By Rupal Ramesh Shah
With the beautiful sun, the blue ocean, and the hills that envelop Cape Town, I knew right away I was on the continent of Africa. Although I had traveled to other cities in South Africa, this was my first visit to Cape Town.
One thing that struck me about Cape Town is that it attracts Africans from all over the continent for work, for travel, and for reasons such as mine – to run a marathon. It was quite fascinating as we ate food made by people from Mozambique, Egypt, and Kenya. During the marathon, I met runners from Lesotho and Nigeria. In conversations with Africans who live there, I quickly realized that South Africa has become the “United Countries of Africa.” It is a melting pot where Africans from as far west as Senegal and as far north as Morocco migrate for better opportunities, whether it’s for work or school. I also observed that Africans come to Cape Town, in particular, for their vacations. In addition to the beaches and delicious cuisine, the country’s infrastructure systems are well developed, which make it accessible for tourists.
One of my most moving experiences was during our trip to Robben Island, which was used for the incarceration of political prisoners from the 1600s to the late 1990s. The ride to the island is less than an hour by ferry from Cape Town. On the island, and inside the now-converted museum, former prisoners provide tours of the facility. Our guide explained the history, his own experiences in prison, and also some of the experiences of Nelson Mandela, who spent 18 years there. From his explanations of what happened back then, there was no sense of resentment or sadness. He spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, he was confident and modest, and he expressed gratitude to the people who had helped secure the release of the prisoners.
Our guide said many things that touched me, but what stood out is that many of the prisoners who were caught had an option to be released in exchange for disavowing their beliefs, after they served some time on the island. However, since that would mean compromising what they believed in, many of them, including Nelson Mandela, didn’t choose that option. Hearing the guide speak about his experiences revealed a lot about the people and the mindset of the time. They believed strongly in the need for freedom and choice, to the extent that they were willing to sacrifice personal comfort for their principles. That’s quite powerful and certainly something I can admire and learn from.
As I continued on with my travels, I interacted with many local people. In one conversation with a tour guide, I asked why many places still have English names. The response was that change takes time. However, in the past few years, all over South Africa there has been a movement to change names so they honor the local language and the local people. For example, places like Port Elizabeth are now officially known as Gqeberha, which is a Xhosa word. This hasn’t fully happened everywhere – as the guide said, change takes time.
I couldn’t travel to South Africa without thinking of apartheid, which was legally abolished in 1990. In conversations with my local friends, I learned that even though laws changed in 1990, just like in every society, even after laws are changed, behaviors are difficult to transform. South African activists have done a lot of work in this space, and have brought awareness to the systemic issues around race that still need to be addressed. The conversations reminded me that the work to bring equality and justice to all is not finished.
I loved traveling around Cape Town and I am fascinated by the blend of African cultures that exist in South Africa. Truthfully, I could see myself living there one day. Not only did the culture draw me, I appreciated the ability to travel and easily navigate in a new city and country, as a tourist. It won’t be long before I am back! For now, I cherish the memories and lessons learned during that trip.
Rupal Ramesh Shah is a third-generation Tanzanian who grew up in an ethnically Indian family in the town of Moshi, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. Her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was a teenager