Author Archives: Michelle in South Africa

About Michelle in South Africa

Michelle, 26 A girl who calls Los Angeles, CA home. Lover of laughter, food, and cultural diversity! Enjoys meeting new people, learning new things, and singing while working out. Nickname: International Mami, because I live and breath for international travel! An enthusiastic 3rd year transfer and first generation student at UC San Diego. Studying International Relations with a focus in International Business. Plans after graduation include finding a job in Los Angeles so I can stay near my family, because family is near and dear to my heart. (Shout out to the family and friends who are basically family reading my blog posts!) Overall, a lover of life. Let's explore!

Journey to Robben Island

On a sunny Monday in Cape Town, my study abroad peers and I sought to venture out and explore Robben Island. This island was infamously utilized during Apartheid to house thousands of political prisoners. Of those imprisoned one in particular stood out among the rest, Nelson Mandela, future President of South Africa. This was information I had known prior to the excursion, and yet I was so excited to learn much more about the island!

And we’re off! In order to get to Robben Island, you have to take a quick ferry ride. It was pretty short, maybe 30 minutes? Here’s a picture of my friend Pam and I on the ferry to Robben Island.

Michelle ferry

We arrive and are assigned to a tour guide who goes by the name of Sparks. He’s quite the boisterous and exuberant fellow; tall and well spoken, this makes me feel lucky as he is loud enough for us all to hear. Sparks begins to tell us all of the guides who gives tours on Robben Island were in fact once imprisoned on Robben Island. He himself spent 7 years imprisoned, charged in 1983 with terrorism and released in 1990. He was 17 years old when he entered, and 24 years of age when he got out. He had joined the ANC (African National Congress) and had been arrested for recruiting people into the ANC and for possession of arms. Additionally, all the employees who work on Robben Island and their family live on the island, including himself and the other guides who were once imprisoned there.

Immediately I was taken aback. I had no idea all the guides on the island used to be imprisoned there. I was dazed as so many thoughts raced through my mind.

  • First of all, whoa.
  • Second, he lives on the island where he spent 7 years of his life jailed?
  • How can he possibly live on the island where he endured such cruelty?
  • I’m sure he thought the same.
  • I wonder how he feels now?
  • Perhaps this was essential in him finding closure for the matter.
  • Is that messed up to think? I mean is that completely ignorant? Can someone find peace and furthermore closure after something like that?

But there was no time to linger on these ideas, as Sparks moved along quickly. He walked us into a room.

The Tour

tour1

This was the room Sparks was held in. I thought it was rather large until he told us it held 60 people, 3 showers, and 2 toilets. Unfortunately the picture fails to show the room in its entirety. While it is large, I find it astonishing it housed 60. In order to accommodate all of their restroom needs, the political prisoners woke up at 4:00am. If you missed your window, not only would you be out of luck, you’d be locked in solitary confinement. How that makes sense, I will never know.

This room displayed these 4 bunk beds which were used by prisoners. The display is almost an accurate replica of how the cell used to be. As you can see in the picture, the beds had only a thin blanket, no pillows. Additionally the windows are barricaded so that the prisoners would not escape. However there is one crucial difference I must point out. While the windows were caged off, there was no glass to separate the inside from the outside. Because there were no windows, there was nothing to protect them from the rain and the wind. Therefore, winter was cruel. Winter in Cape Town is harsh; it’s cold, windy, and rainy. I can’t imagine having to endure it without windows. Many prisoners would contract tuberculosis or pneumonia. However, the doctor only came to the island once a week. If you got sick the day after he came, you would pray to make it until he returned next week.

As stated earlier, Robben Island was used during Apartheid to house political prisoners. Thus, Apartheid was in full effect during this time. Institutionalized racial discrimination and segregation reigned throughout the nation, and the prisons were no different.

A prisoner’s race classification would determine his/her jail location. Asians, females, Blacks, Whites, and Coloureds were all placed in different jails. But it didn’t stop there. Your race classification would also dictate what clothes and food you received. Coloured were allowed socks, shoes, a shirt, pants, and a jacket. Blacks were only given shorts and a shirt. No socks, shoes, or jackets… even during the Winter.

It blew my mind. In my first blog post, I discussed how I had failed to pack appropriately by only packing 1 jacket in South Africa’s winter season. I was so thankful for that jacket. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live in a place with no windows and no jacket. Not even pants or socks? What the heck.

Their diets were also segregated.

sign

The picture I took shows that Coloureds and Asians were given more nutritious food than Blacks. But let me tell you about the craziest thing I learned.

The picture shows how Coloureds and Asians are given bread while Blacks were given “Puzamandla”. According to Sparks, Puzamandla was a white liquid said to give energy. However the truth is much more sinister than that. When Sparks first got to Robben Island, the elders had warned him and other youngins not to eat the Puzamandla as it would leave them infertile.

Immediately I gasped.

  • Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait. They were sterilizing Black prisoners!?

Sparks told us how Black prisoners who had consumed the Puzamandla and later released were incapable of conceiving children. I couldn’t believe it. The shiver that went down my spine was too real. My jaw dropped again in astonishment.

But like I said, Sparks moves fast.

He moved the conversation along and taught us of the 3 punishments prisoners would receive.

  1. Beatings:
    1. Beatings by sticks, whipping, kicking, and/or punches
  2. Solitary Confinement:
    1. No food or water given
  3. 30 Day Diet:
    1. A 30 day diet that consisted of just porridge. No salt or milk. This left the prisoner weak, often times even too weak to stand.

The injustices that took place on Robben Island were severe.

  • Prisoners were only allowed 1 visitor a year
  • Prisoners were only allowed 1 letter a year
  • Furthermore, the census office would filter through these letters and cut out the majority of its content
  • Often times, the guards wished to pin the political prisoners and common law prisoners against one another

Sparks told a story of how a political prisoner was once thirsty.

He asked the guard if he could have some water. The guard ignored him and turned towards a common law prisoner and instructed him to dig a 6 foot hole. Once the hole was dug, the thirsty political prisoner was forced into the hole and buried up to his neck. After this point, the guards would gather over the man’s head and proceed to urinate on his face.

However this was not an unusual phenomenon. Compared to other injustices, it was tame.

Guards would sometimes instruct common law prisoners to sodomize political prisoners, and if they refused, they were punished. They’d be put in solitary confinement, beaten, or placed on the 30 day diet.

A lot of small things a prisoner did could land them in solitary confinement. Even for something as small as folding your blankets wrong.

Nelson Mandela

Of course Sparks told us stories of Nelson Mandela.

He told us stories of how Mandela would play tennis. He would break the tennis ball open, place a message inside, and hit the ball over bounds to the neighboring court that housed other prisoners. The prisoners would open the ball, read the message, respond if needed, and pass the ball back over. I couldn’t help but revel in the genius that took place. Mandela was the man!

Sparks affirmed.

He spoke of how Mandela was so influential to the youth in Robben Island. The movement flourished in the prison. Youngins who entered that didn’t even know who Mandela was would leave completely transformed. If the youngins were released earlier they would tell stories of Madiba and what he taught them. Nelson Mandela was known as Madiba which means father in Xhosa.

Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life imprisoned on Robben Island. It’s where he wrote his book, The Long Walk to Freedom. Interestingly enough, Mandela gave a copy to a fellow prisoner he had befriended. This prisoner smuggled it out when he was released and immediately took it to be published. Soon it was read all over the world. After the 1994 elections, Mac Maharaj, the prisoner who was responsible for smuggling the manuscript out, was appointed as Minister of Transport by President Nelson Mandela, as Madiba believed he was good at it. Ironic, aye? Madiba seemed to have a good sense of humor.

Unlike Sparks who was considered a low level political prisoner, high ranking political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela were considered especially dangerous. Their influential nature needed to be separated from other political prisoners. Thus, they were given their own cells. Now before you go on thinking that it must have been nice to have your own cell, I have to interject. His cell was tiny. I mean it was the size of an American closet.

Furthermore, he was not afforded the luxury of a toilet to flush his waste. Instead he was given a bucket to urinate and defecate in. This bucket remained with him in his tiny cell next to his bed.

I felt so privileged.

I couldn’t imagine defecating in a bucket next to my bed and having to sleep next to my own waste. I thought of the smell that he must have had to endure. I don’t even like going to bed without a shower. The thought of sleeping next to waste made me wince.

But enough explaining. Without further delay, I present to you Nelson Mandela’s cell.

cell

Apologies for the bad quality photos. I was rushed to take them as there was a large group behind me waiting to look inside the cell. But as you can see, it’s tiny. I couldn’t believe a man spent almost 2 decades living in these tiny quarters.

Overall

I learned a lot about Robben Island while I was there.

At the end, Sparks answered the questions I posed earlier.

He spoke of how when he was first offered the job to be a tour guide and live on Robben Island he had to think about it. The first time he came back onto the island he became emotional. He was angry and upset as it brought back terrible memories. It took him a while to let go of the anger. However, he spoke of how it was Madiba who helped him to know forgiveness in his heart. As time passed, his anger subsided, and he found living on the island gave him closure. Sparks now says that he’s forgiven the guards and they all live together on the island in peace. Really? Peacefully living together? Maybe.

Whether or not this is true I found Sparks to be inspirational. Being able to confront a location where you were forced to endure a vast amount of injustices and not only face it, but transform it into the place that you call home is remarkable. I am humbled by his ability to let go of his anger. I wish to one day be as wise as Sparks and the other political prisoners living on the island.

end pics

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Race in South Africa: Colonialism, Segregation, and Apartheid.

Ah, the issue of race. It’s kind of a loaded topic. Not only is it a big issue in America, but a big issue everywhere, especially in South Africa. The impact of the topic is so significant, it is one I absolutely feel the need to touch upon while I am here.

As we know, race does not have any biological basis, it is a socially constructed classification our society has created. Perhaps that is the reason the issue remains so problematic. However, the method in which we classify race varies from state to state. For example, in America there are 5 common race classifications: White, Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, and Native American. While in South Africa, the racial categories are as follows: Black, White, Coloured, and Indian. Note the race category ‘Coloured.’ In the U.S., not only is this NOT a race classification, but it is a derogatory word notoriously only used as a racial slur. Americans hear the word ‘coloured’ and our minds automatically think, ‘racist.’ However, in South Africa the word is so common it’s used everyday. Why is that?

The answer to that is a bit complex.

A Concise History Lesson

Alright so to answer that question I will have to go on and teach you guys a quick lesson in South Africa’s History.

If you’re anything like me you’ve definitely heard of Apartheid, but how much do you actually know? Before my journey here, all I knew about it was that it was some sort of racial injustice that involved segregation. In my mind, I compared it to Jim Crow laws in the United States. I didn’t really know what it entailed, it was more an unclear subject I knew the general idea of, but nothing specific. This is 100% the reason why I was so excited for this trip. I yearned to know more! I could finally get down to the nitty gritty details. What was Apartheid?

So here you have it, ladies and gentlemen! I give you the South African tea! Ready to be spilled for your reading pleasure. 

kermit tea

Here goes my attempt at a concise history lesson.

It begins with British Imperialism. Doesn’t it always?

South Africa’s Colonial Era reigned from 1652-1910, the first to invade were the Dutch. However, as my teacher put it, “it was the British who were responsible for South Africa’s misery.” Ultimately, it was the British who conquered over the land, took charge over Parliament (government), and they who would go on to write the constitution.

And so South Africa’s constitution was written by the colonizers. The laws within it reflected the White agenda, as they were designed to preserve White identity and maximize their opportunity. Unfortunately, this would be the demise for the Black people of South Africa. In order to ensure a thriving economy, Parliament would implement laws to extract cheap labor from the Black citizens, as well as enforce a migrant labor system.

What’s a migrant labor system and why did the White people need to create this? Money.

Diamonds and Gold were found in South Africa in the late 1800s. White people in South Africa needed cheap labor for the mining industry and got this from Black South Africans. But there was the problem of theft: what’s to prevent workers from sneaking a couple diamonds into their pockets in order to make a profit? Loss prevention, among other reasons, was the reason for the migrant labor system. This system provided very basic housing, comparable to that of prison. Workers were constantly under surveillance and given a pass that granted them permission to work/live there. Can you believe that? Permission to work and live within their own land. This sent a message from the White community to the Black community: you are no longer the ruler of this land, we are. Black South Africans were only here to work; the entire system had been engineered to enforce White supremacy.

This ideology of White supremacy was one that would remain dominant in South Africa for years to come, even after it’s Colonial Era. This would lead to the Segregation Era in South Africa, lasting from 1910-1948. Ultimately keeping separate the Whites from the Blacks by placing the Coloureds in between. Sounds like laundry, but no, we are talking about people. Real people with real injustices done to them; real trauma, real heartache, caused simply by the colour of one’s skin. Black Africans kicked out of their homes, banished to far away lands which would come to be known as Townships.

In order to make sure they wouldn’t return, their homes were bulldozed to the ground, leaving nothing but rubble. Many times families watched as their homes were reduced to nothing. One place in particular is known in Cape Town for this particular atrocity, District 6.

District 6

And so they left with only what they could carry, forced to build homes of their own, distant from the White oppressor. Communities known as Townships were built during the Segregation Era, separated by race as well. There were Black Townships which were the most impoverished and Coloured Townships which were less poverty struck.

White people in South Africa flourished at this time, as they would claim the land that was most sought after. However this era brought much frustration to the Black and Coloured South Africans, rightly so, and they would begin to oppose the system. Black opposition came in forms of organized political movements as well as flight of entire communities from townships to urban areas. This opposition brought anxieties in the White community to an all time high in the 1940s. This fear within them led the National Party to win the Election of 1948, after this time Parliament would implement what we know today as Apartheid.

Apartheid began in 1948, it was a system enforced by the government that allowed racial segregation and discrimination. Now what kind of laws exactly made up Apartheid? Here’s a small list of what I’ve learned so far:

  • The Population Registration Act of 1950 classified South Africans into 1 of 4 groups: White, Black, Coloured, and Indian.
  • Interesting fact: Chinese and Japanese were known as “honorary Whites”
  • Interesting fact #2: Coloureds were made up of those who were of Mixed races or racially ambiguous
  • Interesting fact #3: Within the classification there were sub-classifications, for example: Black: Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho, Bapedi, Swazi Khoisan, Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, etc.
  • The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act prohibited South Africans from engaging in sexual or romantic relationships across racial lines.
  • Apartheid and Segregation enforced even in prison. Prisoners would receive different meals depending on their race classification.

However, the function of Apartheid was different than that of America’s. While it was definitely cruel and relied on the ideology of White supremacy, the intent was not to kill Black Africans, but to preserve them in order to preserve the labour force. Capitalism. They needed the economy to thrive, so the National Party of South Africa utilized racism as an instrument of capitalism. White prosperity depended on the exploitation of black labor. Thus, a low wage system was emplaced and maintained an effective economy in the beginning. However, this was a trap for the Apartheid system, as cheap labor only works in the beginning of a nation.

While I would love to tell a brilliant tale of Apartheid’s cataclysmic demise, there is no such story. The fact is that there was no explosive undoing to this great injustice, rather it just fell apart. The economic system could no longer hold without all race classifications coming together. This brought the National Party to meet with Mr. Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress (ANC). Parliament showed Mandela the state of the economy and the two began to negotiate. The Nationalist Party agreed to step down and give the ANC political power, while they would maintain the capitalist hegemony. While the ANC would be given leadership in the political sphere, the Nationalist Party controlled the money. And we all know that at the end of the day, the only things that matters is who controls the money. Despite the rather unfair deal that took place, a negotiation was finally reached. Thanks to the peaceful efforts of Nelson Mandela, Apartheid officially came to an end in 1994.

So it can be said that the issue of race has been ingrained in South Africa’s history and furthermore, remains within its culture today. I can attest that it still feels pretty intense. I see the effects of colonialism everywhere. I see it in the buildings, I see it in the townships, I even see it in the workforce. Townships still exist, still separated by race. Not because the laws enforce it anymore, but because the effects of segregation and Apartheid are still prevalent and run deep.

I feel something must be done. As long as Townships remain, so does the segregation. As far as I know, there hasn’t been any major type of integration process introduced to the people who were forcibly removed from their homes. Actually, I might have heard something about Parliament possibly buying land from White home owners in order to give Black South Africans property. However, I haven’t done much research on the topic. Perhaps that’s one I’ll cover next time.

Anyway, I hope this history lesson was accurate, enjoyable, and articulate.

I’ve completely fallen head over heels crazy in love with history and I needed to share that with you all.

Until next time…

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The Calm Before The Beautiful Storm!

The time had finally come. The trip I had talked about for months was now along the horizon. I could feel it making its way through. It was the night before departure and it hadn’t hit me yet, largely due to the fact I had not begun packing. “Oh snap, I should probably start packing.”

One by one I added necessities onto a list, which would then make it into my luggage. It was almost poetic how as the list grew, so did my excitement. Packing manifested not only tangible items into my luggage, but also raw emotions that restlessly churned within me. The inside of my mind felt as if there were thick clouds swirling together to compose a cyclical symphony of stirred chaos, the kind that happens when a storm begins to form. Only the clouds weren’t clouds, they were my anxieties whirling around in my head:

 

  • Don’t forget to pack anything!
  • Please don’t lose your phone!
  • What if you don’t get along with your roommate?
  • What if you get sick?

 

All these panicked thoughts torpedoed around me, while I stood helpless in the eye of the storm.

But just as quickly as the storm had appeared, it passed. One by one, my anxieties floated away and I was able to transform them back into feelings of excitement. I found myself done packing and the completed task prompted a cool sense of relief. Then it hit me. “Oh snap. I’m leaving.” The next thing I knew my significant other was dropping me off at the airport and just like that I was off. Onto a new journey, an unexplored continent and unfamiliar city.

First thing’s first: any preconceived notion you have of a place you’re traveling to should probably be chucked out the window. When I stepped out of the airplane it was a chilling 58 degrees with a heavy downpour of rain, “Yikes! I probably should’ve packed my raincoat and puffy jacket.” I knew South Africa in June meant Winter, but I was not prepared for just how cold the temperature would greet me. I had a preconceived notion that just because it was Africa it would be warmer in temperature, perhaps something similar to California. Boy, was I wrong. When they say Winter, they mean WINTER. Think California Winters, but colder by at least 15 degrees. The breeze that rolls along with it makes it particularly bone chilling, which proved to be a bit problematic given that I only brought one jacket appropriate for the weather. It also doesn’t help that I brought approximately six pairs of shorts that I probably won’t ever use. So here’s a tip for any of you planning to visit South Africa in June: do not pack shorts because trust me- you don’t need them. Just because the Lion King shows you hot desert planes and the sun always shining doesn’t mean that’s how real life is. Note: life is not a Disney movie!

I’ve been here for about a week now, and I’m happy to report that despite having under-packed, I am successfully living the minimalist lifestyle. While I would have loved to pack more clothes suitable for the warm weather, I am being resourceful by utilizing what I have to the fullest extent. Besides, if I really did need to buy more clothes, I have the convenience of doing so. Cape Town is a city that has first world country vibes in a third world country. It is fairly similar to the environment I left in San Diego, California and for that I was disappointed.

Cape Town is a nicer area, with good restaurants, expensive shops, and pretty views by the water. Initially, I was surprised at how alike it was to La Jolla. However, after learning of South Africa’s controversial history, it became clear as to why this city is the way it is. South Africa is a country that has been deeply affected by colonialism, segregation, and racism. While the same can be said for other countries, South Africa’s case is unique. I could really go on about this subject, but I believe that is best saved for another blog!

I’d like to end this blog on a light note by listing some goals I would like to achieve while I am here. These goals include:

  • Great White Shark Diving
  • Go on a Safari
  • Wine Tasting (Cape Town is big on wine!)
  • Robben Island
  • Hike up Lion’s Head
  • Try a Gatsby Sandwich (Signature South African sandwich)
  • Try Braai (South African BBQ)
  • Walk through a township

By the way, my name is Michelle Thangtamsatid. I’m studying abroad with the Global Seminars program offered by my school, UC San Diego. I’m 26, from Los Angeles, California and this is my first time setting foot in the beautiful continent of Africa! Thanks so much for taking the time to read some of my thoughts so far!

 

Until next time…

 

 

 

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