Africa | South Africa | Western Cape | Cape Town – Ten Years of Freedom
Almost thirteen thousand kilometers from both Beijing, China, and Montreal, Canada, Rock Dassies look down from Table Mountain on the picture perfect Cape Town of South Africa. Rock Dassies are the closest living species to the elephant, and on Table Mountain, have little fear of humans. Down below in Cape Town, there definitely seems to be a climate of fear, with people constantly telling me not to walk at night, even in the midst of the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival. Someone did unzip a few pockets in my backpack during a daytime procession, possibly trying to grab something. Nothing was stolen and a local pointed out the open pockets, but I guess I’ll have to watch my back more closely. Throughout the Cape area, there are a lot of iron bars, steel gates, and walls of stone. People say that things have become a lot better, especially since there are a lot of private security guards, but one local citizen tells me that ‘car guards’ are nothing more than a mini mafia extorting protection money from automobile owners. He says they arent employed by anyone, but Cape Town tourism pamphlets infer that they are paid ‘Parking Marshals’. Uniformed parking marshals say they are not marshals, but are individuals that work for a security group not a company just a group. I think the local citizen was right. Personally, I don’t feel afraid and most everyone I meet (other than the usual complement of taxi drivers) is really fair, helpful, and very nice, but it’s still disconcerting having so many people caution me.
On arrival from the airport, I have to walk through some streets closed to traffic for the Cape Town Festival to get to the Travelers Inn on Long Street. It wasn’t my intended lodging, but the people here are fantastic, and in the end it’s turned out to be a good thing. The Travelers Inn is a budget hotel in the center of one of Cape Town’s very vibrant nightlife areas. For South Africa, my room is a bargain at 150 rand per night. The carnival of minstrel bands is going on just two blocks away, so I can just walk down the street and see up to 1800 performers in a single band strut, dance, flip, spin, and play their way up the street.
Day two in South Africa, I go on my first real sightseeing venture by train to see penguins near Simon’s town, forty kilometers south of Cape Town. These penguins just wander at will between the boulders and the people. On Boulder Beach, sunbathers are both human and penguin. There’s a protected area for their nesting, but these penguins can’t read signs. They’ll do it anywhere and you can certainly hear all about it. Because of the way they bray, the African Penguins, were formerly known as the Jackass Penguins. It’s mating season, so they tend to bray a lot more, both when they are simply standing around trying to attract a mate, and during the actual mating. Its all pretty loud. I miss the last train home and have some help getting back from a conductor and bus driver. The bus driver stops in between stops to let me on, and the conductor lets me ride in the empty and finished train from a stop down the line to the train yard. Nearby, he points me to a bus that will take me to Cape Town.
Table mountain on a good day is a must visit. The views around the cape are definitely worth the ride (or hike)to the top. The cable car has a revolving floor, so everyone gets a panoramic view on the way. You can hike up, but the weather here is unseasonably hot, even for summertime. Another great place to visit is the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, where the Cape Town Jazz Festival is getting underway. It’s full of shops, restaurants, and quays where boats leave for Robbin Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 of his 27 years behind bars as prisoner number 46664. 46664 is now the name of an AIDS relief organization here in South Africa. Elton John also has a fundraising charity for AIDS relief in South Africa, and he is scheduled to perform at an exclusive winery here this Saturday.
It’s difficult to get a ticket to Robbin Island in high season as they are fully booked days in advance, but I’m going to try. I arrive at the booking office, check for cancellations and discover that as yet there aren’t any. The booking office is located in the Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robbin Island. It contains several chests containing drawers. Each of the drawers is unlabelled on the outside, so it’s a discovery opening each of them. Some contain prisoners’ personal effects, such as notes from loved ones or prisoner-to-prisoner schooling. Others contain identity cards, shackles, and visitor sign-in books, or stickers and buttons used in the fight against apartheid. There are historical photographs and notes hanging from the walls along with rally posters. There are also multi-media stations where you can watch award-winning documentaries on the struggle against the insidious apartheid system of government. Unfortunately, the drawers are starting to show their wear, and the multi-media stations are operational in only about one in ten cases. Just before the two o’clock boats are about to leave, I go down to the counter again. There are no-shows from the phone-in bookings and I get a ticket to the island museum.
The boat is a rollicking trip through shark-invested waters to the island. The passengers in the bow area scream with delight as the boat rolls from right to left, crashing through the waves, causing the sea to spray up onto the deck. One Australian yells, “I want to go again!!!” reminding me of a child on an amusement park ride. The ride goes on for forty-five minutes before slowly coming into the sheltered harbour of Robbin Island.
Tour buses are waiting for us, taking us around half the island. Our guide points out the various buildings and wildlife, and overall it is informative and enjoyable, almost without the cheesiness that make coach tours a nauseating ordeal for me.
A second guide is waiting for us as we pull up to the Robbin Island maximum-security prison museum used for political prisoners during the apartheid era. His name is Tao (meaning “life”), and he was a political prisoner for eleven years, charged with high treason for participating in the armed struggle to end apartheid. Tao is a calm, but tough man who seems to carry an inner peace about him. He leads us through the prison explaining the daily routines, and the frustrations of prisoners only allowed 36 pieces of mail if they ranked high enough in the system as well as the loneliness of one 30-minute visit by one person over the age of 16 permitted only once every 6 months. We see the garden that Nelson Mandela planted, overgrown without his incarcerated daily attention as prisoner 466, sentenced in 1964. We walk down the corridor and through the exercise yard that Nelson Mandela walked through so many times during the 18 of his 27 years behind bars. We pause at his cell, taking a photograph and pondering the tenacity of the many people here who paid so much for the struggle for freedom. Finally, we visit the many other cells where voices of the prisoners can be heard at the touch of a button, and a window into their lives can be opened, by pulling on the handle of their personal effects box.
It’s been 14 years since the unbanning of the ANC and final release of political prisoners, 8 years since the signing of the new constitution, but for most people, they mark the end of apartheid by the election of Nelson Mandela to the presidency of the country of South Africa on May 9th, 1994. For them, it has been just ten years of freedom.