. I was reminded of how necessary it is to keep my guard up when a couple of kids suddenly grabbed me from behind. It’s possible these kids were excited to see us Americans, however kids are often trained to beg and pick-pocket, so my initial instinct was to make sure my pocketed belongings were protected.
We were able to walk in to two homes, both I believe, housed four people. One was a shack like most homes with dirt or partially-wooded flooring. Another was a nicer home with tiled flooring. This was a wait-list home. Everybody lives in a self-built shack and is on a wait list for a better home to be built for them. They can be on this list for a long time, as nothing is all that efficient in South Africa, especially if it might be helpful to the public. It was fascinating seeing the differences between the two homes, although neither would get a real estate agent excited. They’re both relatively small, however, where the shack might be less than 500 square feet (just a bit bigger than your wood shed), the wait-list house was closer to 1,000 square feet, with a hallway, bedrooms, and a bathroom.
Now, what was also interesting is there is a 40% unemployment rate in the townships, but also many people who have gone through community programs to learn specific skills to a) become a domestic employee, b) be a licensed taxi driver, or c) become an entrepreneur by starting a business in the township or selling arts and crafts. These are majority of the options available to the township people to get by each day. There are few options that bring drastic improvement and the affordability to move out of the township and into an apartment or house in the city.
As an American, the concept of touring a township initially felt very off-putting. It sounded like we were these white privileged blokes who were going to tour the poor black people. Thankfully, it felt very little like that. I realized how important it is for outsiders to walk through, see, feel, and smell what it’s like for many black people in South Africa, rather than just drive by from the relative safety of the highway. I’m glad we took the time to experience firsthand an example of these areas that are unpleasant, yet so much a part of the country’s reality.
Another similar aspect is a place called Robben Island, which sits about three miles off the coast of Cape Town. Robben Island is most famous for holding Nelson Mandela prisoner as a saboteur and terrorist for nearly 20 years (he was imprisoned for another 7-10 years somewhere on the mainland). Robben Island has history beyond Nelson Mandela; it has a long history of being a prison island for political rabble-rousers dating back to the 1700s. It was also used as a whaling station in the early 19th century, a leper colony in the late 19th century, and an artillery defense during World War II. It wasn’t until 1961 that it became the maximum security prison it’s now famous for. It’s been a historical tourism site since 1999, only a few years after Mandela was freed and three years after the prison was officially shut down. These were some of the most interesting pieces of information we didn’t know.
What makes Robben Island so powerful a place to visit is its prison. Tourists are guided by a former prisoner of Robben Island, getting first-hand account of the mental and physical torture they experienced while doing time. Ours was arrested and imprisoned after protesting in the late ‘70s a mandate that Xhosa and Zulus learn Afrikaans (the Dutch-derived language, spoken by Dutch descendants) as their primary language. He was imprisoned for five years. He spent some of that time sleeping on a mat in a common room with other prisoners. There was no protection from the weather conditions in that room, as it’d get below freezing and extremely hot, depending on the season. They’d work eight hours a day mining in a limestone quarry with no protection from the heat. Sometimes, they’d have to brave the chilly waters of the island’s coast to gather kelp. Most of the labor was to the benefit of the guard’s village, be it to provide material to build their homes or other things. It was incredibly powerful listening to our guide speak of his experience. It slowly dawned on me that since the 1700s and even in recent history, the native people of South Africa have been persecuted and had their lands stolen and disrupted by the Dutch and English settlers. There’s a long history of mistreatment, which seems mostly acknowledged by the current and younger generations of Caucasian residents who want to move forward in peace and solidarity with the blacks and coloureds. It’s quite a fascinating history and contemporary society to witness.
After all of this, we took an aerial cable car up 3,500+ feet to the top of Table Mountain. The views there were glorious! I’ve never been so high! Bear in mind, I’m not a big fan of heights. Now, I generally won’t freak out if I’m in some sort of safe transportation or building. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy hanging out over the edge and looking down. Of course, this is exactly what my wife and several other crazy types did. No thanks. I made sure I generally stayed a couple feet away from the very edge. My obvious cowardice aside, it was extraordinary to be up there. You could see everything! And there was still plenty of room to walk about. I’m not sure the exact width dimensions, but it takes at least a couple minutes to walk from one side of the mountain to the other and longer to walk the length of the mountain. One of the great discoveries on Table Mountain for me was the dassies, also known as hyrax. These are cute little fuzzy critters that look related to gophers or squirrels, but are most related to the elephant. They have no trunk or anything, but they’re super cute! We found several of them all along the cliffs of Table Mountain and on top.
Overall, I’m so grateful for my experience in South Africa. I highly encourage you to plan a trip there and be sure to check out many of the spots highlighted in this series. I hope this has been at least half as interesting as it has been for me and you’ve enjoyed seeing and reading about my experiences.
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