South Africa · South Africa travel · Travel

Cape Town- Robben Island, ubuntu, a farsical near-mugging and last thoughts

Alright, so after several posts, this is set to be my last one on my travels in Cape Town. Or maybe not because I still got some photos to put up.

Robben Island is one of the most famous of Cape Town’s myriad attractions, being where Nelson Mandela was jailed for 18 years. It’s a tiny dot of an island just half an hour from Cape Town by ferry, but it has history stretching back over 350 years when it was used to imprison African chiefs and other high-ranking rebellious figures. It’s also a World Heritage Site.

I went to Robben Island in the afternoon after visiting townships earlier in the day, and it seemed like a good fit, in terms of the somber attributes of the places. It turned out well as I got to enjoy a spirited narrative by our Robben bus guide, slightly marred by some jackass/ rascally Argentines who probably weren’t sure why they were there, a great boat ride from and to Cape Town, and two great acts of kindness from English and South African folks I had met that day.

Going to Robben Island entails first booking online or buying a ticket that covers the ferry ride to and from the island, a bus tour and a walking tour of the maximum security prison and the very cell where Mandela was jailed. The ferry pier is at the V&A Waterfront from where you get a great view of Table Mountain. The scene of the mountain framing the yachts and elegant waterfront buildings seems so Mediterranean, though I’ve never been to that region.

After disembarking at Robben Island, we get called onto the tour buses which take us past the lepers’ graveyard, an Anglican church, the limestone quarry or “University of Robben Island” where Mandela and so many prisoners exchanged a lot of ideas, and the house where Robert Sobukwe was kept in isolation away from the other political prisoners. Sobukwe was a staunch opponent of apartheid and the leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress, a party that broke away from the ANC, so he wasn’t exactly chums with Mandela.
We stopped for a while at a place directly overlooking Cape Town, a magnificent view of the city with Table Mountain and Lion Rock forming the backdrop, while the sky took on a nice hue as the day came closer to evening. What a torment for the prisoners on this little piece of rock, to be able to gaze at such a fine scene every day and be so close. Some daring, or rather desperate, souls have tried to swim and escape, but only a handful ever made it across to land; the rest having fallen victim to sharks or the cold waters.

During the whole tour, our guide Craig gave us a superb, running commentary on all the sights. At the end, we were treated to a speech about the island, and “Mr. Mandela” and the
hopes for his country which still faces numerous problems in this day, including the effects of apartheid. The only thing that was problematic was the presence of a group of Argentine football fans who kept interrupting with their loud talking while Craig was doing his thing.

The last part of the tour was the maximum security prison, where we got off the bus, said our goodbyes to Craig, and walked inside, passing the empty guard towers and signs showing happy pictures of joyful ex-prisoners, leaving the prison for good, and then coming back to the jail for a reunion. Inside, our new guide was there and ushered us into a long cell room which was quite roomy. Of course, it had to be because it held 60 prisoners. Sparks was the name of our ex-prisoner guide, having served 7 years in Robben for being involved in the ANC militant wing. Ex-inmates always lead this part of the tour. It seems weird that they’d want to work in the very place they were locked up. I’m sure for some leading these tours serves as a form of pride or solace, to help turn their former prison into a place to educate tourists and visitors. Or maybe it was because they had been conditioned or worn down too much by their prison experience to want to go back into the outside world, said M, a black Englishwoman who I had actually met earlier on the township tour and who had strong views on much of what she saw.
I can’t deny that the touristy aspect of the tour didn’t take away from fully appreciating the historical significance of the prison. The Argentine football clowns were a big reason initially, but by the time we got to the maximum security prison, things seemed maybe a little too ordinary. We finally saw the cell Mandela was kept, which was nondescript, small (about 2.5 metres wide), and had no toilet. Bleak it was, but not really too harsh, I think.

After the ferry took us back onto shore, I was invited by M along with a young black couple from Johannesburg and their little daughter to dinner. After M’s friend joined us, we went into Spur, a local BBQ chain that has an American Wild West theme, which is really strange given we’re in Africa. To highlight this theme, every 20 minutes or so, the waiters and waitresses performed line dances to the same corny Western song. I also couldn’t help noticing that most of the patrons were white and the waiters were all black. (It’s not always a good thing to mention race but in SA it’s really relevant.) Suffice it to say that the people I was with didn’t seem too amused. I was actually the only person who wasn’t black or Africa at the table and to some of the patrons and staff it must have seemed weird, but it was all cool. M’s friend, who herself was from Zambia, came with a friend who was from the Rep. of Congo (as opposed to the Democratic Republic of Congo which is much larger and well-known, though more for its immense humanitarian tragedy) but had been living in SA for a while. This Congolese guy was friendly but didn’t have the best English plus he had a strong accent. He asked me a bunch of questions about Taiwan and China, hoping that I would have some expertise in doing business in China and could shed some light, but he was asking the wrong guy.
After dinner ended, I was planning to take a taxi home, but the guy from Johannesburg offered me
a ride. We were at the waterfront and their hotel was very close but they chose to drive me to my hotel half an hour across town in the opposite direction. African hospitality at its best, as I was experiencing ubuntu, the spirit of unity and helping others out, as the guy himself said when I asked him if he was sure it was no trouble. Ubuntu is a much-bandied about word in Africa used by black Africans to explain their sense of values, and sometimes it is mocked such as when bad things happen and non-blacks say “where’s the ubuntu?” In this case, I experienced a genuine case of ubuntu. We had an interesting conversation in the car when the guy talked about his experience working with Chinese (he’s an engineer) and how he was a little fazed and bewildered by differences. I wasn’t too surprised as it’s true Chinese and Africans/blacks have a lot of  cultural differences and I tried to tell him this but not in an overbearing way. The weirdest example he gave was about going to a restaurant in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, where he was on a business trip, with a Chinese colleague when he met another Chinese person. After talking to this second Chinese, he found out the guy was from the same hometown as his colleague so he introduced them to each other, but apparently they didn’t say much. “You’re halfway around the world deep in Africa and you meet somebody from your hometown and you don’t even talk?” said my benefactor. I couldn’t explain it but maybe there was some business rivalry or something to keep your privacy, even from somebody from your hometown?

It was pity I only spent 4 days in Cape Town but I experienced a lot. The city was spectacular but it’s not immune from problems. For instance, the previous day while walking back from the waterfront to the city centre, I was accosted by a guy (not black) who introduced himself to me politely, then proceeded to ask me to give him a few rand …. or else. I walked off and he followed me, escalating his threats and pulling on my jacket. It was almost surreal as the guy and I traded comments – “just give me a few rand, sir” “I don’t have” “don’t f*cking lie” “don’t curse me, leave me along” “you better give me a few rand or I’ll stab you and take all your money” “I don’t have any money, why do you think I’m walking in this rain” (it really was raining though I did have some money) – while walking, looking like we were two guys  having a normal conversation though it was like an attempted mugging by intimidation. We went on like this over a walkover, then crossed one street while passing some people until we reached a point where seemingly there was nobody. I panicked internally, then looked to the side, saw a car dealership in an office building, and walked into it. The jackass, by now it really had descended into a farce though at that exact moment as events were unfolding it seemed much, much worse, threatened to walk in with me but as soon as I opened the door, he pulled on my jacket and said something like “don’t leave me, please!” That was the last I saw or heard him because I walked up to the receptionist in the lobby, told her what happened and basically pleaded for her to call a taxi. She told me there was one just up the road and I basically went nuts because after all, I just came in from that same road to get away from a potential mugger. “It’s only right up the road” she said. “I was just being harassed on that road and you’re telling me to go outside again” was what I said. In the end, the taxi was literally right up the road and I took it to my hotel. Writing about it now, it seems kind of ludicrous but when it was happening it was quite scary. I couldn’t help thinking, is this really happening to me, and any minute I expected him to pull out a knife or something.

Nothing else bad really happened, other than passing a crime scene downtown where I saw a body lying on the ground surrounded by police (the guy was part of a gang who robbed a store and fired on the cops who fired back) and on my first evening, walking back from a nearby restaurant to my hotel and passing several guys standing in the middle of the road begging. This is a relatively upscale area and it shocked me because during the day it seemed really safe (it was). It was unnerving to see it take on a much different “ambience” in the evening (about 7 which is not late at all) with the beggars standing around.

Ironically, it’d seem like I had so many negative experiences in Cape Town whereas I didn’t have a single similar problem in Durban or Johannesburg, but this is only because in Cape Town, I did a lot of walking around by myself. If I had done the same in those other 2 cities, who knows what bad things might have happened to me. Don’t take this to mean South Africa is fearfully dangerous. It’s not. It does have high levels of crime so you do have to be alert at all times. But it’s not as terrible as some media reports may make it out to be and once you get past the apparent and high levels of security measures and worries, and take necessary precautions, you’ll be ok.