Just Hold On
Greetings from Cape Town, South Africa!! It has been a pleasure being able to experience this beautiful city with such rich history. We have have spent the last six days unraveling history we read about during our introductory class and begun to put it into real meaning.
On Sunday, January 10, 2016, our class had the pleasure of visiting Robben Island. For those of you who don’t know, Robben Island is not only a place that symbolizes imprisonment of non-European men who defied the unjust laws of the country. It is also a place that slavery was practiced.
The first slaves were brought to Cape Town by the Dutch East India Company in 1652 which began the African people’s struggle for freedom. Slaves were brought from various parts of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean. Most were from Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Congo (East and Central Africa). Here, these slaves worked from dawn to dusk until slavery was abolished in 1834.
Slavery never really ended but was in the form of the imprisonment of those we know suffered on Robben Island until the 1990s. I think it’s important to mention the first prisoner on Robben Island was actually in 1659 who was also the first and only prisoner who ever escaped. However, imprisonment on this island is focused more during the 1960s and 70s when apartheid political leaders were forced to do hard labor on this island. Political leaders including Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Jacob Zuma, Mosiua LeKota, Mac Maharaj, Joe Seremane, and Tokyo Sexwale.
While the class toured Robben Island,
I could not help but compare the living conditions of the slaves from what I read of the memorial on slavery and our Slave Lodge visit (January 8) to the accounts from an ex-prisoner of the Island. The slaves from the Cape, no matter where from all were housed in the city. The slaves were placed in one corner of the slave lodge in a building to sleep and able to congregate in one courtyard which was also their bathrooms. This lodge had no electricity, no bathrooms (but buckets), low ceilings, no foundation, and overcrowding. These slaves died from health conditions of being in overcrowded places, sicknesses from insanitation, and dying from the conditions of the weather like rain seeping through the ground of the building, freezing to death in the winters, or dehydration in the summers. Again, slavery ended in 1832, but the prisoners in 1960 through 1990 lived with similar health hazards.
Walking through the prison, we observed similar living conditions of the prisoners. Jail cells had electricity, but windows had no protection from the sun or the rain. The prisoners had no beds, but mats on the floor until the Red Cross issued unhealthy conditions for the prisoners due to suffering from tuberculosis. At night, the prisoners used the restroom in buckets, much like the slaves. Although not “slaves”, these prisoners not only did hard labor like slaves, but they lived much like them too.
Blacks living in unhealthy living conditions still continue today in Cape Town, South Africa. Although, in America many blacks are unemployed or homeless living in unfortunate conditions you don’t see communities this large all together. On this day, we also had the opportunity to visit Langa Township.
Langa is the first black township in Cape Town. Langa was established in 1920 because blacks were said to be “health hazards” and needed to be separated. This separation happened before the apartheid government in 1948, but continued to grow after the District 6 removals and as todays unemployment rates increase.
Most of the township is formal housing, but many of the unemployed or persons who live in informal housing (shacks) are on the waiting list to have a house to move legally into the community. Those living in shacks were made of scraps of found metal, tin, and other creative objects made into livable structures. Yet, much like the slaves and prisoners of Robben Island these livable conditions are not healthy humane ones. Those living in informal houses have no running water, no electricity, no bathrooms, and live in overcrowded homes with their families. Hostile housing, which is considered formal, but were originally made for single persons are better conditions. However, these hostiles include electricity, one bedroom, running water, but have to share communal bathrooms and most have many more individuals then the recommended amount.
I do not say this to not see the beauty of the homes which are in the townships or to look down upon the people today. However, I say this to the health concern of those who deserve better and to raise awareness of the still inhumane living conditions. The township itself is beautiful, as well are the people. Yet, I find the stillness in the health conditions of South Africa’s black population from slavery, to apartheid, to post-apartheid is appalling.
Although appalled, I find revering that despite oppression and despicable living conditions of the non-European populations from slavery to today it seems that they all had hope. On tour at Robben Island today, our tour guide pointed out a pile of stones made by Mandela which symbolizes how South Africans have turned oppression to a sense of hope and the triumph of human spirits and the change of human mindsets. Mandela, gave these peoples today that sense of hope and pride. That is why when walking through Langa today, instead of seeing faces of despair and pity, we saw faces of joy. We saw people who had begun running their own beauty shops, grocery stands, and restaurants. We explored a cultural center that taught other community members creative art techniques and gave them the ability to make money selling their work.
Mandela said in his expert Conversations with myself: Wings to the spirit, “I developed some inner strength and soon forgot about my difficulties and my poverty and suffering, my loneliness and frustrations.” This strength he gained was made through his contacts, friendships and other leaders he looked up to. The leaders these people of Langa look up to are Mandela and their ancestors (slaves) before them and the community is where they find their contacts to be employed and make friendships. Their difficulties are made into strengths because they’ve made their own pile of stones to change their mindset from their living conditions. What are your inner strengths? How are you still holding on?