Robben Island and The District Six Museum

Ever week or so, Arcadia provides our group with cultural excursions. A few weeks ago we spent the day traveling to places in Cape Town that held historic and political significance. We began our day at the District Six Museum.

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District Six was an area of Cape Town formerly inhabited by Black and mixed race South Africans. However, under Apartheid they were forcibly removed from their homes because the government made it a “Whites Only” area. This forced dislocation is a problem that plagues South Africa to this day. Majority of the residents were placed into townships and despite promises by the government, they were never able to return to the land that is rightfully theirs.

Many of the former residents donated their belongings to recreate rooms for the museum. These rooms were full of family pictures and there were even pages from one of the resident’s cookbook painted near the café. There were also many structures with background information about apartheid and the displacement that occurred at District Six.

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Residents of District Six were forced out of their homes with only a single suitcase to carry their belongings
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Recipes for traditional South African food

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Our tour guide was a former resident of the area and offered a first-hand account of what life was like there. Apartheid had such a disastrous effect on South African society, and its remnants are still present today. Our tour guide, despite the hardships he endured, remained happy and wished us all the best. In my opinion, visiting District Six really set the tone for our visit to Robben Island by giving a more in depth perspective of the effect Apartheid had on South Africans.

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After leaving the museum and grabbing brunch, we rode the ferry to Robben Island. The infamous prison was about forty-five minutes away from shore. Robben Island is best known for being one of the main prisons where political prisoners were sentenced during Apartheid. It is also where former South African president Nelson Mandela served 18 years. We were taken to see his cell, as well as areas where he, alongside other prisoners, would do labor work.

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Nelson Mandela’s prison cell

Our guide was a former inmate, who was imprisoned for leading a school boycott at his high school in Port Elizabeth. I couldn’t help but wonder how he was able to cope with visiting the place where he faced inhumane circumstances every day. When I asked him this, he told me that it hard for the first few years, but recently he made peace with it. To this day I wonder how he felt about showing people the site of his abuse, just for people to only be interested in Nelson Mandela’s part of the tour. People were barely listening to him speak just so they could rush to take a picture of Mandela’s cell. It reminded me that Robben Island had hundreds of prisoners and each of their experiences were important. They each dealt with the injustice that is the prison system, facing abuse and poor conditions. All of their experiences are also important and we should be thankful for those lesser known political prisoners, who also sacrificed their freedom, as well.

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