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Two Weeks in the Life...: A Visit to South Africa

In July 2003, I spent twelve days in Cape Town, South Africa. I was attending the 15th International Conference on Assessing Quality in Higher Education, but left myself plenty of time to explore the city and surrounding areas. Within a few short days in Cape Town, I realized I'd fallen in love – with the beauty of my surroundings, definitely, but more so with the people. In spite of poverty, AIDS, tuberculosis, and the lingering after-effects of apartheid, the South African people are amazingly optimistic and resourceful; they are survivors, and I am completely awed and inspired by my them. Below are several vignettes intended to give you an idea of why I was so deeply touched by my visit.

Every Sunday there is a large flea market at Green Point Stadium. Monday through Saturday, the market is at Greenmarket Square in the heart of the city, but on Sundays, it moves to the area known as Green Point, where it more than doubles in size. Greenmarket Square is for the tourists; the Green Point market is more for the locals. The Sunday market is a hodgepodge of booths, offering an assortment of typical flea market fare (household items, clothing, glassware, and assorted cast-offs), crafts and artwork from local and regional artisans, and African "kitsch" – those mass-produced items modeled on traditional indigenous crafts, such as carvings and weapons.

My first full day in Cape Town, I visited the market. I stopped to take a closer look at some artwork displayed in one of the booths at the far end of the market. "Welcome. My name is George. Please come in." George is Xhosa (the tribe indigenous to the Cape Town region), with graying hair and a big smile. "This is sand art. It's made by an artist near here, in Langa." Langa, I learned, is the oldest of the planned townships surrounding Cape Town; its name means "Sun."

Nearby, another booth selling more artwork: "Welcome. Please enter. Take a closer look." This is David, a young Xhosa from the eastern Cape region. He's trying to earn some extra money to go home to visit his wife and children. He was disappointed when I didn't buy anything, and when I ran into him a few days later in Greenmarket Square he chided me for not returning as I'd promised (what I'd told him was that I might be back later).

Another booth, down the next row. "Welcome. My name is Mustafa. Do you see something you like?" Mustafa is a native of Angola and is selling his own pieces, along with those of other artists from the nearby townships. His artwork features brightly colored depictions of traditional Zulu tribal life (the Zulu live mostly in the northeastern region of South Africa).

The market is a difficult place to earn a living. In Greenmarket Square, I was looking for textiles. I saw a piece that I liked, asked how much. "200 rand. But I'll give you a special price: 150 rand." As one woman noted, "You can get this same thing at many booths, so why not buy it here? I'll give you a good price."

Wandering throughout the market are the independents: "Would you like to buy a beautiful gold chain? Very good price." (It's most likely brass.) "Would you like to give a donation to [you name it]? It's for the children." And the difficult ones: "Please. I need to buy medicine for my tuberculosis, and it is very expensive. I have this form, see? It's very official." Or, this from a (maybe) 10-year-old child with a much younger sibling: "Please. I need bus fare to get home." I wondered where his parents were, and why he and his brother (sister?) were alone in the city, with no means to get home. I later learned that there are many children who run away from their homes in the townships to escape poverty or abuse, only to end up begging on the streets in the city. It was heartbreaking, but I learned to say "no."

Cape Town viewed from Table Mountain Table Mountain
Looking down on Cape Town and Table Bay from Table Mountain Table Mountain sits in the middle of the city, and forms an impressive backdrop for photographs
Lizard made from a Coca Cola can AIDS pin modelled after a Zulu love letter
This piece is crafted from a discarded Coca Cola™ can and some wire This pin is a sobering reminder that HIV/AIDS is a very serious problem in South Africa

July 18, 2003, was Nelson Mandela's 85th birthday. The coverage began on television more than a week before the big day (and for several days afterward), and it was patently clear that this is a man who is beloved by South Africans of all ages and races, who affectionately refer to him as "Madiba." He is respected throughout the world as a statesman, but he is much more than that to the South African people. Imprisoned as a political prisoner for 27 years, 18 of those at the notorious Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town, he became the first democratic president of South Africa and led his country through an almost bloodless transition. He encouraged South Africans to embrace forgiveness, rather than retribution, for the years of apartheid forced upon them by a minority white government.

At the bed & breakfast where I was staying, however, there was harsh criticism. "Did you bake Madiba a cake today?" asked one of the employees. "[Grumble]. What has this new government done for this country? More crime than there ever was, and it's just getting worse," was the reply from a transplanted Brit married to the woman who runs the B&B.

Gateway to Robben Island One of four common cells in Cell Block F, Robben Island
This gate sits at the entrance to the road that rings the island; while many prisoners arriving on the island were illiterate, others would have read the motto, "We Serve With Pride" as they were marched toward the prison that lays just beyond the gate This is one of four common cells that is housed in Cell Block F on Robben Island
Limstone cave on Robben Island Housing in Khyelitsha
This natural cave is part of the limestone quarry on Robben Island where political prisoners were forced to labor; the cave served as a bathroom, a lunch room, and an open university Residents of this house in Khyelitsha probably draw water from a well, use outhouses connected to the sewer system, cook on a paraffin stove, and use candles for lighting house in the evening - fires are fairly frequent in the townships, and leave many people homeless

During dinner on my first day at the conference, a young black woman approached me and said hello. She was on the faculty at a university in Durban, which is on the Indian Ocean; she'd been back in South Africa for just a year after spending most of her adult life in the United States. We talked about her experiences returning to a country that had changed so dramatically. When I ran into her a few days later, she was with a group of colleagues who were teasing her because she'd had such an emotional reaction during her visit to Robben Island. "When I was in the museum I started crying because I recognized someone in a photograph in one of the books," she explained. "I bought the book so I could give it to his mother."

I had already bought my ticket for the ferry ride to Robben Island, and was leaving the next morning. While there I met two of its former political prisoners (the tour guides on Robben Island are all former prisoners.) The first was an older man, Sideeq Levy, who accompanied us on a bus tour of the island, sharing his knowledge of the island as well as some of his own thoughts and feelings about the time he spent as a prisoner. When we visited the lime quarry where political prisoners spent most of their time, he turned the guide duties over to the bus driver and left to take a short walk; I sensed that this particular place caused a strong emotional reaction in him, as did the tiny house where Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan African Congress, was held in solitary confinement until long after he had succumbed to the psychological torment caused by his isolation. Sideeq has a very gentle, soothing voice, full of humor, but also of pain. He arrived on the Island long before there was a prison to house him and his fellow inmates; they had to quarry the stone that built the prison, all the while living in very primitive conditions.

Our second guide was a much younger man who arrived on Robben Island to serve a five-year sentence, only to be released fifteen months later when the prison at Robben Island closed its doors when apartheid ended. In contrast to Sideeq, this guide (I didn't catch his name) seemed angry. Or perhaps that was just his tour guide persona. He led us on a tour of the prison, sharing the horrific details of prison life in the common cells, where political prisoners and criminals were housed together. These were not the solitary cells where Nelson Mandela and other leaders were housed, but large rooms where up to 60 prisoners slept. (In the early days of the prison, these cells housed up to 150 prisoners, sleeping on sisal mats, as there were no beds.) He told us: "You can take pictures if you like; you can even take my picture, but don't expect me to smile – I never smile."

Robben Island is now a UN-designated world heritage site. On its web site (, you'll read the following introduction:

For nearly 400 years, Robben Island, 12 kilometres from Cape Town, was a place of banishment, exile, isolation and imprisonment. It was here that rulers sent those they regarded as political troublemakers, social outcasts and the unwanted of society.
During the apartheid years Robben Island became internationally known for its institutional brutality. The duty of those who ran the Island and its prison was to isolate opponents of apartheid and to crush their morale. Some freedom fighters spent more than a quarter of a century in prison for their beliefs.
Those imprisoned on the Island succeeded on a psychological and political level in turning a prison 'hell-hole' into a symbol of freedom and personal liberation. Robben Island came to symbolise, not only for South Africa and the African continent, but also for the entire world, the triumph of the human spirit over enormous hardship and adversity.

Such a strength of spirit can only be admired.

Housing in Khyelitsha Vicky
The owners of this home in Khyelitsha would have indoor plumbing, as well as paved roads, electricity, at least one television, and a car Vicky, the proprietor of Vicky's Bed & Breakfast
Auto Repair Shop, Khyelitsha Room in Vicky's B&B
An auto repair shop in Khyelitsha, one of many businesses that that are part of the informal economy One of two rooms in Vicky's B&B

One day while wandering through one of the craft places at the waterfront, I stopped to admire some brightly painted wooden mobiles. The vendor approached me to say hello, and the inevitable "Where are you from?" followed shortly after. When I told him I lived in the United States, he told me that he has learned about Americans from watching television.

In South Africa, there is a lot of American programming on television, but unfortunately, it's not good programming. I laughed and told him that what he sees on television is greatly distorted, and that it doesn't really provide an accurate picture of American culture.

Woman weaving a rug Hymie
This woman works at the Philani Nutrition Center in Khyelitsha Hymie, my most excellent tour guide
Beaded lizard from the Khyelitsha Arts & Crafts Center Children at a day care in Khyelitsha
I bought this beaded gecko from the Khyelitsha Arts & Crafts Center, which is run by the Anglican Church These are children from the day care at the Philani Nutrition Center

On my second to last day in Cape Town, I visited one of the townships as part of a group tour. In my group were four other women, one from Australia (she was living in South Africa, working for Outward Bound), a mother and daughter from England (but originally from Australia), and an older woman from the United States who was traveling through Africa. Our tour guide was Hymie Levin, a Cape Town local who is a veritable font of information. (He ended up being my tour guide the next day, as well, on my trip to Cape Point.)

On my way in from the airport the day I arrived, my shuttle driver had pointed to the shanty towns that line the highway and indicated that these were the townships. On my tour with Hymie, I learned that these were actually the temporary settlements created by the native people from rural areas who come to Cape Town looking for work, only to learn that there are no jobs available.

We visited Kyelitsha, the newest of the townships; the name means, "our new home." It is home to about 1.2 million black South Africans, most of them Xhosa. It has the infrastructure you'd find in most towns, including roads, sewers, and electricity, along with services and businesses. There's a wide range of housing, from small houses constructed out of fence sections and corrugated tin, to permanent concrete houses with small, fenced yards. The most noticeable difference between the townships and the city is that people in the townships are extremely dependent on an informal economy for survival. Because there are few jobs available, most are considered unemployed. Yet, there are thriving businesses – small stands selling fruits, vegetables, and baked goods; open-air barbecues, or "braai," which provide a healthy source of protein, since very few people own refrigerators in which to store meat; the shebeens, or local taverns; an auto repair operation, a shoemaker, a building supplier selling doors, corrugated tin for roves, and various wood materials for walls – that allow members of the community to make a living.

At Vicky's B&B, tourists can experience a slice of township life. She has two rooms for rent, at a rate of R170/night (about $23), and she is extremely proud of the role she plays in her community. She brings business into the community, she educates visitors about the culture and conditions of her people, and she has helped to develop a neighborhood watch program than ensures the safety of her guests, her family, and her neighbors.

At the Philani Nutrition Center, we were introduced to several women who weave beautiful rugs from cotton jersey. They earn their living by making and selling crafts, and their children are well cared for in the adjoining day care center. While we were there, the children sang a couple songs for us: "Found a Peanut" (in English, complete with actions), and "If You're Happy and You Know It" (in Xhosa, again with actions). Afterward, as I was taking pictures, several children came up to me and tried to grab my camera. I took a picture of them, then showed them the picture, to their absolute delight.

We also visited the Khyelitsha Arts & Crafts Center, where several women were selling their crafts, and a marimba band played for us. There was a pre-school across the street, where several children were lining the fence watching us. We received permission to visit, and were immediately surrounded by children reaching out to touch us. Hymie had a theory about this; he thinks that because African children spend so much time in close contact with their mothers, they tend to reach out for the touch of other people.

I have many more impressions and experiences, but you'll just have to wait until I finally get my web site put together. I'll share the URL when it's done. Suffice it to say that I am already making plans to return to South Africa – I'd like to see some more of the country, and to do something meaningful during my next visit, whatever that may be. So stay tuned.

Published in the University of Oregon Libraries' LSA Newsletter, number 48, August 2003 -

© 2003, colleen bell about / words