Greatness and Darkness

Our Sunday started early. We were booked on the 9am ferry to Robben Island so we breakfasted in the flat then drove down to the Waterfront. The area was dead quiet at that time, so we parked easily in the Ulundi garage and made our way to the Nelson Mandela Gateway to catch the boat. We got there by 8:30 and boarding was just starting. It was an easy 30 minute crossing to the island, where we disembarked and were loaded on to buses. Our bus went direct to the main gate of the prison, which took 5 minutes at most, where we disembarked and were greeted by our guide forĀ  the prison tour, Sipho Msomi.

Sipho was a fascinating guide. In 1984, at the age of 22, he was arrested by the South African Secret Police together with 5 of his colleagues. He was held in solitary confinement and periodically tortured for 5 months before coming to trial. At trial, he discovered that one of his friends had died in captivity. He and his surviving four friends were found guilty. Sipho was sentenced to five years on Robben Island for three separate crimes: being a member of the African National Congress; recruiting others to be members of the ANC; campaigning on behalf of the ANC. Although Mandela (whose cell is pictured above) had already been moved to prison on the mainland by the time of Sipho’s arrival, many more of South Africa’s future political leaders remained on Robben Island. Sipho’s knowledge of the history of the place together with his first hand experience of incarceration made this one of the most informative and inspiring tours I’ve ever taken. I highly recommend this to anyone.

Back on the buses after the prison tour, we circumnavigated the island, seeing some of the other structures such as the mosque which was built for moslems taken prisoner by the Dutch East India Company when they were quelling rebellion in Indonesia. We also saw theĀ Robert Sobukwe house where a leading figure in the early anti-apartheid movement and founder of the Pan Africanist Congress was imprisoned. He was kept in solitary confinement on the island and was thought so dangerous that the government passed a law specifically to keep him locked up.

After the boat trip back, we wandered around the commercial hotspot that is the V&A Waterfront. Knowing that you’re on the road for eight months is very liberating when it comes to shopping. You’re just not in the market for anything, unless you’re willing to throw away something you already have to make room for it.

We headed back to the apartment and cooked dinner. Since this was to be our last night in Cape Town, we decided to try to see some live music. Google didn’t seem all that informative about possibilities, but we eventually decided to go to a bar called The Dubliner on Long Street, a seven minute walk from our apartment. We had a couple of beers there and listened to a band comprised of two guitars and a drum machine playing rock hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s. The closest this got to an authentic African experience was when they played Toto’s “Africa”.

More entertaining was the ever expanding street party taking place right outside. There seemed to be a regular procession of minivans with the side sliding door opened, full of young men and women drinking cans of lager and dancing while other dancers kept pace with them along the street. They seemed to be having a lot of fun. I asked the bouncer if this was a regular occurrence. Apparently it happens on special occasions, like end of term or the start of a season. Today’s special occasion was that Cape Town’s Christmas lights were turned on. It sounded to me like they didn’t need much to decide it was a special occasion. The bouncer agreed that any excuse would do.

When we decided to head back to the flat, the bouncer offered to get us a taxi but we were so close and the street so crowded that I thought it better to just walk. We hadn’t gone far when three young men got around us and asked if we wanted marijuana. Some hands came towards me and I knocked them away and hustled the pair of us away from the main drag. The street was quieter here and we made steady progress towards the flat. We were walking hand in hand when Ishbel shouted “Brian!” I hadn’t really paid attention to the youth as he was approaching us but he was now bounding away across the road and down a side street.

“What happened?”, I asked.

“I’m not sure”, Ishbel answered. She then realised that he had tried to rip the small gold chain from her neck.

The kid had ghosted off into the night and the chain and its wearer were undamaged, so we just headed back to the flat at pace and with hyper sensitivity to other people.

We had, of course, been warned about the possible dangers of street crime and, with hindsight, we should probably have taken a taxi at that time of night. It’s possible to get complacent when you’ve gone through your entire life without encountering street crime, which is pretty much true for both of us. We won’t be complacent again.