Apartheid in Cape Town

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.

But...you're blek...
But…you’re blek…

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…).

Every man in our group listening to this story was squirming nauseously in their seats.

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.

Cape Town, South Africa

Back in 2010 South Africa hosted the World Cup and several of my friends went down there on a trip I unfortunately was unable to attend.  They came back and raved about the country and everything it had to offer.  Luckily my chance to visit South Africa happened with a family holiday trip.

Our journey started in Cape Town, a beautiful European, non-smoking, English speaking (1 of 11 national languages) city with Southern California weather; it reminded me very much of Sydney.  It didn’t feel like Africa, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing after a 14-hour flight, and quite honestly, as I discovered throughout the trip, South Africa is a really easy country to negotiate for foreigners (just watch out cause they do drive on the left there).

One major thing to note is this:  The tap water in Cape Town is fine.  Our tour guide, Warren, insisted that we ignore what the guidebooks said, so we took the chance and didn’t have any problems.  I wouldn’t go drinking it in large amounts, but for brushing teeth and eating vegetables it’s perfectly fine.  (Warren was a great tour guide, I’d highly recommend reaching out to him if you ever visit: warrenmorris34@gmail.com) We also discovered that South Africa is also pretty progressive, as it’s the first country in Africa to legalize abortion and gay marriage; just a small step towards making up for the years of racism, which I’ll touch upon in depth later.

We stayed around the Victoria Wharf waterfront, which is super touristy, but very comfortable.  The waterfront, with live calypso bands playing constantly, is the center where most of the activities, food, the aquarium, and shopping can be found.  And there is plenty of shopping and eating to be had.  The exchange rate when we were there was a generous $1 to 13 South African Rand (R), so let’s just say we indulged in some very nice meals for the price of a trip to Olive Garden.

Here’s a rundown of a few things you can find at the Victoria Wharf waterfront.

Ferry to Robben Island

I’m going to start my coverage of South Africa with this.  1) Buy tickets in advance for Robben Island.  They should be around $23.  2) Even then there’s no guarantee you’ll make it there.  We did NOT go to Robben Island.  Robben Island is like the Alcatraz of South Africa, the place where political prisoners were held, including the great Nelson Mandela who was imprisoned for 27 years.  And we didn’t make it there.  Why?  Who the hell knows.  The official excuse was that the ferry broke down.  The unofficial theory is that there was some form of corruption in play that apparently is not unusual that stopped the ferries.  Even though we got our money back, it was unfortunate and disappointing to say the least.  So if you’re planning a trip to Cape Town, yes you have to try and go to Robben Island because it’s like the Statue of Liberty of Cape Town.  But it’s annoying that you may travel all the way there and something might throw a wrench into that plan.

Breakwater Lodge (Protea Hotel)
Portswood Road, V & A Waterfront
Cape Town, 8001 South Africa

If you’re looking for a place to stay, Protea Hotels (the Protea is the national flower) are all around Cape Town, but the Breakwater Lodge is the location that’s closest to the waterfront; it’s about a 10-minute walk. The hotel is super clean, very modern, and has a fantastic breakfast buffet.  The hotel is located on Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, which also happens to be a former women’s prison, so it’s unique to say the least.  But it’s the proximity to the waterfront that is it’s biggest selling point.

Two bedroom

Quay Four
4, W Quay Rd, V & A Waterfront
Cape Town, 8001, South Africa

Pronounced “Key Four” (dropping some knowledge on you there), this was our first meal in Cape Town and was quite honestly one of the best.  The restaurant is right on the water and is composed of two parts.  The downstairs is a bar and patio with cheaper fare, whereas the upstairs and upstairs porch is a bit more fine dining.  We grabbed food upstairs and I had my first taste of Kingklip, a regional fish popular in South Africa.  The fish was quite good, a lot meatier than I thought it would be, and it was served with potatoes and butter sauce.  I’d also recommend their calamari appetizer.

Willoughby & Co.
Shop 6132, Lower Level, Victoria Wharf

This seafood restaurant is actually located in the mall, and you can’t miss it because of the crowd of people sitting in the atrium tables they’ve set up and the line of hungry patrons trying to get in.  After we saw the line we figured it had to be good and worth trying.  While in line, they offer a wine tasting to ease the waiting period.  We were told the sushi was the most popular dish by our wine server, so that’s what we tried.  They have a “4 X 4” sushi platter which is a combo of their popular rainbow reloaded roll (tuna) and spicy creamy rock shrimp roll.  The food was great–the service, well…the waiter was pretty smarmy.  I couldn’t tell if it was him being just being a dick or if it was a South African attitude thing, but it rubbed some in our group the wrong way and it takes the restaurant down a peg.

Shop No. 153, Victoria Wharf

If for some reason you’re craving steak there’s a restaurant option in the mall called Belthazar that was actually pretty good.  They claim it’s rated the best steakhouse in Cape Town, which could easily be made up, but also could easily be true because I’m guessing there aren’t THAT many steakhouses in Cape Town to compete with. Regardless, the steak was damn good, and as I mentioned before, pretty reasonably priced, but again it’s only really worth going to if you’re craving steak.

Chicago Cut Steak

Watershed and V&A Food Market at the Waterfront

These are just two of several places to go shopping on the waterfront aside from the traditional mall, which is like any other mall you’d find in the U.S.  The Watershed and V&A Food Market are quite charming and offer some non-chain products from locals.  In there you can find local artisan foods and goods, such as jewelry, nuts, fudge, teas, textiles, home goods, etc.  It’s worth a walk through if you’re looking for a souvenir.