The Oppression, Poverty and Injustice Tour

(aka, The Hope for Humans Tour)

The last few days we’ve spent time visiting landmarks that demonstrate the worst that humans can do, and the triumph of the human spirit in spite of evil. The highlights:

  1. Imizamo Yethu township
  2. Robben Island
  3. District Six Museum
  4. The Slave Lodge

The common thread here, of course, is Apartheid, the Afrikaans word for “segregation.” This was the white ruling party’s government policy, in force starting in 1948, that determined where you could live, work and be buried depending on your skin color. It determined where children went to school. Sex “across the color bar” was punishable b imprisonment. Loss of land was among the system’s most terrible inflictions.

In 1952, the Natives Act required all black people over 16 to carry a pass book (a permit to work in the “white area”) at all times, and present it to police on demand.

Hello, Arizona.

Slave Lodge

Built by the Dutch Indian Trade Company, this is one of the oldest buildings in Cape Town. The slaves here were not part of the Atlantic slave trade to the New World. Instead, slaves were brought here from places like India and Indonesia. But the stories were the same: families torn apart, treated like property, etc.


During the Apartheid era, the South African government did not want black people to settle permanently in Cape Town. Blacks were evicted from properties that were in areas designated as “white only” and forced to move into townships. Legislation that enabled the Apartheid government to do this included the Group Areas Act.

Men were needed for labor in the white city of Cape Town and therefore allowed into the city during working hours. Townships were merely set up as dormitories for the laborers.

Women were banned from seeking employment in the city and wives could not join their husbands. However, Apartheid failed to prevent the influx of job-seekers and families, and when no legal accommodation could be found, shacks were erected.

Imizamo Yethu was established in the early 1990s as an area where mainly black people were allowed by the authorities to build homes known as ‘shacks’ or temporary shelters. Many of the black residents of Hout Bay could not afford, and by law were not allowed to buy property or homes in Hout Bay and had no choice but to look for vacant land on which their temporary homes were built. This was done in many cases without permission and lead to much unhappiness and aggravation with their white fellow residents. In 1989 the local government had to intervene and a piece of property was developed with basic services (roads, water and sewerage) on which black residents were allowed to build their temporary shelters and named it: Imizamo Yethu meaning “our combined effort” in Xhosa.

The residents of Imizamo Yethu comprise mainly of Xhosa speaking people originating from the Transkei in the Eastern Cape where many of their family members still reside.

I was mentally prepared for this, but was still taken aback when I got close to see the living conditions in the shantytown. Many of the residents live in small corrugated iron shacks measuring about 9ft x 9ft. At least now all the of them have running water and electricity. The main road is paved, but some of the side roads are pretty bashed up and treacherous.

It was not until the recent involvement of an Irish businessman, Niall Mellon, which resulted in more than three hundred brand new, high quality homes of brick being built with promises of many more.

If you have never been in a place like this, the scenery can still be shocking and depressing. It was strange to walk through and take pictures of people’s poverty, even though the tour fee goes directly to support the local community. I can’t imagine in the U.S. we would implement a “ghetto” tour.

There are several township tours you can take, and I imagine this one was selected because you can see progress with some solid homes built and real sense of community.

District Six

One of those communities deemed a “white only” area is the famed District Six, a primarily Muslim but very diverse working class neighborhood in the heart of Cape Town. In the 1970s, 60,000 people were forcibly removed from their homes to make room for white people.

International pressure made the re-building of the area difficult, so it was left mostly vacant. Even today there is a huge swath of empty lots, filled with weeds. Locals want to keep it this way as a memorial to those who lost their homes.

The museum is more a memorial to those who lost their homes. There is no real timeline, but rather a collection of memories and momentos from people who lived there. Still, it’s a moving exhibit.

Robben Island

Robben Island was established as a prison by the Dutch in the 1600s. It has also been a leprosy colony and a training ground for soldiers in World War II. But it’s mostly known as the maximum-security prison used to banish political prisoners in the fight against Apartheid. The most famous of these prisoners is, of course, Nelson Mandela. He was there for 18 years. But there were plenty of other political prisoners held there, including the current president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma.

Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Saturday we’d booked a ferry trip and tour, but it was rainy and the water was too rough so they canceled trips. Sunday was picture perfect. As we waited at the dock, we also saw a couple whales frolicking! It was amazing how close the came to the harbor!

Whale in the harbor

After that excitement we headed out. We were SO glad to have taken our Dramamine. The long rolling waves were pretty dramatic for those of us who aren’t out on the water very often.

We took a bus tour of the highlights and then a brief walking tour by a former political prisoner. What I liked about the tour was that there was not a specific focus on just Nelson Mandela. Granted, his cell is the only “staged” cell and everyone (including myself) stops to snap off a few pictures. But the lectures during the tour focus on the bigger stories.

What is interesting about all this “history” is that it is so alive, so fresh in people’s minds. Yet it seems so far away. You walk around and just can’t imagine that it’s been only since 1994 when President Mandela unified the country when he was elected president. People use the word “transformation” when they talk about South Africa. It’s not an exxageration.

Nelson Mandela's cell at Robben Island
Robben Island Prison Yard

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