Major anniversary, almost unnoticed

On this day in 1990 the South African government made one of the most important announcements in its history: the banned African National Congress and all the other, smaller, anti-apartheid liberation movements, were to be unbanned. And the second part of the announcement was that Nelson Mandela was most likely going to be released from prison where he had been for 27 years.

For those of us who lived through apartheid, or most of it as in my case, the 1980s were the most frightening years. After almost 40 years of it, people had had enough. Protests, marches, violence, massacres by the police, states of emergency with restricted movements for all but mostly black people, we lived in a general state of internal revolt that could simply not go on. The entire world was watching and, for many different reasons, urging South Africa to end this system of legalised segregation. Apartheid has since been classified as a crime against humanity.

That day, 2 February 1990, was only the start. There were many hurdles to overcome, there were many more battles to be won, and there was a period in the early 1990s where, because of those who didn’t want the change to a democracy, we were on the brink of civil war, day after day. But this day in 1990 was the start of the end of living in a police state. Eventually, in April 1994, democratic elections were held for the first time and Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black President.

Why did the government eventually capitulate to end apartheid? The country was broke as a result of trade sanctions, we were diplomatically in the cold, and we were pariahs in the world of sport and culture. Many people were ashamed and scared to admit their nationality when travelling abroad, assuming they could even get a visa for certain countries. The pressure to negotiate for a democratic government came from within and without.

Read more about the turbulent years before the end of apartheid here.

Of course today, most South Africans are more aware of the fact that last night the President announced a lifting of our lockdown prohibition, and that’s what everyone is celebrating and rejoicing over today. I’ll do both – I’ll raise a glass to the end of the old way.

The view of Table Mountain from Robben Island where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years of his total 27. The island is now a Unesco Heritage site and one can visit it by ferry from the city, with guided tours including a prison tour with an ex prisoner as guide.
This statue of Nelson Mandela is at the entrance to the prison where he spent his last 14 months. Here, he lived in a comfortable house, away from prying eyes of prison staff and other inmates, and hosted regular meetings with a variety of officials and business people, negotiating his release.

This house was once a prison

It’s been a hectic season (and not over yet) so had no time for blogging, sorry! Now I don’t know where to start so I’ll start with the one I promised on Facebook. My visit to the house that was Nelson Mandela’s last prison. To recap for those who don’t know: he was moved to this house, on the grounds of what was then Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, because privacy and utmost secrecy was needed for his meetings with a variety of people for the start of the negotiations to release him and unban the various struggle organisations. In other words, to start the process of ending apartheid, preferably peacefully.

Not even other inmates of the general prison, and very few of the staff, knew he was there. The house has a separate road entrance and is quite far from the main prison buildings. The prison is now called Groot Drakenstein, after one of the mountain ranges in the area.

It was quite a mission to organise this visit for a group of French students and some strings had to be pulled but it was finally achieved at the last moment and it was a great success. Surprisingly, we were permitted to take photos but this is the best I could do because there were 21 of us walking all over the house, and I had to do a lot of translating.

house and sep entrance

The front of the house, with the separate access gate in the distance. The front door was seldom used, it was easier to walk in through the kitchen which is typical of many South African homes. The entire prison grounds were once 4 farms and this was one of the farmers’ homes. It is, by the standards of when it was built, approximately in the 1950s, a luxurious house.


The bathroom attached to the main bedroom is massive – probably larger than the cell that Mandela lived in for 18 years on Robben Island.


Every room of the house (excluding the pantry), as well as the garden, was bugged by the authorities. Mandela found most of these bugs quite easily as no secret was made of this being done. Except for one in a bathroom which was only discovered quite recently when builders were repairing some loose tiles in the ceiling. Not this one, this is just a regular insect on the exterior wall that I snapped as a reminder of the bug anecdote – clever hey?


The main bedroom. My photo of the entire room is blurred so this is all I have. The bed is massive and to the left of the bed there are about 15 people standing around – that’s how huge this room is. Mandela slept here for 3 nights and then asked to be moved to a smaller room because he couldn’t sleep in such a large room after cells for so many years.

door knob

This beautiful design is on all the doorknobs of the extensive bedroom cupboards.

living room1

All small items and some larger pieces of furniture have been removed but a few remain. This furniture is so very typical of its era!
The fireplace has a story to tell. Despite the warm summers in this region, Mandela liked having a fire and he needed the extra warmth for the sake of his health. When a stock of firewood was finished, the prison authorities spitefully refused to give him any more because it was not winter. The doctor who visited him regularly simply wrote out a prescription for ‘wood’ and the firewood was delivered without any further protest. That prescription was kept and is now exhibited in the apartheid museum in Johannesburg.


The dining room table around which the negotiations took place. The smiling student was at first a bit apprehensive when told that he is sitting at the exact spot where Nelson Mandela sat during those important meetings.


Apparently the prison guards tried to teach Nelson Mandela to swim here but he didn’t make much progress. He liked to sit on the steps and watch the ducks that came to paddle.


All the windows have one-way reflective glass.
Yeah, that’s me so this is probably a prison-selfie.


The garden was lovingly tended by Mandela but has been left to grow wild since his departure. Unfortunately, none of the rose bushes have survived, but the lemon tree that he planted is big, healthy, and bears fruit.

sleeping giant

The Sleeping Giant.
Word has it that when Mandela was depressed he would gaze out at this mountain range, the Simonsberg, and it would lift his spirits. We were made to stand in a specific place so that we could see it as he did and so that we could understand why he named it the Sleeping Giant. Look at it and you can see the figure of a man lying on his back with his arms folded on his stomach.

freedom gate

This is the main gate into the property grounds and the gate through which Mandela left as a free man. Our guide had been very explicit that we would enter as Mandela did, through the kitchen door, and we would leave the same way he did, on 11 February, 1990.

freedom gate 1

Walking through the freedom gate, as did Nelson Mandela. By the time this tour was over the students were a lot more pensive than when we first arrived.

Flowers for Madiba

I didn’t make it to the memorial last night, which was a glorious tribute to Nelson Mandela, but went to place some flowers at the City Hall this morning. In some ways it’s a silly gesture but it felt good to do that and to mix with people feeling as I did. Afterwards I walked around the CBD and felt something palpable in the air … it wasn’t just summer and tourists and buskers, it was ‘gees’, it was history being made – and it wasn’t the first time we’ve experienced it in South Africa.

These photos are not in the order I want them but WP is playing up tonight and won’t allow me to re-arrange them so …. well, whatever… this was the scene in front of City Hall.


A new political party gets in on the act.


One Angolan or all of Angola? Doesn’t matter, the thought was there.


Almost a typo from Bangladesh.

big screen

The big screen is there to record your moves,

City Hall

City Hall looking very gorgeous with potted plants and trees and stuff.

City Hall1

The famous balcony where Nelson Mandela first addressed the world after his prison release in the 90s.

Digital tribute

You can sign a book by hand or give a digital tribute.


The Democratic Republic of Congo is there, too.


People stroll, place their flowers, stroll some more, look closely at messages, take photos, walk on ….


Until you go there and see the flowers you don’t realise how much there is. They’ve been pushed very tightly up against the railing (to leave walking space and for more flowers) – the first flowers placed must be quite rotten – you can barely see them under the new ones. I wonder if they’ll be composted and the messages recorded?

My flowers

My bunch with secret message hidden inside the flowers. The selection and process of buying them from the famous flower sellers was as much a part of it as placing them.


Nelly Mandela? My sister moment!


Someone went to a LOT of trouble making a Mandela sampler…


Now this made sense – a tree. I hope it gets watered and eventually planted .


And another tree

Wine is the answer

Yes, I agree – wine is the answer, with a Coke for the next morning.

More than u think

Madam and Boss

I bought a cheesy top from this lady but it bothered me that she called me ‘Madam’ and another bloke “Boss’ – told her those days are over, no more addressing white people as Madam or Boss!

Nelson Mandela – RIP, and thank you!

paarl statue
It’s 2 in the morning and I am obsessively reading online tributes pouring in from around the world for Nelson Mandela who died just a few hours ago at the age of 95, at his home surrounded by his family.

Wherever you go in South Africa you can’t avoid reminders of this great iconic man. We’re immensely proud of him and in his death we are united in sadness and memories of his smile, his dance moves and what he meant to this country – peace and forgiveness. He was not a saint, did not want to be perceived as such, and there are many, like myself, who disagreed in part with some of his decisions post-apartheid. Be that as it may, he stood higher than most men ever will or ever have and as one friend put it, he lived his life to the complete fulfillment of his destiny – not something one can say about many humans, ever. He was put on a pedestal but he lived up to it.

Many ordinary people were lucky to have met him but I never did. The closest I’ve come to standing next to him is my regular visits to his cell on Robben Island where he was incarcerated for 18 years of his prison sentence, and also the prison gates in Paarl from which he walked as a free man (top photo). Incidentally, one of his nicknames is Tata, an isiXhosa word meaning ‘father’ – my siblings called me Tata when they were young.

We were prepared for his death and we expected a huge reaction from around the world but the reality is still very emotional. I’ve even received email condolences from several clients overseas. Strange how we in South Africa have been his biggest critics and yet we feel the pain as if someone in our own family has left us.

In typical South African fashion we are crying and also singing and dancing, because that’s what we do here. Two of my favourite tweets I’ve seen are: “We must not mourn his passing but must rather celebrate his life” and this one: “Anyone who doesn’t know us in SA would look at our singing/dancing and assume we’re happy he died. Truth is, we’re just happy he lived”.

So, as trite as my words are, this is my little tribute to one of the greatest statesmen who ever lived and whom we are proud beyond measure to count as a South African.

Here’s one of my favourite Mandela quotes. It’s been pinned on my wall for several years in the hope that it’ll inspire me:

“There is no personal misfortune that one cannot turn into a personal triumph if one has the iron will and the necessary skills.”

another table mt view

View of Cape Town from Robben Island.

cell inside

Mandela’s cell as it looks now. It’s a great pity it isn’t more representative of how he ‘furnished’ it and lived in it – he had many books, a desk, pictures on the walls, and later a simple bed.

cell window

Mandela’s cell block from the quadrangle.

Lime quarry

The lime quarry where the prisoners laboured under the hot sun and where Mandela contracted the lung disease that finally contributed to his death. The cave at the back is where he and other prisoners held secret meetings and took refuge from the sun. There is a pile of stones to the right in front of the quarry which was created by ex-prisoners when they returned after 1994 for a reunion. Each person placed a stone in symbolism of their freedom.

view from ferry

The ferry ride to the island can be very choppy at times but this photo was taken two weeks ago when it was a very hot and still day and we were able to stand outside and enjoy the ride and the view.

(I couldn’t bring myself to finish this last night hence it is dated the 6th, the day after Madiba passed away)

Hot chocolate at 1086 metres

Anyone who’s ever been to the top of Table Mountain knows that dassies, or rock rabbits/hyrax (Procavia capensis) are the most common animal to be seen up there and they are so used to human visitors that they’re rather tame. But this little guy was the tamest I’ve ever seen. I’m sure we could have picked him up or at least stroked him, neither of which I’d want to do, by the way, but you get my meaning. He was nibbling away at a plant between steps and rocks and completely ignored us as we took photos and my guests exclaimed over the sight.

It was freezing up there on Friday but at least the sun was shining. My clients and I were so cold, especially our hands (note to self, remember the gloves!) that we simply had to go to the restaurant for hot chocolate instead of waiting in the long queue to go down.  The relatively new restaurant is an improvement on the old tea-room that could not cater for the increasing number of visitors. There is a good selection of hot and cold food , snacks, cakes and drinks, and even some wine, but the prices are outrageously exorbitant.  It’s actually a disgrace because foreign tourists are not idiots who don’t look at prices so one has to wonder why the restaurant was so full.  Maybe the cold, maybe the long queue.

Aside from that, I’m glad they didn’t demolish the old tea-room (it’s the curio shop now) and have built the new one adjacent and with the same type of stone so it flows nicely (look to the right in the next pic, the new stones are lighter). I really like the well-marked paths and new lookout points – some of them are positioned to give you a feeling of overhanging the city and there’s one near the restaurant overlooking Camps Bay that is not for you if you suffer from vertigo.

I still want to walk up from Kirstenbosch one of these days, and also do the Back Table/Maclears Beacon walk, … but that can only be done with friends, not clients, because I need to be free to stop as often as I want to. And whinge and swear.  I suggest early next year when the wind has dropped and it’s warm, and I will happily make a very early start of it.

In the meantime, I will gladly take visitors up in the cable car. One of my favourite things to do when riding up is to show everyone (and I mean everyone) when I see rock climbers clinging to the rocks – I wish the car was slow enough to get a photo of them, from that angle it would be impressive.

The old tea room, now the souvenir shop

Robben Island zoomed in.  New phone camera has nice zoom function. My hands were freezing up by this time.


A note to all accidental visitors:

I am not a photographer and do not claim to have any particular skills whatsoever in that department. I have enormous respect for those who can see the potential in a scene and can create a great photo. Good photography is an art, in my opinion.

I am just a happy snapper, I have no special lenses or accessories, my camera is very simple and it's usually best to leave the setting on auto.

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