Back in Cape Town, the most poignant symbol of the apartheid regime is the District 6 museum. District 6 was a vibrant community of Cape Malays, Indians, Blacks, and a few Whites until 11th February 1966, when the apartheid regime declared District Six a whites-only area under the Group Areas Act. By 1982 60,000 people had been relocated to the Cape Flats Township around 15 miles away. Only the churches and mosques remained standing.
A pair of pictures of one street before and after the demolition of the area made me so sad as the destruction is absolute. There’s a tower of street names from the district which were given to the museum by the person whose job it was to collect the signs and throw them into the sea. District 6 was to be erased from the memory. A whites only bench leaves you in no doubt as to who is allowed to sit on it. On the floor is a map of District 6. People have written the names of the families who lived at certain addresses and what businesses occupied which premises.
Once on the island everyone has to get on a bus and be escorted around the island before visiting the prison. The most poignant place is the house of Robert Sobukwe the founder of the Pan Africanist Congress. Sobukwe was in solitary confinement and wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone – however he did give secret hand signals to other prisoners when he was outside – he held dirt in his hand and let it trickle through his fingers as a gesture of solidarity. His little yellow house is by the guard-dog kennels. Visitors also see the quarry where the prisoners worked.
Ex-prisoners or ex-wardens conduct the prison tours – they show you Nelson Mandela’s cell, the exercise yard, and the dormitory style accommodation with the daily prison diet written on a board for all to see.
The Slave Lodge was built in 1679, making it the second oldest colonial building in South Africa and was owned by the Dutch East India Company, who maintained a settlement at the Cape and needed the slaves to support its profitable Asian trading operations. It continued to be used until 1834 when slavery was abolished and during these 155 years approximately 9,000 slaves would have lived here..
Slaves were brought to The Cape from most of the countries bordering the Indian Ocean though the four main areas were Indonesia, the Indian sub-continent, Madagascar and Mozambique. The cramped conditions of their passage are outlined in diagrams. Individual slaves are honoured in a column of names.
The Slave Lodge is a place that everyone should visit – in Western minds slavery is associated with the transport of humans across the Atlantic from Africa to North America. This museum will show that a similar trade went on at the same time in the Indian Ocean.
No matter how many times I gazed at Table Mountain, rested on the Atlantic beaches, or savoured the food at one of the many restaurants at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, I could never really escape the history of Cape Town. Robben Island, the Slave Lodge on Wale Street, and the Bo Kaap district all lead you back to a dark past, a past that adds a certain zest to any visit here. There’s a reason for everything here and this intriguing past makes Cape Town a must-visit city.
Book well in advance for your trip to Robben Island especially in the summer holidays when there can be a wait of two weeks before there’s a free spot. Try and get to the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront early to board the boat as the best seats are on the top deck with the views of Table Mountain especially eye-catching.