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Cape Town, South Africa…I loved it so much on Round the World #1, I went back for more on Round the World #2. But it had been more than 6 years since my last visit and I was long overdue for a return to one of the world’s most stunning cities.
I had two days before my cruise to Namibia and one day after to enjoy all that Cape Town had to offer. After spending my first night settling in at the Westin, the next day I headed over to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront area (an easy walk from the hotel) for lunch and a little shopping.
The V&A (as the locals call it) is a working harbor and its importance dates back to the Cape Colony of the 1800’s. Safe shipping was essential for the budding colony and the first load of stone for the harbor breakwater was tipped by none other than Prince Alfred – second son of Queen Victoria.
Today, the waterfront area is a hub of activity and a central gathering point for locals and visitors alike. Shops, restaurants and cafes line the water’s edge as sailboats, catamarans and schooners come and go.
There are also a number of educational and historic sites in the V&A area like the Old Port Captain’s Building, the Maritime Museum, the Two Oceans Aquarium and the Cape Town Diamond Museum.
That night I had planned to take the cable car up to the top of Table Mountain for sunset but after a sunny and clear day, the dreaded “Tablecloth” had moved in just before sunset. This persistent patch of clouds often shrouds the top of the mountain limiting visibility and closing the cable car operation. Unfortunately, it looked like my attempt at sunset would have to wait until I returned from the cruise.
Back from Namibia
After an incredible 4-night cruise to Namibia, I was back in Cape Town with one more day to explore and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. On my previous trips to the city I’d seen all the usual tourist sites, the waterfront, the Cape of Good Hope, the penguins of Boulders Beach, Clifton Beach and Camps Bay. I’d hiked Table Mountain and done a day-trip safari.
But there was one thing I hadn’t done and it was leaving me feeling like I didn’t really know this city yet at all – I hadn’t visited a township. So a visit to the townships of Cape Town was my primary goal after returning from the cruise and luckily I’d gotten a tip on an excellent guide from a friend who visited South Africa last fall.
My guide for the day, Pierre, had been working with the township communities and bringing visitors into them for nearly twenty years. Pierre picked me up at the cruise ship port and since it was still a little early to wake people up in the townships, he suggested we make a stop in the Bo-Kaap area first.
South Africa’s rich blend of peoples and cultures dates back to the arrival of the Dutch in the mid-1600’s and prompted Archbishop Desmond Tutu to dub it the “Rainbow Nation.” Some were employed by the Dutch East India Company while others came seeking new opportunities. Today, the influx of immigrants continues with people coming from Europe, Asia and Africa and their combined cultural influence is the heart of the Cape Town experience.
Nowhere is that blended culture more prominent than the Bo-Kaap neighborhood. It’s one of Cape Town’s oldest residential areas and home to a variety of ethnicities and religions, but it is perhaps most closely tied to the Cape’s Muslim community.
Also known as the Malay Quarter, the Bo-Kaap is lined with brightly-colored homes along cobbled streets. As Pierre explained, for the early settlers here, paint was expensive but the workers could take leftover paint from their employers. This led to the rainbow variety of colors used on each home.
After a quick stroll around the Bo-Kaap, we continued on to our main destination for the day, the suburban townships of Cape Town.
The History of Apartheid
In 1948, decades of strengthening nationalism by the minority white Afrikaner population culminated in the election of the National Party (NP) on a platform of establishing apartheid (literally, the state of being apart). Every individual was classified by race. The Group Areas Act enforced the physical separation of residential areas and the townships and the Cape Flats were consolidated to form areas to which the non-white residents of the city and its suburbs were forcibly relocated. “Pass Laws” required blacks to carry identity documents at all times and prohibited them from remaining outside the townships after appointed curfews.
After decades of darkness, conflict and international condemnation, the election of FW de Klerk in 1989 was the beginning of the end of apartheid. De Klerk repealed discriminatory laws and set political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, free. A new constitution was written, a transitional multi-racial government formed and an election date set. In 1994, the new South African flag was raised and the country’s first democratic elections brought the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the newly-reconciled South Africa’s first president.
A legacy of apartheid, the townships of Cape Town were built to house migrant laborers. Though much poverty still exists in the townships, they are also such strongholds of local community ties that even some who can afford to move out choose not to, preferring to stay close to their community. The city’s three biggest townships are Langa, Guguletu and Khayelitsha.
As Cape Town’s oldest township, Langa was a center of resistance during Apartheid. Today, the old migrant mineworkers’ accommodation is still used and street food stalls sell everything from fresh fruit to “smileys” – severed sheep heads – along the roadside.
Our first stop in Langa was an unexpected one…a real life “Medicine Man.” Ndaba, as the locals know him, tackles all variety of health and wellness issues ranging from a stomach ache to infertility. His aromatic tonics and elixirs include animal fats, oils and skins from all corners of the animal kingdom. Pierre cleared my entry with his receptionist (i.e. a guy sitting on a stool outside) and I ducked to enter his “office” – delicately parting a sea of hanging animal skins and bones. Ndaba offered me a seat and began to explain who comes to see him and why. Then he showed me some of the animal skins and vials of oils that he uses to heal them.
As we drove through Langa, I was amazed at the buzz of activity on the streets. Most businesses (including a disproportionate number of hair salons – as Pierre explained, residents of the townships are serious about their hair) operated out of recycled shipping containers. Shipping containers, as it turns out, have a life cycle of just 15 years and in retirement have seen a second life in the townships as a shelter for both homes and businesses.
Our second township, Guguletu, was the highlight of my day. We drove straight into one of the squatter camps surrounding the township and parked in front of a tiny, single room structure painted bright yellow with colorful drawings on the walls. It was a ray of sunshine in an otherwise dilapidated neighborhood and not just from the outside.
As we entered the gate to the small yard, Pierre explained that he had funded this pre-school through donations from the visitors he’s brought into the townships over the years, many of whom wanted to help after they’d spent some time inside these communities. The school was only recently completed and Pierre was stopping by not just so I could see it but to check in on the remaining construction work that needed to be completed.
As soon as we arrived, Pierre was greeted like a member of the family by both the children and the adults running the place. The dozen children ranging in age from 2 – 6 were so excited to see us and especially to see my camera. Since Pierre had funded the school, the children had obviously seen tourists before and they knew that if I took their picture they would be able to see their image on my camera’s display. And that’s just what they wanted to do.
As Pierre chatted with the school’s manager outside, the children posed for picture after picture for me, pausing after each one to huddle around me as I showed them the image. Smiles, giggles, more photos, more giggles. They probably would have been entertained all day by this process (me too!) but after a while we let them get back to their school work and Pierre and I continued on.
From the pre-school, Pierre left his truck parked and we set off on foot through the narrow, dusty alleys of Guguletu. He wanted to check-in on a friend of his, a woman named Cynthia, whose granddaughter was supposed to be at the pre-school and he was concerned that she wasn’t. On the walk to her home, Pierre explained that Cynthia was HIV positive and earns a living making craft items (mostly handbags & hats) out of discarded plastic grocery bags.
We arrived at Cynthia’s small but lovingly-decorated home and I was greeted warmly by her and her granddaughter and welcomed inside. Pierre asked why the granddaughter wasn’t at the pre-school and I didn’t catch all of the answer but it seemed that Cynthia didn’t have the money to purchase the school uniform she thought was needed. Pierre quickly assured her that the uniform was included in the price that he had paid for her to attend the school and Cynthia (with obvious relief) promised that she would take her to school the next day.
With that out of the way, the subject turned to Cynthia’s crafts and I asked if I could take a look at what she makes. She returned moments later with a hefty-bag sized load of assorted items and began removing them one by one and laying them out on her sofa for me to see. I couldn’t believe they were actually made from discarded plastic bags. It was remarkable how beautiful they were. I asked how long it took her to do each piece and she said it varied from a few hours to a day or more. As beautiful as they were, I couldn’t imagine what I would do with one but I couldn’t bear the thought of being welcomed into her home and not buying something so I picked my favorite and paid her (very reasonable) asking price before we said goodbye.
From Cynthia’s house we made our way back through the goat-infested streets of the township to the pre-school and Pierre’s car. We drove out of Guguletu and on our way back to the highway Pierre drove me around the perimeter of some of the most dangerous township areas (where you’d never leave the car) that are plagued by drugs and gang problems.
Once back on the highway, in just a few minutes we were back among the gleaming hotels and office buildings of downtown Cape Town. It seemed a world away from where we’d just been and I found that difficult to reconcile. But I’m so glad to have seen the other side of the city as it is essential to understanding South Africa as a nation.
While South Africa’s tourism reputation often struggles with an image of questionable safety in some areas, perspective is important. It’s not often as a traveler that you get the opportunity to visit a nation that is literally re-inventing itself after experiencing such profound change. And while the cultural lessons of South Africa are complex, it’s impossible to ignore the stunning natural beauty of the scenic backdrop that frames it.
Next stop, Durban and Lesotho!