Cape Town, South Africa – Big Brother’s African Brother

Cape Town, South Africa

Coaxed up Table Mountain by the lure of chocolate, I spend a sobering hour within the Langa township and catch the ferry for a thought-provoking tour round Robben Island.
November 2002

From whatever direction we approached Cape Town, Table Mountain was the prominent feature, towering above the city. No visit to Cape Town would be complete without sampling the views of the Cape Peninsula from the summit. This can be achieved by good old fashioned legwork or taking it easy on the cableway.

We plumped for the former and embarked on a two and a half hour hike up to the top. The climb to the fork in the trail is relatively easy, meandering along the edge of a rocky ridge, the slopes decorated in pretty pink blooms. From the fork, it is a relentless slog over huge, uneven stone steps towards the gully. Tom has always been the type to bound over the rocks rather like a mountain goat, leaving me far behind. I’m an experienced hiker’s worst nightmare – inept, uncoordinated, sucking in air with a pained expression on my face, forever taking rest stops, complaining about never having rest stops, tripping over my feet every thirty seconds and getting demoralised every time a fellow hiker overtakes me.

Tom knew that only the lure of chocolate would motivate me to make it to the summit. His assumption was bang on target as I trudged over the rocks knowing a cube of chocolate would be my reward if I could make it to the next bend in the trail. After two hours, fifteen minutes, and a bar of chocolate later, we inhaled the fresh air and looked out over the bay, identifying Robben Island in the distance. We didn’t hang around long on the summit due to the bitter wind that tried to topple us over. Going down proved harder on the knees than hiking up. I was relieved when we were back on tarmac as my legs had turned to jelly.


I have hardly touched on the subject of apartheid, the state of being apart, since setting foot in South Africa, yet this highly emotive legislation devastated the lives of the majority of South Africans a frighteningly short time ago. As a child growing up, I was fed on infrequent news reports and had little appreciation of the pain and suffering caused by apartheid. Even though this political policy no longer exists, it has left a deep scar on the country. Economic apartheid continues, although changes in current legislation are slowly but surely redressing the balance.

Anyone who travels through South Africa would have to be blind not to notice the townships and squatter settlements, even along the picturesque ‘Garden Route’. In some cases, the shacks constructed of corrugated iron and wood have no running water, sewage or electricity. Their inhabitants have no access to decent education, healthcare or jobs. It may seem insensitive and intrusive to visit a township, but it is impossible to understand the day-to-day struggle that people face, the misery inflicted by living in these conditions or the sheer optimism shared by some of the communities. People are genuinely positive about what the Government is doing to repair the wrongs of the past and are patiently waiting for improvements to their living conditions and to have opportunities offered to them that were previously denied.

In 1910, the formation of the Union of South Africa caused a flood of repressive legislation. Freedom of movement was restricted, blacks could no longer strike and skilled jobs were reserved for whites only. In 1913, the situation worsened when the Natives Land Act allotted 7.5% of South Africa’s land for black occupancy, although blacks made up 70% of the population. Blacks were banned from buying, renting or becoming a sharecropper outside their allocated area.

In 1948, the National Party (NP) won the election on a policy of creating apartheid, forcing people to be categorised into racial groups. Mixed marriages were prohibited and blacks were not allowed to own their own land or property. There were four different racial groups: Europeans, Natives, Asiatics and Coloureds. Europeans were regarded as persons of pure Euro descent. Any offspring of a mixed marriage where one of the parties was non-European would be categorised as a coloured. Natives were designated as pureblooded aboriginals of the Bantu race. Asiatics were described as Indians, Chinese, Japanese and Burmese – all chief Asiatic nations represented in South Africa at the time. Coloureds were termed as all people of mixed race; the census classification included Hottentots, Bushmen, Cape Malays, Cape Coloureds, Korannas Negroes and St Helennians. Blacks and coloureds were forced to carry identity documents at all times and were prohibited from leaving a township without specific permission. In conjunction with creating the racial groups, the Separate Amenities Act created separate beaches, buses, toilets, schools and even park benches.

Worse was to come. A law was passed called the Group Areas Act that made it illegal for people of different races to live in the same area. For Cape Town this meant that the multi culturally rich and diverse District Six was declared a "whites only" area. People from all walks of life populated this cosmopolitan, working class district: priests, teachers, doctors, midwives, fishermen, merchants, gangsters and prostitutes. Cape Malays, Muslim Indians and black South Africans rubbed along happily in this integrated community.

In 1966, 60,000 people who lived in District Six were forcibly removed, their homes and businesses bulldozed to the ground. Families and friends were split up in the relocation to Cape Flats. The Government named the new townships after the streets and blocks of flats in District Six: Hanover Park, Tyne Court and Lavender Hill. People were powerless to halt the bulldozers or prevent the community from being divided by race.

Our half day cultural tour involved visiting the emotionally moving District Six Museum that preserves the memories of the people who once called District Six their home. Photos of families, poems, music, art, and recreations of people’s homes tell the community’s story. Former residents marked where their homes had stood on a gigantic map that covers all of the ground floor. Some people want to return to District Six in the future – they never give up hope. Visiting District Six as it is now is an odd experience. The area is just a wasteland with a few houses and the Technikon, a college first opened for whites only in the seventies.

We were driven to Langa, a township situated on the Cape Flats. There are a wealth of preconceptions about townships: violent crime, murder, open hostility and drugs to name but a few. Many of our group were openly shocked by what we were shown. We began at the Environment Centre that concentrated on educating the community on how to recycle and utilise energy efficiently. Africa must be the world’s leading continent on recycling. In all the African countries I visited, I was amazed at the resourcefulness and willingness of people to reuse everyday items. Plastic bags were woven into sun hats, fizzy drinks served in recycled glass bottles, wire woven into baskets and souvenirs for tourists, tyres transformed into heavy duty sandals – the list is endless. Even hostels have bins for organic waste, bottles and tins. Warnings to use water sparingly are posted in common rooms and bathrooms.

First, we were led to the working class area of small neat bungalows, many of which where being extended because in 1994 black South Africans were allowed to buy property again giving an incentive to improve the houses they live in. They are no longer afraid of their homes being demolished, never knowing if they could sleep in the same bed at night or if there would be a knock at the door from the police.

The road stopped at the start of another contrasting area known as ‘Hostels’. Lines of dilapidated two storey brick buildings, originally used to house single working men, now accommodate families. In each ‘hostel’, three families share a tiny bedroom; the parents sleep in bunk beds while the children sleep on the floor or in the common room. These cramped, airless rooms are no place for privacy or dignity – eighteen families are squeezed into one ‘hostel’ and share a single bathroom. We were welcomed inside to see the conditions for ourselves; some of our group physically winced when they entered the bedroom. However, there is light at the end of tunnel. Gradually, the families living in ‘hostels’ are being moved to newly built terraced maisonettes across the road.

There is no barrier between this and the neighbouring area – the Beverley Hills of the township where teachers, doctors and civil servants live in comfortable bungalows protected by armed response security companies. Crime has been combated by the implementation of neighbourhood watch schemes and punishment dealt out by the community.

A few steps further down the road, live the less fortunate, framed by the backdrop of an ugly nuclear power station and a bordering sewage outlet. Corrugated iron shacks that have no running water house an overflowing population. An area that should support 80,000 people has 250,000 people living on top of each other. The women crowded round a water pump, filling buckets to hoist onto their heads for the long walk back home. Old shipping containers can be found on every street corner, converted into shops by enterprising men and women who want to become self-sufficient. Everyone here has a few simple aspirations: a decent home, making a living and a chance for their children to improve themselves through education. Instead of anger and bitterness in the township, we found only happiness and smiles. Everyone waved to us, shouted hello and welcomed us into their homes. They were genuinely pleased to see us, optimistic about the future. After all the years of being oppressed, I thought this community was truly heroic.


The popular Robben Island tour, where former president Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner for 27 years (he was released in 1990), is a thought provoking experience. It beings with a visit to the museum housed next to the Clock Tower at the Victoria and Albert Waterfront. The museum presents shocking material on the apartheid regime from different perspectives: Nelson Mandela’s story, the impact on women and children, how freedom of speech was curtailed and the torture of political prisoners. Photographs and posters illustrate the brutality, devastation and the worldwide struggle to fight against apartheid. Spend time here before taking the high-speed boat across to the island.

Robben Island is a tiny, isolated, windswept outcrop in the Atlantic Ocean. It has been used as a fortress during World War II, a leper colony and several times as a political prison. The prison tour guides are ex-political prisoners; our guide was Phenius Poho who served half of his fifteen year sentence for high treason before being released when apartheid was abolished. The idea behind touring the grim prison buildings is to keep the history alive for the sake of reconciliation – black South Africans do not want to forget what happened, they want to learn from their experiences and move forward. There are plans to build a university on the island, making it a place of hope for future generations.

Political prisoners faced brutal conditions. Initially back in the 1960s, prisoners were issued with inadequate, short sleeved tops and shorts, and were denied shoes. When the Red Cross visited in the sixties, the prisoners were given warm clothes to wear for that day only. There were no beds, only mats on the floor and no hot water. Workshops were not provided for constructive work, instead they were forced into relentless hard labour of crushing stones in the quarry and fetching seaweed from the icy cold sea. Punishments for trivial offences such as not replying to your identification number (our guide was not addressed by his name but as 31/85) or losing your identification papers were commonplace. A prisoner could be denied food for 18 days or sent to solitary confinement. Victimisation and physical assaults were regularly dished out. As for contact with the outside world, some political prisoners could only write one letter of 120 words every three months. Just a single one and a half hour non-contact visit was allowed during the same time period. Even the diet for blacks and coloured prisoners was different; coloureds received more food.

Through it all, the political prisoners remained united, winning small victories through organised protests to improve their conditions in the prison. Education was extremely important to them, allowing prisoners to obtain degrees and eloquently create their own policies and constitution for the free South Africa.

Our guide was direct and to the point, hardly surprising when you consider how much he had suffered. One thing I did object to was the large group size. Fifty people made it difficult to hear the guide at certain times during the tour. Also, children under seven should not be permitted. A British couple had a toddler and baby who misbehaved and acted like spoilt brats throughout the entire tour, screaming the place down and making it almost impossible to hear a word our guide was saying. Why is it so difficult for parents to control their children for three hours? I never heard a peep out of African babies on the long bus journeys in Malawi.

At the end of the tour, I reflected that it had allowed us a glimpse into the strength of human spirit and endurance required to triumph against all odds. There’s still hope for the human race.


So I’m at the end of our African odyssey, a fantastic trip that taught me that the spirit of human kindness isn’t dead.

My top five highlights of our trip:

  • Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda – worth every penny and the top highlight of all my backpacking trips
  • Walking with lion cubs in the bush, Gweru, Zimbabwe
  • Souvenir shopping in Harare, Zimbabwe
  • Meeting village children collecting water from the Nile at Bujagali Falls
  • Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, Swaziland

So, the question on most people’s lips when we returned home was "How dangerous is South Africa?" Well, we never had any problems but we followed some simple rules:

  • never stop at a picnic area on the side of a road if there are other people already there
  • drive with the doors locked at all times and do not drive at night
  • always park your car in a safe enclosure
  • wear a money belt
  • be vigilant, especially at night

While we were in South Africa, we heard about a British couple who were shot during a mugging in a hotel at Pilgrim’s Rest and a British tourist kidnapped at a beauty spot close to Kruger National Park, who was raped.

In Cape Town, we visited the Pick and Pay supermarket one afternoon. Nothing very amazing about that until we discovered on the evening news that an hour after we had bought our shopping, a man had shot his wife working on the checkout tills. Also, we stopped at a picnic area next to a railway line out in the middle of nowhere, when Tom spotted a man walking down the tracks towards us. This may sound stupid but it is always better to be safe than sorry, so we immediately returned to our car and drove on.

Well, we’re not stopping in cold, blustery England for long as we have booked a flight to Sri Lanka to start our Asian Odyssey through India, Nepal and Burma. Read about our adventures in the new travelogue under the Asia section entitled "Hippies, Hikers, Hookahs and Harems." After Africa and an overland truck, I’m ready to face anything travelling throws at me.



If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Africa Insiders page.