Guest Post: A Visit to the Cape

The following text is a guest post from my mother, Beverly Kilpatrick, following our recent visit to Cape Town and surrounds. Please welcome her to

The Cape of Good Hope and the tales of treacherous seas, of sailors lost, and of new worlds discovered upon successful navigation were a subject of 6th grade Social Studies that always fascinated me. NEVER, did I imagine that one day I would visit the Cape, nor was I in the least bit prepared for the experience.

Upon our arrival on Thursday, friends of Ryan and Jenny graciously invited us for the most incredible lunch at their home overlooking False Bay in Simon’s Town. Yvonne and Danie were warm and wonderful hosts whose generosity and welcome got us off to a great start.

The view from Danie & Yvonne's home in Simon's Town

Our home away from home was in Noordhoek at a lovely guesthouse, with a young German couple, Thomas and Antje (and their dog and cat), as our hosts. A five-minute walk to the beach and we were enjoying beautiful sunsets, frolicking dogs, and the intoxicating sound of the sea. Aaah, the beauty of it all.

Interior of our guesthouse in Noordhoek

Sunset at Noordhoek Beach

But, it was on Friday that our venture took us to Robben Island, where the inescapable beauty of the land and sea was overcome by the ugliness of the inhumane treatment of those formerly incarcerated or detained there. I, of course, knew of the story of Nelson Mandela, but could not and cannot comprehend the dehumanization that took place there. To say that it was emotionally overwhelming is an understatement.

Nelson Mandela's cell at Robben Island

Hallway at Robben Island

Across the bay from Robben Island lies Table Mountain. After much thought and an internal pep talk, I was able to join my fellow crusaders as they traversed the mountain via rotating (help!) cable car. Low clouds and a bit of fog did affect the visibility, but still the views of the city and cape below were incredible.

Cape Town city bowl from Table Mountain Cableway

Saturday’s visit to Cape Point was like nothing I ever imagined. I fully expected we would have our picture taken at the sign proclaiming the Cape of Good Hope and the South-western most point on the African continent. I was however, unprepared for the sheer beauty. Magnificent beaches with mountainous cliffs overhanging, wandering ostriches and eland, along with signs warning us not to feed the baboons, were surely indications that we were a long, long, way from Illinois. I thought of the ships that had passed by (or not) and of my own good fortune to have had this opportunity. All in all, another moving experience.

Bev & Mike at Cape of Good Hope

Ostrich at Cape of Good Hope

Lunch at Two Oceans Restaurant (a possible misnomer, as it seems the Atlantic and Indian Oceans do NOT converge at Cape Point) was a fitting end to our visit to the Cape.

Lunch at Two Oceans

On Sunday, we travelled to Stellenbosch, home to some wonderful South African wine. Mike and I, along with Ryan, enjoyed tastings at Delheim and Muratie vineyards. Lunch at Delheim included springbok carpaccio for Mike, who proclaimed it a wonderful dish.

Springbok carpaccio & bratwurst at Delheim

Bottles behind the (intentional) cobwebs at Muratie

Lastly, though surely not least, on Monday prior to our return flight to Pretoria, we experienced a gastronomical delight at La Colombe in Constantia. Our three-hour lunch was of the finest quality, beautifully presented and served. It was a dining experience I will never forget.

Waiter pours a "mushroom cafe au lait" jus on Mom's ribeye

Mike watches as his ribeye is prepared at the table at La Colombe

Our visit to the Cape Town area and all that accompanied it left a lasting impression. The beauty of the landscape, the graciousness of those who hosted us and those we met along the way, the part of the South African story told so painfully here, newly acquired food and wine tastes, along with time spent with family, made this portion of our South African journey “the trip of a lifetime.”

See more photos from our visit to Cape Town.

The Country is Young

Living in South Africa, it is impossible to ignore the many and great growing pains the country is going through following the transition to democracy in 1994. Following the elections of that year, Nelson Mandela took control of a country in which the minority, white population had the majority of wealth and power, and managed to guide the new “Rainbow Nation” towards its glorious (re)entry onto the world stage. Once the “Mandela glue” weakened and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) realized that fighting the government was much different than actually being the government, new challenges and difficulties emerged.

While we are admittedly not the most qualified to interpret, least of all judge, the growth of the democracy, we can, perhaps, offer our thoughts. We are trying to gain perspective on all of this by reading books and speaking with a wide range of South Africans, including veterans of the struggle. One of the observations made by Alec Russell (among others) in his book, Bring Me My Machine Gun, is that the new, post-apartheid political system has not yet been able to separate politics from policy, party from government.

A couple of related items dominating the news here are the case of the country’s Public Protector (a national watchdog, similar to an inspector general) and her investigation into police corruption, and of a South African newspaper’s investigation into potentially questionable business deals done by the leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema.

In the first case, the Public Protector has actually required protection herself and had gone into hiding because members of the police, the ANC and others were so upset that she would expose the corruption. She should have turned a blind eye, even though the separation of powers inherent in a democracy gives her freedom and authority — and, most would argue, the imperative — to be a government watchdog, to expose corruption and deliver justice.

In the second case, Malema and his supporters are outraged at such “attacks” by the media, when it seems a perfectly legitimate question to ask the self-described “champion of the poor” how he affords his cars, clothes and property. At a recent press conference called by the ANC Youth League, Malema was strangely absent. When reporters asked his representatives where he was, the men on stage responded by asking why the media kept attacking Malema. Simple question. Not so simple answer.

This Sunday, I read a powerful column by veteran anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele in the City Press newspaper, the same paper taking the lead on the Malema issue. She condemns what she calls a “culture of impunity”  and does so through the context of what it means to live in a democracy:

We stand at a very dangerous place as a young democracy. Public discourse over the past few months has raised serious questions about our shared view of right and wrong as citizens of a constitutional democracy.

There is a growing tendency to use loaded metaphors to label those we disagree with – counter-revolutionaries, tea girls, coconuts, black snakes and so on. 

Why is it becoming so difficult to debate the merits of our arguments in a country that protects free speech?

I would like to suggest the root cause of our intolerance for dissenting voices is our lack of understanding and, in some cases, unwillingness to accept the basic tenets of our constitutional democracy. 

After citing examples from provinces around the country, she delivers a call to action to all South Africans, but especially black South Africans:

A culture of impunity is creeping into our society with frightening speed. Solidarity with fellow black people cannot be an excuse for condoning corrupt practices.

Black people are the majority in South Africa and should take ownership of this democracy, including responsibility for social justice for those poorer than us.

She concludes with the following:

The blurring of the boundaries between persons in public life and the organisations they represent, as well as that between personal interests and shared common resources, is a danger to the health of our democracy.

Citizens need to be vigilant and not fear speaking out. 

After all, fear is what kept South Africa under the yoke of apartheid for so long. Our future expects better from us.

Thinking about all of this, I am reminded of a great song by Welsh-born-but-long-time-Chicago musician, Jon Langford, called “The Country is Young.” The track is, I think, very clearly about the United States and its age and experience in the world, relatively speaking. But when we are talking about a South African democracy that’s just barely old enough to drive, the lyrics seem all that much more applicable here.

The country is young
Just crawled to its feet
Takes a step and collapses
All in a heap

Resist the temptation
To slap the child down
Try to remember its age
Realize the potential
Deflect all the rage

Not too big on the sharin’
The gentle or the carin’

The country is young
The country is young

Here’s hoping South Africa can realize its great potential with a minimum of rage.

Mandela Day Cleanup in Mamelodi

Nelson Mandela.

Image via Wikipedia

As noted in a previous post, Nelson Mandela International Day was July 18, and people all over the world – especially South Africa – were encouraged to spend at least 67 minutes in service to community. In this spirit, the University of Pretoria organized a group cleanup event on Saturday in the township of Mamelodi. We were excited to be a part of it.

The morning started early. We woke at 5:15 to eat, walk Indie and get to campus by 6:45, when the buses were scheduled to depart for Mamelodi. Like university/student events everywhere, things were running a bit behind. By 7:15, though, we were on our way.

We were definitely the only Americans in the group, which numbered about 100, but the group was otherwise fairly diverse. Disappointingly, though, I was one of only three white men.

The ride itself was slightly longer than expected. I’ve been studying maps of Pretoria in anticipation of driving around the city (no car yet…thanks Bank of America!), and I thought Mamelodi was a bit closer to town. The distance further underscored the disparity of the apartheid system that forced most blacks to live so far away from employment, decent education and equality with their fellow South Africans. Mamelodi remains part of that dark legacy.

When we did arrive, we saw the familiar sights of township life: impossibly tiny, one-room houses of corrugated tin; minibus taxis idling bonnet-to-boot, waiting to ferry local residents to jobs in the suburbs or CBD; cinder block shops and shebeens with hand-painted signs declaring their names and touting their wares.

Our bus pulled into the University of Pretoria Mamelodi Campus and we soon found our way to the Arena building, where there was to be an address by UP’s vice chancellor. We were joined there by members of the Mamelodi community, the woman who represents Mamelodi in the Tshwane city council and several dozen school children (“learners”) from the township. Following the address, which outlined Mandela Day and our role in it (recycling!), we were split into groups to receive our cleanup assignments.

Jenny and I – and our new friend, Isolde, a lecturer in the UP law school – found our way into Group E. Also in our group was a quintet (or more) of young, enthusiastic UP students wearing Tuks Football jackets. They proclaimed their arrival by dancing and chanting, “We…are here! We, we are here!” It was to become a familiar cadence.

Group E was tasked with picking up glass. OK, we thought, easy enough. We each took a large plastic bag and a pair of Smurf-blue rubber gloves and followed the herd into the community to begin our 67 minutes.

But, oh, what did we find?

Picking up recyclables in a vacant lot in Mamelodi with others from UP during the Mandela Day cleanup

Yes, there was plenty of glass in the vacant lot across the street and adjacent to the entrance of the tin-roofed township. But there was so much more: plastic bags filled with rotten food; unspooled coils of rusty wire; single, lonely, mangled shoes; used, disposable diapers; dead rats; what appeared to be the skull and assorted bones of a dead dog; both mandibles of what was likely a dead donkey; the hide and fleece of a dead sheep; and all manner of things not meant to be so close to a community, to a school, to a child.

Don’t misunderstand: this vacant lot was not a sanctioned dump, per se. It was simply a place that collected the remnants of people’s lives, lives that are more difficult than can easily be imagined.

The smell of the place was…not as awful as you might think. It was an assault on the olfactory, to be sure, but it wasn’t the full-on landfill smell you might expect. Again, the place wasn’t a landfill. I suppose the best way to describe the smell is as a combination of many smells. There was the putrid smell of rotting food. There was the dank smell of decomposition. There was the charred smell of recently burned grass. And there was the dusty smell of the dry, red soil that was, by now, tinting our shoes and covering our faces.

The fully intact, green and brown beer bottles were easy to handle and bag. We quickly learned, though, that most of the glass to be recovered and recycled lay in the form of shards – broken bottles, shattered plates, etc. Our 67 minutes was spent avoiding lacerations and other hazards inherent in walking on, picking up and carrying broken glass.

(If our mothers haven’t completely freaked out by this point, this little nugget will put them over the edge: While overturning a pile of brush to uncover more bottles, I found a used hypodermic needle. It was capped and no needle was protruding, but it gave me a bit of a start.)

Jenny and I each filled two bags with glass, or at least as full as possible given that the shards easily made holes in the plastic and compromised its strength. Then, before we knew it, our 67 minutes was up and we were walking back to the Arena. The Tuks Football quintet continued with chants of, “We…are done! We, we are done!” and “We…are walking! We, we are walking!” 

Following a brief performance by the UP Chorale, the group we saw at the sociology conference, we boarded the buses and headed for home.

I didn’t know how to feel.

On the one hand, we did right by the spirit of Mandela Day: we volunteered in service of our (new) community, we cleaned up a blighted area in an impoverished neighborhood and we raised awareness about recycling. On the other hand, we showed up in this community for an hour, made what is probably just a small dent in the overall appearance of the area and demonstrated that “recycling” requires an army of people with special gloves and individual assignments.

So, did we make a difference?

I was conflicted until we saw the news. SABC TV News ran stories in multiple languages about the UP cleanup day in Mamelodi. One of the managers of the guesthouse even said she saw Jenny on TV, though we must have missed that bit. She seemed happy that we were part of the effort.

Later, our housekeeper (and Indie’s buddy) Maria told me that she thought what we did in Mamelodi was “a great thing.” She saw the news report, too, and felt like we showed the community that people care enough about them to come and help. We also showed, she thought, that it is possible to keep the community clean, and to recycle. It was really nice to hear.

At the end of the day, both literally and proverbially, it seems to have been 67 minutes well spent.