The Cape Town Experience

Saturday was a free day.  No events or book discussions scheduled, so we went to downtown Cape Town by day for a cultural experience.  (Tonight we’re going out for a night on the town to a local club to see a local band; I’ll cover that in my next account) it may sound like school stuff, but isn’t learning supposed to be fun?? We started by going to the slave lodge, where, during the time of slavery until it was abolished in 1808 or so, slaves were imported from other parts of Africa and Indochina and housed here—somewhere between 500 and 1,000 at a time.  I’ll be completely honest:  at first, I didn’t really want to go.  Something about seeing a large home, now a museum, where slaves were once housed didn’t appeal to me.  Then I went inside, and I’m glad I did.  I realized so many things and got a newfound spirit for the quest for human rights, and my consequent work in political science.  At first, there was a special exhibit on Oliver Tambo.  People tend to give credit to Nelson Mandela, the father of the modern South Afria—in his own right of course—but I think people don’t really focus on the most important part:  who was leading the Movement during the 27 years that Mandela was incarcerated.  Oliver Tambo is without a doubt the father of the Movement and the proprietor of the ANC, in collaboration with Mandela and Walter Sisulu and other regarded names.  Mandela seems to be known for being the first democratically elected president, a position he was hesitant to have in the first place, and the end product of the pre-post-apartheid years.  I suddenly connected Tambo to the entire anti-apartheid movement.  Sounds stupid, but here’s what I mean.  Tambo organized the ANC from a banned political party and movement into the force between 1960-1990.  He gave the movement its capital “M.”  And flowing from that, after the Sharpeville massacre and Soweto uprisings, the Black Consciousness movement started the modern South African culture we see today.  Tambo organized the ANC, called the shots while Mandela was in prison.  I now see why the Cape Town airport is named after him.  I wish I could remember who said it, but I read a quote that said “…Tambo brought the world to South Africa.  Now we are bringing South Africa to the world.”  Now that I think of it, that’s the slogan of the new South African Airlines.

Moving beyond the Tambo exhibit, I came into the slavery exhibits of the museum.  Often you read and hear about how slaves were property of others, with absolutely no rights and herded like cattle.  While you may sympathize, until you see the chains and fetters that once bound humans to humans, the whips and canes used to speed up and slow down a worker’s pace like an animal, something hits you and you change.  I’ll admit it took me some time to come to this stark realization.  I tried to put myself in their shoes (by the way, it was illegal for a slave to own leather shoes or talk to another slave in the street), and when I came to the scale model of a cargo hold, I think that’s when it got to me.  Slaves weren’t just crammed into a small space, they were crammed into a small space where they had to compete with space, after one another, with anchors, ropes and other supplies.  So you can imagine how 500 cattle become even more compacted after supplies, and below sea level adds to the misery.  They were looping a sung slave poem, and the soundscape in the recording’s background was just…eerie.  Something about the two notes from an instrument being plucked just made my physically and mentally irritated, even when I could hear it from 2 rooms over.  Everything culminated in one quote that I read.  It’s the reason for my visit to South Africa, and the explanation and definition for its culture:  “In our being we mirror the geographies of Africa, Asia and Europe. Today the cultural diversity associated with slavery provides a rich paradigm for the ongoing renewal of our country [South Afica]…” (M. Webber, 2009).  Slaves, in their plight, created an entire culture of their own.  The modern Capetonian—and African—culture can be traced back to the songs, dances, poems and arts of the slaves.  The longing for liberation and desire for assimilation (with whites in a just society) can be followed through the subsequent 300 years.  The Black Consciousness Movement.  Anti-apartheid.  Cultural and ethnic diversity.  It all began hundreds of years ago, not just decades ago.

After wandering around the Green Market Square, spending the R200 (about $20) in my pocket on a couple items, I went to the South African Gallery.  By the way, on Saturdays, the museums are free here in Cape Town.  At least the ones in the Izikio chain.  Anyway, the gallery, which at one time housed only white artists,now houses photography, art, paintings and sculptures from people mostly of South African origin.  There was a Manet paintin that I saw and I was equally impressed.  There was a special collection on rural laborers cast into further farmlands by the Native Lands Act of 1913.  The Act confined the black population into 7% of South African territory, much in the same way that Native Americans in the US are in reservations today.  The Act was an attempt to connect white lands that had been broken during the Anglo-Boer War, and the Act is arguably the seedling of the apartheid laws.  A 1936 law graciously expanded the land allowed to blacks to %13.  Though slavery was of course abolished by this time, blacks were forced to work for whites in sharecropping estates or for very meager wages.  End history lesson (kinda; there’s a lot of other information I can’t remember but wish I did at this time). 

There were some other really neat, what I interpreted as post-apartheid paintings.  One was a large canvas painting of 3 chairs, the first in pure white, the second black with a flame on the seat, and the third a charred black with a flower growing from one of the chair legs.  That kind of thing.  I saw photos from a miner strike then photos of a forensics scene where 46 men were killed by police, which they tried to cover up. Mind you these photos were from 2012. There were photos of strikers and protestors who were against Shell gas station fracking and a platinum company who were trying to force people off of their lands to exploit it for riches.  Also from 2012.  I think I was just most surprised at how these kinds of things are still ongoing.  These are the things your local news station won’t tell you.  Neither will your national one (surely Fox News wouldn’t!)  Capitalism, as we know is alive and well, and it hasn’t changed a bit since its heyday in the 1950s, or even a hundred years before then.  What we can do to stop it is a topic for an entirely different discussion.  Just know that those changes need to take place, as we all know, and hopefully at some time, they will.  Before it’s too late.

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