Robben Island

Jordan Payson’s Blog Post

14 kilometers off the coast of Cape Town, lies Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years incarcerated. Robben Island originally opened in the 17th century to house the Dutch political prisoners and later for individuals who suffered from leprosy. In the late 1900’s the South African government used Robben Island to exile political prisoners fighting the apartheid movement. Prisoners on the island received a metal bucket as a toilet, a blanket, a small table and plate who would be housed in a 6-foot cold cell. Our guide, an ex-prisoner on Robben Island explained that the guards further tried to humiliate and break down the prisoners by limiting outside contact to sometimes 1 letter and a 30 minute visit every 6 months. It came as a shock to me when I heard that prisoners who were sentenced for political crimes were housed in maximum security while other criminals had more freedom in medium security. While housed in maximum security, Mandela and other prisoners talked politics inside the grim walls. Our guide explained that political prisoners of the anti-apartheid movement and other resistance groups would rally together and share their ideals.

While imprisoned on the island, Mandela and many other political prisoners worked in the limestone quarry. Even though the tour guide explained the work at the limestone quarry as dehumanizing and exhausting, Mandela took that time and used it a space to teach and be taught by his fellow prisoners. All learning had to be taught in secrecy, as getting caught would result in being punished with solitary confinement and days without food.

Robben Island was in use for 400 years before being closed in 1991 for the use of political prisoners. It wasn’t until five years later in, 1996 that the medium security prison was officially closed. After the end apartheid, Robben Island opened up to the public for tours and truly showcased the life on Robben Island. Mandela and many other political prisoners used their experiences on Robben Island to further exploit the oppression of African Americans in South Africa during the Apartheid Era. In 1999, UNESCO declared Robben Island as a World Heritage Site, which stands as a constant reminder that those in power during apartheid tried to break the power of those who fought for freedom and democracy in the face of oppression.

As for my own personal experience on Robben Island, it is almost impossible to imagine how Mandela and many of the other prisoners remained sane under the horrific conditions. As the tour guide spoke to us; she mentioned that after visiting Mandela’s cell we would be making our own “walk to freedom” to conclude our visit on Robben Island. Even though many of us will never experience jail as a prisoner, we are all bound by Mandela’s fight for equality.


Soweto: A City Divided?

Published by Rachel Wingrat

In 1955, the South Africa Freedom Charter was officially created and adopted. The Charter stated the core values and beliefs of the African National Congress (ANC) and several other political parties. A copy of the Freedom Charter can be found in Soweto, the largest township in South Africa. When we entered the tower where the Freedom Charter was written on a round stone tablet, we went around in a circle reading each freedom out loud. I read out the words “The people shall share in the country’s wealth,” the third freedom. As the rest of my classmates read out the remaining seven freedoms, I reflected on what I had just said and what I had seen while driving through Soweto. The exact population of Soweto is unknown because some residents live in shanties in others’ backyards, but according to, roughly 1.7 million people live in the township. It’s name is a contraction of the words “southwestern township,” as it is situated to the southwest of South Africa’s capital city, Johannesburg. So far we had visited two other townships, Langa and Khayelitdha, both in Cape Town. In all three, the division of wealth within the townships was surprising to me. My western-influenced mental image of townships was simply informal houses, or shanties, and I was not expecting to see formal houses nor wealthy individuals living in the townships.

Driving into Soweto, the stark wealth difference was more prevalent than in the townships we had visited before. It was a true visual of South Africa’s number one spot on the Gini index, meaning it is the country with the largest wealth distribution in the world. We passed big beautiful houses situated behind walls, but most moments later drove past hostels that were previously home to 100 people and contained just five bathrooms. We saw a collection of shanties in the shadow of a huge stadium, the home of the Soweto Pirates. The vast, sprawling landscape allowed me to see rows of big, formal houses just behind the countless informal houses in the foreground. This picture begs the question, how is this township, the home of the Freedom Charter, allowing its people to ‘share in the country’s wealth’ when there is not only a clear division of wealth, but also two ends of the wealth spectrum living in such close proximity?

According to an article from the International Monetary Fund called “Bridging South Africa’s Economic Divide,” one third of the labor force was unemployed in 2016. The article states that the large unemployment rate is due to the fact that people, especially those in townships, do not have sufficient education or opportunities for job advancement. The article continues that “there are township youth who not only cannot find work, but who grow up without knowing anyone in their circle of family and friends without a job either.” Our tour guide explained that some popular jobs in Soweto include reselling stolen tires and selling fruit on the side of the road. These are just some of the factors that contribute to the economic inequality in Soweto, and the country as a whole.

Soweto made it clear that the goal of shared monetary wealth in South Africa has not yet been met, but there is another kind of wealth that I have found to be especially prevalent; wealth of community. Before we entered the township, our guide advised us that everyone in Soweto waves and says hello to each other. He even had us stop to take a picture in front of the “welcome to Soweto” sign, just one example of him showing pride for his city. As we were returning to the bus at the end of the tour he shared a snack with another man. He told us of a common custom in Soweto called “Ubuntu,” which means “I am because we are,” but he translated to, “share everything.” This translation reminded me of the third freedom of sharing in the country’s wealth. But in this case wealth was not money, it was the people. After all, one street in Soweto was home to two Nobel Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

But Soweto was not always a peaceful place. Perhaps what the city is most known for is the Soweto uprising in 1976. The uprising began after the government mandated that Afrikaans was to be the standard language used in schools. Afrikaans was considered to be the language of oppression, and thousands of black students in Soweto took to the streets to show their opposition towards the new mandate. Hundreds of children were killed, and the uprising garnered international media attention. Many attribute international condemnation of the Apartheid government the Soweto uprising. The Hector Pieterson museum in Soweto depicted brutal images of schoolchildren who had been murdered or badly injured during the uprising and described the planning and execution of the uprising. The museum’s namesake is a boy who was shot to death during the uprising. He became famous when a photo of him being carried by another boy was seen around the world. One part that particularly stood out to me was that the children marched holding hands in rows of five, each boy or girl responsible for keeping tabs on the person standing next to them. Parts of the museum were incredibly difficult to look at, but it demonstrated that even the children of Soweto were able to come together to fight against injustice, and their resistance created a community around the world. It also served as a reminder to myself to stand up to the injustice in my life, and inspired me to never stop fighting for what I think is right.

As discussed earlier, the community and pride in Soweto can still be felt today. The backdrop of Soweto contains the Orlando Power Station, two decommissioned power towers. The structures are now a tourist attraction, used for bungee jumping, an experience that many Sowetans cannot afford themselves. Painted on the outside of one of the towers are the words “we are in Soweto and Soweto is in us.” To me, this demonstrated the pride of the people who were born in or currently live in Soweto. In class discussions, people have repeatedly asked why South Africans who have the ability to leave the township where they were born decide to stay. There are many reasons why people may choose to remain in a township, from family and friends to a connection to the city, but in Soweto the pride people felt for the township shined. The Freedom Charter certainly referred to literal wealth, but in the reality of Soweto, and South Africa as a whole, is the greatest wealth of the country the people themselves?

Townships by Cara Driscoll

Before coming to South Africa, I dove into researching online about the country and participating in class discussions about the history, the culture, and the country. Although I am writing this blog post from our final day in Kruger National Park, I used this time to reflect on our time in Cape Town and specific aspects of that portion of the trip that moved me. Prior to coming to South Africa, I remember discussing with a few of my friends over the course of first semester at Elon and hearing a few of them say, “Well, South Africa isn’t really Africa, it’s more developed.” In the beginning of January, I flew to Cape Town without any preconceived notions in mind, ready to have my own experience and formulate my own thoughts. Although I did research on South Africa and attend class prior to coming to the country, I believe that you can not truly experience and/ or judge a place before coming and experiencing it first hand. I remembered what my friends had said about South Africa being nicer and more developed, and although I did experience that in the heart of Cape Town where we stayed at Mandela Rhodes, I also experienced the complete opposite. A main theme of this journey has been looking into the different socioeconomic classes of South Africa. A theme of the class in particular that relates to socioeconomic classes and that garners attention and focus is the townships throughout South Africa. 

We visited our first township as a group one of the first few days in Cape Town on our way to a small town on the water known as Hermanus. On our way to Hermanus, we drove through a township that evidently revealed intense poverty. Although I have seen (or thought) that I have seen true poverty, it became clear that I had not until I saw it firsthand. Fast forward to January 13th, our group had the opportunity to experience a truly incredible day. We began the day attending church in a township called Langa. We visited two separate churches, and I was in awe of what I experienced. In both churches, the people were extremely warm, welcoming, and excited to have us there with them. No one looked at us twice, and they accepted us with open arms. I was taken aback, because being so far away from home, I imagined church to be different. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I was completely wrong, as the second Baptist church made it feel like I was stepping into my own church at home, even singing some of the same songs. It made me realize that even though I am so far away from home, it really isn’t that different. Following the church services, we were led through a walking tour of the town of Langa. As we walked through the town, it was evident that the people were extremely impoverished. Our tour guide led us through the township and into some of the hostels, where multiple families resided at one time. He told us that a few adults slept in one bed together and children slept on the floor. At the time, it felt uncomfortable entering people’s homes, where they live with close to nothing, while we are on tour with a study abroad group and will later enjoy a nice dinner and a full sized bed all to ourselves. 

While it did feel a bit awkward stepping into someone’s home, I think that it was important to see and a pivotal moment in my learning experience. Although many of us hear about poverty and think that we know, one cannot truly experience it until it is seen first hand. Not only was it humbling, but it also makes me so much more thankful for what I have and the opportunities that are given to me. Even though the people of Langa do not live in the best conditions or have what other people have, I have never met more welcoming people. The children ran through the streets hugging us and dancing for us, and adults smiled and waved hello. 

Seeing the different townships firsthand, it made me think of my group’s research focus – the water crisis and how it has affected South Africa and the people within the country. After visiting the head of the water and sanitation center in Cape Town, I learned that at the height of the water crisis, families were only allotted 50 liters of water a day, which is less than an average length shower or one laundry cycle. Once a family reached the 50 liters, their water supply would be cut off for the day and they would not be allowed any additional water. Mike, the head of the water and sanitation center also described Cape Town as, “A Tale of Two Cities,” which I found extremely compelling. By this, he meant that Cape Town is divided. One moment, you will find yourself surrounded by immense poverty, and the next moment you will be surrounded by immense wealth. We experienced this as a group when we drove through a township on the way to Hermanus, and just moments later we found ourselves surrounded by beautiful villas. Mike explained that Cape Town hopes to change this, but that it does and will take time. 

Having the opportunity to see townships firsthand and reflect on them has allowed me to appreciate what I am given, but to also appreciate the simplicity in life and being happy without worrying about materialistic items. Ultimately, I chose to reflect on townships while in Kruger because my group was in the midst of putting all of our group research into our presentation for this evening in Kruger. While thinking about the water crisis alongside the townships, I thought – what can we do to make a difference? How can we help and change for the better? Although it may feel uncomfortable and awkward to visit townships and walk into people’s homes, it is important to be aware of what is going on in the world and think about what we can do to help, even if it is something small such as taking shorter showers or turning off the water while brushing your teeth.

Mike Webster and Cape Town’s Water Supply (1/15/19)

Post by Caroline O’Rourke

The water crisis has been an ongoing topic in Cape Town, South Africa for the past few years now. “Day Zero” – the day when there would be no water supply left in the city has been lurking in the minds of the individuals inhabiting the area. After spending a little over a week in the city and meeting the locals, the water crisis becomes clear and better understood. I had the opportunity to meet with Mike Webster, the Director of Water Sanitation in Cape Town, to hear about the water situation in the city. He stated that one of the biggest factors to the low water supply was the lack of rainfall. Starting in 2015 and continuing through 2017, the rainfall hit an all-time low. This helped to create a major shortage in water, which forced individuals to make changes.

Webster says that 70% of the water use was coming from residential areas. These people needed to make the biggest change and needed the most help. When the water supply was low, informal settlements were selling water to formal settlements. Invasive species were being removed on Table Mountain so that water could be reached. After staying in the city, it also was evident to see that measures to preserve water were made through using bottled water that came from outside sources at restaurants. Hotels and public areas would have signs that would ask people to help the environment and to think twice before using water.

According to Webster, the biggest way that Cape Town was able to get through the drought was by reducing demand. Demand was reduced by 40% by the time 2018 came around. This was achieved by economic incentives and strong communication to the locals. The idea of “Day Zero” was ingrained into everyone’s minds so that people made a conscious effort to make changes. This resulted in Cape Town becoming the #1 water saving city in the world with a 55% reduction between 2015 and 2017. Day Zero is a day that won’t be reached anymore and Cape Town will still be able to enjoy the water supply they have, while still taking measures to conserve water.

The research that I did prior to class revolved around the water crisis in Cape Town, which is why it was so interesting to visit there. One of the biggest preconceived notions that I had formed was that Cape Town was still in the water crisis and that they were never going to get out of it. As I stated earlier in this post, that is no longer the case and Cape Town has beat the water crisis that once posed an issue that was seen as too big to undertake. Some of the other research that I had found was that South African soldiers had been assigned to guard the water spots within the city to prevent illegal activity regarding taking the water supply. After sitting down with Webster, it seemed that these measures were not taken and the way in which people were asked to cut down water was done in a different way. Webster said that people could only have up to 50 liters of water a day, which forced people to cut back. They didn’t have a choice, they were only supplied that amount. By taking this measure, it gave the city more time to get their water situation settled. Cape Town does now not have to worry about the Day Zero that was expected to come. They beat their water crisis.


Visiting the Homes and Churches of Langa Township

     Sam Greenberg’s Post

    It was very interesting to visit Langa today and to see the black township. Langa is the oldest black township in the Cape Town area. It was created in 1923. Some of the people who live in the Langa township are living there as a result of being thrown out of District Six during apartheid. The houses in Langa were very small and they reminded me of the township that we visited in Hermanus. Since we got to see the kinds of houses and the living conditions that many Blacks are living in, it made me feel very thankful for what I have. Several black children waved to me when I was on the bus and I waved back to them. I am so curious as to how people in Black townships live. I wish I had asked them questions such as how old are you and do you know how to read and write? Do you have phones? If not, do you play outside more? I really wish that I could have had a one on one interaction with these kids. I would be very interested in learning more about their lives. I would also want to know about their religious life.

    We went to two churches in the Langa township. The first one was the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. I felt that they were very welcoming to everybody. This was my first time in a Christian worship service. Since this was my first time being in a Christian worship service, it reminded me of my time at victory outreach. At victory outreach, I realized that I could talk to any person no matter how different they might be from me. It reminded me in the sense that I had the opportunity to try something different. During the worship service, there was a choir singing. The choir was full of young people and the congregation would sing a long with the choir. The congregation seemed so passionate when they were singing the songs. The choir and the congregants were not singing in English, so initially I could not understand what I was hearing. However, they had a screen at the front that had the lyrics for the song and they had the English underneath. Therefore, it was easy for everyone to understand what the choir and the congregation was singing. Even though the songs and prayers were not being recited in English, I thought it was very beautiful. It seemed like a great way for the congregation to come together at Church. 

   The most striking thing about the church for me was that they did not have enough seats for everybody. Some people would try to come into the church, but they would not be able to sit down and worship until other people left. The church not having enough seats was an indicator that the church is very popular among Langa township residents. We went to another church which was the Baptist church in Langa. When I walked in the church a few people greeted me at the front and shook my hand. I immediately felt welcomed at the church. I listened to the congregation singing songs. All of the congregants seemed so passionate when I was there. I danced to the songs at the Baptist Church and I felt like I was at home. Other people were also dancing. When I was in the church it made me think of our class discussion about victory outreach. I thought about our discussion in the sense that we came in to victory outreach with preconceived notions. I went into the church service thinking that they would not be accepting of me because Im Jewish. However, they were very welcoming to everyone regardless of ones race or religion. 

         Some time after we went to Church we got to see homes in the township. It was striking to walk into the homes and to see people living in such poverty. The home that I went into was an apartment or a hostel. The apartment was very small and a few families lived there and all had to share a bathroom and a kitchen. It made me think of our class discussion about white privilege. White privilege in the sense that one white person is born into a family that has money. It was so sad to see white privilege wrap its ugly head around black people. The other apartment that we visited was also very sad to see. The apartment was so small but only one family had to share a bathroom and kitchen which is a more comfortable living situation. It makes me sad to see that Black people are suffering. Seeing black people suffer made me think of our discussion of apartheid. Under apartheid, blacks were not allowed to hold high-profile positions and were stuck living in shacks. Even though apartheid came down, blacks in many townships are still struggling today to bring themselves out of poverty. I saw this in Langa and I hope that one day soon they will be able to come out of poverty. 

        After leaving Langa I still have some questions. How do blacks living in the township get their food? I didnt see food markets in the township. Do they go to the city to buy groceries? When did blacks first live in townships? In 1913, blacks were removed from their lands as a result of the land removal act (Dodson SC 2). Blacks now did not have anywhere to live. Therefore, did this start the creation of black townships? 

Works Cited 

Dodson SC, Alan. The Natives Land Act of 1913 and Its Legacy. Advocate, Apr. 2013

Research Project

Hello fellow bloggers! We are the Xhosa Group. This January we are traveling to South Africa to study a variety of different research topics. Our group in particular has decided to zone in on the resources in South Africa, specifically focusing on the lack of water, and the impact that the lack of these resources has already had on the country overall and the impact that it continues to have.

We all have different interests, therefore we are going to all contribute a specific facet of research and expertise.  Pulling from our individual research proposals, we will focus on how the water crisis has affected the Jewish population, the business culture, the media, and the social classes in South Africa. While these topics may seem unconnected, they are all important parts of South Africa as a nation, and it is important to understand how the water crisis impacts each of these communities.