Category Archives: Exploring South Africa

Robben Island

Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa

Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa

The single essential place to visit in Cape Town is Robben Island, the flat, parched patch in the bay where political prisoners have been incarcerated within sight of the city since the seventeenth century, and where three of the post-apartheid presidents of South Africa spent years of their lives – most famously Nelson Mandela (imprisoned on Robben Island 1962-1982, eventually released 1990), and also the third president Kgalema Motlanthe (imprisoned 1977-1987) and the present incumbent, Jacob Zuma (imprisoned 1963-1973).

When Robben Island wasn’t in use as a prison it served as a leper colony, where the lepers were originally admitted voluntarily but eventually brought there involuntarily.  It was also used as a medium-security prison for criminals.

It is a miserable place, yet unexpectedly uplifting.

When I visited Cape Town I made a point of booking a Robben Island tour [http://www.robben-island.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=10&Itemid=11], and the white man who sold me my ticket was once Nelson Mandela’s jailer, the black man beside him behind the counter an ex-prisoner.

Over on the island, a thirty-minute catamaran trip away, we were bussed past the former leper colony, the lighthouse and the view of Table Mountain, before being introduced to the prison-guide, another ex-prisoner.

All tours are guided by ex-prisoners, so you get the message directly.

At one point the group simply sits in a meeting room to question the guide.  One tourist asked what was the greatest injustice done on the island, and the guide simply replied that the removal of freedom, the deprivation of life’s opportunities was the essential injustice.

I told him he’d taught me that much good occurred on the island, and he said, yes, the prisoners learned to depend on each other, to support and to develop their potentialities.

This isn’t merely a prison, like Alcatraz, but a crucible of political thinking and social revolution.  Kgalema Motlanthe wrote, of his time on Robben Island,–

We were a community of people who ranged from the totally illiterate to people who could very easily have been professors at universities.  We shared basically everything.  The years out there were the most productive years in one’s life, we were able to read,  we read all the material that came our way, took an interest in the lives of people even in the remotest corners of this world.  To me those years gave meaning to life.

A clip about Robben Island featured in the BBC News coverage of the death of Nelson Mandela.  I’ve no way of knowing if Christo Brand, featured in the clip, was the man I spoke to when I visited in 2000:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-25296656.

 

Bo-Kaap

Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, South Africa

Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, South Africa

Not far from District Six is an area of Cape Town called Bo-Kaap, formerly known as the Malay Quarter.

This is a Muslim area, occupied by a community that’s been there virtually as long as the Dutch, over three hundred years.  They’re known as the Cape Malays, from their patois not their origin.

The ancestors of the Cape Malays were slaves brought to Cape Town by the Dutch settlers from other parts of Africa, from Indonesia and other parts of south-east Asia as well as the Malay Kingdoms. 

Bo-Kaap’s survival is an indicator of the crassness of the social system that blighted South Africa.

Because the area was racially homogenous the apartheid government simply ignored it, leaving its distinctive pale-painted architecture intact.

Stretching up the slopes of Signal Hill, the streets are spacious and attractive, and it’s ironic that in the post-apartheid era they’ve become highly desirable.

The Bo-Kaap Museum at 71 Wale Street is an example of some of the earliest property-development in Cape Town, dating back to the end of the eighteenth century.  It’s now restored to show the lifestyle of the early-nineteenth-century Cape Malay Community.

The Museum is a fascinating introduction to a community that has survived remarkably intact from the earliest history of foreign settlement at the southernmost tip of Africa:  http://bokaap.co.za/museum.

 

District Six

District 6 Museum, Cape Town, South Africa

District Six Museum, Cape Town, South Africa

I first learnt about the poet Tatamkhulu Afrika when his poem ‘Nothing’s changed’, about post-apartheid South Africa [http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips/tatamkhulu-afrika-nothings-changed-and-district-6/10291.html], appeared in a GCSE English anthology that I taught to fifteen-/sixteen-year-olds around 1999-2002.

The video-clip that came with the anthology [http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips/tatamkhulu-afrika-nothings-changed-and-district-6/10291.html] revealed that, despite his pen-name, given to him by the ANC’s militant wing Umkhonto We Sizwe, he looked like a white man.

Tatamkhulu Afrika (1920-2002) was actually of Egyptian and Turkish descent, adopted by White South African parents who concealed his ethnic origin in order to give him better opportunities under apartheid.  As an adult he rebelled against this, converted to Islam and lived in the cosmopolitan community of District Six in Cape Town.

The poem expresses his anger at the destruction of District Six after the government declared it a white-only area and razed the buildings, exiling the polyglot population to the bleak Cape Flats area, a fifteen-mile rail journey from the city centre.

During the time I was repeatedly working with ‘Nothing’s changed’ with classes of teenagers, I happened to take a trip to South Africa and spent time in Cape Town.

I made a point of persuading a tour-guide to take me to the District Six Museumhttp://www.districtsix.co.za.

The Museum is in a Methodist chapel (one of the numerous places of Christian worship that were left standing) and the coloured guide was a veteran of the injustice.  Showing us a display of identity cards, alongside a whites-only park bench and a whites-only taxi-rank sign, he was able to point to his own picture.

It’s hard to comprehend the bitterness and anger that apartheid generated, and impossible not to admire the way that the new South Africa, for all its imperfections, has travelled so far in the twenty years since the abolition of apartheid.

 

Christmas in a T-Shirt: The Blue Train

The Blue Train, Kimberley, South Africa

The Blue Train, Kimberley, South Africa

The Blue Train, Kimberley, South Africa:  passenger compartment interior

The Blue Train, Pretoria-Cape Town, South Africa: passenger compartment interior

Everyone deserves to be treated at least once in their lives as well as passengers are treated on South Africa’s Blue Train [http://www.bluetrain.co.za/about.htm] which trundles the 990 miles between Pretoria and Cape Town at a leisurely pace in 27 hours.

From the moment passengers are ushered on to the platform and then the train by the train-captain, all they need to do is ask.

My butler was called Herbert.  He showed me the cabin, awash with armchairs and cushions, the marquetry panelling, the marble bathroom, the mobile phone to summon him at any time, the multiplicity of light-switches and lights, the TV zapper which also controlled the venetian blinds within the double-glazed window.  You can even tune the TV to the camera on the front of the locomotive, a quarter of a mile ahead, so you can see where you were going.

When you have a bath on a train, the water slops up to your head or down to your feet every time you go round a bend.

Everything you could possibly need was there, if sometimes not where you’d expect to find it, and every time I ventured into the corridor Herbert was invisibly in and out tidying the pencils and replacing the mineral water bottle.

Everything, including the postcards and the postage, is on the house.  In the lounge car I asked the barman, a young man called Wesley, if people sometimes got out of control and he said, yes, it sometimes happened.

In the dining car Irene, my waitress, kept me stocked up with appropriate wines, tuning into my preference for cheese before dessert and proffering dessert wine at the appropriate moment.  For lunch I had venison;  for dinner ostrich.  There was also afternoon tea, and pots of tea and coffee delivered to the cabin by Herbert.

Before dinner I sat on a bar-stool watching the sunset, and drinking white wine, and returned to the bar afterwards with an English couple I’d met in the observation car, and we mulled over brandies which Wesley had expertly warmed.  Very large double brandies.

When I eventually went back to my suite, transformed by Herbert into a bedroom, and opened the window-blinds, the sky was ablaze with stars as we crossed the Karoo desert.

For breakfast there was smoked-salmon omelette – and much, much else.

I was very fortunate to make the journey in 2000, when the Rand was falling through the floor.  In 2014 the single fare from Pretoria to Cape Town or vice versa is just short of £1,200.  Seriously, there are far worse ways of spending that sort of money on a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Or perhaps twice in a lifetime.