Tri-City Herald, Sunday, June 26, 2005

South Africa is a Trip of Hope

©2006 Valerie Kreutzer

Photo of Vicky NtoziniThe catamaran took us on a 45-minute ride from Cape Town to Robben Island, a rocky outcrop of land surrounded by choppy waters.  During apartheid, South Africa’s leaders were banished into solitary confinement on this former penal and leper colony.  Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 prison years here.

His tiny cell faces the courtyard through a barred window.  Khaki army blankets are folded into a neat heap; a tin cup and plate sit on a stool next to a bucket. 

“I could walk the length of my cell in three paces,” Mandela writes in this memoir. “When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side,” he recalls in Long Walk to Freedom. “I was forty-six years old, a political prisoner with a life sentence, and that small cramped space was to be my home for I knew not how long.”

For 18 years, as it turned out.  During the day Mandela and his comrades labored in a limestone quarry where they kept hope and political discourse alive during whispered conversations.  Eventually, national resistance and international boycotts brought down the brutal regime of racial segregation and Mandela walked away the architect of the new “Rainbow Nation.” After the country’s first all-race elections, Mandela became South Africa’s president in 1994.

During his incarceration, Mandala helped mentor fellow prisoners.  One of them was Glen Kaotso Ntsoelengoe, our tour guide on Robben Island, now a museum and World Heritage Site.

As we gather around Ntsoelengoe in the visitors’ center, he tells us his story of terror, hardship and survival.  He was just 16 when he joined the military arm of Mandela’s African National Congress.  He trained in Angola, Uganda, East Germany and, upon return, participated in blowing up military installations. 

“There were only five in our group and not even our commander knew about our mission when we ran smack into an army ambush one night,” Ntsoelengoe recalls.  “So we knew that one in our group was an informer.  We were detained without trial and interrogated.  ‘Give us dates, names, contacts,’ they yelled and when I didn’t, they bound my hands and feet and dunked me upside-down into a water bucket, always yelling, ‘give us names, dates, contacts.’  They electrocuted my genitals and when I fainted they kicked me.”

Ntsoelengoe eventually got 25 years for treason and sabotage and spent five years and five months on Robben Island where he now lives with other former political prisoners who interact with visitors.  Ntsoelengoe went through Archbishop Tutu’s reconciliation trials and received amnesty, he tells us.  “A few years ago,” he says, “the man who had betrayed us came to the island and invited us to a picnic.  He said he was sorry and would we forgive him.  We asked to think it over for ten minutes and left him.  We’re still thinking,” Ntsoelengoe reports with a grim grin.

During a recent trip through the Cape region of South Africa I found many signs of wounds still festering or slowly healing.  You’d never suspect the recent political turmoil when you visit Cape Town’s elegant harbor or downtown, dominated by the majestic Table Mountain.  Stroll through the grounds of the Castle, built by the first Dutch settlers, and you feel transported into colonial times, until you watch the changing of the guard at noon.  “They’re all black,” exclaimed my South African friend who hadn’t watched the ceremony in over a decade. 

Change is everywhere.  The former Cultural History Museum, for example, has been identified as the former Slave Lodge, built by the Dutch East India Company.  Excavations show that 1,000 slaves once crowded into the lodge.  “Ten years after democracy, we still live in a country which has the responsibility to uncover the buried, denied, and all too often stigmatized aspects of our past,” says an introduction to the museum.

The slaves, mostly Muslims, had been brought to Cape Town from India, Indonesia and East Africa.  Through intermarriage they became South Africa’s “coloured” population.  As a group they fared slightly better than the indigenous Africans, as is evident in the Bo-Kaap, a district of pastel-colored orange, green and purple houses where Muslim culture has survived intact for centuries. 

The nearby District Six did not fare that well.  Before it was bulldozed in 1966, the district was a lively and thriving neighborhood for people of all cultures and races.  But when the Group Areas Act made it illegal for blacks, coloreds and whites to live together, 60,000 persons were evicted and forced into segregated townships.  At the District Six Museum, a large-scale map on the floor outlines the former neighborhood.  Some of its residents have drawn into the grid locations of their homes, libraries, churches, mosques, schools and cultural centers.  A long scroll records memories.  “We all grew up as one family of all races,” writes Edna Brown of Bilongmarket Street.  “Life was beautiful then and the gate of memories never closes.”  Faded photos and displays of home and shop interiors convey a place of warmth, creativity, rascality, despair and, above all, a zest for life.

The District Six Museum was our first stop on a township tour guided by Thabang Titoti, the enterprising young owner of a mini-van.  Titoti picked us up early on a Saturday morning and promised a tour that would give us “a sense of the real South Africa, the roots of its people and their vision of the future.”

Our first stop was Langa and the Guga S’Thebe Arts and Cultural Center, a structure brilliantly decorated in colorful mosaics.  As a steel band played in the courtyard, we surveyed the center’s crafts and did a little shopping.  Next, we stopped at a shebeen, a beer club, where women serve a homemade brew to men who pay a dollar to drink and hang out all day.

On our way to the dingy shack of corrugated metal, we passed women who stoked a fire under a drum of brewing maize and sorghum.  “It takes three days to brew umquombothi,” Titoti explained as we settled on benches next to the men who lined the wall.  A bucket sat on a wooden frame in the center of the hut.  Titoti had slipped some rand (South African currency) into the kitty and, telling us that the brew contained only three percent alcohol, heaved the bucket into our faces.  Rather sour, we found after a timid sip.  The regulars laughed and then demonstrated how to relish umquombothi with greedy gulps.

Outside, we weaved our way through lines of clothing swaying with the breezes.  Children crowded around and I distributed coins while snapping pictures.  “Nice that you give the children some money,” said a vendor peddling sweets.  “Not a good idea,” warned Titoti.  “There are too many children and you won’t have enough.”  He was right, of course.  Within seconds I was empty-handed and trailed an entourage like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

We climbed the stairs of an apartment house in ill repair.  It was built during apartheid for men who worked in the city, separated from families left behind in rural areas.  With the new freedom to move, families have followed husbands and fathers, crowding the apartments.  Titoti showed us a bedroom with three neatly made-up beds.  “This used to be the dorm for three men.  Now three families live here,” he explained.

In the communal kitchen a young man sat forlorn on a bench.  He had lost everything in a fire the week before.   A row of new apartments built by the government burned down because the township’s water pressure was too low to douse the flames.  The government set up tents for temporary shelter but the young man preferred to sleep on the apartment’s kitchen floor.  He was looking for work, he said, and he was also looking for a wife.  “Do you have a daughter?” he asked flirtatiously.  No, I don’t, but gladly joined in laughter of lightness in this landscape scarred by racial hatred.

On our way through the Guguletu Township we passed a pole and flowers that mark the spot where Amy Biehl, a white Fulbright scholar from California, had been stoned and stabbed to death by an angry group of black youths shortly before the end of the apartheid era.  Her murderers were caught and sentenced, later applied for amnesty before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The Biehl family, honoring their daughter’s commitment to compassion, attended the hearings and shook hands with Amy’s killers who were pardoned.  The Biehl family also established a youth center and a bread-baking enterprise that helps generate employment in the community.  On the Saturday morning of our visit, the youth center looked sleepy, but loaves of “Amy’s bread” lined a shelf.

Khayelitsha, our third township, has a population of 800,000 and is growing by the minute.  Careening over unpaved roads, past shacks of corrugated metal--some two stories high--we follow an arrow to “the world’s smallest hotel” and Vicky’s neon-lit B&B, a most unlikely tourist destination.

Meet Vicky Ntozini, a turbaned woman in her 30s, whose ample curves fit snuggly into the contours of an easy chair.  While keeping score of the televised cricket match between South Africa and Great Britain and directing her teenage daughter’s supper preparations, she tells the story of how she entered the business of hospitality a few years ago.

“I saw that tourists were frightened of the townships and spent all their money in the white areas.  But we really need some of that tourist money here,” she tells us.  So she squeezed with her husband and four children into one bedroom and prepared two other rooms for guests.  A hotel chain built her an indoor bathroom.

“I have the support of the community,” says Vicky, who’s by now known as “the gem of Khayelitsha.”  She gets kids, 15 and older to take guests on walking tours through the neighborhood with stops at different homes.  For evening entertainment there’s the Waterfront Café without a waterfront, a lively and well-known shebeen.

Guests usually stay for one or two nights, says Vicky.  “You just call and my husband picks you up at the airport or anywhere in town.”  Vicky’s bountiful hospitality is listed in the Lonely Planet, the last entry of cheap sleeps.

An olive suitcase sits in one of the bedrooms; its owner is at large.  That suitcase will likely chase wild animals in famous game preserves or meander along the scenic garden route.  On roads less traveled it will pack in squalor, zest and new beginnings on its journey through South Africa.