Exploring Cape Town in the footsteps of Mandela

Thirty years on from South Africa’s first free and democratic election, visitors to modern Cape Town can still explore the legacy of apartheid and walk in the footsteps of the man at the centre of its downfall

Words Robin-Lee Francke

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Table Mountain rises up behind modern Cape Town, a city almost unrecognisable from what it was 30 years ago (Alamy)

Table Mountain rises up behind modern Cape Town, a city almost unrecognisable from what it was 30 years ago (Alamy)

It’s a remarkable thing to leave behind the hotels, shops and galleries of the V&A Waterfront and step into the gleaming Nelson Mandela Gateway. The redevelopment of Cape Town’s quayside, a working harbour that still runs alongside what is now the city’s most prized real estate, began in 1988. The idea back then that any part of it would be named after a man who was at that time living in a jail cell in the Tokai suburb of the city was unthinkable.

This gateway is where ferries depart for the former offshore prison of Robben Island. It was there that the late Nelson Mandela and countless political prisoners spent decades of their lives while the South African government continued its policy of racial segregation, known as apartheid. Thirty years after the country became a democracy and Mandela was elected its first president, the island seemed a fitting start for exploring how this history still shapes Cape Town and the experiences of locals and visitors.

“Robben Island symbolises for many South Africans an era of brutal oppression under nationalist rule”

Ferries leave here throughout the day, nearly always full. Queues snake beneath the hot sun as people wait their turn to learn more about an island that was used as a penal colony as far back as the 17th century. Over the years, it operated variously as a maximum security prison, a military base and even a leper colony. Today this national monument, museum and UNESCO World Heritage site symbolises for many South Africans a brutal era of oppression under nationalist rule.

I bagged a seat on the upper deck and watched the waterfront shrink behind me, then refocused my eyes on the island looming ahead, seeing it grow larger and imagining the countless poor prisoners who must have done likewise as they mentally sketched out their fate.

This poster features a quote from the late Ahmed Kathrada, another political prisoner who spent 18 years on Robben Island and went on to become a member of South Africa’s parliament (Alamy)

This poster features a quote from the late Ahmed Kathrada, another political prisoner who spent 18 years on Robben Island and went on to become a member of South Africa’s parliament (Alamy)

The Cape’s south-easter wind came out to play and the fresh ocean air bathed my skin, filling my lungs. As the ferry aligned alongside the jetty, what struck me was how ordinary the tall grey walls appeared.

A large sign still welcomes visitors to the island, announcing the old prison-service motto in English and Afrikaans: ‘We serve with pride’. A tour guide loudly announced: “From this point forth, history will unfold as we get to know more about Nelson Mandela.” I couldn’t help but wonder how dented the prison’s ‘pride’ would have been had the authorities known back then that the main reason people would come here in the future would be to learn more about a man they strove so desperately to keep locked away.

Boats bob outside the Nelson Mandela Gateway on the V&A Waterfront (Alamy)

Boats bob outside the Nelson Mandela Gateway on the V&A Waterfront (Alamy)

Behind bars

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, born Rolihlahla Mandela, was a South African anti-apartheid activist and politician who served as the first Black president of the country from 1994 to 1999. As well as winning the Nobel Peace Prize, he spent nearly 27 years of his life incarcerated, 18 of them on Robben Island, where a maximum-security prison was put in place to house, isolate and punish political prisoners. This finally closed in 1991, though the medium-security wing continued to operate for another five years.

The old prison occupies just a small portion of the island’s five square kilometres. During the short, bumpy bus ride to reach it, I glimpsed seabirds swooping down on grassy patches out of the corner of my eye. Robben Island is home to 132 species of bird as well as the largest colony of breeding bank cormorants in South Africa. But my gaze was fixed on the walls that now filled the windscreen.

The sparse prison cell of Nelson Mandela barely measures 2m by 2.5m (Alamy)

The sparse prison cell of Nelson Mandela barely measures 2m by 2.5m (Alamy)

Walking into the prison and hearing the key turn in the large steel gates that once kept Mandela and many others confined sent shivers down my body. Five of us at a time were allowed to enter the cell in which he was held while the guide explained the layout. During his incarceration, Mandela was not given a bed but instead had to rest on the cold concrete. Likewise, there was no plumbing; all he had to relieve himself was a bucket. The conditions were oppressive enough for just a few moments; spending 18 years between these walls, which seemed to close in on you upon entering, would have been unbearable.

Like others, Mandela had to do hard labour in the quarry during his time on the island. It was backbreaking work. He was allowed one visitor a year and could write or receive a single letter every six months.

“Nelson Mandela spent nearly 27 years of his life incarcerated, 18 of them on Robben Island”

“Many times, prisoners were subjected to harsh conditions, such as not being fed as punishment for undermining the apartheid regime,” our guide explained. Every letter received or sent by a political prisoner was scrutinised, and their families often received unreadable messages because most of the words had been redacted for being “unsafe”, a “danger” or an act of “collusion”.

Some prisoners were alleged to have been tortured during interrogation, or just held in their holding cells without any chance to clean their buckets (used as toilets) for days. The stench would have been unimaginable.

I squinted at appliances, letters and prison records of Mandela and other political activists through glass casings as we proceeded to walk through the prison. The area where inmates could exercise was barely larger than a backyard, and I thought longingly of the kilometers of open land that we’d spied en route from the dock.

A bedroom set aside in Robben Island prison for children visiting their fathers who were incarcerated there (Alamy)

A bedroom set aside in Robben Island prison for children visiting their fathers who were incarcerated there (Alamy)

Escaping the prison brought a sense of relief. Outside, I spied one of the workers on the island getting water from a tap on the gravel road opposite. He was short in stature and sweating heavily from the heat. I was curious what Nelson Mandela and this building – which he must have seen every day of his working life – meant to him.

“I was much too young to have felt the brunt of apartheid, but within my family we have lost many loved ones to apartheid-era hate,” he told me, adding that as a Xhosa man like Mandela he relived the greatness of a person he never knew daily.

The grim legacy of Apartheid took years to dismantle, though its legislation was repealed just 14 months after Mandela was finally released.

“My father has a scar he got after he received a near-death beating during an uprising in Langa (a township in Cape Town),” the man added quietly, preferring not to give his name. “My family adores Nelson Mandela. He set us free.”

Standing on the map in the District Six Museum reveals what was lost to the Group Areas Act (Alamy)

Standing on the map in the District Six Museum reveals what was lost to the Group Areas Act (Alamy)

The great release

Back in the city, it is apparent just how much of Cape Town has been built or rebuilt over the last 30 years. The waterfront’s slick Silo District, home to Africa’s largest contemporary art museum, is just one of the more recent additions. On the ferry, I also got a clear view of Cape Town Stadium, which was built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup and is now an iconic landmark in the city. Even around the enduring figure of Table Mountain, the tall buildings and houses hugging its feet are all relatively new.

Wandering the streets of the Central Business District (CBD), I encountered people from all walks of life. One thing that does not lack in the ‘Mother City’ is the friendliness of its residents. The scents of delicious foods and stalls run by vendors of every culture and ethnicity can be found on the pavements. It occurred to me that so many of these people would not have been able to even walk here back when this was a ‘Whites Only’ area.

The City Hall balcony from which Nelson Mandela addressed South Africa on his release in 1990 now has a statue to mark that historic moment (Alamy)

The City Hall balcony from which Nelson Mandela addressed South Africa on his release in 1990 now has a statue to mark that historic moment (Alamy)

On strolling the Grand Parade, my eye was drawn to the statue of Mandela in front of City Hall. The building holds a huge significance for South Africans, as it was from this balcony that he addressed thousands in a speech after his release from prison in 1990.

“Comrades and fellow South Africans,” Mandela began, “I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.” His opening brought hope to a nation that had been fighting for freedom for too long.

I met my 77-year-old grandmother, Helen Fester, at her home in Atlantis, a small town 66km outside Cape Town. She told me that she wished that she could have witnessed Mandela’s speech, but like most people here she couldn’t make it to City Hall that day and had been stuck to a TV screen instead.

My grandmother is a feisty woman who has never shied away from telling it like it is. She believes that we need to know our country’s history in all its good and bad points.

The author’s grandmother, Helen Fester, recalls the day when Nelson Mandela was unconditionally released from jail

The author’s grandmother, Helen Fester, recalls the day when Nelson Mandela was unconditionally released from jail

“When that man started his speech, it was like reigniting the fight for what we believed in. The sacrifice he made for this country could never be repaid. He brought hope when we were on the edge of letting go,” she explained.

For Helen, the law preventing marriages between ‘whites’ and ‘non-whites’ meant that she couldn’t be with the man she loved. This had been among the first pieces of apartheid legislation to be passed following the National Party’s rise to power in 1948. It was even dangerous for the couple to be seen.

“Back then, my ex-husband and I could not be together publicly. While I loved this man, I could get beaten or arrested because I was classified as a non-white – ‘Coloured’,” she recalled with a tear in her eye.

The colourful homes of Bo-Kaap, one of the oldest residential areas in Cape Town, survived the wrath of the apartheid era and are an enduring record of its Cape Malay inhabitants (Alamy)

The colourful homes of Bo-Kaap, one of the oldest residential areas in Cape Town, survived the wrath of the apartheid era and are an enduring record of its Cape Malay inhabitants (Alamy)

The survivors

One of the most damaging laws enacted during the apartheid era was the Group Areas Act of 1950, which was aimed at enforcing a policy of racial segregation. It reserved certain areas of the city for residence and occupation by specific racial groups within the population, often by brutal means.

Two of the most extreme examples of this are District Six and Bo-Kaap, where people were forcibly removed from their homes and driven out of the area. Today, District Six remains a barren neighbourhood with many untold stories.

I dropped in at the District Six Museum, which takes you back to when this was one of the most colourful parts of Cape Town, filled with good food, music and community. One of the best things for me in the museum was a map spread out on the floor depicting all the old street names and landmarks (including stores, kiosks and vendors). Many of these names I knew through stories told to me by my family and people I’d met.

My grandmother had told me tales of how she and her friends used to go to Hanover Street and visit the bioscope (a prototype cinema), then partied all night long during annual street parties. Seeing this map with my own eyes, I could plot the routes that she must have taken on her adventures during her younger years.

“The sacrifice Mandela made for this country could never be repaid. He brought hope when we were on the edge of letting go”

In 1966, District Six was scheduled to be razed and rebuilt as a ‘Whites Only’ area under the Group Areas Act. By 1982, more than 60,000 people had been forcibly removed from their homes. Houses and buildings were bulldozed and residents were relocated to the outskirts of the city, to an area now known as Cape Flats. Wandering its streets today is a sobering reminder of the power that apartheid had to tear communities apart.

But not every story ended this way; Bo-Kaap is a different matter entirely. This area was built by the Dutch in the 1760s to lease huurhuisjes (rental properties) to the enslaved peoples later known as the Cape Malay. They had been brought over from Malaysia, Indonesia and East Africa, and for generations this was called the Malay Quarter. Despite several attempts by the apartheid regime to claim it as a ‘Whites Only’ area, they were reluctant to bulldoze its many mosques for fear of reprisals. Instead, it was declared an exclusive residential area for Cape Muslims.

Today, the neighbourhood’s colourfully painted terraced houses, nestled at the foot of Signal Hill, have survived miraculously intact. Their colours were originally an expression of freedom. When the enslaved people here were first allowed to purchase their houses from the Dutch, they quickly discarded the coloniser’s rule of painting them solely white. It’s no wonder the area was a favourite of Mandela’s, who openly professed his love of visiting its bright streets.

Koe’sisters are spicy dumplings with a cake-like texture (Alamy)

Koe’sisters are spicy dumplings with a cake-like texture (Alamy)

Bo-Kaap is a great place to get a taste of Cape Malay culture and cuisine. Walking here, I was soon seduced by the smells coming from the local kiosks. I purchased a Cape Town staple, koe’sisters – a spicy dumpling that is cake-like in texture and dipped in sugar and sprinkled with coconut. This is a celebrated Cape Malay delicacy for good reason, but all the more special when you know the history of the people behind it.

The same could be said of Cape Town. For all the white-sand beaches, natural wonders and world-class restaurants that comprise most coverage of the city, it comes with a history as difficult as it is, at times, hard to hear. But like Bo-Kaap and those who endured the brutality of the apartheid regime, exploring and acknowledging its survival isn’t about being weighed down by the past but celebrating the present. Thirty years on from South Africa’s resurrection, this city is laced with diversity and inclusion. Something Nelson Mandela would be proud of.

Think you know Nelson Mandela? Here are five things about the great man that may surprise you…

1. What’s in a name?

Nelson Mandela’s birth name was Rolihlahla Mandela, which literally means ‘to pull a branch of a tree’ in the Xhosa language, though a more accurate translation would be ‘troublemaker’. He was given the name Nelson by his primary-school teacher when he was seven years old, as was common in the 1920s when African children were often renamed under British rule.

2. They seek him here…

After going underground because of his ANC activities, Mandela’s ability to evade the South African security services earned him the nickname ‘The Black Pimpernel’, a play on the elusive and fictional hero of the French Revolution. In later years, Mandela also went by his clan name, Madiba.

3. First ladies

Nelson Mandela was married three times. His last marriage was at the age of 80 to Graça Machel, who was formerly married to Mozambique President Samora Machel. By remarrying, she became the first woman to be First Lady of two different nations.

4. Simple tastes

Although he was wined and dined on his travels, the meal that Mandela was said to enjoy the most was tripe, which his former personal chef, Xoliswa Ndoyiya, claimed to have “smuggle[d]” to London on one trip because he loved it so much.

5. A lesser-known legacy

While hundreds of streets now bear the name Nelson Mandela, you can also find a nuclear particle (the Mandela particle), a prehistoric woodpecker (Australopicus nelsonmandelai) and an orchid (Paravanda Nelson Mandela) named after him.

(Alamy)

(Alamy)