After three days of R & R in Zanzibar, Pep’s legs were almost healed and it was time to get back to work traveling the world. That night we touched down in Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Table Mountain on the other. The natural beauty, however, is somewhat obscured by all of the razor wire and armed guards.
South Africa’s turbulent past is now its turbulent present. In the mid-to-late 1900s, the Nationalist Party enforced a brutal policy known as apartheid. Blacks, and other minorities, had to live in segregated neighborhoods, ride their own buses, and go to their own schools. They didn’t have the right to vote and few made enough money to live above the poverty line. Fortunately, apartheid was completely abolished back in 1994. Erm, 1994?
And while apartheid may not be around in name, it still exists. Blacks are no longer forbidden from moving out of their shantytowns; they just can’t afford to do so. During our time in South Africa, black farm workers waged an intermittently violent strike in an effort to increase the minimum daily wage. In the end, they were successful and wages were increased almost fifty percent to a generous $11.35…..per day.
That’s insane. South Africa is not Rwanda or Tanzania. It’s a wealthy first-world country. There are big four-lane highways, modern hospitals, glass shopping malls, and trendy loft apartments — you can even drink the tap water (the ultimate backpacker test).
As a result of their own discriminatory policies, upper and middle class white South Africans live in constant fear of both violent crime and the next revolution, hence the proliferation of armed guards and barbed wire. But to be honest, although it was disurbing, it didn’t effect us as directly as the sexist and repressive culture towards women in Morocco. The poorest communities, the former segregated black townships, are deliberately located out of the way, and out of sight, from the more developed areas. Our own personal experience is that we felt warmly welcomed by everyone, regardless of race.
In this context, our visit to Robben Island was especially meaningful. Located five miles off the coast of Cape Town, Robben Island is where non-white, aparteid-era political prisoners, such as Nelson Mandela, were held.
The tour left from Cape Town’s harbor on a high-speed ferry for Robben Island. The seas were rough and the boat pitched up and down as it crested the waves. We saw whales and cape fur seals swimming in the same cold, deep blue waters that had separated the prisoners from freedom. It is a dichotomy that epitomizes South Africa: beauty and oppression.
Once we arrived, we disembarked and were led to buses for a driving tour of the island. While we were shown various sites, we were given an impassioned tour honoring the political prisoners and their courage. Robben Island was home to many brilliant leaders of the anti-apartheid movement including Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, and Walter Sisulu, among others. These men took responsibility for educating the others and Robben Island soon became referred to by blacks as “The University.”
Afterwards, we left the bus and entered the prison. This part of the tour was led by a soft-spoken former political prisoner. He had been imprisoned here for three years and he recounted his life on Robben Island. Their lives were strictly controlled, but prisoners still attempted to meet secretly for classes. They had newspapers smuggled in to try and keep up with the outside world. He even detailed his three weeks in solitary confinement for insulting a guard, describing it as the most severe psychological torture possible. He would rather be starved or beaten.
Hearing these intimate details was powerfully moving and tragic. Despite the intervening years, he carried the air of a broken man. He admitted that he’s unable to sleep more than a few hours each night. You cannot have enough respect for those people who sacrificed so much to advance equality.
But although progress in South Africa has been slow, there has been progress. Cape Town is a bustling, cosmopolitan city. From the moment we opened the door to the Backpackers In Greenpoint Hostel (the B.I.G.) and were hit with an amazing indie music track (Alt J – Something Good), it was clear that we’d returned to civilization as we know it.
Which meant it was time to get cleaned up and re-enter society. We washed our laundry, which was long overdue. We bought new toothbrushes and toothpaste. We bought a normal sized shampoo and body wash. Usually we have to ration the smallest amount from our travel-sized containers, but because we would be renting a car, keeping our backpacks as light as possible was no longer the ultimate priority. Showering with a hair full of suds? What. A. Luxury. Then it was time for me to get rid of seven weeks of stubble and since I’d ditched my razors in order to lighten the load, I had my first ever professional shave.
Once we were respectable, we explored Cape Town by tuk-tuk (a cheap, three-wheeled, open-air, underpowered taxi with a motorcycle engine). We hit the downtown, the waterfront, and the Neighbourgoods Market. The market was one of the most eclectic and cool places for food and design that we’ve visited — it’s definitely a “can’t miss” spot. We ate ourselves silly before finishing things off with some life advice from our zen guru. Hello civilization, we’re back!
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