Cape Town, South Africa-Part 1

Cape Town, South Africa-Part 1

Table Mountain across Robben Island

Table Mountain across Robben Island

My dream trip was about to come true. I have always been active in issues of social justice and starting in the 1980s I joined the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. I worked closely with the African National Congress in New York, pushing for sanctions against South Africa and urging public boycotts of US firms doing business with the South African regime. Yet in the years that followed I had not yet visited the country that was so important to me. Now I was finally visiting a part of South Africa and was excited to see what had developed in this beloved land.

I was traveling with family from Uganda to Cape Town and I planned an action packed week.  I was planning to visit Robben Island, District Six, the Slave Lodge and some townships, then explore Cape Malay Quarters, and walk around Cape Town to see its other landmarks and to scout for its cafes and restaurants. Then I also planned to take a few days to visit its wineries and bays, and to see the Cape of Good Hope, its southern most point.

Cape Town from Table Mountain

Cape Town Suburbs from Table Mountain

Off we go to Cape Town

We took South African Airways and flew through Johannesburg to get to Cape Town. It was interesting to see such a mix of people even at the airport. I was so very excited to be here and to experience this place after the Apartheid era. We stayed in an apartment in the city area…in trendy Pink Village, Cape Town’s gay district located in the De Waterkant area. It was a pretty hilly district with cobbled streets, wonderful pubs, restaurants and boutiques and a walking distance to the heart of the city. Walking around Cape Town reminded me a bit of hilly San Francisco but even prettier…and its weather was perfect…sunny and dry, like the Mediterranean in summer!

Cape Town

Cape Town

Cape Town is a beautiful cosmopolitan city with the iconic cloud-shrouded, flat topped Table Mountain forming its backdrop (and dividing the city into distinct zones). Cape Town has beaches along the coast, beautiful parks and gardens in town and world renowned vineyards on its outskirts. Cape Town’s north city center hosts guesthouses, shops, chic bars and trendy restaurants with historic museums and art galleries, street hawkers and markets. Close by is the V&A(Victoria & Albert)Waterfront, thronged with tourists at its’ cafes, restaurants and shops which are set among its working harbor of piers and quays. Here is also the embarking area for Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other inmates were imprisoned. Its commercial and city center, City bowl, is a suburb with great lodgings, trendy shops and restaurants. Bo-Kaap is the Muslim quarter with its brightly colored Cape Malay homes, pretty mosques and spice stores.

The wine estates on the Western Cape have stunning scenerieswhile the Atlantic seaboard has sandy beaches and expensive homes all along its shores till Hout Bay.

Winelands

Winelands

On the west is Chapman’s peak drive, carved into precipitous cliffs of Table Mountain.Towards the east, on its lower slopes is the beautiful Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. A little south is the Constantia Wineland.  Along the east coast are picturesque little towns and bays all up to Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope. There are manyshantytowns and townships set among wealthy suburbs… the well known Crossroad shanty town in Cape Flats and the well guarded homes of Constantia…a stark reminder that a enormous gap still exists!

Outdoor Craft Markets

Outdoor Craft Markets

Since Cape Town is a sprawling city, we took the hop-on and hop-off bus to get an overview of its landmarks and its surrounding areas. We simply enjoyed walking in Cape Town and exploring its unique streets, foods and street markets selling African art, beaded jewelry, wood and metal figurines, and many other trinkets and souvenirs. Church Street has a small alfresco market on a cobbled street, with art galleries, antique stores and cafes. Greenmarket square is a cobbled historical square filled with stalls selling curios from all over Africa. We just enjoyed browsing around and looking for some souvenirs to bring home. Then we took a tea break and sat in one of the outdoor cafes around the square. It is a great place to watch people. Heritage Square is a historic 18th century square lined with restaurants and cafes housed in some of the earliest Dutch and Georgian abodes.

Cape Town

Cape Town

A Short History of Cape Town

Let me give you a brief history of Cape Town. Cape Town area was first settled by the San and Khoikhoi nomadic herders, collectively called the Khoisons. The Dutch arrived with the Dutch East India Company and established their base in 1652, bringing “slaves”( in their language) from India, Ceylon, Indonesia, Malaya and Madagascar as the Khoisans refused to work for them. In time, these “slaves” intermingled with each other and with the Khoisons, and their off-springs, categorized as Coloreds. gave rise to the uniqueness of the city’s Cape Muslim peoples.When the British came, all slaves were freed by 1833. Then later the discovery of diamonds and gold led to the development of more townshipsfor workers to live in …that eventually developed into the so called Cape Flats, a low-lying, flat area situated to the southeast of the central business district of Cape Town. Cape Townians refer to it simply as ‘The Flats’. It became “apartheid’s dumping ground’, from the 1950s, and the apartheid government designated it as non-White and enforced laws that forced non-white people out of more central urban areas designated for white people, into government-built townships in the Flats.Those designated as Blacks and Coloredswere forced into informal settlements in the Flats. The Flats have since then been home for much of the population of Greater Cape Town.In 1948 when the National Party became victorious, apartheid became institutionalized. Blacks and colored’s limited voting rights were removed and districts were zoned exclusively for each race. Whole communities such as District Six were uprooted and removed to live in Cape Flats. Crossroadsis the most densely populated township in the Cape Flats, and is where the Black resistance against Apartheid was based.

Cape Town’s Historic City Center

On the first morning after breakfast, we walked to the city center towards Adderley Street, located in the heart of the city, surrounded by cafes, shops, bars, museums and historic buildings. We walked north to Greenmarket square where rows of South African vendors were selling local wares and artwork. We walked around checking them out and ended up buying some wonderful creations and art from some gifted artisans. Thenwe walked to nearby Long Street, a fun and lively place to shop, eat or drink, or simply to sit and look at passer-bys.

Along Long Street

Along Long Street

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Along Long Street

Long Street, one of the oldest streets in town, is lined with attractive Victorian style buildings that serve as lodges, cafes, coffee dens, antique shops, clothing boutiques, nightclubs, restaurants and bars. Some of the buildings are so pretty and colorful with iron wrought balconies…and which reminded me a bit of New Orleans. At night it is a fun place to people watch as you stroll along its pavement. The Palm Tree mosque, established by a slave, is Cape Town’s second oldest mosque and is flanked by a bar and a clothing store, dotted with a palm tree at its entrance.  Southeast of Adderley Street, is the Castle of Good hope, a military style and the oldest building in South Africa, a symbol of Europe’s colonization in South Africa, and, City Hall, where Mandela made his first speech when released from prison atRobben Island.

Palm Tree Mosque

Palm Tree Mosque

We were hungry and walked into a fast foodplace called Snack Box (or local name Lekka) to get some samosas to go. His samosas had curried mince (means beef here), lamb or chicken as well as cheese. They were delicious! The owner, a nice middle aged Cape Muslim was curious where I was from and we ended up talking, discussing our backgrounds. He gave us some wonderful stories of his family and how they came to be in Cape Town. Samosas are typical street food here he said, and can be found throughout South Africa. As we talked, I looked at his menu with some interesting names that I never heard of. It included mutton, beef and chicken salomies (a local roti filled with curried chicken, mutton or mince, another popular street food), hot dog and chips, Boerwors (sausage) roll and chips, polony chip roll (seasoned sausage made from various pork and beef scraps, with minced meat), steak and salad, mince curry, Gatsbys (steak, chicken sandwich), burgers and curry and rice (mutton and mince).  Gatsbys originated in the Cape Flats area of Cape Town, where locals would fill large rolls with leftovers and split them. Boerwors is based on the traditional Dutch sausage and came from the Afrikaan words, boer (farmer) and wors (sausage).  It has minced beef (sometimes also with minced pork, lamb, or both) and spices (coriander, black pepper, nutmeg, cloves and allspice). A Gatsby is a South African style of deli sandwich similar to a hoagie in the US and consist of long bread rolls cut lengthwise and filled with various fillings-masala steak, chicken, polony, Vienna sausage, calamari, fish, and chargrilled steak…and French fries!

Iziko Slave Lodge

The Slave Lodge

The Slave Lodge

At the corner of Adderley Street and Wale Street is the Iziko Slave Lodge, a pearly white building built in 1679 to house the slaves of the Dutch East India Company who were the biggest slaveholders in the Cape(some owned by the freed Burghers). The Cape was a slave society for over 180 years, with men, women and children. The slaves lived and died hereunder unsanitary, diseased and crowded conditions (about 20% died each year)and they were used to build the social and economicstructures in Cape Town. It was also used as a brothel for sailors and soldiers with slave girls, after dark, and as a mental asylum and prison as well. When the British took over, the Slave Lodge became the Supreme Court and later, as a government building. But after apartheid,it has been redefined as a museum of slavery and human rights and, exhibitions of a similar theme have been and continue to beshown here.

Slave Names, Slave Tree

Slave Names, Slave Tree

This place held my interest and I walked around eagerly reading the places the slaves came from, their trip on ships here and their lives thereafter. These stories touched me and I felt a strange closeness to them as this is the first time I hear of slaves actually being brought from where I came from. Being from Malaysia I was eager to see names of slaves from my part of the world. We came to a room with a revolving lighted alcove which has a list of names of all the slaves elicited from the markings on a tree trunk under the Slave Tree at Spin street ( behind the Slave Lodge) where slaves were brought and sold. The actual Slave Tree is gone but its spot is marked, located behind the Slave Lodge. Looking at the scenes and listening to the sounds and recordings of the miserable conditions and life during that era gave me a glimpse of the past…it felt hauntingly real!

Saint George’s Cathedral and the Company Gardens

St. Georges Cathedral

St. Georges Cathedral

Nearby is St. Georges Cathedral, an immense Gothic style stone building with stained glass windows, which played a big role during the Apartheid struggle. It was here that Desmond Tutu demanded to be South Africa’s first archbishop. Archbishop Tutu lead 30,000 people in the anti- apartheid march from this Cathedral to the city hall where he gave his momentous words…“we are the Rainbow People, ‘we are the new people of South Africa’. I was transported back to his powerful speech in New York City at the Presbyterian Church on upper west side in New York City during the Apartheid era.I was so stirred by his speech.  He is an amazing man! Then we entered the Cathedral to see an exhibition going on…called “Behind and Beyond the Eiselen Line”. There were numerous photographs and stories including Desmond Tutu and the anti-apartheid marches. I had not heard of the Eiselen Line so purchased a book as a donation to the Cathedral to learn more about it.

Apartheid march poster inside Cathedral

Apartheid march poster inside Cathedral

Dr. W. Eiselen in 1955 (7 years after the National Party came into power in 1948), then the Secretary of Native Affairs, introduced a new policy known as The Coloured Labor Preference Policy, aimed at curtailing the urban African settlement in the western half of the then Cape Province. It placed limits on the number of African people especially targeting African women, who could access jobs, housing, education, land and social opportunities. So he drew an “imaginary line”, an invisible “Berlin Wall” to separate the western from the eastern half of Cape Province. This line called historically as the Eiselen Line created a unique set of lived and material experiences on a daily basis. Women and children were sent to barren resettlement camps in eastern part of the Cape following the Sharpesville massacre in 1960; while others who worked in city were resettled in “controlled” squatters, now present day Crossroads and other townships in Cape Flats; and their children sent to rural areas under the care of others. So it was either these women worked in city while the children were sent away or starve. So most of the women stayed in city and worked, mostly taking care of wealthy white homes and their children.

Company Gardens

Company Gardens

We strolled through the Company Gardens that were initially worked by slaves but later by Burghers who were of Eurasian background (Dutch and Portuguese with Ceylonese or Jewish women). It was pretty stroll, passing by local flowers, plants, birds, ponds and sculptures.Nearby, a Cape Malay vendor was selling some hot dogs while another, sosaties, which are mutton, lamb or chicken kebabs marinated in a sweet curry sauce. There are also a few art galleries located in and nearby the Company Gardens, including the South African National Gallery, the South African Museum, and the South African Jewish Museum with the Holocaust center next to it. We also took a glimpse of the Great Synagogue with its Baroque architecture, and which was next to the Jewish museum.  We went to see a couple of exhibits at the South African Gallery. The Table Mountain loomed behind the art galleries and looked so beautiful.

The Fountain

The Fountain

We came across a couple of Cape Malay wedding parties, all dressed in white or colorful wedding attire to take photos at the fountain area and among the flowers. Children dressed as flower girls were frolicking around while the adults were taking photos and chatting.

Cape Malay wedding-bride

Cape Malay wedding-bride

Cape Malay wedding- flower girl

Cape Malay wedding- flower girl

It was interesting to see the bride and the flower girls in western wedding attire while the bride’s mom was dressed in a saree! The bridegroom was in a suit and a typical Muslim hat (called “songkok” in Malay/Indonesian).

Cape Malay wedding-bride with bridesmaids

Cape Malay wedding-bride with bridesmaids

What an interesting look of faces and attire with the Cape Malays! Cape Malays have adopted the western ways into their Muslim traditions, like exchanging rings during engagement, the bride in a flowing white wedding dress while the older women wore western attire but a lacy scarf covering their heads.As we walked towards the garden exit, we passed by vendors selling beaded art, tee-shirts, weaved bowls and other artifacts.

District Six

Then after a quick lunch of dhaltijies (chile bites, similar to the Indian pakoras) and lamb sosaties at a nearby café we headed off to District Six area, where the homes of mixed race community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, laborers, and immigrants were razed during Apartheid. We hopped off at the District Six Museum, a former Methodist Mission Church which had offered solidarity to the District Six victims and which became an anti-apartheid gathering place.

District Six Museum

District Six Museum

It was a must see museum on my list. District Six is a vacant lot today, but before it was demolished by the apartheid government, was an inner city occupied by a great community of 60,000, mostly colored people. It s cobbled streets was once the cultural hub of Cape Town with craftsmen, vendors, artists, gangsters, jazz musicians, gamblers, schoolchildren, workmen and writers. It was the soul of Cape Town and people lived a rich life here. In 1966, the government declared District Six as a white only area and sent in bulldozers to wipe out homes and every building except the mosques and churches. Everyone had to take what they could and get out. It was the forced removal of this community by the Apartheid government. Because of world outcry this area has never been developed since.  And after years of negotiations, the original dwellers are moving back through a low cost housing scheme.At the museum, I was fascinated looking through a book, “My life in District Six”, written by the museum’s guide, Noor Ebrahim, a resident of District Six and whose home was displaced.

Noor Ebrahim, former resident of District Six

Noor Ebrahim, museum guide & former resident of District Six

The book tells his story-his family, his friends, his schooldays, his work, the special celebrations-weddings, Ramadan and Pantomimes, the bakery, butchery, fish markets and hawkers, and stories of their everyday life in District Six. He took us around and explained the story of District Six, engaging us with the photos taken during that period. The photographs of people, their household items, artisans and street scenes on walls are compelling reminders of that time period and stories of many families who had lived there and who describe their memories, experiences and their feelings about places that don’t exist anymore. These photos and stories evoke the lives of the families who had lived a regular life there and bring their suburb back to life. On the floor is a huge map of District Six with all its named streets and annotated by former residents. And it has many of the street signs that were saved.

District Six residents

District Six residents

District Six resident

District Six resident

Noor looked like in his seventies, handsome with a great smile, frail but strong and passionate, telling us his experiences during that fateful time. His father came from Surat, India in the late 19th century. And like many others who married Muslims from other parts of the world where slaves were brought from, as well as Christians and Blacks, he too married a woman of Dutch background. All lived harmoniously in that neighborhood he said.  It must have been a painful reminder for him, relating the sad day when all families were uprooted from their modest homes, their cars or other modes of transport carrying little they can, and watching their daily lives being bulldozed away and life becoming at a standstill …it was compelling! This is truly a place to visit and learn about District Six.

V & A Waterfront

Another day, we decided to go the V &A waterfront. We took the path by the stadium. a newly built huge white building that held the FIFA World Cup (soccer) in 2010.

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The Stadium

Then we proceeded along the water (was brisk and sunny) and ended up at the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, or simply called The Waterfront. It is a busy local and tourist spot with shopping malls, restaurants (upscale and chain style) and cafes, with the magnificent Table Mountain as backdrop. There were outdoor bands performing with people dancing to their music and children enjoying their ice-cream and hot dogs.

The Waterfront

The Waterfront

We decided to have lunch at the South African café on The Waterfront. I ordered lamb stew cooked with water hyacinth, called waterblommetjie…it was delicious! My favorite entrée in Cape Town is lamb in any form! Other Cape town specialties include snoek, a game fish eaten fresh, barbequed, dried or smoked; vetkoek or “fat cake”, a traditional deep fried doughnut shaped Afrikaner pastry, filled with cooked mince (ground beef) or spread with syrup, honey, or jam and served with boerwors in a traditional South African braai (or barbecue); and koeksisters, syrup coated, braided long strips of fried dough.  In the black townships, magwinya (a version of vetkoek) are served plain and hot with salty dishes such as snoek, atchar, sausage and salted fried potato chips. The staple diet of the Blacks is mielie meal, dried corn ground to a fine powder, and taken for breakfast as a crumbly porridge called krummel pap, usually eaten with sour milk and sugar, or as a fairly thick porridge called pap, for lunch and dinner with chicken, meat or fish. Chakalaka is a fiery vegetable relish using left- over vegetables that is often served with the pap or samp and meat stew. The Xhosa people from the Eastern Cape brought to Cape Town, a food called ‘samp’, dried corn and dried beans cooked in a metal pot for many hours. A popular township meal is barbequed (called braii in South Africa) chicken, lamb or sheep’s head.Robben Island

Robben Island

Robben Island

The next day after breakfast, we decided to walk back to the Waterfront to take the ferry to Robben Island. It was sunny and a nice day to be out. We walked up the Nelson Mandela gateway to embark for Robben Island.  In the ferry along the journey to the island, a documentary was being shown on the apartheid struggle, and Mandela and other inmates on Robben Island. It was the liberation struggle here that created international news and furor. As we neared the island, I was taken back to the Apartheid era, when newspapers in New York covered Mandela and other activists in prison isolation…and here we are, actually seeing the place of the Apartheid struggle! It brought me mixed feelings of sadness and admiration for these amazing men and their struggle to end Apartheid.

Anti-Apartheid era

As we stepped off the ferry and looked around…it was quiet and desolated… except for us tourists. We were huddled in groups to waiting buses to take us to see the historic landmarks on this island. As the bus took off, a guide was describing and explaining the area and stopping at specific points of interest. We stopped at a kramat, a pretty Muslim shrine built in memory of Tuan Guru, a Muslim cleric from Indonesia, and who was imprisoned by the Dutch during the 18th century. After his release, he established Islam among slaves in Cape Town. We also passed by a leper graveyard-initially lepers were exiled here up until 1831, after which prisoners were sent here. Now we were told, only the lighthouse keeper and his family live here.

Table Mountain from Robben Island

Table Mountain from Robben Island

The island is six square kilometers and is sparsely vegetated with low scrub.  As we stood over the rocks along the water I looked across to Cape Town and at the beautiful Table Mountain in the distance. As I gazed at it, I wondered if its beautiful looming presence gave some feeling of hope and peace to the inmates. We stopped by Robert Sobukwe’s (leader of the Pan African congress, an offshoot of ANC) house where he was in solitary confinement for 9 years! Other inmates were not allowed to speak with him.

Lime quarry where inmates worked

Lime quarry where inmates worked

We then stopped at the lime quarry where Mandela and his inmates spent hours of hard labor. It was difficult   imagining the scorching heat on them as they worked at the quarries.  As the bus drove along some bush area, we spotted some antelopes and birds.    Then we came to the edge of the island, to the Maximum Security Prison, for a tour through its grim looking blocks of cells.

Maximum Security Prison

Maximum Security Prison

Prisoners

Prisoners in prison courtyard

We were welcomed by a tall well dressed guide, a former inmate, who had actually been with Mandela and other inmates. He took us around explaining the areas, and the conditions the inmates lived under…through his stories. I found this place so touching and sad. For me my memorable moment was when we were taken to the cell of Mandela. Seeing Mandela’s tiny cell (left as it was) was truly a haunting moment, as this was Mandela’s home for nearly two decades as he fought for South Africa’s struggle.

Guide -former inmate

Our guide, a former inmate

As I walked from one cell to another, looking at inmates’ names, their photos, then reading their quotations, I just could not help thinking what courageous and gifted men these were and are. A few names appeared familiar and I was eagerly putting a face to their names.  Looking at these men and admiring their struggle for freedom was well worth the effort to come to South Africa. What we did in New York to support them against the Apartheid regime all came to a meaningful realization for me here.This was a connecting moment for me. I was truly touched by their struggle!I rushed from cell to cell reading names of inmates, their backgrounds, and what each one did whilst imprisoned here, before we were told to go to the next destination, the working and eating quarters. Again the guide (ex-inmate) explained what they did everyday in prison…from early morning till they went to sleep, and shared the loneliness they endured while here… unable to see their families and the outside world. As he was talking, a menu on the wall caught my interest. It contained food portions allowed for the inmates…the different diets allowed for Bantus and coloreds/ Asians, with mealie, rice, samp, meat, starch, fat, sugar, jam and coffee. As we left the place to board the ferry I felt the sadness and gloominess in the air. I could not help feeling admiration and sadness for the inmates struggle against Apartheid. This was a truly an extraordinary trip for me!

Menu for prisoners-Bantus vs Coloureds

Menu for prisoners-Bantus vs Coloureds

Nelson Mandela was in Robben Island prison for over 20 years and his release in February1990 heralded a new era for South Africa. But as I was told by South Africans, the line of demarcation of the wealthy and the poor still remain in South Africa and the integration of the mixed population has still not been achieved.

Mandela photos behind me

Mandela photo behind me

After our return to the Waterfront, we walked around and shopped a little, then went by the many restaurants, serving Italian, seafood, Portuguese, South African, Asian, French, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Cuban, Mexican and Turkish cuisine. So there was a variety of food to choose from, and we finally decided to eat at one of the Waterfront seafood based restaurant overlooking the wharf. Baia, with its terraced balcony overlooking Table Mountain, has a classical and contemporary menu, serving mainly seafood dishes. Our evening was a great one with good wine, delicious and visually attractive starters of seafood bisque, raw oysters, seared prawns, followed with  flavorful fish dishes and a rib-eye steak.

Seafood meal at Baia

Seafood meal at Baia

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Categories: Africa, Cape Town, Featured, Journeys, South Africa, Spotlight, Tastes, Traditions

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4 Comments on “Cape Town, South Africa-Part 1”

  1. maria mercedes bejarano
    March 21, 2013 at 6:01 pm #

    Sushee .. I loved this writing .. thanks for your generous sharing of the amazing historic events that occurred in South Africa. You are a great photographer and a great writer ..
    Gracias !
    maria

  2. March 21, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

    Thanks Maria for your kind comments …yes it was an amazing trip for me as an anti-Apartheid activist. Still sad to see the stark difference in wealth and poverty!

  3. Carmen
    March 22, 2013 at 11:17 am #

    Hi Sush,
    Informative and well written. We all followed Mandela’s plight to free South Africa from Apartheid, but you lived the dream of visiting and experiencing this beautiful country which is still plagued by injustice, as you well pointed out. The picture of the prisoners is especially poignant.

    Keep traveling and sharing your adventures!

    • March 22, 2013 at 11:33 am #

      Thanks Carmen for your feedback. Yeah it was a poignant trip for me to Robben Island and I actually “felt” the whole Apartheid injustice at the prison and quarry. And looking at the photos of the brave men in each cell who suffered this ordeal was truly a feeling I cant describe.

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