My visit to Cape Town, South Africa – by Lear Matthews

In Memory of Mandela: Impressions of my visit to Cape Town,

South Africa

by   Lear Matthews

Rejoice in the dawn of Pan African light.
Mandela! Mandela! Weep not for Nelson
But sing a thousand hosannas for Madiba
Our sacred Liberator (J.G.Morris)

Lear Matthews

Lear Matthews

I recently visited Cape Town as part of a team project focusing on adult higher education within the context of local and global struggles for equity and social justice, principles espoused by Nelson Mandela.  Following are impressions of this maiden sojourn, the highlight of which was a visit to Robben Island, the notoriously infamous island-prison where Mandela spent more than 17 years. 

      When I boarded the aircraft at Schipol, Amsterdam I noticed that I was one of the few “non-Caucasians” on the flight.  Anxious, with anticipatory fascination about the trip to the motherland, I was surprised at this ethnic imbalance, but would soon learn that Cape Town has been a premier tourist destination for Europeans before and after Apartheid.

The Cape Town airport was quite impressive, with modern facilities and well developed environs. Ironically, the first Blacks I saw were a security guard and cleaning personnel. This initial observation, I thought, afforded me a glimpse into the class structure of the society, though mindful that one must be cautious about premature judgments.

We first visited the township of Langa, which was racially segregated for Blacks under Apartheid.  I was consumed by a chilling ambivalence, seeing what I thought to be the most poverty-stricken enclave in Cape Town, yet felt that I was in familiar territory.  Many of these people looked like me, and I felt an affinity with them. Although there were clear signs of material deprivation, the residents displayed a sense of dignity on that Sunday morning. Many of them dressed in church regalia, appeared to be returning from religious worship. Some were doing business around makeshift market places, while others engaged in conversation or chores near concrete and wooden shacks.  Our driver asked two young residents’ permission to take their photograph, and after some coaxing, slightly embarrassed and timid, they obliged.  One of them reminded me of my son. I thought for a moment whether that young man will ever get a chance to acquire a formal education and a better life.  Recent history of the region gave me hope that he will. The language spoken in many townships is Xhosa (remember Miriam Makiba’s “click song”?). Mandela was a Xhosa traditionalist. But the principle languages of South Africa are English and Afrikaans. Langa was a sobering, experience and I realized how fascinating, but complex a society South Africa is.

Robben Island is internationally known for the brutal imprisonment and banishment of hundreds of political prisoners. The diminutive Tour Guide was a former political prisoner and it was almost traumatizing to hear his graphic account of the ordeal during incarceration. As we sauntered through the compound, mesmerized, there was an eerie silence, broken intermittently by restrained sobs, particularly at the sight of Mandela’s prison cell. The stark reality of what I was experiencing penetrated the depths of my soul at the Lime Quarry where prisoners toiled under slave-like conditions. The heat from the sun was almost intolerable.

The Guide pointed to a cave-like opening on one side of the quarry stating that Mandela and his comrades would hold “secret meetings of a political nature, while relieving themselves” because they were not allowed to communicate in other parts of the compound.  He continued wryly, “the white guards were not allowed to use the same bathroom facilities.”A small mound of quarry stones served as a makeshift monument, each stone representing those who died in prison.

     District Six was another symbol of man’s inhumanity to man under apartheid.  The houses in that community of ‘coloreds’ were mercilessly bulldozed and residents unceremoniously relocated to distant townships.  “Colored” in South Africa has a different meaning from its usage in North America. There are two heritage categories that make up “Coloreds”.  One is the descendants of people from countries such as Malaysia and Nepal, and the other comprise the descendants of European colonizers and indigenous Africans.  Phenotypically, they are lighter in skin complexion. Indian Asians are another distinct ethnic group. (Mahatma Gandhi lived in South Africa for over 21 years). Though outlawed in post-apartheid South Africa, such forced categorization has lasting socio-political implications.

Although the Apartheid system ended, the psychological damage could take another generation to subside, and remnants of structural inequalities still exist.  A local academic noted, “Mandela has been released, but South Africa is not free.” This statement was made in light of existing economic disparities. However, in the face of poverty, ideological differences and tribal conflict, Mandela and his cohorts sought to mobilize a visionary united South Africa, through education, reconciliation, and economic development programs, with some degree of success. Dining at the restaurant Cape to Cuba, reminded us of the major contribution of Cubans to the anti-apartheid struggle.

Notwithstanding its complex social structure and perplexing past, the natural beauty of the country, including lush flora, and fauna is a thing to behold.  Reputed as South Africa’s oldest city, Cape Town’s metropolis nestles in the ‘bowl’ formed by the majestic Table Mountain and its flanking peaks. The Cape of Good Hope, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans intersect, is an unforgettable sight. We stood in awe watching the waves lash rhythmically against the most south-western tip of the African coast.

Against this backdrop, however, many of the people with whom we spoke indicated that progress is slow, despite the change in the “complexion” of the government.  Unfortunately, such impatience was underscored by the devastation of the AIDS/HIV epidemic and high crime rate in some parts of Southern Africa.

Cape Town has a bustling night life.  On the final evening we were entertained by a group of ornately decorated Zulu drummers and dancers in a traditional African restaurant, where we had a sumptuous dinner of indigenous African cuisine, and our faces were painted in tribal designs.  Cape Town was an invaluable, reinvigorating, educational, humbling experience. I will forever cherish my visit to the ancestral motherland, the birth and resting place of Madiba, whose spirit lives on.

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  • de castro  On December 28, 2013 at 1:23 am

    Very interesting article honestly composed….a wonderful experience
    shared speaks volumes of how far SA has moved forward economically/politically.
    Thanks to Lear Matthews for sharing his experience/visit with us.
    It was interesting also to know that Ghandi had lived in exile in SA.
    Only recently I discovered that Hitler suggested that British shoot Ghandi
    and his followers to solve the Indian uprising post independence….with
    British dismissing this as Hitlers obsession/weakness.
    Ironically Ghandi was to be later assassinated by his own countryman.
    We never stop learning as mistakes in history are repeated by fools.

    SA will overcome its imbalances in education as its youths look for
    answers/solutions for its future developments….corruption an issue.
    It may take some time yet but it will change as it joins in the BRICS
    countries….its development in trade. Brazil Russia India China and
    Southafrica.A must visit on my itinerary in 2014.
    Once again thanks to Lear Matthews for sharing his experience on guyanese-on-line

    Kamptan in UK

  • walter  On December 28, 2013 at 8:34 pm

    “Although there were clear signs of material deprivation, the residents displayed a sense of dignity on that Sunday morning. Many of them dressed in church regalia, appeared to be returning from religious worship. Some were doing business around makeshift market places, while others engaged in conversation or chores near concrete and wooden shacks”
    That was a direct quote from the article above. It could have been a description of Guyana today. Most of the comments on Guyana,suggest “No hope in sight”I don’t and will never believe that Guyana can’t find it’s place as the leader of the Caribbean.

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