On the second day I did a trip called Footsteps to Freedom and Streetwires. It was a 2.5 hours walking tour of Cape Town, and our guide informed us of the history of South Africa as we went. He split it into 4 parts, the time before westerners arrived, the Dutch, The British and Apartheid. Our guide often interconnected the 4 periods as we walked around and at various points he would point out certain aspects of each period.
We started our tour at on a road that was built by the first Dutch settlers to transport stone from the quarry on Lion’s Head and Signal Hill (the hill where the afternoon signal is shot from) to the site of the Castle of Good Hope. This road is marked by a stone emblem of the castle with the Dutch East India Company’s stamp: VOC. It was here that the guide explained that most South African tribes originated from the area where modern day Cameroon is. We then walked to Green Market Square, where there was a local market of African arts and crafts, it was a bartering market. We looked at some art deco buildings and a church and an old Dutch governmental building.
Our walked then took us to the back of a Newspaper building where the company displayed posters of the front page of some of the more significant issues they have had in their history. The first one was the front page on the day that Nelson Mandela’s sentence was announced along with the rest of the people involved in the Rivonia trial. There were a few more, one with Nelson Mandela’s release, one with his election to presidency and a few more. Sadly for South Africa, and for the world, Nelson Mandela might not be with us for much longer, he no longer makes any public appearances and his health had been declining, and many worry that his time could come at any moment these days. We then arrived at the Mutual Building, where many sculptures were carved into the walls of the lower floor. These depicted scenes from South Africa’s history, from tribal affairs to apartheid. There were also the chief of every native tribe in South Africa that was depicted on the columns of the lower levels. The guide then walked us to the former City Hall of Cape Town, where we went to the balcony where Nelson Mandela first addressed the public after his release from 27 years of imprisonment. It was quite powerful to stand on that balcony and look out on to the plaza and picture the crowd cheering and hearing the inspirational words of Nelson Mandela. He repeated his famous line that he said in his trial, the end of which is: “it is a cause for which, if need be, I am willing to die for.” The cause meaning the cause to end apartheid and bring about a unified and equal South African society.
We then took the bus to head to the District 6 Museum. Outside the entrance a plaque reads “All who pass by remember with shame the many thousands of people who lived for generations in district six and other parts of this city, and were forced by law to leave their homes because of the colour of their skins. Father, forgive us….” This is pretty much the summary for the story of District 6 and the reason behind the establishment of the museum. District 6 was an area in Cape Town where people of various ethnicities lived and worked. They were considered colored people not black, and it was a melting pot of cultures. Soon District 6 developed its own vibrant and unique soul. However the government declared it a slum because it was occupied by these people of different skin colors and declared the area to be demolished leaving only religious buildings. The residents were moved to townships that were far away from the city making it harder to get to work or even find work. The soul and culture was lost forever. The museum was created by former residents to remember the culture and soul of the place and to allow for other former residents and family members to go there to remember and reconcile with the past. It is also for tourists and newer generation South Africans to understand the past. There is a current plan, that is about to be passed in the next few days or could already have been passed, to rebuild the area and relocate the former residents back to District 6. Though this is welcomed, the soul will never be recovered. But it is good to see the government’s efforts in trying to mend the wounds that the apartheid government left behind in the country. The museum was small, but powerful. There many quotes, pictures, props for the recreation of various shops and spaces from the community. All of these things are items that belong to residents of District 6 and they were willing to display their items in the museum in order to preserve the memories. One powerful pictures was on swivel panel, on one side was a picture of the hustling main street of the area, on the other side was a picture of the same street but only the church in the background remained, the rest of the buildings had become shrubs and the road deserted. It was certainly a powerful museum, and for me it was the most powerful place I visited in terms of understanding apartheid and the scars that it has left behind. It was also here that our guide explained that apartheid was often driven by economic aspirations. It was a way to preserve white wealth by putting measures to keep cheap black labor. This raises the question as to whether slavery really ended after it was supposedly outlawed in 1834 in South Africa.
After tea and scones at the same garden café in the Company Gardens our bus took us to the Bo-Kaap district. This is the Malay district of Cape Town, known for its colorfully painted houses and delicious Cape Malay food. We came here to visit a workshop and store called Streetwires. This was an organization created to offer jobs for unemployed township residents. These unemployed people either volunteer their artistic skills or are introduced through acquaintances. They create art with streetwires and other recyclables. Due to high demand in recent years though, many of the materials are bought rather than solely being picked up from the streets. It is a good program to allow these otherwise unemployed township residents a job and an outlet for their skills. I bought a few small items that I found interesting.
After returning to the ship, a friend and I headed to the pier to board the Robben Island Ferry. It was a short ferry ride to Robben Island. We arrived and boarded buses. Our bus took us around the island where we made stops at important spots.
The first stop was at a cemetery, which was one of the first time that Robben Island was used to ostracize people, because before the prison, the island was used as a place to keep people with Leprosy. They thought that leprosy could be transferred from mothers to children so they often killed the mother and the baby inside of her. The cemetery is a small part of the former cemetery that is now occupied by the prison. It contains a small number of graves, all of which belong to leprosy patients. We then drove by a privately owned church, and a single house prison, where the only real political prisoner was held. Unfortunately I did not take notes, and so I forget the name of the man, but he was taken to Robben Island and placed into solitary confinement where his family could only visit once a month and no one was allowed to be near him. We then stopped at the quarry where Nelson Mandela worked. Many former prisoners have had chronic illnesses associated with the dust and strong sun from working in the quarry. Nelson Mandela himself had eye surgery because he couldn’t cry due to all the dust in his tear glands. A pile of stone in a pyramid shape laid in the center of the quarry. Its first stone was laid by Nelson Mandela, and it is a traditional tribal ritual to create a stone pyramid. I regret to inform you that once again I did not take notes and I cannot recall what the significance of it was. We then drove by the main town, where we saw the church which has a long waiting list for marriages, and the local school. We then arrived at a scenic spot along the ocean. There was a Robben Island sign and Table Mountain and the city in the background, perfect for a picture. The bus then took us to the lighthouse, where we passed another quarry and a World War II gun that was built, and our guide joked, “sadly, in true African style, the gun was not complete until after the war ended.” Before we got off at the Maximum Security Prison, we drove by the mosque on Robben Island.
My guide for the tour of the prison was a former prisoner, I don’t know how to spell his name but my attempt is the following: Ndanto. We began our tour in cell block F, where communal cells were located and it was also where our guide was held. The communal cells started off with mats on the ground and shared bathrooms, then came the bunk beds. Ndanto said they were fortunate enough to have toilets and running water, even if it had to be shared. The single cells only had buckets as a toilet, this is where Nelson Mandela was housed. Ndanto showed us the id card that each prisoner had upon arrival and explained how they were numbered, it was based on the year and whichever number prisoner your were that year. They entered the prison from the main entrance and into the reception before heading to the temporary questioning cells, where many were tortured before being placed into their designated cell blocks. The leaders were all housed in the single cell blocks. We then walked to Cell Block C, a single cell block, and also where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years. We walked into the courtyard where the prisoners often worked on chipping the stones from the quarry and also where Nelson Mandela developed a small garden. Then came the part I was waiting for, we walked into the long hallway of single cells and the fourth one on the right was the famous cell that house Nelson Mandela. It was a small cell with a door, and two windows one facing the outside and one facing the hall. There was a mat, blanket, pillow on the ground, a small table with a steel pot, and the bucket that functioned as the toilet. That was all that Nelson Mandela had in his living quarters for 18 years. We then arrived at the former dining hall of cell block C where we were shown the specific diet that the prisoners were given. Specific percentage of fats, calories…etc all to ensure basic survival of the prisoners, and not to truly nourish them. That marked the end of my tour of Robben Island.
I must say that it is most definitely worth the time and even more so the money (it was only around $30 for the whole package). It is an important site to experience in order to understand South Africa’s history and the importance of the nation’s father, Nelson Mandela. However I felt the visit and the tour and the site itself was not as powerful as I was hoping it to be. One of the reasons I believe is that the prison was too touched up, and the tour was too speedy. What disappointed me the most was the tour of Mandela’s cell. All that happened was the guide lead us in, and said here is the cell, then the group of around 40 of us lined up to take our photos and walked on. I didn’t feel the inspiration of power that I was expecting to get out of the visit. It did not touch me as much as the District 6 museum or say the Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where most of it was kept in its original state. But once again I still recommend you to visit it when you are in South Africa.
That night my friends and I went out to have some Fish and Chips at a restaurant on the waterfront, it was quite tasty but still doesn’t compare to the fish and chips in England.
So this was the last day where I did tours and learned about the history of South Africa. I would recommend the District 6 Museum, the Bo-Kaap district, Robben Island and if you can doing the Footsteps to Freedom tour is a good way to start your history tour of Cape Town and South Africa.