FROM APARTHEID* TO FREEDOM
AN EDUCATOR'S JOURNAL
SOUTH AFRICA - MARCH 21 - 31, 2007
by Lee-Alison Sibley
*Apartheid - separate development of the races; a political system in which peoples were officially segregated according to their race.
Day One -- Wednesday, March 21, 2007.
I'm sitting in Ivato Airport in Antananarivo, Madagascar, waiting for my flight to South Africa. This capital city we call 'Tana' has been my home for almost two years and I have been teaching at the American School of Antananarivo since I arrived. My students come from thirty different nations which means that a lot of them do not speak English well. However, we are learning to adjust to each other - to their lack of English language skills and my lack of African and Asian dialects and I'm enjoying my role as educator and lifetime learner very much. Language Arts is my subject in the middle school, grades 6, 7 and 8, but I also teach high school Spanish.
The journey I'm about to take relates to my Grade 8 class - this year I have devised a curriculum that includes social issues and civil society. We have covered the Holocaust and genocide, slavery and gang warfare, prison systems and wars. Now I'm going to take a look at South Africa, to see how that amazing country went from apartheid and economic/social slavery to freedom, without a violent revolution. Today is March 21, 2007, but my personal journey to understand the issues began a long time ago, in 1976.
Thirty years ago I was a young woman following a dream, to live and perform overseas. After earning a Masters Degree in music from the Manhattan School of Music, I moved with my husband to São Paulo, Brazil, where he worked for General Electric do Brasil and I got a job teaching Brazilian choristers how to sing. I also sang all over the State of São Paulo for their government and for the U.S. Government as well.
In 1976, my husband and I decided to take a trip around the world, from South America to Africa, then to Asia, to the Pacific and back to South America via Easter Island. But we had a problem - we wanted to go to Kenya, to see the wildlife and culture of the Kikuyu and Masai tribesmen, but to get there we would have to fly via South Africa. At that time, apartheid, the systemized segregation imposed on black Africans by white Afrikaners was in full force, having been instituted in 1950. Passionately opposed to this, I did not want to stop in South Africa, not for a moment, nor to spend even one Kruger rand there. I had marched for freedom and human dignity with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967. I had sung for Coretta Scott King at Boston University in 1968. How could I go to a country that denied the majority population basic human rights, even if I were going for only one night?
We checked thoroughly, but there wasn't another viable route for us to get from Brazil to Kenya except via South Africa. 1976 was the year of the Soweto Uprising, a year of violence and frustration, a year of pain and anger and of moral victory, but legal defeat. I decided that I would go there, but I would only observe, not eat in a restaurant, and not buy a single souvenir. And so I did. South Africa did not let me down - just as I anticipated, the signs of oppression were everywhere in Johannesburg, our connection point. The South African 'Jim Crow'* laws were there in the 'whites only' water fountains in the parks, the 'whites only' benches, the segregated hotels, restaurants and schools. The more I saw, the angrier I got. One night. Just one night. I couldn't wait to leave.
Our trip plan was to visit India and Nepal after visiting Kenya. South Asia was exotic and wonderful. And then we went to Thailand. I hadn't forgotten my South African experience and the first night we were in Bangkok, I stepped into an elevator in my hotel and heard the dreaded language - Afrikaans. There were three men talking. I couldn't help myself - I have such a big mouth - I said, "You're speaking Afrikaans." "Yes, they answered, we are, and where are you from?" "I'm an American," I replied and added, "I hate your system of apartheid!" They looked at me and did the most insulting thing - they laughed! "You Americans," they scowled, "you don't know how to treat your blacks. They are like dogs. We feed them and train them and they jump when we tell them to. You're too soft and that is why you have problems."
Thank goodness we had arrived at our floor by then, and the elevator door opened. I added one parting shot - "You are NOT human!" I shouted at them and exited, fuming. At that point I wondered if we should change hotels?!
I didn't go back to South Africa again until 2006, more than ten years after the end of apartheid. And now I'm going to find out how those awful words, said years ago to me, a young American, could change into words of welcome to a multi-racial, successful society for me, a middle-aged lady who wants to learn how and why the changes took place. I want to ask South Africans of every color, "How did you go from apartheid to freedom without a violent revolution, without blood running in the streets?"
They're calling my flight now - the journey begins.
*Jim Crow laws - refers to the segregation policies of the American South following the Civil War.
Getting from Madagascar to South Africa is not so difficult - just a three hour flight. But getting from Johannesburg, our first port of entry in the country, to Cape Town, our target destination, is a tedious ordeal. After arriving in Johannesburg and going through immigration and customs, we had to walk about a quarter of a mile with our luggage to the domestic terminal, wait on a long line to check in, and wait again for our flight.
Last year I visited Johannesburg and Pretoria with their Apartheid Museum and industrial successes, but this year I wanted to see where Nelson Mandela* spent 18 years of his life, and that was in prison on Robben Island, near Cape Town. Though geographically not so far away, it was almost midnight by the time we arrived at our inn and rolled into bed. I did note in the airport, like last year, but unlike in 1976, the customs and immigration officers were both black and white.
Enroute, I reminded my husband at least ten times to "stay to the left, stay to the left" on the highway in our rental car - in South Africa, unlike in Madagascar, they drive on the 'wrong' side of the road. I think he was as nervous as I was, and tired, so we were relieved when we found the Nine Flowers Guesthouse, near the heart of the city.
Cape Town, or Kaapstad in Afrikaans, is a beautiful city, isolated geographically by virtue of its peninsular setting. Forty kilometers from the southernmost point of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, it's dominated by "a 1000 meter high mountain with virtually sheer cliffs, surrounded by mountain walks, vineyards and beaches," called Table Mountain. Cape Town has the reputation as being the most liberal city in South Africa and is the parliamentary capital of the country.
This morning dawned gray and gloomy with a light rain -- a perfect day for visiting museums. We were less than a block away from the South African Jewish Museum, so right after breakfast, we headed there first. As in the United States, many Jews were active in the civil rights movement here. On a personal level, I wanted to see why the "members of my tribe" chose South Africa over the United States as a place of refuge from the pogroms of Eastern Europe. After all, my great grandparents came to New York from Austria-Hungary, and I'm grateful to them for that. Why did thousands of Jews come here in the 19th century?
The answer was economic opportunity, and a British-controlled government that allowed them to come without fear. They left behind the oppression of Czarist Russia and its empire and came to Cape Town to become peddlers, traders, and entrepreneurs. The museum displaying their history was fairly new and the buildings included a synagogue from the 1860s that had gorgeous stained glass windows. There were multimedia exhibits explaining the history of the early German Jewish immigrants and later Lithuanian Jewish population. In panels with pictures and voices coming from loudspeakers, one could hear about the difficulties of getting here by ship from England and Germany, and the efforts to cling to a culture that was alien in this new land. There was even a recreation of an eastern European 'shetl' - Jewish village one could walk through, to remind people of the life they left behind.
On one panel, Nelson Mandela lauded the Jews of South Africa for contributing so much to the freedom movement and the names of the righteous are indelibly inscribed in the legal documents and hearts of the imprisoned. There were those who assimilated too - who lived with the brutal laws of apartheid and chose to ignore them and I questioned whether they should be forgiven for their indifference. In the words of Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, himself a Holocaust survivor, "indifference is the greatest enemy of humanity."
This museum had a 20-minute video on Nelson Mandela, talking about the Jewish efforts to end apartheid. Unfortunately, our timing was such that we didn't get to see the movie, but obviously, Mandela was a hero to this community.
We left the Jewish museum and headed toward the heart of the downtown and "District Six," an area of displacement and a victim of the so-called "pass laws." District Six was, since 1867, a mixed neighborhood of freed slaves, immigrants, artisans and laborers. Just today I learned the distinction, the classification of peoples, according to South African laws under apartheid. Immigrants were those who didn't speak an official European language. At one time that unofficial language could be Yiddish and Jewish immigrants who spoke it were not considered full citizens as a result. That law was later changed, and Yiddish was accepted, but for many others, their skin color was a determining factor for discrimination.
The Pass Laws required all non-Europeans (non-whites) to carry a card, which explained who they were and where they were allowed to go. These laws discriminated against Asians - all those coming from places like India and the Far East, including Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, who worked here in the early part of the 20th century as a lawyer for his people. There were "coloreds" -- those who were of mixed race, black and white, and "natives" those who were pure black, as in Bantu tribes people. The only group who were protected and given full rights as citizens under the law, who could vote, was the pure Europeans, white people. That was discrimination sanctioned by law, and I will mention these classifications in my interviews only to show that the opinions of all segments of the rainbow population here were solicited.
A museum was set up, The District Six Museum, to honor those former residents who were displaced and relocated to inhospitable areas outside the city. We visited the museum which was born in 1994, the year apartheid officially ended, and opened in 2006. We saw displays of a life long gone, but not forgotten.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the process of removals by the government and marginalization had started. The first to be "resettled" were 'Africans", forcibly removed from the area in 1901. As the more prosperous community members moved to the suburbs, the district became the neglected ward of Cape Town. In 1966, under the Group Areas Act of 1950, District Six was declared a "white" area. By 1982, the life of that community was over and 60,000 people were forcibly removed, their houses flattened by bulldozers, to a barren outlying area aptly known as the Cape Flats. The Museum portrays the history of apartheid and its effects on the "ordinary" people through an intimate look at their stories. It is a celebration of local triumph, which resonates with all people who have experienced marginalization.
Before I left the museum, I asked my question of two men working in the museum shop - "How did South Africa avoid a bloody revolution?" The men, one black and one colored, looked at each other and then at me and answered, without hesitation, "passive resistance, the philosophy of Gandhi. We had leaders like Nelson Mandela who didn't call for violence, for retribution, but called for peaceful protest and when the time came, forgiveness." It was just as I thought - Nelson Mandela was the reason. And President De Klerk, too, who in 1994 saw the future and knew it was time for the country to change, or to face the awful consequences of maintaining the status quo. So many of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement had been killed. I asked a final question of the men, though I already suspected the answer: "Do you think Mandela survived BECAUSE he was in prison?" They answered, "Perhaps - the government was afraid of Mandela and didn't want him to be a martyr." Satisfied, we left the museum and headed back to the guesthouse for a much-needed rest and some contemplation of what we had seen.
We went to dinner near the waterfront and coming back, got into a taxi driven by a colored woman. In talking with her, we found out that she had been born in District Six and was forced out with her family when she was 8 years old. My husband asked her if she remembered her life back then and she said, "vividly." She added,
o It was such a vibrant area, so full of different people - multiracial and multicultural. I could never duplicate that experience for my children now as all those people are spread far and wide. My family is one of the many in negotiation with the government for reparations from being forced off the land. However, even if the government offered to allow us to purchase a spot in Area Six, none of the former residents could afford it - it is now very valuable land.
*Nelson Mandela was born 1918 in the eastern Cape. He was as an anti-apartheid activist and a leader of the African National Congress (ANC), sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage after he went underground and began the ANC's armed struggle. Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. This included his time on Robben Island, 18 years, in Pollsmore Prison, Cape Town for 4 years and in Victor Verster prison near Paarl, western Cape, for two years until his release in 1990. He became President of the Republic of South Africa in 1994, in the first democratic election with all segments of society voting, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. During his 1962 trial he said, "I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve, but if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
This morning we made a decision to see Cape Town from the top of a bus! One can buy an all-day ticket and hop on and off at designated places. It was inexpensive and convenient as we did not have to negotiate routes or deal with parking (or driving on the left). We chose the Red Line, which would cover the downtown, Table Mountain, beach areas and the waterfront.
The first area we passed through of interest was District Six, the area for which the museum we visited yesterday was built. Right away, our guide, a man in his 60s, told us what he remembered from his past:
I was in medical school in District Six and I remember the colors, the noise, the music and constant activity of the neighborhood. 24 hours a day it was alive with a rainbow of people. I worked in the maternity hospital at the time. And then it all ended - the government declared the district a 'whites only' area and more than 60,000 people were displaced. Strangely enough, Cape Town, the most liberal of South African cities, had enough people opposed to this action that the area never got developed the way the government intended. White residents didn't want to move into an area where people were forcibly removed and so, it became a kind of 'ghost town'. Now the government is trying to build housing units and is inviting the former residents to return. We'll see. After being away for several generations, we'll see if the people want to come back, if they can afford to come back.
As the bus traveled on we could see in the distance the Cape Flats where the residents has been moved. That area, some 20 kilometers from the downtown they had resided in did not look inviting.
When we passed the Cape Town Castle of Good hope, build by the Dutch as a fortification, and the oldest building in Cape Town, the guide told us about the night in 1990 when thousands of people waited for many hours in the front parade ground, because on that day Nelson Mandela was to be forevermore released from prison. Finally, at 7:00 p.m. Mandela spoke from the balcony of a government building nearby, urging reconciliation and forgiveness, instead of violence.
The next stop on the bus was Table Mountain, the physical landmark of Cape Town, with its 12 Apostle Peaks and Lion's Head Peak. We could see that the top was still shrouded in fog, but we took our chances and hopped off the bus, buying a cable car ticket to the top. The scenery was spectacular as the interior of the car itself revolved, giving passengers a 360-degree view of the land, sea and mountains. As we were ascending we could see Robben Island, and thought it looked pretty far out at sea. We'll see it up close and personal on Sunday when we're booked to take the tour there.
At the top of the mountain we took one of the walking trails, admiring the myriad plants, shrubs and vegetation. Though we looked for the resident fauna, they didn't appear - probably too cold! It was really windy at the top! Down below, in all its splendor, was the city and its suburbs, the blue sea, home to great white sharks, white sand beaches, elegant homes clutching the mountainside and ships, ships, ships. Far out in the ocean was the Cape of Good Hope, first explored by the Portuguese in the 15th century and treacherous in terms of ocean currents and winds. Of course, at that time people were already living on the Cape - native people from two different tribes, and it was the Dutch, 200 years later, not the Portuguese, who stepped foot on land and tried to communicate with the natives while building a colony.
Coming down from the mountain, we jumped back on the bus and traveled along the coast, admiring the upscale neighborhoods and beaches. A lunch stop was in order so we took advantage and had something we can't get in Madagascar - sushi, nice and fresh. Back on the bus after lunch, the tour continued until we arrived at the waterfront. Almost as soon as we got off we saw a huge handicrafts market and beyond, a small area devoted to granite sculptures of South African Nobel Peace Prize winners. More interesting than the statues were the African children jumping around, ignoring history, and wanting me to take their photographs, which I happily did.
The waterfront is a highly developed area for tourists and in fact is owned mostly by foreigners who invested at the right time. Considering that it hasn't been that long since the world was friendly to South Africa after the fall of apartheid, the range of development is very impressive. Though crime is still an issue, and unemployment still a problem, the new convention center hopes to draw more foreign investment and to establish a safer area for travelers.
In terms of employment, a country needs educated people. Since the majority of South Africans, people of color, were not entitled to a decent education in the apartheid years, it will take several generations for them to catch up. A friend who was an economist for USAID here (U.S. Agency for International Development) told me last year in Pretoria that he wanted very much to hire a black economist for his office - there just weren't enough qualitfied candidates with the right education to fill the job slots. Hopefully, the next generation will have all the opportunities their grandparents were denied.
We got on the bus one more time and passed through other areas of downtown and points of interest before returning to our starting point and a much needed rest at the guest house.
This morning we ventured out in the car for the first time since arriving Wednesday night. We headed for the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, among the most beautiful in the world. In 1895 Cecil Rhodes, the British explorer, diamond magnate, administrator and empire builder, bought land on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain and in 1902, at the time of his death, bequeathed the property to the nation.
The gardens are devoted almost entirely to indigenous plants with over 9,000 Southern African plant species. It's a gorgeous place with trails for walking, picnic areas, a concert shell for Sunday concerts and indeed, we even witnessed a baptism taking place with well-wishers grouped among the succulent plants.
I didn't see any black South Africans visiting except for a couple of boys who were part of a scout troop. I wondered what it was like during the apartheid years and vowed I would ask around. I first approached a woman who looked like she was over 30 years of age and could answer my question with some personal memory. Alas, she had only worked in the gardens a short time and didn't feel qualified, so she sent me to the Asian ticket taker and indeed, he had been working in the gardens for more than 30 years! According to him,
Everyone was allowed into the gardens, everyone. I don't remember any problems being black or white or anything back then. You bought your ticket and came in. That was that. Just like it is today!
This answer really surprised me - no discrimination regarding entry during the apartheid years? What about all the benches for sitting, the drinking fountains? No "Whites Only" signs? I decided to ask someone else and in the gift shop approached an elderly woman and asked the same question: During the apartheid years, what were the policies in the garden vis-à-vis black Africans? This lady had come from Scotland to Cape Town in 1944, to get away from the war in Europe. She told me the same thing the ticket taker had.
I have been coming to these gardens for many years and I don't ever remember a time when black Africans were not allowed in. In fact, I never even thought about that question all this time - until you just now asked me. No, there was no separation, no problem at all here in Kirstenbosch Gardens.
I think I was expecting another answer, and asked myself why I was intent on finding it - was I looking for racial discrimination where it didn't happen? I decided I would leave the question about the gardens alone and move on. Still, why weren't more black South Africans enjoying this magnificent place? Was it the ticket price, the transportation costs to get there, or just not something they thought to do? Maybe I happened to be there on a day they weren't visiting? I'll probably never know.
We drove along the coast on a route called "Chapman's Peak Drive" enjoying the breathtaking views of the ocean to the right and Table Mountain to the left. Stopping for lunch, I asked our black African waiter if he had visited Kirstenbosch Gardens just up the road. He said he'd only been in Cape Town a short while and in fact was from Zimbabwe. I encouraged him to visit - there was an exhibition of sculpture by a Zimbabwean artist in the gardens - and he said he would.
Later we went to the South Africa Museum, a short walk from our guesthouse. We got there late, at 3:30 p.m., so only had 90 minutes to view the exhibits before it closed for the day. There's a profusion of amazing objects including displays on early man, San Rock art, and fossilized human footprints thought to be more than 100,000 years old. I especially enjoyed the ethnological section with its dioramas of the different tribes of South Africa, their customs, arts, beliefs, costumes and weaponry. I would have liked to have seen a map for orientation as to where the different peoples came from, but there was none. Also interesting was the explanation of evolutionary development from animals found in Africa to mankind today.
When it came time to leave, I stepped into the gift shop and saw four young people, all black Africans, who worked in the museum and were closing up for the day. I faced the group and explained that I was writing a journal called "From Apartheid to Freedom" and asked if they were South African. When they said 'yes' I asked if they could explain to me why South Africa had a peaceful transition instead of a bloodbath? One young woman seemed to want to represent the others and spoke up:
Mandela. It was Mandela. He told us to forgive and forget. Well, we can forgive, but we can't ever forget what happened. But Mandela sacrificed so much for us all - we had to follow him and do it the way he said. Obunto.* Yes, the answer is Nelson Mandela.
I thanked them all and left the museum. So far, Nelson Mandela was scoring 100% as the answer to my question. Tomorrow we'll visit Robben Island, his prison for 18 years. Perhaps I'll understand there what shaped this man into the hero he is.
Note: Last night we went to dinner at the Cape Grace Hotel down by the waterfront. When we were ready to go back to our inn, we got into a taxi that wasn't metered - I think the hotel used the nicer taxis for their clients and sure enough, the driver mentioned the President Clinton had stayed at the Cape Grace Hotel. The driver was colored and I asked him my question about the transition. He had a lot to say:
I'm not the expert - my father is. My father got into a lot of trouble in the 1970s and I remember it well, because when I was young, our house was raided several times. Later, my father explained to me how he'd hid secret papers in my nappies (diapers) so that they wouldn't be found during a raid. My father was a member of the ANC (African National Congress) and participated in the trouble of 1976 in Soweto. I am also a member of the ANC. I can tell you that there wasn't a bloodbath during the transition because of Nelson Mandela. He told us to be peaceful, to forgive and forget and we had to listen to him. Imagine, he told us to forgive and that was a great thing to tell us. He was such a great man and our first president. But I don't think the new South Africa has done enough for us, for the poor people. My generation didn't get an education and I think my children, the children of that troubled generation should be educated for free. We still don't have economic freedom. I'm a member of ANC, but the organization made many mistakes, many mistakes. Still, if you ask me about the future of my country, the future of South Africa, I will tell you this - South Africa will be Brown - yes, South Africa will be a Brown country, because in 30 years, or 300 years everyone will be mixed, everyone will intermarry and the color will be brown. You know, when I come across a white man of the older generation, and he acts like he did in the old days, I don't get upset - I understand why he is the way he is. But when I see a young person acting like a racist, THAT makes me really angry. Why does he act that way? There has to be change.
*Obunto - Mandela's philosophy after the end of apartheid; the essence of humanity. I am a person because you are a person.
This morning our plans were to hear a presentation at the Jewish Museum by South African Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs. On our first visit, the woman who issued us an entrance ticket told me Albie Sachs would be the perfect person to answer my question about "Apartheid to Freedom." Today Albie Sachs was launching a book about the design of the new constitutional court.
At first we were invited to partake of refreshments and as people were coming into the courtyard area, we could tell that this would be a popular event among South Africans. As Americans we were not familiar with Albie Sachs and only knew what we were told - that he was born in 1935, was a judge and that he lost his right arm in Mozambique when South African agents blew up his car with a bomb in 1988. Albie Sachs was a 'freedom fighter.'
A South African lady, of perhaps 65 years of age, sat down next to us with her coffee and started talking to us. I took advantage of the contact and asked my question. She was a retired physician and had a lot to say on the subject…
Right before the election of 1989, there was a lot of violence. The police beat up people who protested the situation at that time. They shot them. De Klerk had a brother who was a liberal and he listened to that brother. His brother told him it was time, that change HAD to happen or the country would suffer the consequences. I think that is why De Klerk, as president, helped bring an end to apartheid.
You know, political education through the 1980s was everywhere. But today, fourth year medical students don't even know who Steve Biko* was! It's just a horror how this new generation doesn't remember who got them their freedom. All they care about is 'bling.'
And why didn't the people in exile come back sooner? They had all sorts of excuses - their jobs, their families - they didn't want to come back here. But the rest of us who stayed and struggled, who witnessed what was going on…to see the changes now and know that we stayed to fight the Nationalist Party-well, we're worried about where we're going from here.
Mandela spent 27 years in prison and during that time he was able to communicate with other 'Freedom Fighters.' The leadership of the movement was kept separate on Robben Island from the other prisoners. And later, Mandela knew exactly when the change was coming and he was ready, and he is a great man who said the right things at the right time.
Just then we were all called into the auditorium for the presentation, so I thanked her for her openness and left to take my seat next to George in the front row. The editor of the book was introduced and she in turn told us about the film we would see called "Light on a Hill" about the architecture and art design of the constitutional court. From the film voiceover…
With the constitution we stopped locking each other up. The court was established in 1994 and is on the grounds of a notorious prison from the apartheid years. In fact, this prison once held Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. So this is where the court is now, in Johannesburg. The former women's prison in Johannesburg is now the Commission for Gender Equality.
The bricks from the prison were preserved to use in the building of the court. There are 11 official languages in South Africa and 11 court judges. The judges are a mixed group of people. No language is superior to any other and no judge is either. Written on the walls of the building in 11 languages are the words HUMAN DIGNITY, EQUALITY and FREEDOM. The court is bright with colors and with the slanted pillars representing trees -- its like sitting in a forest inside. The court uses renewable energy - the cool night air is saved and pumped in during the day.
The people, all the people, wrote the constitution of the new South Africa. The philosophy after the end of apartheid was Obonto - "I am a person because you are a person." This is what Mandela advocated. There was a cultural spirit among oppressed people living with hope that would lead to a peaceful transition. We asked architects, artists and sculptors to come together with their ideas to make a court for all the people. And this is the result.
After the 25-minute film, Albie Sachs was brought to the podium to great applause and made his remarks in a modest way, thanking the publisher, an architect present and other friends in the audience. Then we were allowed to ask questions and my hand shot up immediately. Sitting in the front row I was quite visible and was called on. I said, "Judge Sachs, perhaps you've already answered this question in a way, but I'd like to ask again - why was there a peaceful transition from apartheid to freedom in South Africa?" Albie Sachs smiled and said,
Universities were involved in the process, in the need for change. With the leadership, Mandela didn't create change, he articulated it. It was the culture of a generation, which said, "We need each other if we are to have a civil society." And too, there was the Gandhian influence and socialist ideals of people who were persecuted. There was a realization that NO SITUATION IS INTRACTABLE. We proved to the outside world that thought there would be a bloodbath that they were wrong. What South Africa gave to the world was the example that even when things seem hopeless, there IS hope.
I had my answer and after having Albie Sachs sign our copy of the book, we left. It was time to go to Robben Island.
To get to Robben Island you have to book tickets in advance. Tickets are 'sold out' everyday. We made our reservations the first day we were in Cape Town, on Thursday and today, Sunday, was the first available booking and it was for 2:00 p.m. We drove to the waterfront, had lunch, and waited in line with over 100 others to get on the ferry.
The boat trip was 45 minutes and the sea looked very cold. As the shores of Cape Town receded from view, I thought that it seemed a long way to go to separate prisoners from the public. When we arrived on Robben Island and exited the ferry, we were instructed to get on one of five buses for a tour of the island. Our bus driver/guide was named Keith. Like all the other guides, he had been a political prisoner on Robben Island. Keith told us,
Robben Island housed political prisoners from 1960. In 1963 prisoners built the buildings that housed them. Originally, the island was a home for lepers, taken care of by Irish nuns and doctors. The lepers were banished from the mainland and brought here so that they couldn't infect the public. This prison was also a British Naval Base at one time, during the Second World War. It was only in 1959 that a decision was made to turn the then-deserted island into a prison that would hold political prisoners among others.
Authorities were more lenient with murderers, robbers and rapists than with political prisoners. The leaders of the freedom movement did hard labor here in the lime and stone quarries. If you wanted to visit a relative in prison you had to apply for a visitor's permit. In order to get one you had to speak English or Afrikaans only, no tribal language. You might make the trip here and be told the prisoner was 'unavailable' and then you would have to leave and start the process all over again another time. By the way, white prisoners, even political prisoners, were not housed here on the island - they were sent to prisons in Johannesburg and Pretoria.
The word "Robben" means "seal" in Dutch language. You'll see seals in the harbor area.
Here is the lime quarry where the leaders, like Nelson Mandela, did their time and inhaled the dust and got sick. Tuberculosis was common in the quarry.
The island is 575 acres of land, and is 30.5 kilometers in diameter. It took the prisoners 13.5 years to resurface the roads, in part with the lime they brought out from the quarry.
The educated prisoners followed the dictum, 'each one, teach one' and taught the illiterate how to read and write.
There is a mound of stones - on February 11, 1995, Nelson Mandela came back here and invited everyone -black, Indian, colored former prisoners to leave a stone. Today this is a national monument.
Trees were brought to the island originally from Australia to provide shade for the lepers. Unfortunately, they are eucalyptus trees that drink a lot of water and the island has a terrible water shortage. The sports facilities you see were for the wardens and were built by the prisoners. You cannot get off the bus at any time because you might disturb the wild life. There are penguins, antelopes, rabbits, tortoises and other creatures who might be mating under a tree and do not wish to be disturbed.
Over there is the only single cell dwelling. It was build for PAC prisoner Robert Sobukwe who died here in 1978 at age 54. He opened the eyes of the world to the struggle in South Africa. There is the memorial to that great man who wrote the book, "How Can a Man Die Better."
I was 15 when I was brought to the island as a political prisoner. I have two university degrees and only work as a volunteer guide because I want to show people the island. Now you will have another guide show you the prison areas. You may leave the bus.
We met our other guide, Osparks, who lead us to the prison. He was part of the military wing of the ANC and was imprisoned for 7 years on Robben Island. We saw his cell first, in F section. It housed 80 inmates for which there were only 3 showers. They had to wake up at 4:00 a.m. and 2 times a week they had to shower or the guards locked them in solitary confinement. There was only cold water and there were boxes in the cells with listening devices so that the guards could listen in on conversations. There were no beds, no sheets, and no pillows. You got two blankets - one for the floor and one to cover yourself. The rain and the cold came right in during winter and many prisoners got tuberculosis and double pneumonia.
The prisoners went on hunger strikes for years. After 15 years political prisoners got beds. There were different rules for Asian prisoners and colored prisoners and black prisoners. Asians and coloreds got long-sleeved shirts and trousers. Blacks had to wear shorts. No jackets, no socks, no shoes for them. Nelson Mandela was prisoner 46/664 - no one had a name, only a number. Meals for Asians and coloreds were different from meals for blacks. Blacks were given a lot less to eat. You were classified according to your language. For example, you were colored if you spoke English or Afrikaans. If you spoke a tribal language you were black.
The photo of Mandela you see was a set-up. In the 1960s international pressure was put on the South African government to have the prisons inspected. When the international press came, the Black prisoners were put in jackets and long trousers. Mandela's book was smuggled out in a clever way - one copy was found and was destroyed, but he had made another copy and the authorities were unaware of it so it made it out. Cell #5 was his cell. There is the slop bucket Mandela used for the 18 years he was here at Robben Island. Another section, "C", had toilets for emptying buckets. At 3:00 p.m. you collected your empty bucket and had to take it to the eating area and have it beside you when you ate.
If you didn't fold your blankets the right way you were sent to solitary confinement.
Mandela's release was due to international pressure. The government negotiated with the ANC for 20 years. We have reconciled all those years we fought and now we are friends with our former guards.
When we left the prison area we all felt drained by what we had seen. There was a hall near the waterfront where we waited for the ferry to return. In the hall were plaques describing the history of Robben Island. On the last plaque it said this…
While we will not forget the brutality of apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil; a triumph of wisdom and largess of spirit against small-mindedness and pettiness; a triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.
Ahmed Kathrada, Prisoner #468/64
*Steven Bantu (Steve) Biko - born 1946, died in 1977. Biko was the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement while he was a university student. He studied medicine at Natal University. Arrested for his protesting, he died from police beatings while in detention. He is a martyr and a symbol of black resistance to the apartheid regime.
We left Cape Town last night in a hurry to drive to the western Cape, to our next destination. The ferry leaving Robben Island was an hour late coming back and we quickly made the transfer to our car, picked up our luggage at the guesthouse, and drove in the dark to the town that was a refuge for French Huguenots - Franschhoek. Nearby was Mandela's last imprisonment, in Drakenstein Prison, before he was released in 1990.
There was a lovely young woman awaiting our late arrival at the Rusthof Guest House on the main street of Franschhoek. Her name was Jessica and we would get to know her quite well during our time here.
Ruth and her husband Frank are the owners of the Rusthof Guest House. Hoping to at last interview an Afrikaner about the transition from apartheid to freedom, I asked my question, but Ruth told me she had only been in South Africa for four years, escaping the politics of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Ruth was very knowledgeable about this area of the western Cape, however, and made many suggestions for our visit.
Franschhoek (French Corner) was founded in 1688 when 200 French Huguenots, leaving the persecution of French Protestants in France for the shores of South Africa, arrived in the western Cape and were granted land. Wine-making, under the guidance of Simon van der Stel in 1679, was a growing industry. Now Franschhoek is the wine and food capital of the Cape.
We took advantage of having a car and drove to a nearby winery and estate called Boschendal, whose Cape Dutch architecture manor dating from 1812 was renowned. The weather was truly autumn-like, crisp, clear and slightly breezy. We toured the grounds and the manor house, marveling at the antiques and gardens. Coming back into town, we left the car and walked up and down the main street, enjoying the many shops displaying African handicrafts.
Back at the inn, Jessica was on duty and we fell into conversation.
I'm a colored person, according to the classification here in South Africa. I'm 33 years old, and as a child, my parents were very protective of me. I had no idea there was another standard, another type of world outside my own. I didn't know there were different institutions for white people - we just automatically went to the colored section of the bus. Really, I never thought about it as a child.
But now the coloreds are getting pushed out. We are not 'black enough' now. I guess we were once a bit privileged because we were colored and not black. Now it's a disadvantage. I grew up middle class, you could say. Now the middle class cannot afford to buy their own homes - the prices have skyrocketed. And the government is so behind in its promises. My mother's family was forced to sell their land years ago, under apartheid, for a pittance. We're trying to recover some of that financial loss, but I don't think we ever will. The government doesn't have the funds. They were supposed to build housing for the poor to replace the township slums, but they haven't done this either, not nearly enough.
I don't really know my exact ancestry - my last name is Dutch. That is true of most coloreds. It could be the name of the landowner on whose farm our family worked, or it could have been the name of someone who partnered with one of us. My husband also has a Dutch last name.
We have our children in semi-private schools even though we can't afford our own home. They have to have the best education possible and the public schools don't have books, computers or sports facilities. Our children's school has all those things and it's worth the sacrifice on our part to do this for them.
I'm concerned about the political future of South Africa and the hold of the ANC on the presidency. The mayor of Cape Town is a fabulous woman and she would make a great president. But she is white and no white or colored candidate stands a chance of winning.
I'm also worried about my husband's job. He is colored and has been a warden at Drakenstein prison near Paal for 13 years. It's a very good job and he loves it. They provide us with a house. We wish we could buy that house! I'm worried because South Africa has affirmative action and they are replacing whites and coloreds with blacks. Too many unqualified people are getting good positions in all areas, including the government. People have to keep in mind that not every political prisoner had a PhD, but the requisite for filling a post is having been a political prisoner.
Despite all this disappointment, and I'm sorry if I sound negative, I think things will improve. I believe it was the optimism of the people that kept things from turning into a bloody revolution. The people in this country believe that good will prevail if they wait long enough.
We decided to drive all the way to the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost tip of the continent of Africa. Leaving Franschhoek, we soon passed through Stellenbosch, a wine growing region and home to a university. Vineyards and estates lured our eyes left and right. We wondered who the owners were and noted that some buildings were dated from the 1600s.
Not long after exiting Stellenbosch, on the right, we saw a slum and thought perhaps the dwellers were day workers at the wineries? The economy of its black residents was obvious.
Then, further down, we saw the ocean and the sand dunes to our left. The sand dunes were covered with fynbos, the ubiquitous South African plant/ground cover. It gave the dunes a soft, velvety texture and the green contrast with the white sand was quite beautiful. The ocean waves looked treacherous - the type of waves that are good for surfers perhaps, but not for swimmers. We heard that there are 'shark watchers' along the coast as there have been problems with great white shark attacks of people. The water looked very cold, too. Continuing along, the dunes stretched out for many kilometers and occasionally there were facilities for vacationers and swimmers -even an amusement type park with a water slide! Though the day was cool, we saw what looked like an entire school on holiday enjoying the recreation facilities at one place.
There were typical seaside towns, reminiscent of southern California or Long Island, boasting fast food take-out places and shops selling swim gear and trinkets. People were casually strolling the streets, in no hurry at all.
We stopped to see a penguin colony at the Boulders. These were South African penguins, smaller than Emperor penguins, and a protected species. As one walked along the boardwalk, the penguins could be seen nesting under bushes in depressions they had dug in the dirt. We looked at them and they looked at us and I'm sure we were more impressed with them than they with us.
After enjoying the penguins, we stopped for lunch at Miller's Point. It was an exciting lunch - a very large baboon came onto the terrace where the diners were enjoying their seafood, and said baboon jumped among the tables looking for bread. We understood from a waiter that the baboon was dexterous enough to open the mint candies they left with the checks and to leave the wrappers! Luckily, we had already finished our bread and the basket was gone so we could enjoy the show of others jumping and screaming and watching the baboon get chased away. At one table where the baboon made a visit, an Afrikaner guide escorted two American ladies; the three were having lunch. While we exchanged email addresses so that I could send them the photo I took of the baboon at their table, the guide introduced himself. Not having asked many Afrikaners my question about apartheid, I took advantage and was quite taken by his answer:
o Bishop Desmond Tutu is a big reason peace prevailed. He spoke out for calm and though I'm not religious, he was a great influence on the people. The country was on a 'knife edge' and could have gone either way, but Bishop Tutu spoke to the youth and convinced them that there is a time to march and protest and shout and a time to accept and to be peaceful. Yes, Mandela was a very influential man in the process, but Bishop Desmond Tutu has been almost forgotten in his role as peacemaker.
I thanked him for his response and we left the restaurant, continuing along the coast until we reached the parking lot for both Cape Point lighthouse and the Cape of Good Hope. Ever adventurous, we eschewed the cable car up to the lighthouse and chose the 90-minute walk to the Cape. There was a trail with wooden planks interspersed with rocky outcrops and one had to climb up at times while looking down, down, down at the beach and the boulders below. The views were spectacular everywhere one looked and when we got to the top and took the requisite photos we imagined ourselves explorers reaching the end of the earth, the southernmost point on the continent of Africa.
This morning the plan was to visit Jessica (the inn manager) and her husband Mario's home on the grounds of Drakenstein Prison and then to see the house there where Nelson Mandela lived for his final imprisonment and from which he was released and presented to the world. What were they thinking of, the planners who put a prison in the wine country, I wondered? I suppose they were considering that escaped prisoners would be easily seen and recaptured. But what a beautiful setting for a prison!
Jessica and Mario greeted us and showed us their home, a modest ranch-style house in an area where other warders of the prison lived. As warders went up in rank, the housing changed, but now the government is considering limiting the number of years one can live in a government home and this is a problem for many, as the salaries are not high enough for guards to purchase private homes.
o Life used to be different before the fall of apartheid. White warders got the big houses and the tennis courts and rugby field. Today, they alternate coloreds and blacks moving into the nice housing, but in reality, blacks get the preference. Coloreds like me don't move up as fast in ranks now as blacks do, but I really like my job and we're happy here - it's very safe for our kids. Sometimes I'm frustrated because the quality of warders among the blacks isn't the same as the others and they get away with infractions no white or colored guard would, but I guess it has to be this way for now. Most of the prisoners are colored, but almost as many are black. There are very few white prisoners. Of the juveniles, they are all colored or black.
Mario gave us a tour of the grounds by car - it was too vast to do on foot in the allotted time, and not sanctioned by the authorities. There was a youth prison, a medium-security prison and the maximum-security buildings where Mario worked. He explained that there was a functioning farm where the inmates worked and provided themselves and neighboring prisons with dairy products and vegetables. Finally, at the end of a lane we saw a very nice house, standing alone and apart from the other houses - this was where Nelson Mandela was brought and prepared for re-entry into society. Though it is going to be a museum and is not yet open to the public, Mario took us around the outside and in back where there was a garden, swimming pool and patio area. It must have been quite nice years ago and is neglected now and rather sad looking, but it will be lovely again when it is set up as a museum. I couldn't imagine what it must have been like for Mandela to live in a small cell for so many years and then to be put in a house with a swimming pool for two years. He was still a prisoner, but the world was waiting for him and the authorities knew the world was watching as well.
Nelson Mandela's home at the prison
Later in the day we went to a local winery and the owner, a white South African lady of British descent told us, with tears in her eyes,
" Nelson Mandela is a saint. I am worried about the country when he dies. When there is a problem he steps in and resolves it. He is such a great influence on all of us. He urged us to forgive, to live together in peace and move on to the future. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped a lot.*
*Truth and Reconciliation Commission - a commission set up by the Government of National Unity to deal with what happened under apartheid. All victims and perpetrators of violence were encouraged to come forward to tell their stories without fear of retribution. A catharsis for the country.
A beautiful autumn day in the Cape which ended in a dinner where we met two couples; one Zimbabwean and one Afrikaner. They expressed their views freely to us:
o We feel that as white people, we are not wanted in the new South Africa. We don't want South Africa to end up like Zimbabwe, and we're worried about our future and the future of our children - that all we have built up might be taken away. We understand why things are the way they are - really we do - but people are in such a hurry here to change things and they may demand change too quickly and not think about the losses. The transition from apartheid is only 13 years old and has been peaceful so far, but that could change. There is a lot of anger still out there. And then there is the political situation, which is unpredictable - will the "joker" get elected? We love this country and want to be a part of its future, but will we be allowed to part of it? Will we be appreciated for our contribution? We have to remain hopeful - it's the only way we can live here and we've come so far. Let's pray the country pulls together and makes the right decisions.
Our final days here were spent on explorations of the Franschhoek Pass, and the towns of the western Cape. At every opportunity, I continued to question and finally, I thought about all the people we met and how they answered my query about the transition from apartheid to freedom. In conclusion, I feel that all segments of society are still hopeful about South Africa, but no single segment seems secure in its role. It has been ONLY 13 years since apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela was elected president. In historical terms, 13 years is the 'blink of an eye' and transition is an evolutionary process that takes time, generations. So far the transition has been peaceful, but that could change.
The black South Africans want what the white South Africans have had for so long - good schools, good jobs, good lives. Having waited so long, they are eager and anxious to make it happen and frustrated with the slow economic changes for them. While political power is in their hands already, economic power still remains in large part with the minority white population. Peace will reign only with patience for changes in their economic status.
The colored South Africans, and Asians, once treated slightly better than blacks, now feel they are being squeezed in the middle. They are neither political powerhouses, nor economic powerhouses. The colored people have no real cultural affiliation and are worried about their future role in this nation.
The white South Africans credit Nelson Mandela in large part for making the transition from apartheid to freedom a peaceful one. They are worried about the country in post-Mandela times and their role in the political and economic future should the country decide to rush change. They look at the neighboring country of Zimbabwe and pray that South Africa will not make the same mistakes.
South Africans, from every background, are dynamic and positive people, and while there may be much to fear for the future, there is even more cause to hope. The land is vast, full of a diversity of riches, a place where everyone can have a future if the transition continues on its steady and peaceful course.
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Paton, Alan. Cry, the Beloved Country. New York: Scribner, 2003.
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Brickman, Brenda, ed. The Fairest Cape. Cape Town: Sunbird, 2006.
Law-Viljoen, Bronwyn, ed. Light on a Hill. South Africa: David Krut. 2006.
"The Long Journey of a Young Democracy." The Economist 3 Mar.2007: 24+