Exploring Capetown South Africa: Apartheid history

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No matter how many times I gazed at Table Mountain, rested on the Atlantic beaches, or savoured the food at one of the many restaurants at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, I could never really escape the history of Cape Town. Robben Island, the Slave Lodge on Wale Street, and the Bo Kaap district all lead you back to a dark past. There's a reason for everything here and this intriguing past makes Cape Town a must-visit city.

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Robben Island

Book well in advance for your trip to Robben Island especially in the summer holidays when there can be a wait of two weeks before there's a free spot. Try and get to the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront early to board the boat as the best seats are on the top deck with the views of Table Mountain especially eye-catching.

Once on the island everyone has to get on a bus and be escorted around the island before visiting the prison. The most poignant place is the house of Robert Sobukwe the founder of the Pan Africanist Congress. Sobukwe was in solitary confinement and wasn't allowed to speak to anyone – however he did give secret hand signals to other prisoners when he was outside - he held dirt in his hand and let it trickle through his fingers as a gesture of solidarity. His little yellow house is by the guard-dog kennels. Visitors also see the quarry where the prisoners worked.

Ex-prisoners or ex-wardens conduct the prison tours – they show you Nelson Mandela's cell, the exercise yard, and the dormitory style accommodation with the daily prison diet written on a board for all to see.

District 6

Back in Cape Town, the most poignant symbol of the apartheid regime is the District 6 museum. District 6 was a vibrant community of Cape Malays, Indians, Blacks, and a few Whites until 11th February 1966, when the apartheid regime declared District Six a whites-only area under the Group Areas Act. By 1982 60,000 people had been relocated to the Cape Flats Township around 15 miles away. Only the churches and mosques remained standing.

A pair of pictures of one street before and after the demolition of the area made me so sad as the destruction is absolute. There's a tower of street names from the district which were given to the museum by the person whose job it was to collect the signs and throw them into the sea. District 6 was to be erased from the memory. A whites only bench leaves you in no doubt as to who is allowed to sit on it. On the floor is a map of District 6. People have written the names of the families who lived at certain addresses and what businesses occupied which premises.

Read more about Capetown South Africa at http://www.offbeattravel.com/capetown-south-africa-historical-landmarks.html

Slave Lodge

The Slave Lodge in Cape Town is an unprepossessing building on Wale Street close to the Cathedral, the Company Gardens, and the Houses of Parliament. Don’t be fooled by its lightly coloured exterior as the exhibitions inside reveal dark secrets.

The Slave Lodge was built in 1679, making it the second oldest colonial building in South Africa and was owned by the Dutch East India Company, who maintained a settlement at the Cape and needed the slaves to support its profitable Asian trading operations. It continued to be used until 1834 when slavery was abolished and during these 155 years approximately 9,000 slaves would have lived here.

Slaves were brought to The Cape from most of the countries bordering the Indian Ocean though the four main areas were Indonesia, the Indian sub-continent, Madagascar and Mozambique. The cramped conditions of their passage are outlined in diagrams. Individual slaves are honoured in a column of names.

The Slave Lodge is a place that everyone should visit – in Western minds slavery is associated with the transport of humans across the Atlantic from Africa to North America. This museum will show that a similar trade went on at the same time in the Indian Ocean.

Bo Kaap

Head along Wale Street away from the city centre and in five minutes you will enter the Bo Kaap district, located on the slopes of Signal Hill, with Table Mountain looming nearby.

The residents of this inner city area with its brightly painted houses invariably being picked out by the sun are descended from some of the slaves that were imported by the Dutch in the 16th and 17th Century. For a reason that nobody is sure of, these people are today known as Cape Malays even though less than 1% of residents have descendants from Malaysia.

The best way to experience the Bo Kaap is to walk around with a local guide, someone who knows the area and the people really well. This way the visitor receives a fleeting glimpse of the local day-to-day happenings in the Bo Kaap. There's the student from Saudi Arabia who is learning English in Cape Town, but who doesn't trust South African dentists to treat the abscess on his tooth. The shopkeeper in the Indian delicatessen no longer wants a South African soccer jersey and the children all know in which pocket the guide keeps her treats.

Tours start at the Bo Kaap museum, a Cape Dutch style house with an attached community centre showing many exhibits on the benefits of Islam. In the museum, the first room is dedicated to the singing/dancing troupes that contest the many competitions that take place on the Tweede Nuwe Jaar, or second New Year holiday, on January 2nd.

This is a holiday that dates back to the time of slavery – their owners had New Year's celebrations, which required the slaves to cook, serve food, and attend to the guests needs. These owners allowed the slaves to have the following day off instead by way of thanks – if this sounds generous bear in mind this was their only holiday of the year.

Nowadays, this holiday features Cape Minstrels from the coloured community dancing through the city centre. They dance in troupes who all wear outfits made from same colours, which are agreed upon by the various leaders, or captains, of the troupes. These colours are kept from the other members until a week before the festival. If people don’t like the chosen colours it's too late for them to change to another troupe with nicer colours as the dances take weeks of rehearsals to prepare.

Read more about Capetown South Africa at http://www.offbeattravel.com/capetown-south-africa-historical-landmarks.html

At the museum another room contains a genuine flag from the Confederate ship Alabama, which occasionally operated in the waters off Cape Town during the American Civil War. It's speculated that the captain of the Alabama gave a flag from his ship to the Cape authorities as thank you for repairing his ship after a skirmish with a Union vessel.

From the Museum, the tour goes to see the Auwal, the first mosque in the southern hemisphere when it was opened in 1797. Now there are 10 mosques in the Bo Kaap. Property prices have rocketed in recent years with some small houses fetching in excess of 1 million Rand. Other houses in the area are solely for the employees of the electricity company, which means that if an employee loses their job they also lose their house. There is a waiting list.

The next place visited is the delicatessen with many Malay treats such as samosas and koeksisters, a deep-fried doughnut that has been dipped in honey. A discussion ensues about soccer shirts an indication that the 2010 FIFA World Cup will have a legacy in more ways than one.

The most striking feature of the Bo Kaap is the brightly coloured houses that line certain streets. Green, blue, and orange houses stand out against the blue winter sky. People sometimes copy the colour of their neighbour’s house or select a hue that will last longer before repainting is required. The detail is occasionally incredibly intricate such as picking out the line of the steps in a different colour to that of the rest of the front of the house. The residents are used to tourists taking pictures and don’t seem to mind too much if they are included in the image. Their washing dries on the walls and the children play communal games on the pavements.

The Bo Kaap protected historic area is bounded by Dorp and Strand streets and by Buitengracht and Pentz. Many residents are tempted to sell to outsiders because of the high prices available, which it's feared could dilute the Muslim lifestyle of the neighbourhood. To try and stop this happening, back at the museum's attached community centre a program is being introduced to educate people about the real Islam.

As the muezzin's call rings out around the Bo Kaap you can't help but hope that this program is successful and maintains the atmosphere and population of this most colourful, fascinating, and close-knit neighbourhood. There is no forgetting the past in Cape Town.

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Julian Worker has written articles on Middle Eastern and European architecture for the US magazine Skipping Stones. He has written travel articles that were published in The Toronto Globe and Mail, Fate Magazine, The Vancouver Sun, and Northwest Travel. He has also taken many photographs that have appeared in travel guides by National Geographic, Thomas Cook and The Rough Guides.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

February 13, 2016



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