I told myself I’d use the days off to do things I’d not done before or see parts of Cape Town I hadn’t yet explored. I did a bit of both, and the takeaway from a day spent on a walkabout was far more than the pleasure of the sun on my back or the feast for my eyes.
First, the small victories. I took a minibus ride. Yes, I know it’s been a while but most of my daily routine involves walking down the hill, turning right at the main road and walking a couple of miles to the stadium.
For those not in the know, the minibuses – minivans, really – are the transport lifeline of South Africa’s big cities. They are cheap, available everywhere and, most important, they are fast. The speed is achieved by the simple expedient of breaking every law of motoring, but there’s an additional trick: the van will stop just after a pedestrian crossing, when the conductor will jump out and press the button so traffic behind, including competing minivans, are forced to stop. Ingenious, effective.
In truth the most intimidating aspect of the vans is that they are loud - you can hear the music, and the conductor’s shouting, long before you see the vehicle. You pay your five rand to the conductor, tell him where you want to get off and settle down to enjoy the sight of other cars scrambling out of the way.
Inside, it’s a large slice of the Rainbow Nation - there’s all colours and all communities in there, people getting to or from an honest day’s work. It reminded me of that line in the song What If God Was One of Us: "…Just a slob like one of us/just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home.”
My first port of call was the Company’s Garden, started as a vegetable patch by and for the Dutch East India Company four-odd centuries ago. It’s a bit more than that now, a carefully sculpted park with squirrels – imported from North America by Cecil Rhodes, whose statue still occupies stage centre - and ducks and lots of flora.
Rhodes isn’t the only person commemorated in stone: Victoria is there, as is Jan Smuts, the politician and philosopher, and there’s a memorial to soldiers killed in the World War I battle of Delville Wood.
Near the park’s entrance is the Slave Lodge, the building that housed the slaves shipped in through the 18th century from the Dutch colonies. It has had many makeovers and avatars since those days - including, ironically, a spell housing the Supreme Court – so that today it appears a fairly grand and ornate structure. Just as, round the corner at a busy and cheerful traffic crossing, the spot where slaves were sold.
Nature has its way of bringing the past alive, though, and walking round the rooms, some deliberately kept dark, you do feel the dankness and the gloom. Those with a bit of imagination can even smell the desperation; it certainly had a different smell to it than the air outside the four walls.
The rooms detail, fairly graphically, how the slaves were treated in this hell-hole, where they were herded back every evening; there is a short film that re-enacts the life of a slave and it doesn’t leave much to the imagination. There is nothing redeeming here; the slaves were free labour for the colonisers, the women – 600 of them stayed here – free entertainment for the sailors who were allowed in en masse every day.
I was glad, after a grim hour, to stumble outside into the warm and bright sunlight, and headed eastwards up the hill towards Bo-Kaap, the area populated by the Cape Malay population, the descendants of the slaves from Indonesia. It is very distinctive with its brightly coloured houses and the fragrance here is of curry and spice – the Dutch were, after all, masters of the spice trade and Java was one of their prized possessions for this very reason.
Three different slices of history, yet – and this was what I took away from the day - each has been preserved, and the preservation has been as immaculate as in, say, the UK, the gold standard for all things heritage.
There is a tendency in newly liberated countries to erase the past, the good along with the bad; statues are removed, buildings razed, street names changed, often without any logic or any appreciation of the historical and artistic value. We are certainly guilty of that in India, where statues of the Raj era have been removed from their plinths and replaced by, frankly, hideous homages to freedom fighters. It is a disservice to them, to say the least; often the statues are not to scale, too small or too large for the base where they are sat.
Cape Town’s is a far more sensible approach. There is obviously a need to remove traces of oppression and signs that honour colonialists – and in Cape Town work has begun to rename roads - but equally there is a need to recognize that not all foreign or colonial influences were bad. Football, for example.