No trip or review of South Africa can be done without addressing the Apartheid. Before I came to South Africa I knew the Apartheid existed; and by I knew it existed means I had seen Lethal Weapon 2 and knew the whites were the bad guys.
So I had a general awareness of Cape Town’s racist history. But I’m telling you folks–it was REALLY racist. Full on, government sponsored racism. And right up until the early 90s!! Although we didn’t get to go to Robben Island, a couple of our guides had amazing stories to tell about their time as a black person during the Apartheid. I can’t really tell you everything, but here are just a few highlights:
- One of our guides hadn’t eaten with a fork and knife in a restaurant until 2000 when his tour group invited him to join them for dinner in a previously “Whites Only” restaurant.
- Scattered throughout the city used to be Whites Only and Non-Whites benches (most have been removed at this point). The penalty for sitting on the wrong bench? 3 months in jail. So how do you know if you’re white or black? Well…
- You would need to be classified as White, Colored (something like Asian or very light skinned African would be classified this), or Black by a government official per the Population Registration Act. From there, based on how you looked according to this one guy, you’d get either all the benefits or jackshit for benefits…and the craziest part–if the guy labeling you couldn’t tell if you should be black or colored, he’d drop a pencil in your hair. If the pencil stuck, you’re black. If it didn’t, congrats you’re colored.
Like I said there’s a lot more, but if you ever visit South Africa I’m sure you’ll meet plenty of people who’ll tell you their own stories. And after hearing their stories, it makes me really appreciate what a great man Nelson Mandela was for having the patience and the forgiveness in him to advocate non-violence once he became president. Because I know personally, if all that crap happened to me, I’d wanna take out all those motherf**kers.
So in order to really get immersed in what racism was like we needed to leave the comfy confines of the waterfront and make our way to the townships. The townships were the designated areas where blacks and coloreds could live. These days those that live in the townships are still in pretty dire straits, and the housing there can be described as a rundown gated community at best. The black townships are extremely poor and the people who live there are living on the bare minimum.
A lot of these townships also still have their tribal traditions, some of which are pretty brutal. Warning: The following story is pretty graphic. When we visited the Langa Township, we were shown a wooded area that was fenced off and used as a coming of age ground for men. Boys have to survive in this wooded area for 3-6 weeks to prove that they were a man. Okay, whatever, I can roll with that.
However, that’s not all. Boys, ranging from age 16-20, also have to go through a circumcision procedure, done not by a trained doctor, and without anesthesia. I am very not okay with that. Our guide told us 10% of all the boys that go through the ritual do not survive and that if they don’t do it, they won’t be considered a man by the tribe. Oh yeah and after they survive the circumcision the “now” man would get part of his finger cut off so that public could see he fulfilled the ritual (and yep, one of our drivers had part of his pinky missing…).
Now this is just one tribe; they do not all do this, in my opinion, super barbaric ritual (our tour guide’s tribe doesn’t have any comparable rituals). But it is interesting that in the 21st century this kind of stuff is still around.
Anyways, moving on to the township itself…I’ll give you a second to breathe and get over that story…the residents in the area were all very friendly (at least in the one we visited). They lived in housing ranging from cargo containers to run down apartments. Obviously some were nicer than others (the coloreds had low income housing essentially), but they were all still crazy overcrowded. During peak apartheid however there’d be like 14 families in one 3 room apartment. It’s absolutely nuts.
There were also several memorials around, such as the Gugulethu Seven and Amy Biehl memorials, that commemorated those that died to end apartheid and their stories. I highly recommend clicking on the links and reading about them.