In many ways, Cape Town reminds us of our home town of Vancouver. Both are port cities surrounded by mountains. Both are bustling metropolises with art galleries, museums and an aquarium, beaches and parks, bars and restaurants, and an uncomfortable history when it comes to the relationship between the white settler community and pre-existing non-white communities.
Vancouver is essentially too young to have been implicated in colonial slavery, but our treatment of Indigenous peoples and later, non-white immigrants, is nothing to be proud of. In fact, between 1948 and 1962, numerous South African government officials visited Canada to study the Indian Reservation system. What they learned helped them design and implement the racist measures that would collectively become known as Apartheid.
Eventually as a result of tremendous domestic courage and international pressure, Apartheid came to an end, essentially starting with the release from prison of Nelson Mandela who in 1994 became the first democratically elected president of South Africa.
His image is everywhere in Cape Town and the ideas he expressed about truth and reconciliation continue to resonant these 23+ years later.
We joined a free walking tour entitled From Apartheid to Freedom and our guide described some of the laws put in place starting in the 1950s that separated whites from non-whites in every aspect of daily life. For example, the Group Areas Act allowed authorities to designate residential areas for whites only, and this led to non-whites being removed from mixed neighbourhoods in the larger cities, and entirely from small cities. One neighbourhood alone in Cape Town, District 6, was emptied of 60,000 people and their homes and shops bulldozed flat.
Much of District 6 was never redeveloped and there is now a battle underway as people struggle to reclaim lost land but are facing commercial developers who want to build condos and shopping malls.
Our walk paused at the high court building, where Apartheid laws were enforced, and city hall, where Mandela spoke to hundreds of thousands of people on the day he was released from prison, and then again three years later when he was elected president. Excellent walking tour!
A few days later we caught the ferry over to Robben Island for a tour of the prison where Mandela and hundreds of other political prisoners were kept for so many years. They were forced to break rock and help build a larger prison to accommodate the growing number of people jailed for resisting Apartheid.
It was fascinating to be shown around the prison grounds by a former ANC prisoner. He was able to point to where his bunk was located, and show us the cell that was Mandela’s home for much of the 23 years he spent behind bars (photo above). He also showed us the garden area where Mandela hid the notes that he later used to write Long Walk to Freedom.
Photos below from Robben Island and the District 6 museum.