The Mother City

Cape Town, Western Cape.  South Africa.

June 2012.

After my brother and I spent some time exploring Reed Holler, we spent a week in Cape Town.  I was charmed by its surreal setting, nestled between Table Mountain and the ocean, and by its unique synthesis of European, KhoiKhoi, Bantu, and Malay cultures.

The area was first settled by the KhoiKhoi peoples, who made a living by hunting and foraging in the fertile fynbos.  In the seventeenth century, Dutch traders passing between Europe and the East Indies set up a resupply station at the southern tip of Africa.  Over time, these Dutch traders, the forebears to South Africa’s contemporary Afrikaans people, settled permanently there to found the city known today at Kaapstad (Afrikaans for Cape Town).  With them came Malay peoples, imported as slaves.  The Dutch and Malay were joined later by French Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution in their home country, and in the 19th century by British colonialists eager to see the Union Jack fly over Africa from “Cape to Cairo.”

Cape Town’s Coloured population, descended from Cape Town’s Malay, European, and black African inhabitants, comprise a uniquely South African culture.  Their primary language, Afrikaans, arose from the synthesis of the Dutch, Malay, and KhoiKhoi languages, with a unique vocabulary that reflects unique aspects of South Africa’s culture and geography.  Many continue to practice Islam, first introduced to the Cape by the Malay slaves brought by the European settlers.

During the 20th century, Cape Town took on a central role in apartheid and the struggle against it.  The apartheid government incarcerated its political prisoners on Robben Island, a low, barren island lying seven kilometers off the Cape Coast.  The register of political prisoners held at Robben Island reads like a Who’s Who list of freedom fighters: among others, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Mac Maharaj did time at Robben Island for their struggles against the apartheid regime.  Even Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s current president, spent some time as a political prisoner on Robben Island.

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