Reflections From A South African Vacation

By Hanna Soroka
published on January 13 2016

Table Mountain sits on the Cape Peninsula like a mythical guardian to the African continent. The city of Cape Town is oftentimes cited as one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Surrounding the base of one of the world’s most iconic mountain ranges, it is easy to see why Cape Town carries that honour. From the top of Table Mountain, you can see both the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. You can trace with your eye the mountain range that runs to the southernmost tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, which centuries ago tormented sailors in their dreams. Also visible from the top is the infamous Robben Island and its prison. A short walk through Cape Town will transport you from one culture to another within the distance of one city block. Buildings from an era long since passed continue to breathe life into the city as renovated restaurants, stores and hotels. Albeit some stand desolate as if accidentally teleported from some other place. Others stand exactly as they once stood, like the Groot Constantia winery which once supplied Napoleon Bonaparte’s preferred wine. Its vines continue to grow and still enchant two centuries later. British imperial architecture and carefully sculpted European gardens beautify the city. Few visitors realize that this beauty was created by slaves, and later indentured servants. Before the British Empire outlawed slavery in 1832, slaves from Malaysia, Indonesia, Mozambique and India were brought to the Cape Colony to sustain the lives of Dutch and later, the British merchants, farmers and sailors. The announcement of the end of slavery took a couple of years to reach the British Cape colony and was only proclaimed into law in 1834. However, instead of being totally outlawed, it simply changed its name. Indentured servants replaced former slaves and life carried on as before. Many of those indentured servants, after the completion of their service, remained in the Cape with their newly formed families. Gradually, that mix of migrants developed an identity so unique it is not found anywhere else in the world. The descendants of those slaves and indentured servants still live in Cape Town today. They have a rich heritage comprising of numerous cultures that are elsewhere separated by oceans and borders.

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One example of that special culture is the Bobotie, a local meatloaf that contains raisins, banana, egg, rice and whatever else is left over from the week. Despite the unlikely combination of ingredients, it is quite a delectable dish. Which makes sense, the Cape Malays have been working on that recipe for the last couple of centuries and it is now considered a traditional Cape Town specialty. The lives of the Dutch merchants, British colonists, French Huguenots, Malaysian slaves, indentured Indians and everyone else that found their way into Cape Town over the last three centuries have melted together to create a vivid culture that breathes life into all those who visit this incredible place. Not unlike the Bobotie. Cape Town may be pretty because it has a grand mountain range and two oceans. It may be pretty because its streets are lined with architecture we now only learn about in schools and cannot afford to rebuild. But it is one of the world’s most beautiful cities because it is a beacon of hope that shows people who were once enemies can live together. People who once committed terrible crimes against one another can forgive, and be forgiven. It is beautiful because despite the injustices suffered by many of its residents, they nevertheless persist on, and in doing so create a little paradise in southern Africa to which we tourists flock to from around the world. Yet we fail to see a similar story unfold at home. Our North American cities have the identity that they do because of all the migrants that have found their way West, as slaves, labourers, or as those fleeing religious persecution. New York was built by Irish and Italian labourers. The great railroads which allowed for the country to be populated were made by the Chinese. We eat Japanese sushi and Italian pizza. Our most popular music is dominated by African-American artists. In context of that multiculturalism, it will be most unfortunate if our doors start closing in reply to modern day crises. Is the world really finished with evolving and creating more? Do we really need more inspiration, more thinkers, more artists? Should we give back that which came to us from foreign lands? Hummus, shawarma, baklava? Libraries were invented in ancient Syria, so perhaps those institutions should go. The idea that a circle can be divided into 360 degrees, the basis of all geography; longitude and latitude, and countless other principles we now take for granted. Do we keep them or give them back?

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The world we live in was built with borrowed ideas from afar. The world we live in was built as a refuge from undesirable, colonial rule. Mankind faces the same struggles we faced three hundred years ago, five hundred years ago, and three thousand years ago. We still face wars, disease, famine, and migrants. We reflect on some of those struggles through movies like the Hunger Games and Divergent where heroes fight to bring back a physically parted society. We praise and celebrate heroes who fought against real separations such as Apartheid rule in South Africa. Yet, in a time of crisis some of us still shrink back to what is easy and comfortable, to what does not include the unknown. The unknown currently comprising of thousands of migrants fleeing across the world. What becomes of those who don't invited to the party? Once again we can look to South Africa to answer that question. Those who don't get invited get angry, they fight back. And the world reacts in disgust.

South Africa may have overcome a dark period in its history and emerged in what appears, on the surface, to be a functioning democracy. But a closer look will reveal gaping wounds, still throbbing. Tourists flock to the Western Cape, to the Garden Route and Kruger National Park to see the famous South African beauty. Let us look deeper to see if we can finally apply a lesson from history to solving today's tragedies.