This article was sent to me by some clients, who I sent on a Eastern Cape Tour.The Eastern Cape Tour guide mentioned in the article is the one I use, and have special packages with.
AT EASTERN CAPE’S East London Airport, village women dance for us. Jingling bells strapped around their ankles accentuate every step with sound. Beaded tribal costumes and decorative head wraps are a blur of color. The group’s leader—thirtysomething, heavyset—declares each song, defining its rhythms. The others are skinny, wizened, in their forties and fifties. You sense they’ve witnessed history.
They sing in Xhosa,(the main non English language spoken in the Eastern Cape) a tonal language—one of South Africa’s 11 official tongues—using clicks to emphasize important ideas: “Welcome to South Africa,” “Long live Mandela,” “We’re strong and free,” they sing and click. Their enthusiasm is contagious. We drop our belongings to free our hands to clap along. We join the dance, awkwardly imitating the ladies’ steps and shimmies.
The gals grin broadly. Yes, join our dance. You’re welcome in South Africa.
The greeting is indicative of the extraordinary pride and joy most South Africans feel as their country inaugurates year-long celebrations marking its first decade of democracy.
Ten years ago, lead by Nelson Mandela, who grew up in the Eastern Cape, and other heroes, they overthrew the apartheid regime, establishing equal rights throughout the land. When we last visited South Africa during apartheid, we were greeted with toi toi, the demonstrative freedom procession and chant that resounded around the globe. Now, village ladies sing songs of welcome.
East London is the gateway to the Eastern Cape. Not as touristy as Capetown and its environs, the relatively pristine province offers a unique glimpse at South Africa’s rainbow culture and history, plus spectacular game reserves and wonderful beaches. The Eastern Cape was the anti-apartheid movement’s stronghold, the birthplace of Mandela, Biko, Albertina and Walter Sisulu, Thabo Mbeki—just elected to a second term as South Africa’s president—and other leaders.( On our Eastern Cape Tours we visit many historical and cultural areas ) )
For tourists in awe of and inspired by their heroism, visiting their homes, schools, meeting places and graves has become a personal pilgrimage, as or more important than seeing the Big Five and other wildlife roaming freely in their natural habitat.
East London, nicknamed Buffalo City because it occupies the mouth of the Buffalo River, is a pleasant coastal town with colonial buildings, decent beaches, eateries serving Xhosa cuisine (spicy stews and “pap,” a maize porridge), a casino and good museum with exhibits about local history and culture.
We stop at Steve Biko’s statue, (we visit his house on Eastern Cape Tours) memorializing the black consciousness movement’s martyred leader, and drive past the offices of the Daily Dispatch, the white-owned daily in which editor Donald Woods championed Biko and the anti-apartheid struggle. That South Africa has transformed itself during its first decade of democracy is evident—and not only in the songs sung at the airport.
We notice that many shantytowns—sprawling collections of corrugated metal shacks—have been replaced by neat-looking government-built cinderblock houses. Real houses, permanent homes, painted pastel colors and surrounded by small but well-groomed gardens.
“You’re given a house if you earn less than 1500 Rand monthly,” says our guide, Zukele Khambi, nicknamed Zuks.( he is my guide for my eastern cape tours) “Houses have electricity, but some lack running water, so owners must carry water from a well. There’s a waiting list for houses. They’re constructing more, replacing squatter settlements one by one. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than it was. We are hopeful.”
We leave East London to follow Eastern Cape’s “Freedom Trail,” a scenic, meandering route that takes us to places of significance in the anti-apartheid movement and ends in Port Elizabeth, a charming seaside resort recently renamed Nelson Mandela Metro.
We cross the Great Kei River, en route to Transkei. Under apartheid, both areas were black “homelands”—impoverished, isolated “free states” completely surrounded by white-ruled South Africa. Millions of black South Africans were treated as non-citizens by much of the world, with the exception of Israel and several other countries. The homeland scheme and its lifestyle implications are impossible to fathom unless you’ve been here, difficult to comprehend even if you have.
As we drive across the bridge, between Ciskei and Transkei, Zuks, an apartheid survivor, tells us how it was: “Crossing this bridge took an entire day. We stood in line for hours to reach the checkpoint for passbook inspection. Burning hot or pouring rain, we waited unsheltered. At the checkpoint, guards took another hour examining our papers and questioning us. If we were lucky, they’d let us pass. Then, leaving the bridge on the other side, we faced the identical procedure. Once, when I wanted to buy meat for my family from a Transkei vendor, I had to get permission from Ciskei authorities, miles in another direction from Transkei. I waited four hours before I got the permit. When I got to this bridge, I waited for the inspection. When I reached the checkpoint, the guard said my permit wasn’t properly stamped. So, I had to begin again. Just to buy meat for my family.”
Now, the 150-mile drive from East London to Umtata (Transkei’s largest city) takes three hours—including 10 minutes for the bridge. There are no lines, no checkpoints. Guardhouses are tourism kiosks and convenience stores.
“Do you want to stop for cold drinks?” Zuks asks cheerfully.
Soon, he’s pointing out the subtle geographic differences between the two former homelands.
“Transkei is higher, drier. Many houses have oval shapes and thatched roofs that you won’t see in Ciskei. It’s more traditional. I hope you see the differences clearly,” he says.
Yes and, clearly, it’s now all one country: South Africa, the continent’s newest democracy.
The big, open, magnificent landscape has rolling hills, graceful valleys, breathtaking gorges and is dotted with clustered family compounds surrounded by low mud brick walls. This soil isn’t particularly fertile, but supports patchy crops and many grazing cattle.
As we approach Umtata, Zuks advises that this is Mandela’s home turf, where locals affectionately address their beloved leader as Madiba, his family honorific.
Umtata is headquarters for the impressive three-part Nelson Mandela Museum: On Owen St., the historic Bhunga Building (formerly the home of Transkei’s legislature) presents photos, documents and sound recordings chronicling Madiba’s childhood, imprisonment and triumph, based on his book, Long Walk to Freedom. Another section displays gifts and tributes, ranging from jewel-encrusted trophies to school kids’ simple drawings.
Madiba’s birthplace and first school are at rural Mvezo. Zuks points to ruined foundations, resting peacefully amid pastures where cattle now graze. Behind a fence of thorny branches bound together in the traditional way, foundations are being laid for a new school, where future generations will be taught the ways of democracy, social responsibility and hope.
Viewable from the road at Qunu, Mandela’s present home is a well-guarded, walled-in red brick mansion surrounded by bucolic fields. A tunnel beneath the road gives town children safe access to Madiba. A fenced-in family gravesite is nearby.
Mandela insisted his museum be a learning tool and inspiration for the community, not a personal tribute. But Mandela Museum sites are treated as shrines, and his image looms everywhere—on newspaper front pages, posters, banners, t-shirts, tea cups and countless other collectibles.
Contrary to his wishes, Mandela is a cult figure. Aged 85 and officially retired, he’s a huge force in South African politics—the glue binding together disparate tribes and parties.
Which raises an uncomfortable question: What happens when Mandela dies?
An answer comes the next day at historic King Williams Town (founded in 1826, site of infamous 19th-century Xhosa-Boer wars, filled with colonial buildings and monuments), where we meet Dr. Xolela Mangcu, head of the Steve Biko Foundation.
“We’re concerned, of course. We’re carefully educating a new cadre of bright, well-informed, socially conscious leaders to carry on,” says Mangcu. “We’re filled with hope.”
The Biko Foundation is based in Steve’s mother’s modest home on a quiet street. The place hasn’t changed since Biko held clandestine meetings there while he was under home arrest.
The Biko Foundation is fundraising to make the house a museum. It also educates local youth and oversees the serenely beautiful ‘Garden of Remembrance,’ Biko’s gravesite. An hour away, at University of Fort Hare (Mandela and most other African leaders studied at this former British fort claimed by missionaries in 1916 for educational use), we visit the African National Congress (ANC) Archives, maintained by Sadie Forman and Robin Trehaeven, whites with high hopes for South Africa’s democratic future.
The University of Fort Hare’s Contemporary African Art Gallery, exhibiting politically themed paintings and sculpture, is sponsored—ironically—by DeBeers, the white-owned “diamonds are forever” company that exploited black miners during apartheid.( we visit this University on our eastern Cape tours)
No South African sojourn is complete without the mandatory pleasures of safari, and Eastern Cape’s game reserves have everything you’d find in Kruger, except malaria. We nest at Eagles Cragg, in luxurious villas at eco-friendly Shamwari Game Reserve, where thousands of wild animals roam over 18,000 hectares of former farmland now restored to natural habitat. On game drives, our Jeep bounces over rocky outcroppings, across riverbeds, through jungle thickets. Lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, black and white rhinos, buffalo, giraffes, hippos and tortoises are everywhere.
After seeing wildebeest, kudus, impalas and other antelopes run free, it’s tough to sample their meats at Shamwari’s superb barbecues.
Nearby, Addo Elephant Park opened in 1931 with 11 elephants. Now the 125,000-hectare national reserve has 350 elephants, rhinos, leopards, buffalo, spectacular birds—plus whales and sharks in its marine area. Best, game drives are offered to day guests, as well as overnighters.
Our last stop in Eastern Cape is Nelson Mandela Metro (Port Elizabeth), with spectacular beaches and a Central Square that presents perfectly preserved colonial, deco and modern architecture chronicling the city’s history. Zuks points to one of these buildings—that’s where Biko was tortured.
At Mandela Metro’s Kwazakhele Township, we meet Ubuntu Education Fund students, an amazingly articulate and determined group of teenagers who describe goals—to be doctors, social workers, scientists and a pilot—with South Africa’s future in mind, as well as their own.
“Our country faces job shortages, poverty, AIDS, crime and domestic violence. We’re choosing careers that will help solve these problems. We believe we can do it. We’re hopeful about our future,” says Kevin. He’s 11 years old
“Ubuntu” means “universal bond of sharing that unites all humanity.” The nonprofit development program, cofounded by a South African and an American, establishes computer centers, libraries and health education programs in public schools. Ubuntu—we’ll remember that word.
We’ll also remember the extraordinary goodwill shown us by all whom we met on our pilgrimage through Eastern Cape on our Eastern Cape Tour, during this 10th anniversary of South Africa’s democracy. The South Africans’ dignity, candor, willingness to discuss difficult subjects, integrity and intelligence are profoundly moving.