Last Monday, we visited two black townships. Tuesday, we toured wine country. Wednesday, we took a ferry to Robben Island. Thursday, we drove to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. As the photos attest, the wine route and towns along the coast are as beautiful and prosperous as any that can be found in the U.S. or Europe. They are difficult to reconcile with modern day Langa and Kayelishta and the stories told by former political prisoners detained on Robben Island.
Beginning in the late 1940’s, the Afrikaaner National Party began codifying existing racial divisions in order to create an entirely segregated society. It was hardly “separate but equal”. The National party wished to guarantee that white South Africans would control all important economic and governmental resources in the country. It did so by enacting laws that stripped black South Africans of property, freedom of movement and association and, finally, citizenship.
We began our history lesson on apartheid in South Africa with a visit to the District 6 Museum. Our eyes were opened to the experiences of the Blacks in South African cities, such as Cape Town, as we came to an understanding of how entire black communities and neighborhoods were forced by the apartheid political regime to leave their homes and move into the townships located further from town. As late as 1966, District 6 was the last black neighborhood in Cape Town to be cleared of black families, many of their homes destroyed to make way for new buildings for white families. Interestingly, many lots have been left vacant – a scar of remembrance for this community.
During this time, all South Africans were given identity cards that categorized them as White, Black or Coloured – (Indian or Asian or mixed race) and they were segregated based on their race and ID cards. Male black workers from rural areas were required to carry a “Dom (dumb) Pass” in order to work in the cities, essentially a “work visa” in their own country. They were separated from their families and arrested and detained for up to 3 months if unable to show the dumb pass when questioned. Each year 250,000 blacks were arrested for pass violations.
Our township tour guide, Thandit, a native black Capetonian, who grew up and still lives with his family in the township of Langa, took us next for a personal visit to Langa. Langa is home to 160,000 black South Africans. It is difficult to describe in words the stark living conditions and poverty. We were welcomed into Pam’s “home” on her 23rd birthday. She shares a 2 room shelter (maybe 400 sq ft) with 16 people, 6 adults share 3 small beds and 10 children including her own 2 year old little girl all sleep in the front room on mats on the floor. Reed innocently told me that he liked the coziness of everyone sleeping together. Pam is “fortunate” because her home is inside a permanent building called a hostile. She is on a waiting list to move into a renovated hostile that will have fewer residents per room.
Pam on her birthday.
Cape Town is rainy and cold in winter. Most of the other structures are “informal” residences (make shift shacks) , which are made from whatever materials the residents can find. Many have tin roofs that are not water tight. Most do have electricity that the new government has provided. Bathrooms consist of a long row of portajohns along the perimeter of the township. Water is distributed at central areas with faucets. The townships have small shops and schools as well as a 1 medical clinic. And a few Shabeens or pubs, where we all tasted home-brewed beer. Yuck!
We visited one of the schools. Beautiful preschoolers sang and danced for us. They were practiced, but very excited to see us, especially our children who gave them candy and danced with them.
We also visited Kayelishta. This township is home to more than 1 million black South Africans. Living conditions were the same as Langa. However, we did meet Vicky who runs Vicky’s B&B, located in the heart of the township. We toured the B&B and it was very pleasant. It is an example of entrepreneurship that is pretty amazing given the obvious disadvantages of township life. Vicky collects paper and pencils for the school children and each year throws a Christmas party for them, giving them gifts of school supplies sent by visitors from around the world. Vicky shares the same amazing positivity, cultural pride and lack of bitterness expressed by many of the blacks whom we met. They are proud and full of hope for a better future. However, there remain tremendous problems of poverty, overcrowding, unemployment (40%), crime, teen pregnancy, alcoholism and HIV.
Two days later, we took the ferry to Robben Island. Robben Island was the site of an infamous prison used by the apartheid regime for breaking the will of black South African political activists including Nelson Mandela and current South African President; Jacob Zuma. Political prisoners on Robben Island were subjected to hard labor, isolation, insufficient nutrition and random beatings in order to disrupt their ability to organize opposition to the apartheid regime. Many prisoners served ten years or more on the island following sham trials before an apartheid government magistrate. Our tour guide served a number of years for “sabotage”.
Amazingly, the political prisoners used their time on the island to organize anyway. They studied and they formed a soccer league. The soccer league was fascinating. They were initially only let out of their cells for hard labor in the limestone quarry. They refer to a tunnel in the quarry as the place where democracy started. They were gradually able to negotiate the right to get some exercise and they parlayed that right into the ability to play soccer. With the help of the International Red Cross, they were able to obtain kits, cleats and soccer balls. They formed a sophisticated governing body for the soccer league and engaged in endless debates about rules and disciplinary matters. This governing structure later formed the basis for establishing a national government when the prisoners were released and achieved democracy.
Today, South Africa enjoys democracy but is still struggling to provide access to education, health care and prosperity to all South Africans.
View of Cape Town and stadium from Robben Island.