The Right Kind of Political Inspiration

When we stayed at Bayethe, there were, at most twelve other guests there during our time there.  As a result, we were able to get to know many of them over meals.  One couple that we met was from Los Angeles and came to South Africa to celebrate their honeymoon.  As it generally did among guests, the subject of what else they were doing during their time in South Africa came up one night over dinner. They explained that they had visited many wineries. They emphatically stated that they had not visited Robben Island or any of the “political” destinations during their time in South Africa, because they were on their honeymoon and they wanted to keep it light and not sad or heavy.  Fair enough, but the couple from Northern Ireland also in South Africa celebrating their honeymoon did not feel the same way, and remarked that their favorite Cape Town experience had been visiting a township.  Anyway, what then bothered me about the Los Angeles couple is that the wife later remarked, “I think drinking wine and visiting wineries is such a wonderful way to get to know the history and culture of the place that you are visiting.”  Maybe that attitude could have explained why her husband started describing the taste of some kind of South African wine as “gamey” (There is game in South Africa, hence the wine must taste gamey). I have a hard enough time with people who can’t seem to talk about anything but wine (David kept wanting to ask them if their favorite movie was “Sideways”; I don’t care if you drink wine, but seriously, is that all there is to talk about?), but I couldn’t believe the kind of cultural ignorance on display from Americans.  People, this is why I have a problem with a lot of privileged white people from Southern California.  If only one of them would prove me wrong for once!

Anyway, in case you couldn’t tell, visiting enchanting wineries and imbibing their fruits is not how David and I wanted to spend our time in South Africa. This isn’t to say that we didn’t enjoy a rather privileged life in South Africa. We absolutely did.  We stayed at places that were definitely not in the price range of your average South African, and I am well aware of my privilege.  However, David and I deeply wanted to use part of our time to learn more about the anti-apartheid leaders that are responsible for creating the modern South Africa, and we wanted to pay tribute to them.  I know that they deeply affected my own views of the world as I devoured the writings of Mandela and Desmond Tutu when I was in college. I wrote so many papers on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that I lost count.  I also wanted to spend some time trying to understand what life was like for the average South African during the apartheid era and what it was like now. So, we made many of our choices of what to do in Cape Town with that in mind.

The first day we were there, we were able to visit Robben Island.  We were lucky, the Atlantic Ocean was incredibly rough on the ferry ride to and from the island, but we were able to make it. When Michelle Obama was in Cape Town this week, her trip to Robben Island had to be cancelled because the seas were too rough. 

Looking back to Cape Town on the ferry.
The view of Robben Island as we arrived on the ferry.

First of all, Robben Island is an incredibly beautiful place.  It has colonies of endangered birds on the island, like African Black Oystercatchers and African Penguins.  Driving around the island on our tour, I was really struck with the contrasting image of the stark prison and the beautiful island with the backdrop of Cape Town and Table Mountain in the distance.

Robben Island has always been a place apart. Before it was used to house some of South Africa’s most famous prisoners during the apartheid era, it was used historically as a stopping point for Dutch sailors, and as a leper colony.  It ultimately gained its notoriety during the apartheid era when it became famous for housing a maximum security prison reserved for many of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement and the ANC.

The tour guides who take you through the maximum security prison are all former prisoners who spent time serving sentences at Robben Island. Our guide spent 6 years at the prison sentenced for being one of the student leaders of the Soweto uprising in 1976.

The tour was inspirational. Yes, we learned about the terribly harsh conditions that the inmates faced. We learned about the terrible food, small portions, beatings and mistreatment. We saw Nelson Mandela’s tiny cell and contemplated how a man so full of forgiveness could have spent so many years in such confined quarters and not come out bitter and jaded.

Here is an example of what it is that makes Robben Island an inspirational place. Do you see in the photo the tiny cave on the left?  That is where the inmates were allowed to retreat during their time in the quarry to take a break from the harsh sunlight. Inside that little cave, educated inmates like Mandela and others who had been able to receive an education abroad taught other prisoners how to read and write. They discussed their hopes and desires for the future of South Africa.  They taught each other, in spite of the fact that the apartheid government tried repeatedly to use different methods to divide them from each other.  That is why the inmates refer to Robben Island as “The University of Robben Island.”  Most of the leaders who built a modern South Africa upon a constitutional framework of reconciliation and equal rights for all labored here together.

That is why it is amazing to spend time in a place like Robben Island.  In spite of the complete awfulness of the condition in which the prisoners were kept, they made something entirely positive out of their experience. They became something greater and something better in spite of a system that tried to break them down and treated them not as men.  It is a lesson for the world what went on in this place.  It is an example for me about what it means to not become bitter and jaded by experience, but to increase in love towards others for every perceived mistreatment I receive at someone else’s doing.  Howe can you come to this place and be the same person after you have heard these stories?

What is amazing too is about how Robben Island has transformed itself.  The village that formerly housed prison wardens now houses a mix of former wardens and guards, former prisoners, other Robben Island employees, and their families. They all live together as neighbors.  The primary school on the island turns out excellent students. The crime rate on the island is zero. People live together and work together.  It is another testimony of the power of forgiveness in building better communities for everyone.

Speaking of the “University of Robben Island”, we also drove past the University of Cape Town, one of the most beautifully situated universities in the world, during our time in Cape Town.

It his here that Kader Asmal, another one of the brilliant leaders of modern South Africa recently taught after he resigned in principle from South Africa’s parliament.  Kader Asmal passed away earlier this week, and you really should read this brilliant tribute to him here in the Cape Times to understand what an amazing human being he was and what his legacy is to South Africa.

The face of current South African politics leaves a little room for optimism and also a little room for concern. Just last week, there were troubling speeches made by the head of the ANC Youth League that gave cause for concern about the hope of a future non-racial South Africa. However, in a positive development, the ANC led Parliament has dropped many of the most controversial provisions of an Information Secrecy Bill that Kader Asmal was so outspoken against. Maybe it will serve as a legacy to Asmal.  These are the kinds of news developments that give me hope that things really will keep getting better in South Africa.  It is sad, because many of Mandela’s generation are passing away, Asmal, and while we were there Albertina Sisulu, another legendary leader, also passed away.  One hopes that the youth of South Africa will honor the legacy of these freedom fighters by standing up for the principles they believed in and working to eradicate poverty, violence against women, and the other ailments of our modern society that the entire world shares.

After all, many South Africans remain optimistic.  Most of the time that we spent in South Africa, we stayed in the Western Cape, the one province in South Africa that is ruled by the opposition party. Many people we spoke to in the Western Cape said they voted for the opposition party because they were trying to preserve democracy and save the ANC from its current batch of leaders who they feel are not carrying the mantle of Mandela and others well.  In her visit to South Africa this week, our own First Lady, Michelle Obama, spoke passionately about the legacy of Mandela and other ANC leaders who brought the nation freedom.  Some people welcomed this message as a good message for youth to stand in contrast to other current youth leaders in South Africa. This editorial from the Mail & Guardian was beautifully written. What is evident is that South Africans remain hopeful, but also have many problems that they still need to address in their country.  Economic inequality is the greatest of these difficulties.  Like the US, right now in South Africa, the gulf between rich and poor continues to grow, so it seems like this is the kind of issue that our two democracies could work together to address and learn from each other in how we address it.

I am pretty much in love with South Africa these days, so more than anything, I want that nation to succeed and never to become anything like Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe.  The vibrancy of the democratic institutions and civil society programs that I saw at work in South Africa, gave me hope that it will not.

Alright, enough of my own rambling opinions, and back to the pictures. We also visited the District Six Museum in Cape Town (as did Michelle Obama, in substitute for her trip to Robben Island).  District 6 was a mixed race area of Cape Town, that under apartheid was declared to be a Whites Only area.  All of its residents were forcibly removed, and their homes were destroyed by bulldozers.  It was a particularly vibrant area of Cape Town prior to its destruction. Most of the land that occupied District Six was never redeveloped, and so now, the city is trying to rebuild housing and relocate former residents back to their old neighborhood.

It was a powerful museum with many testimonials written by former residents. David and I particularly found one account of the social lives of one apartment building in District Six humorous:

We paid tribute to South Africa’s four Nobel Peace Prize winners at the V&A Waterfront.

Who are they? From left to right we have Albert Luthuli (1960), Desmond Tutu (1984), F.W. de Klerk (1993) and Nelson Mandela (1993). If you don’t know who they are or if you have never read anything by them, you need to remedy that immediately.  I can recommend some books with which to start. I could fill this screen with inspirational quotations from each of them, if only this blog entry weren’t already so long.

South Africa can be an inspirational place beyond the animals.  Even if you do drink wine, I highly suggest that you take some time to visit some of the historical locations apart from just the wineries.  Your soul will thank you.

Also, here is a picture of Desmond Tutu doing push ups with Michelle Obama. That dude is still tough.  I love him.

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