Monday the students visited Robben Island, the infamous prison where Nelson Mandela and other notorious political prisoners were held captive for crimes against the government. It is here that the first drafts of Mandela's biography A Long Walk to Freedom were composed, its pages hidden from white prison warders behind photographs and in the small kitchen garden Mandela cultivated in the courtyard of his cell block. It is here that the visionary father of the black consciousness movement and founder of the PAC, Robert Sobukwe, was held in solitary confinement for six years. It is here that, under the guiding hands of Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela, prisoners studied at “Robben Island University”, learning the history of apartheid, political theory, and debating their visions for a new South Africa. Young comrades who entered prison without a high school diploma left it years later with advanced degrees. This place is rich in history.
The day started with a blustery boat ride from the Cape Town waterfront to the Island. Because of its close proximity to the mainland, the Island has been used for centuries as a place to quarantine or isolate various undesirable populations from mainland South Africa (the island was a Leper colony under British colonial rule). Robben Island tours are led by ex-prisoners. Our guide was an ex-member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (“The Spear of the Nation”) or MK, the armed wing of the ANC. Born and raised in Soweto, he joined the ANC at the age of 19 and was imprisoned at 26 for high treason against the state. He remained at Robben Island for six years. Our guide was an eloquent and moving orator. The girls, seeped in seven weeks of South African history, had many questions and he answered them all. Listening to him speak, you got a sense of what Mandela's ANC stood for, the value these men placed on education, intelligent debate, and reconciliation. “To be most honest with you, we cannot live without the whites and the whites cannot live without us,” our guide told us. “We must find a way to live together.” His faith lay with the younger generation – a generation that has grown up without apartheid. He spoke of his friendship with an Afrikaner man that grew out of his young son's friendship with this man's son. He talked of alliances with white Afrikaner prison warders that grew into friendships after apartheid ended and the prison shut down. Today, ex-prisoners and ex-warders employed by Robben Island live together on the Island and their children attend the same primary school.
Considering the immense brutality of apartheid and the years of freedom these prisoners sacrificed in exchange for basic human rights, the peaceful transference of government that occurred in 1994 under the guidance of Nelson Mandela is remarkable. Visiting Robben Island, it is apparent how truly awe-inspiring this attitude of peace and reconciliation is in South Africa. It is also apparent that a society of its own manifested and thrived among the prisoners of Robben Island. This society involved professors and a university, a black market of news, letters, and supplies, governing bodies, sports teams, white allies and white enemies, and the ever-present environment of debate, hope, and purpose. The apartheid government’s idea behind imprisoning Mandela, Sisulu, Sobukwe, and others was, in the words of our guide, to break the “spine of resistance”. The result of imprisonment, however, was a creation of a new strategy of resistance – one of peaceful negotiation.
District Six Museum
On our first full day in Cape Town, we visited the District Six Museum. This small but powerful space pays tribute to the thousands of non-white families forcibly removed from District Six in the late 1960s. Historically, District Six was a mixed race neighborhood in the middle of Cape Town, an anomaly of multiculturalism in apartheid-era South Africa. The Group Areas Act, passed by the apartheid government in the 1950s, aimed to separate races into different living spaces. Thus, District Six residents were split up according to race and relocated to less desirable real estate outside the city center. Their homes were razed to make room for upscale white housing and development. Our tour guide, Noor, a District Six refugee, witnessed the home that had been in his family for generations bulldozed to the ground. Despite the government's plans to “whiten” this area of the city, protest and criticism kept District Six from being fully developed. Today, the original residents are moving back in, though the resettlement process is painstakingly slow. Once a church, the museum space itself reads as both an informative exhibit on the history surrounding District Six and as an eclectic art exhibit. Personal photographs donated by ex-residents cover the walls of the museum. Upstairs, an ex-resident and artist has created an interactive art piece around the relationship between memory and place. Old street signs create a huge pyramid like structure that dominates the main room.
In history class we continue to explore identity, race, and politics. We have just completed the midterm exam and are wrapping up our study of South Africa. Leading up to the midterm, we examined various phases of Nelson Mandela's life (revolutionary, prisoner, and negotiator) and learned about other South African leaders (past and present, white and black) through the student's oral presentations. Classroom study has been supplemented with academic activities. We visited Robben Island, the infamous prison where Mandela was held for 18 years, as well as the District Six Museum. Finally, as we continue to read Rian Malan's My Traitor's Heart, we attempt to understand the subtleties of race relations and the complex nature of Africa through bi-weekly reading responses.
The literature class finished reading The Power of One, and the students wrote analytical essays examining a theme in the novel for their midterm exam. In anticipation of this essay, class focused on introducing and practicing various aspects of essay writing including constructing a thesis, gathering textual evidence, writing transitions, peer editing, and revising. In addition to book discussions and essay writing, the students have continued their study of poetry. They are in the process of choosing a poem to memorize and present to the class. They will also be responsible for explicating their chosen poem – a process we practiced in class this week. We will begin writing college essays and reading short stories as we head into Namibia.
These past few weeks have been busy for PE class: we completed a three day backpacking trip in Tsitsikamma National Park, learned to surf in Jeffery’s Bay and hiked up the iconic Table Mountain in Cape Town. Tsitsikamma National Park is situated on the coast of the Indian Ocean in the unique fynbos biosphere. The girls hiked a total of 31 km (19.2 miles!). A number of the girls stood up on their surfboards and everyone enjoyed playing in the ocean in J-Bay, one of the most popular surf destinations in the world. Table Mountain offered vigorous exercise and a gorgeous view of Cape Town and the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to surfing, hiking, and backpacking, we continue to strengthen our cores, arms, and legs, and build our cardio-endurance through running, plyometrics, and a variety of abdominal, leg and arm exercises.