Captivating Cape Town

Cape Town South Africa by Irene Butler
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Cape Town from atop Table Mountain

Frothing whitecaps of the Atlantic charging the shores, an expanse of rooftops and lush greenery ushered our Boeing 747 into Cape Town at 10:00 a.m. It had been 36 hours since our air carrier had taken off from Vancouver, British Columbia; twenty-five of those hours were spent scrunched into economy class, the remainder in a delightful eleven hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany where taking a sky-train to the city centre for a feed of wiener schnitzel and Bavarian beer was more enticing to us than catching a few z’s.

Although in a fugue of exhaustion we were determined not to let a bright sunny day get away. After securing a room we anxiously made our way to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. Tapping sounds and jovial chatter drew us to a fleet of ships in dry-dock undergoing repairs, being de-barnacled and spread with a shiny new coat of paint by crews on scaffolds or draped over the sides in boson chairs. As we neared the wharf jazz musicians, faces glistening with beads of perspiration, gave their all in renditions of old favourites that had folks swaying and tapping. The boardwalks were filled with strollers munching bun wrapped sausages or lapping up a decadent Elmo’s ice-cream from cake cones. More formal diners sat at linen-clad restaurant tables captivatingly facing bays where anchored ships rested from ocean journeys while crews loaded or unloaded goods and looked forward to a little R&R themselves.

Cape Town Waterfront

We lasted until 3:00 p.m. before wearily heading back to the Carnival Court Backpackers Inn, the only available room we could find in the city bowl (as the central area has been dubbed). Nails came through the floor boards of our unheated room and the facilities were waaaaaaay down the hall. But who cared? The bunk beds felt sublime as we lay down for a sleep that lasted 15 hours. Inadvertently we found ourselves on the infamous Long Street where our Inn and numerous turn of the century accommodations are reminiscent of New Orleans hotels with second floor balconies overlooking the lively party scene below.

Long Street Cape Town

Snagging a room with both an ensuite bath and a double bed at the nearby Longstreet Inn for the next five days was a stroke of luck. Nicola, Shaun and housekeeper Elizabeth made us feel right at home. Though still unheated, and August being early spring in this part of the world, rolling up in a fluffy comforter after a steaming hot bath feistily combated the chilly nights.

Cape Town Townships

Thandis, our guide to the townships, started our tour at the District Six Museum for an overview of what we were about to see. The District Six area, inhabited by Xhosa peoples for generations, had become a lively mixed-race suburb when it was declared a white district in 1966. Between 1966 and 1982 over 60,000 people were forcibly moved and their homes and shops flattened with bulldozers; though it remained a big empty space, this took care of the uncomfortable proximity of blacks, coloureds and Asians from the ruling whites (politically correct terms in South Africa, “coloured” designating mixed races). Since the end of apartheid in 1991 the new government promised to rebuild the area with multi-family dwellings and relocate the disposed families, but 15 years later only one small section is completed.

Cape Town Townships

The District Six peoples were driven to a barren area that became known as Cape Flats. We visited several sections of the black townships with families living in grim circumstances. Scrap lumber, tin, tarps and most any other material the families could get their hands on were shaped into 8′ x 8′ houses. Sporadic public water pumps and sparse lamp standards and a not frequently emptied line of public toilets (the type we use at construction sites in North America) is their infra-UN- structure. Though the Cape Flats shacks are ever so stagnantly being replaced by new multi-dwellings, this segment of the population is no better off in living conditions than during apartheid, but Thandis says there is one difference “people now have hope”. The abject poverty and horrendous living conditions are even worse in rural areas where there is no clean water, no roads, no electricity, no access to education and health care.

Shanty PubThere is a strong sense of community in these shanty towns. Children run about laughing and playing, adults bustle about on some mission, lean-to shops are piled high with chickens, vegetables and other commodities. Some resourceful ladies made a business of cooking sheep heads over a barrel of leaping flames and could hardly keep up with customer demands. Stopping at a shanty pub, we had a taste of sorghum beer with a group of mostly old men. Two ladies worked away in the background whipping up the next batch of sorghum and maize which ferments in only three days. The beer sat in half-gallon pails on boards between the imbibers to keep the bottom of the pails off the dirt floor. There is a knack, as my wet shirt front was testimony, to holding the handle in one hand and tilting the vessel upward with precision for a swig of the frothy, slightly fizzy, sour brew.

Next we ventured into a dank, dark cavernous metal shed. Thorny dried branches, thick grasses and twisted roots were stacked waist deep around the entrance. As our eyesHerbalist adjusted to the weak light, skins of snakes, bats, and other small undistinguishable mammals came into focus; chains of carnivore incisors dangled next to a rip-apart roll of condoms strung above our heads in criss-cross fashion. Dust caked bottles of putrid yellow and mottled fungal green concoctions lined the floor along the sides. This was the domain of the Ix-hwele (herbalist) who as well as curing bodily ailments tends to mental and spiritual maladies as well as the evil caused by witches whose depraved spirits seek people to possess. Though the Ix-hwele had a few patients waiting, he took the time to don his ceremonial fur cap, drape his shoulders with a red shawl, cross his arms across his chest holding feather swatches and chanting words of good fortune upon us.

Crime is low in these townships. Neighbours watch out for one another. Once, upon arriving home, Thandis found his radio missing. He was informed within minutes of the thief’s identity and was able to retrieve the item. For more serious crimes, such as murder or rape, the perpetrator would rather be dealt with by the police than by local justice which still embraces an “eye for an eye” credence.

Across a polluted river the coloureds and Asians fare somewhat better in tenement and small individual homes. Thandis maintains the separation is only due to the comfort of being in one’s own culture; the black townships speak Xhosi and the coloured speak Afrikaans (creolized version of Dutch from colonial settlers and from slaves; made an official language in 1925). Now when blacks marry coloureds they usually choose to live out of both areas and move into a city centre flat.
Many such insights were gleaned from Thandis to break down the barriers of misunderstanding and misconceptions.

Twenty minutes by boat from the Nelson Mandela Gateway Clock Tower lies 574 hector Robbens Island where thousands of political prisoners were locked away. Their crime – fighting to end the criminal white supremacy laws of apartheid imposed by the Afrikaner National Party in 1948. Just to re-cap the tip-of-the-iceberg in gross injustices against human rights, this legislation allocated eighty-seven percent of the land for use by whites (whites comprising only 16% of the population during apartheid); bans prohibited Africans from obtaining a skilled labour job, and every African and coloured was compelled to carry a pass and obtain a permit if in a white area for more than 72 hours; segregation of schools, health care and even sexual partners.

One side of the island became a caste-away place for lepers, the insane and hard core criminals convicted of murder and rape who were kept in Medium B security. Political prisoners sat rotting on the other side with life sentences in maximum security facilities.

Our guide, Modise, was an X-political prisoner, as are all the guides on the Robbens Island tours. His five year sentence began at the age of seventeen. On his initiation day to the prison, in an attempt to find out his contacts and political activities, he was jolted by electrical prods and beaten until lying in a pool of his own blood he could only blink his eyes at his interrogators for mercy before slipping into the oblivion of unconsciousness. The prison became his university; his teachers the lawyers, professors, doctors and other professionals who were in his cell block and took it upon themselves to educate young prisoners whose education opportunities ended with apartheid. It was a poignant moment when he met the man so instrumental in the fight for freedom – prisoner # 46664 – Nelson Mandela (hisNelson Mandela assigned number denoted him as the 466th political prisoner followed by the year he was incarcerated). Modise lead us to the cramped 2m x 2.5m cell strewn with the straw mat where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of incarceration. As the young Modise sceptically listened to Mandela preach non-violence and to befriend the wardens to improve conditions and treatment in the prison, he thought the great man had been in prison too long, until he saw firsthand this worked in their favour.

At the end of apartheid the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by Bishop Desmond Tutu, epitomizes a heroic stance to break the cycle of violence breeding violence. Its purpose was to investigate the gross human rights abuses, awarding reparation to the victims, and granting amnesty to those perpetrators who fully disclosed their actions. I cannot even begin to imagine the spiritual, emotional and physical fortitude it took for victims and their families to re-open the wounds in order to heal. Robbens Island was one of the most moving experiences of our lives.

IMG_7037-1Waiting patiently for days of overcast weather to dissipate, brilliant morning sunshine afforded us the opportunity to see Table Mountain without the tablecloth of white cloud resting on its flat surface. A three minute cable care ride took us to 1069m above sea level for a spectacular 360 degree view of the coastline, Robbens Island, Lions Head Mt., the 12 Apostles (a group of 18 mountains, none of which bear an apostle’s name), and the city spread directly below. Then hopping on the Capetown Explorer, city tour bus, we saw how “the other half” live along the posh Riviera coastline.

Our Long Street Inn room was only available for five days, so off we trod to the Ashanti Lodge. Three bonuses were: a small heater in the room, leaving the “bar boom” of Long Street behind that lasted into the wee hours, and finding Arnold’s Restaurant on 60 Kloof Street Gardens. In this delightful establishment we were waited on hand and foot by cheery waitrons (the old waitress/waiter appellations rendered passe while partaking in several scrumptious breakfasts and a farewell feast of crocodile ribs, ostrich fillets, gemsbok steak and a complementary bottle of Capell’s Court 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, a Linton Park Wine.

The promulgated danger on Cape Town streets had been luckily non-consequential for us. In fact, we never felt unsafe walking during the day, and common sense told us not to wander off beaten paths after dark, as in any large city. Security men in black with florescent lime-green vests are everywhere in the city centre and private security stand guard in building doorways. The short “whoop, whoop” of police sirens followed by loudspeaker directives are soon familiar sounds through the night. Iron bars cover windows; many businesses require you to press a buzzer for access. Of course, all these safeguards to thwart off crime undoubtedly confirms its existence.

Our agenda has been decided. We will fly from Cape Town to Nairobi, Kenya and then work our way overland by bus back to South Africa.
Meet you in Nairobi!

Recommended Accommodations:

Long Street Inn; 230 Long Street
– doubles and dorms

Ashanti Lodge & Travel Centre
11 Haf Street
tel. (+27-21) 423-8721
fax, (+27-21)423-8790


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