By arriving at Johannesburg Airport (O.R. Tambo) at night I was treated to a show of glittering, shimmering lights beneath our aircraft. The city below appeared to be natural platinum, diamonds and gold. After all, this city is known as the “city of gold.” The sight was simply breathtaking.
Upon my arrival at the 5-star Michelangelo Hotel, the doorman, a tall African brother in top hat and tails, greeted me with a smile and the profound statement of, “Welcome home, my sister”. The Michelangelo is the crème de la crème. Saying it’s a super deluxe property may be an understatement. The hotel has direct access to the Sandton City Mall adjacent to Nelson Mandela Square. Sandton City Mall has everything any shopper could want – even several excellent restaurants in the square. One of my favorites is Lekgotla Restaurant, which means “meeting place.” The staff, in traditional attire, always greets patrons with a warm reception which includes some awesome “drumming” . . . and dinner is always fit for an African King & Queen and served in true African style. Another restaurant favorite is the 7 level Moyo’s, located in the trendy Melrose Arch area.
On my first trip to Africa, I couldn’t wait to get to Soweto and Robben Island since my passion for South Africa began when I started following in Mr. Mandela’s footsteps way back when I was a senior in high school in Los Angeles. I cut school one day to go to a “Free Nelson Mandela” rally in Watts at Will Rogers Park. Mr. Mandela had only been incarcerated as a political prisoner for 3 years at the time.
The images of the Watts riots were still fresh in my mind as I began to take an interest in the struggle. There was no time for senior activities since I had to get busy with my term paper which was on the Apartheid System in South Africa. So, it took me 40 years to come full circle!
The entire Robben Island experience is emotionally charged and it’s difficult to comprehend the harsh life and conditions that Mr. Mandela and the other men endured all those years. About 1 hour drive from Cape Town in a town called Paarl is Drakenstein Correctional Center, formerly Victor Verster Maximum Security Prison. This is where Nelson Mandela was brought after leaving Robben Island. He had just been recovering from TB at Tygerberg Hospital. He spent 18 months here at Verster under “House Arrest.”
Surprisingly our wonderful guide, Desmond, surprised us by arranging my tour group to go inside the Madiba House, where Mandela lived for 18 months. This is unheard of because it is not open to the public and not many people can say they’ve ever been inside. This unexpected surprise was arranged through one of Desmond’s long-time friends, a guard for 28 yrs at the prison. He was there when Mandela was there. The house was the former residence of one of the warders. They needed a safe, secure place for Mr Mandela and this was it. The small building next door was where “intelligence” stayed. Every room at Mandela’s place was “bugged” except for the kitchen pantry. His only companion by day was his personal chef and at night he was alone. Winnie and his daughters were only allowed to come and stay the last six months.
Even though there was a private pool at the house; Mandela would only put his feet in the water. There are about four bedrooms with the master being about 20ft by 20ft, huge walk in closets, several sitting rooms with portraits of Mandela on some of the walls. Of course the group was ecstatic and all over the place taking photos, mainly with Mandela in the backdrop.
This prison is now actually a prison farm and they raise livestock and grow vegetables to supply about 5 other prisons. There are about 2000-3000 prisoners here now. The country has no death penalty but hands out (5) 25 yr sentences (aka life sentences) . They feel prisoners can be rehabilitated and therefore are allowed to go before the board to see if they will be released after each 25 yrs.
Upon Mandela’s release, Mercedes Benz and BMWs were lined up to drive him away but Mr Mandela said, “No! I will take the long walk to freedom”. He and Winnie walked it together from Madiba House straight through the prison gates holding hands and giving the black power salute with the other hand.
The statue of Mr. Nelson Mandela is now standing at the entrance of Drakenstein Prison.
Soweto (SOuth WEstern TOwnship) –
In past years the media has focused on the negative aspects, but in reality there are several positives. For one, the people are very friendly. Yes, the shanties look deplorable, but on the inside they are clean – as cleanliness is a matter of family pride. Some families have been living in the same areas for over 30 years but slowly, residents are being relocated to more suitable housing and currently there is new construction underway for a multitude of 4-unit apartment dwellings.
The most moving was the visit to Hector Pietersen Memorial and the museum. I really had to hold back the tears because Hector was only 13 yrs old in June 1976 when he was gunned down by the police during a peaceful demonstration.
As my friends and I made our way through the township we passed the Regina Mundi Catholic Church (Queen of the World). The church was built in 1964 and became a meeting place, a safe haven for those fighting against apartheid. When the police realized the students stood ready with buckets of water to diffuse the canisters of tear gas, they started using live ammunition. Fortunately, no one was killed but the bullet holes in the ceiling are still evident to this day.
As the journey continued, we had lunch at the delightful Nambitha’s which is located on the famous Villagazi Street. This happens to be the same street where two Nobel Peace Prize winners once lived: Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Former President, Nelson Mandela. Their houses are a mere 100 yards apart.
One experience that cannot be missed is the Lesedi Cultural Village. It’s a 40-minute drive from Johannesburg (Joburg). Normally groups arrive for a morning or evening show and do not stay overnight. But to stay overnight in a “hut” is truly a one-of-a-kind experience – one I did not want to miss. Before leaving Joburg a few friends and I were scheduled for a private diamond factory tour. If you saw the HBO Documentary, “Blacks Without Borders” you may remember Ms Brenda Joyce, a gemologist from NY who was invited by Nelson Mandela to come to South Africa 13 years ago.
She personally invited us to the only black owned “mine to finger” diamond factory. Under tight security we learned the true and fascinating story of diamonds. Imagine all these beautiful black workers in their lab jackets cutting and polishing diamonds.
I was humbled by being allowed to try on and take pictures in the showroom of some of the most beautiful pieces, including a 10.4 carat diamond necklace valued at $600,000.00. Yes, US Dollars not Rand.
A couple of my South African friends agreed to meet after dinner at one of the hot spots in Rosebank, called “Katzy’s”. When that closed the younger folks headed off to the after hours spot, “Moloko”, owned by one of their friends. There was also a 24 hr joint after the after hours, called the “Cat’s Pyjamas” where you can get your after hours eat and drink on.
The largest black Township in Cape Town is Langa. This is home to the Dalukhanyo Pre-School. Last year I was so touched by these little angels. Enough money was raised to provide 140 uniforms for the students. I’ve waited 10 months to see them in uniform. I (along with others) was visibly overcome with emotion as we watched the little ones sing and dance for us. They looked so proud in their royal blue & gold track suits.
Cape Town, is one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in the world. The Radisson Blu Waterfront Hotel has a spectacular location and ambience. It looks like it was transplanted from the French Riviera to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Their restaurant, Tobago’s, the bar and all Business Class rooms with balconies offer sweeping views of the ocean.
Table Mountain – The cable car only takes 3 minutes and once on top it’s like being on top of the world – 1,086 meters, towering over Cape Town. Words cannot describe the beauty of it all.
We then continued our journey to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope – the southern most point of the African continent. On the way back to Cape Town there is an artisan stand that sells Shona art and sculpture which is from Zimbabwe and very expensive if purchased in the states or online.
That night dinner was at Mama Africa, located on the lively and ever vibrant “Long Street” which stretches 20 blocks and has a Bourbon Street feel. I call it the hippest street in town with every conceivable ethnic shop, not to mention a variety of nightspots and restaurants.
A private wine tasting and lunch at M’Hudi Winery was arranged for me and my group. Though 14 years beyond apartheid, there is only one black family owned wine estate in South Africa’s Stellenbosch– M’hudi. There are a few black owned wineries (12 – 15) that buy fruit from other estates, and a few black winemakers, but less than 2% of the South African wine industry.
Upon our arrival we were greeted by Malmsey Rangaka, a beautiful, soft spoken grandmother who happens to run the company. There was also a marimba band playing for us in the courtyard as we snapped pictures of the vineyard, sipped our sparkling wine and basked in the beauty of the day.
October is my favorite time to travel there because it is their spring time – with beautiful weather. If you’ve never made the journey, I urge you to get there if you can.
Kat’s Blog: http://katstthomas.wordpress.com