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The Tale of Two Tours: Route of Many Cultures and Robben Island

Another educational day with local legend, Shereen Misbach-Habib

Local weaver at women's center

Local weaver at women’s center

It was a lucky day for me.  I was fortunate to tag along with human rights activist and local legend, Shereen Misbach-Habib of Tana Baru Tours and Darren of DC Tours South Africa while they did a dress rehearsal of a tour they are reviving together.

The tour is called the Route of Many Cultures and includes a visit to the District Six Museum, a tour of the outlying cultural neighborhoods of Cape Town, a lot of history about the apartheid years including numerous personal stories, visits to mosques, a little spice shopping, a drive through townships, a tour of a non-profit, and a visit to a local Malay woman’s house for lunch.

Township in Cape Town

Township in Cape Town

We toured through several townships which sprouted during apartheid years when non-white residents were forced from their inner-city homes.

Now, these apocalyptic cities sprawl seemingly forever to the horizon – an unthinkable third-world existence of poverty and scrap metal housing.  It is such a contrast to the first-world Cape Town that is sometimes just blocks away.

Early in the 1980’s unofficial lists began of those who deserved restitution for having their homes stolen and leveled by the government.  In 1994, when Mandela was President, laws were passed that promised restitution.  While restitution efforts are occurring, the most recently built homes went to those who have been on the waiting list since 1987.  Clearly, there is a problem.

Traveling through the townships was an eye-opener.  It’s one thing to be intellectually aware of the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots in Cape Town (or any other city) and it’s another to see the situation first-hand.

The poverty is overwhelming and just due to the scale, it won’t be improving anytime soon.   I am told that everyday new residents arrive looking for a better life in the city.  The footprint is ever expanding.  It is a blight on the fabric of Cape Town.  It’s easier to turn away.

Of course poverty in not unique to South Africa.  In the United States, we have millions of poor (working and non-working) people who go hungry or live in the streets or in squalid conditions.  The reasons may be different, but the result is the same.  Millions upon millions of people who have no hope of reaching their personal potential because their basic needs can not be met.  What is the answer?

We finished the tour with a visit to a Malay woman’s house.  She is a local and a poet and a Muslim and welcomed us in for a traditional meal of fish, dahl and rice.  While putting out the silverware, she told me I didn’t need to use it; I could use my hands.  “Eating with silverware is like making love through an interpreter.”

It was a delicious meal and an opportunity to get a glimpse into real life in the community.  Very special.

Touring Robben Island

Mandela's prison block

Mandela’s prison block

The next day, I toured Robben Island, which is a “must-do” for most tourists to Cape Town.  Honestly, I’ve been so spoiled by Darren’s personal tours that I found the whole experience as unpalatable as a poop sandwich.

First, it is expensive (by South African standards) at $22 US a ticket.  Second, I felt herded around like a cow.  Third, and most depressing, I learned very little.

Robben Island is a few miles off the coast of Cape Town.  Prisoners have been kept there as far back as the 1500’s and in later years it served as a leper colony and hospital for the mentally ill.

It is most famous for being the place that Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years as a political prisoner.

The tour includes an hour long ferry ride through shark-infested choppy waters. Arriving on the island, passengers are loaded onto four tour buses which offer a guide pointing out various buildings.  This portion of the tour lasted about 30 minutes.  Next, we were unloaded at the maximum security portion of the prison where Mandela was held.  Unfortunately, our group was so large that often it was extremely difficult or impossible to hear the guide.  A shame.

It was startling to see how modern the prison was.  This is no Alcatraz, with antique cells.  These are modern prison cells that held prisoners until as late as 1996.

The tablecloth on Table Mountain

The tablecloth on Table Mountain

Finally we boarded the ferry again for the ride back to Cape Town.  As we arrived, the “tablecloth” of fog which often blankets Table Mountain, was rolling in.  Quite beautiful.

If you have limited time in Cape Town and an interest in history I would definitely recommend spending just a little more money and opting for the more educational and personal tour with Darren and Shereen.  They are offering this tour exclusively.  It is available for two to six people.  You won’t find a storyteller with richer stories than Shereen and you’ll learn far more about apartheid than you will on Robben Island.

To book it, contact Darren at DC Tours South Africa.

Photos of the Route of Many Cultures Tour and Robben Island:

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