On to Cape Town

After weeks anticipating the excitement and engagement that a big South African city would have to offer, the time has finally come.  A weekend in Johannesburg and our first few days in Cape Town have proven to us just how small a city Pietermaritzburg really is.  While the vast array of restaurants, clubs, bars, tourists attractions are a nice change to what we were used to, I do have to say that I did enjoy the last four weeks in Pietermaritzburg.

Coming from a small city, it didn’t take that much adjusting for me to get used to PMB (other people in our group from large cities had bigger culture shocks).  Once I accepted the fact that the food wouldn’t be that great and that an exciting night would be working on a puzzle, I actually began to enjoy the city.  The people were friendly (especially at PACSA and at our B&B), the city is very rich in anti-apartheid struggle history, and its small scale made it easy to get to know and relatively untarnished from the commercialization that’s prevalent in Johannesburg and here in Cape Town.

Our last week in PMB was rather uneventful.  I pretty much was able to finish my work on the PACSA website, and I trained several of the employees how to update it—hopefully they will take the initiative to make it their own.  Individually, I think that I was able to make a tangible contribution to the organization, and I learned a lot about its function and the current environment for NGOs in South Africa.  As a group, we were able to conduct over 16 interviews with anti-apartheid activists/individuals involved in ecumenical social justice work in PMB.  These interviews will be deposited at the archives of the University of KwaZulu Natal and will form the core of an upcoming book celebrating the 30th anniversary of PACSA next year.  To celebrate our accomplishments and the friendships we made in PMB, our group hosted a barbeque last Thursday night for our co-workers and the professors that had been working with us.  It was a very enjoyable evening, but, naturally, it was sad to say goodbye.

Last Friday, we flew to Johannesburg to spend the weekend exploring the city.  After an eventful drive from the airport to our hotel (which included driving the wrong way down a one-way street, pushing a large van, and blocking the path of a large tour bus), we went to Constitution Hill in downtown Jo’burg.  The site features two prisons (one male, one female) that were used by the apartheid government to punish political prisoners.  Living conditions in the prisons were pitiful.  While the use of the site in the past is rather depressing to think about, its meaning and purpose have been transformed since the rise of democracy in 1994.  In a place where human rights were trampled upon, they are now upheld—the South African Constitutional Court was built on the prison grounds, and one of the prison’s walls was incorporated into the building.  It was really cool to see how such an oppressive place could be transformed so completely into a sanctuary for justice, equality, and freedom.

On Saturday—our second day in Jo’burg—we took an all-day tour of Soweto, a township outside of the city.  Soweto (which stands for Southwest Township) is home to more than 3 million people, making it the largest township in SA.  Driving around, it was interesting to observe the diversity within the township.  I had expected there to be uniform housing and uniform neighborhoods; instead, houses ranged from decent middle-class homes to shack settlements and slums.

The highlight of the tour for me was visiting the Regina Mundi Catholic Church.  Located centrally in the heart of Soweto, Regina Mundi was one of the only churches in Soweto that remained open during apartheid.  Because the Catholic Church vehemently spoke out against apartheid, Sowetans flocked to the church every Sunday as both a political and religious gathering point.  The apartheid state detested what happened at Regina Mundi and desperately tried to stop it.  After Sunday masses, they would fire bullets and tear gas into the crowds of people exiting the church.  (The roof still has bullet holes in it).  Standing in the middle of Regini Mundi—with its stark pews, scarcely decorated walls, and bullet hole ridden roof—I felt so much more alive and so much more like I was actually in a house of worship than I have ever felt in any church I have visited, even the most ornately decorated churches Europe has to offer.  In that building, people lived out their faith, even if it meant harsh consequences.

After a visit to the Hector Pieterson Museum (commemorating the youth uprising in Soweto in 1976 that greatly boosted the momentum of the anti-apartheid movement), we headed to lunch.  While waiting in line at the buffet, I saw a man that looked so familiar.  When I heard someone call out his name “Ray,” I immediately recognized him—it was Ray Nagin, the (in)famous mayor of New Orleans.  Later on, our group went up to the group from New Orleans and introduced ourselves.  (A few hours prior, outside of Regina Mundi, one of the girls in our group ran into a woman who used to be her neighbor in Washington, DC!)  I guess Soweto is the place to see and be seen!

When the tour concluded, we traveled to downtown Jo’burg to Central Methodist Church.  Peter Storey, a professor at Duke Divinity School, used to be the Anglican Bishop of Jo’burg, so he had a friend meet up with us to give a tour of the church.  I don’t think that any of us were quite ready for what we were about to see.  We had been told that the church was housing refugees from recent xenophobic attacks, so I was prepared to see a few people housed in spare rooms in the Church.  Instead, we were greeted by rooms and rooms packed full of men, women, and children living in stark conditions (sleeping on the ground, in stair wells, wherever they could find space).  It took us over one hour to make it through the building and tour each room housing the refugees.  Seeing their sheer numbers and interacting with them was an incredibly powerful experience.  Needless to say, the ride back to our hotel was rather silent.

Sunday morning we drove to Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, to visit the Freedom Park and the Voertrekker Monument.  The Voertrekker Monument, built in the late 1930s and early 1940s to commemorate the Great Trek of the Dutch Afrikaans leaving the British controlled Cape Town area (because the British outlawed slavery) in search of freedom in the country’s interior.  The monument played a huge role in fostering the  Afrikaan nationalism that led to the rise of apartheid in 1948.  Given the questionable motives of those who made the Great Trek and the sinister use of the monument, the whole experience was rather angering.  It was hard to look at statues, paintings, and friezes that memorialized such immoral people.  But then again, who was I to talk? Confederate flags and monuments still dot the landscape of the US South.

Next, we visited the nearby Freedom Park.  Still under construction, the park is meant to honor all those who have died in South African history for the cause of freedom.  It creatively uses water elements, landscape, and modern architecture to create an atmosphere and a place to honor and celebrate the nation’s freedom.  When completed, I think that the 48-acre park will be a really neat place for all South Africans, regardless of race, to celebrate their most basic commonality—freedom and humanity.

For our third stop of the day, we went to the National Apartheid Museum in Jo’burg.  The museum traces the rise of Johannesburg in the late 1800s after to discovery of gold, the origins of racial segregation, the rise of the apartheid state, anti-apartheid activism, and the transition to democracy in the early 1990s.  Having explored the anti-apartheid movement this past month, it was interesting to learn about it from a different perspective and in a highly visual manner.  The museum was very well done, and it really made me realize just how anachronistic, out of place, and unnatural apartheid was.

Monday (Youth Day in South Africa, a national holiday that commemorates the Soweto Uprising in 1976 and recognizes the importance of the youth in building a democracy), we flew to Cape Town, where we will be spending the remainder of our stay.  The city is beautiful, and I am really looking forward to working with the District Six Museum.

Since this post is getting too long, I’ll wait until next time to talk about life here and give a little background about the District Six Museum. Until then…

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “On to Cape Town

  1. Kathy

    that is nuts that you met ray nagin in s. africa – small world, right?

  2. joan suttel

    Hi Michael….talked with your mon and dad..last night..really proud of you ,..so am I enjoyed …really enjoyed your blog….thanks love and prayers joan

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