Many more hills to climb

Like Nelson Mandela, many of us too in Mauritius still have many more hills to climb nearly fifty years after lowering the Union Jack and raising our flag of freedom

‘I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to fail. I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.

‘I have taken a moment here to rest. To steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come.

‘But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended’ (bold added) – these are the words of Nelson Mandela, part of an inscription on one face of a base upon which stands a statue of the great statesman and human being which we stopped at on the way back from a wine tour to Stellenbosch. He has one foot forward and his right hand with fist closed is raised upward signifying, according to our guide, ‘amandla’: ‘power to the people’.

Cape Town: Insider views

In a recent trip to Cape Town, we did the usual touristic things: guided tours to Table Mountain and the city, winelands tour that naturally included wine-tasting, the Peninsula tour, a visit to the Heart Transplant Center Museum at Groote Schuur Hospital, and a township tour. So much has been written about the apartheid regime of South Africa and the struggle to finally overcome it that much is already known about the country and its peoples. Nevertheless, the tours and visits to the malls at Canal Walk and the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, along with the running commentaries of the guides gave an opportunity to see at first hand some of the contrasts that are present, as well as gain some insights that will not be found in tourist brochures.

It is such inputs, along with others gained on previous visits to other places and meetings with different people in that big country, that provided the background and context to a better understanding of Nelson Mandela’s moving words, and to also realize that like him, many of us too in Mauritius still have many more hills to climb nearly fifty years after lowering the Union Jack and raising our flag of freedom. And like many if not most of Madiba’s people, for their counterparts here also the ‘long walk is not yet ended’. In fact, the walk will never end, because all the time new challenges keep coming up, and these must not only be identified and if possible anticipated, but they have to be faced and resolved as promptly as possible if we do not want to be left behind others who are making smarter and faster headways into the future. At the same time, it is important to ‘look back on the distance’ we have travelled and the rough roads that our predecessors had to first forge then make their hard way through so that we, their descendants, could reach where we have today.

Across the world all countries are made up of a mix of different types of people; in South Africa the situation was complicated not only by the apartheid policy, but also by the colonizers who were also rivals for control of the land, resources and the people. As a result there are Whites of British, French and Dutch origin, the latter being known as Afrikaners, who carved out their separate areas. Then there are the Blacks, made up of the native tribes (Zulu and Xhosa being the largest) and those who have come from other countries in the region. Next are the Coloureds, made up of diverse types and shades, who are the progeny of several streams of inhabitants both native and foreign. And finally, there are the Indians.

Our guides were either Black or White, and of course they warned us about security – areas to avoid, pick pockets and so on. But this aside, everywhere we went we met pleasant, helpful, polite people, whether it was while travelling, in eating places, and while shopping. On our last day, the lady at the counter where we were paying our bill at a ‘Pick and Pay’ outlet even stepped out to show us the direction to a shop in the mall, and this did not seem to bother the couple of customers who were waiting behind us. Can we imagine a similar scenario in Mauritius? At the Waterfront, the lady whose stall we stopped at reminisced about her stay at Trou-aux-Biches with her daughter some years ago, and we exchanged addresses as she was keen to visit again in future. No need to say that wealth and prosperity, and even opulence, were all too visible at the Waterfront and Canal Walk, much as is to be found in so many other countries as well, including Mauritius where exclusivist zones are proliferating.

No community is socially homogeneous, and this was illustrated by the guide, who took us on the city tour after the Table Mountain trip. He was an elderly White guy with a huge tummy, and had a great sense of humour. He showed us Clifton where the super rich live and enjoy, especially the long stretch of beautiful white sand beach, which he said is ‘the only thing they do as they don’t have to work’. He mentioned the astronomical prices of the apartments and bungalows in that area, which were of course beyond his reach and ‘yours too’ he added. And reminisced that when he was a kid, coming from a modest background, the rich guys used to taunt the poor for eating lobster, which they called ‘the cockroach from the sea’, while they sat at their high tables and had bacon and eggs. But nowadays, added our guide ruefully, the rich were the ones eating the ‘cockroach from the sea’ while his kind had to fall back on bacon and eggs!

When we got back to town, he passed by a building where, he said, was situated the only remaining genuine English tea room in Cape Town. He told us that nostalgia for his British ancestry made him take his wife to this tea room every year, but just once because that’s all he could afford. Similarly our guide for the Peninsula tour, also an elderly White person, shared with us how hard he was still working to see his son through the University of Cape Town, the oldest in Africa, as we passed by a part of the campus.

Society post-apatheid

Our Township tour was no less revealing and interesting, starting with the District Six Museum. According to Wikipedia, plus information supplied by our guide, District Six was established in 1867 as a mixed community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, labourers and immigrants and was a vibrant centre with close links to the city and the port. Over 60,000 of its inhabitants were forcibly removed during the 1970s by the apartheid regime on the ground that interracial interaction bred conflict, necessitating the separation of the races; further they considered the area as a slum fit only for clearance, portraying it as crime-ridden and dangerous, a vice den, full of immoral activities like gambling, drinking, and prostitution. But most residents believed that the government sought the land because of its proximity to the city centre, Table Mountain, and the harbour. And by 1982, more than 60,000 people had been relocated to the sandy, bleak Cape Flats township complex some 25 kilometres away.

Our guide took us to the Community Center first, where we were introduced to the activities being carried out to impart skills to the local residents. After that we visited the hostels where three families occupied a single room; next came the family flats with a little more space, and then the detached houses which could be afforded only by those earning above 5000 rands per month. What was interesting though was a remark made by the guide, who was a Black man and had grown up in the same locality, starting in the hostel. Pointing to a block of apartments as we were driving away, he said that it was the Coloureds who lived there, and that no Black would go there and walk – but, in contrast, the Coloureds were free to come to the Black area. Some sort of residual apartheid?

In the same breath he stressed that only Whites went to Canal Walk and the Waterfront, Blacks didn’t. But this was not true, for at these malls we came across people from all the communities including Blacks. In a country with a population of 55 million, only 5 million of whom are White, there must definitely be a sizeable proportion of Blacks who have moved up the social scale. This was confirmed by our own observations and by the numerous magazines featuring Black people, beginning with the in-flight magazine aboard South African Airways. However, the same guide warned us about some shopping areas where we had to be very careful, because of the presence of homeless people who were prone to thieving and other misbehaviours. Improving people’s lives, and changing behaviours, he said, would take time, it was a process.

And it became clearer to me what Mandela meant when he said that there are many more hills to climb…


* Published in print edition on 12 January 2015

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