Seven weeks gone, one to go.
On the one hand, May 15 seems like it was yesterday. On the other hand, it seems like a lifetime ago that I bid my parents goodbye and hopped on the plane to South Africa. One things for sure, it has been an incredible ride so far, and I hope the last week is as productive and informative as the previous seven.
Last Thursday, we drove down to the waterfront to catch a ferry to Robben Island. Often compared to Alcatraz, Robben Island lies about 9k offshore of Cape Town, and for much of the second half of the twentieth century it was home to a prison that housed political prisoners and opponents to the apartheid regime, the most famous inmate being Nelson Mandela. Before the island was used as a prison, it served as a leper colony in the 1700s and early 1800s and as a military outpost during WWII.
After a bus tour of the island and its village (tour operators are allowed to live on the island with their families), we went to the prison. The prison tours, in an interesting twist of fate, are all conducted by former political prisoners who spent many years on the island. It was a fascinating experience to listen to our guide recount stories about his time in the prison, including his fist-fight with a man that would eventually become his brother in law!
The highlight of the tour, for many people, is getting a glimpse of the cell Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in for many years. I thought it was interesting how the other people in our group hurried past the many other cells in the block in order to see and photograph Mandela’s. Each cell had its own story of a man (less well-known than Mandela) who faced equal injustice and equal hardship; in each cell was a man equally oppressed by the brutal apartheid regime. But their stories are not told. They have fallen through the cracks, made invisible by the superhuman figure that is Mandela. I’m not trying to diminish the incredible strength, courage, and commitment exhibited by Nelson Mandela throughout his lifetime. I do feel, however, that the popular South African historical memory perhaps marginalizes the work and struggles of everyday people, similar to the way that the story of Martin Luther King has been emphasized in the US at the expense of everyday civil rights activists.
Friday morning, we rode the bus to the University of Cape Town to explore their archives. With the help of one of the librarians, I was able to find a collection of correspondence from the 1950s between the editor of the Cape Times and the leaders of the Nationalist Party (the party of apartheid). It was fascinating to learn about the relationship between politics and the press as well as get an inside glimpse into the minds of such important (and evil) political figures.
The next day, we made the hour trek to Stellenbosch, home to the beautiful landscapes of South Africa’s vibrant wine country. Our first stop was the M’hudi Vineyard, a black owned vineyard that gives its workers the profits from a portion of their crop. The owner told us how he came into the business, and he explained the situation of black owners in the wine industry. His talk was very interesting, and afterwards, he allowed us to sample a variety of his wines. In the afternoon, we went to the Hartenburg Estate for lunch and more wine tasting. Not knowing much about wine, I do have to say that Saturday was very informative for me. Although I’m no expert, I can look at a wine list with some idea about what makes each wine different
Sunday morning I had the pleasure of meeting up with my sister Laura for breakfast in Stellenbosch. She is studying at the University of Stellenbosch for a summer program as part of her International Relations graduate degree. I do have to stay that it was strange feeling to just meet my sister in the middle of South Africa! After a nice breakfast, she took me to the University campus. Stellenbosch is a very nice town; she is definitely lucky to be there for the next month. We had a nice visit, and it was nice to meet up with her seeing as though she will be in Chile in the fall, and I won’t see her again until Christmas break.
After we arrived back to Cape Town later in the day, we decided to take advantage of the beautiful, clear weather and climb Table Mountain. Although we only made it halfway up (we stopped because the cable car that gives rides back down to the bottom was shut down due to high winds), the trail was beautiful. Looking down at the city of Cape Town with the Atlantic Ocean in the distance was a truly spectacular view.
This past week at District Six was dedicated to the Street Soccer Festival. The museum is in the process of developing an exhibition examining soccer in the Cape Town area and how it was affected by apartheid’s forced removals. An initial exhibit will be unveiled in August, but the finished project won’t be completed until the 2010 World Cup, which will be held in South Africa two years from now. Right now, schools are on their winter holiday, so the museum wanted to coordinate a festival that would both give schoolchildren something to do during their vacation as well as help to teach them about the history and heritage of soccer in the Cape Town area.
While the idea was good on paper, the whole festival didn’t turn out quite as planned. I could tell in the days leading up that things were not as organized as they needed to be, but being somewhat of an outsider, I didn’t want to speak up and step on peoples’ toes. The first problem began when the City Sports Council bussed in twice as many students as planned. Instead of 150 children, there were 300 running around a tiny school yard. To make matters worse, the Sports Council staff showed up 2 hours late. The festival devolved into a day-long recess; some kids played soccer, but the vast majority just hung out, danced, and listened to music on the sound system the museum set up. Although things didn’t turn out as planned, I think the students enjoyed themselves. (The second day of the festival was cancelled due to rain).
After setting up in the morning, there was not much for me to do besides sit around and observe the festival in action. I found it really remarkable how well all 300 kids, despite their age (they ranged from about age 7 to 16) and racial differences, interacted with each other. It was really encouraging to see young people having a good time and not paying attention to socially constructed barriers. Another thing that really stood out to me was the fact that the scene I was observing could have been taking place in the United States. The kids were gathered around wearing American-style clothing, listening to American rap and hip-hop music, and break dancing. It was a clear reminder of the powerful reach of American culture. The one notable difference was that in the US, the kids would have been playing basketball instead of soccer.
Tuesday night we had the privilege of attending the “Difficult Dialogues” forum at the University of Cape Town about the current situation in Zimbabwe. Once again, we were lucky to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu (and three other amazing presenters) speak. I was very impressed by the deep level of engagement exhibited not only by those participating in the forum but also by those in the audience. Zimbabwe is a very serious issue to them, and they see it as a chance for South Africa to demonstrate its leadership and its supposed commitment to democracy and human rights. Those in attendance were very critical of their government’s response so far and deeply desire a positive outcome to the developing crisis.
Put into perspective, what we witnessed on Tuesday night was an incredible event. A group of South Africans gathered together for open, honest dialogue and were not afraid to express their opinions. Just over 15 years ago, none of that would have been possible. Any expression of criticism of the government could lead to harassment or even detainment. In such a short period of time, South Africa has progressed from a virtual military state to a free democracy where freedom of speech is respected and enjoyed by all.
That said, it is interesting that some people still find it hard to be critical of their government. For years, the ANC struggled to topple the apartheid regime, and their success catapulted them into control of the post-1994 democracy. But, as this country is slowly learning, it’s a lot easier to be an opposition force than to lead a government effectively. South Africans who devoted themselves to the ANC, the party of liberation, are now finding themselves disillusioned with its politicking, corruption, and ineffectiveness. Citizens, organizations, and the press are slowly learning how to be critical and how to oppose the ANC monolith. Although it is a slow process, opposition—be it from a political party or civil society organizations—is necessary for any healthy democracy. I think (and hope) that, in time, greater competition will force South African government to become more accountable to its citizens and basic needs.
That’s all for now…from South Africa, Happy Fourth of July!