CapeTown and its Townships

We stayed at a lovely Bed & Breakfast called Welgelegen (I’ll bet you can’t pronounce it either) at the foot of Table Mountain. This is the view from our balcony:


CapeTown has a reputation as a very dangerous city. While we heeded the advice to not walk around downtown at night, it didn’t feel any more dangerous than similar big cities. However, every last house has walls, gates and an electrified fence surrounding it. Signs announcing armed guards for home defense are everywhere.

We began our first full day in CapeTown by visiting the District 6 museum.


District 6 is an area of CapeTown close to the shipping docks. In the mid-1900s, it was a vibrant, integrated neighborhood with about 60,000 inhabitants. The Group Areas Act was enacted in 1950, and this led to District 6 being designated a “whites only” area in 1966. Residents were ordered to move out and every house was demolished to erect “suitable” houses for the new white residents. The museum houses a collection of old street signs and recreations of what the rooms and small shops used to look like. As an introduction to recent South African history, it is well worth a visit.


Leftover signs of this segregation are everywhere.


The boys observed that the people who segregated South Africa in 1950 and made blacks live in slums, carry dompasses and treated them as less than human were the same people who fought against Hitler in the 1940s and decried him doing exactly the same to the Jews.

We then made a quick stop at the Boo Kaap neighborhood which is predominantly a Muslim area.


It is one of the prettiest areas of South Africa where residents paint their houses in different bright colors creating a very happy look. Most of these houses have been passed down thru generations of the same family although foreign investors have begun to take notice and thus change slowly creeps in.

We hired a tour to take us into one of the “townships” (slums) surrounding CapeTown.


It was a complicated, lively place and not as depressing as one would expect. We were there early on a Saturday morning and the streets were filled with little kids running around and playing.


Townships were created after the Group Areas Act which stated that every person had to live in areas specifically designated for their race. Identity cards were given to people which spelled out which race they belonged to. In case of doubt, officials would conduct the “pencil test” which consisted of placing a pencil in the person’s hair. If it stuck, the person was “black”; if it didn’t, the person was labeled “colored”. Blacks were at the bottom of the list and even their passes reflected this. Theirs were called the “dompass”, or rather dumb pass because only dumb people carried it; they like to say. In reality, everyone was required to carry their ID, every race had restrictions on which areas they could be in and at what times.


If a black person was caught in a restricted area without their dompass, he could be jailed for up to 6 weeks! When a black person moved into a Township, he had to register with the Township council, his dompass was updated with his address and place of work. This of course meant that even the jobs they could take were limited as they needed to be close enough to make it back before curfew.

Townships grew as such places tend to and became their own small city within a city. They consist of several types of housing, some are brick and cement apartments,


others are old shipping containers


and yet others are nothing more than discarded boxes, bits of wood, and aluminum cobbled together.


Where the government stepped in to build housing, it provided the residents with communal laundry


and bathroom areas.


Four bathrooms for over 200 people though….

Shipping containers are bought solely by its inhabitant and more often than not, house two families per one container. They are cold in winter, hot in summer and of course have no washing facilities.


I asked our guide who controlled the place the shipping containers were set upon. He said no one, they simply squat. We got the feeling that he wasn’t being completely honest though. The Township seemed very organized, two out of every three “residences” had a satellite dish and people greeted him with respect. If I had to guess, I’d say there is a head running things here and our guide was high on the pecking order.

We were allowed to enter several residences to see how people lived.


Although interesting, we felt like intruders. We were intruders but at the same time, these people open up their houses to tourists as a source of income. As we walked around, it became clearer and clearer that people here are used to these “tours”. We caught several children performing “play” specifically for us; as soon as we were gone they would stop playing.


We noticed some adults see us coming, go inside and suddenly a child would be thrust outside with a ball. At some point, a group of very young kids surrounded Fernando, hugging him and tugging at his hand.


It was very cute…until we noticed another little kid searching thru his pockets while he was distracted. The kid couldn’t have been more than 5. Is it his fault if this is all that he’s learned? At what age should he know the difference between right and wrong and will he if this is his livelihood? Unanswerable questions. It left a sour feeling for us.

At the edge of the township are nice comfortable houses. Our guide explained that these houses belong to people from the township who have “made it”, they’ve become lawyers or businessmen, and they could afford to move to a nice area but want to stay close to their roots. I asked if these people might be targets for robbery but our guide assured us that everyone in the township looks up to them and respects them. We couldn’t help noticing that their houses have walls and fences though.


According to our guide, higher education is not free but when I asked how these people had managed to get such an education without money, he simply ignored me. This was the norm with him, I got the feeling that he didn’t consider women should be asking questions and when he later began making jokes about first wives and second wives, I gave up, hung back and simply listened. We later found out he has at least 8 children and several wives himself.

As difficult as it may be for us to believe, none of the people we saw in the township gave us the feeling of despair. Adults were busy helping at a make shift church, or selling their wares.


These are called “smileys” and go for about 5 Rand a piece. That’s less than 50 US cents for a whole lot of tacos!

After the township tour, we headed to the Waterfront where we were lucky to catch the ferry to Robben Island, the offshore prison where Nelson Mandela was held for over a quarter of a century. It’s a beautiful place but it wasn’t so for the prisoners held here. Arriving on the island, we boarded a bus where a guide told us about the people who still live here, some of them former prisoners and some of them former guards. These people have committed to keeping the memory of what happened here alive and thus have made peace with each other. Children have been born here and now the problem is getting these kids to school on the mainland when the weather unpredictably closes down navigation almost every other day.


We visited the limestone quarry where the prisoners, including Mandela, were forced to work.


We were then dropped off at the prison where a former prisoner took over our tour. This man was held in Robben Island for 13 years (out of a 15 year sentence) for sabotage, he was 26 when he arrived after participating in a student protest. He told us of groups of students as young as 16 who were held here for decades. He showed us the cell where Mandela was held.


At the end of the tour, someone praised him for having been able to forgive his captors. He tried to explain that it wasn’t about forgiveness. He said that he and all other prisoners had been spoken for during the negotiations. He said that when people speak for you, they speak as they wish. The message was clear to most of us but this tourist insisted in her praise of his forgiveness. Another tourist, this time a South African woman got clearly annoyed and explained that many people feel that Mandela had sold them out but since he was the one to speak for all of them, he spoke what he wanted.

I later found myself walking behind her and took the opportunity to ask her about this. She explained to us that there is a new political party which has been vocal about denouncing Mandela as a sell-out. They complain about the living conditions of 60% of the population, mostly blacks, who still live in townships, with no services and sub-par education. This political party says that not enough blood was shed during the negotiations, meaning the white rulers were allowed to simply go about their business while the blacks are left to deal with their terrible poverty. They are correct of course but as she explained, what more could Mandela have done? The simple fact that these people now have the right to form a political party and speak out means that Mandela made good and shedding blood benefits no one, or at least that’s how she feels. She found this political party to be worrisome as it is mostly conformed of young unemployed men. Young unemployed men sitting around discussing violent change would be worrisome to anyone, I think.

On the ferry back, the boys and I had a discussion about this. They agreed that justice had not been done and thought it unconscionable that the white rulers had been allowed to go without trials for what they did to the blacks. I am not that sure of what is right anymore. Living in the USA, the pursuit of justice is ingrained in the population to a degree that it is not even questioned. I wondered what is too high a price to pay for justice. Take Mexico for instance. We had a bloody revolution to change the government in which hundreds of thousands of Mexicans died. That’s a whole lot of orphan children and childless mothers. 130 years later, more than half the population still lives below the poverty line without access to services or education. South Africa managed to get to the same place in two decades without major bloodshed. Justice it is not but better, maybe.

To end our day, we visited the Grand Parade, where Mandela made his famous speech upon his liberation. The edges of it have now been taken over by homeless people.


South Africa, and CapeTown, may have a whole lot of problems but it seems to us onlookers, that it is a young-in-spirit place full of energy and hope for the future.





Categories: Africa, South Africa, UNESCO site | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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