June 10, 2023

The people of South Africa’s oldest city speak best to its legendary past

Bo-Kaap Kambuis, a restaurant atop Signal Hill in Cape town with views of Table Mountain, serves the best in local fare.
It was 1652 when the ships of the Dutch East India Company began using Cape Town as a port, and centuries later it remains a destination for history- and nature-lovers alike. But its white-sand beaches, vineyards, and iconic mountain ranges only tell part of its story: Its people, and their fight to preserve their native culture, tell the rest.

Take a ferry from Cape Town’s waterfront to Robben Island, a former high-security prison for anti-apartheid prisoners (including Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela) that’s been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Tours are often conducted by ex-prisoners who share their most personal accounts. Mandela covertly wrote his autobiography “The Long Walk to Freedom” here, scratching notes on toilet paper and hiding his manuscript in the garden. Notable sites beyond the prison walls include World War II fortifications; the limestone quarry where Mandela worked for 13 of his 18-year sentence on the island; and the prison house where Robert Sobukwe, leader of the Pan African Congress, was held in solitary captivity.

Another community in the Cape worth learning about is Bo-Kaap (sometimes called the Cape Malay Quarter)–a hillside Muslim neighborhood built centuries ago by freed Southeast Asian slaves. It’s where Tuan Guru, the man credited with bringing Islam to the Cape in 1744, is buried. Pastel-colored homes, nearly a dozen mosques, and steep, cobblestone streets define this area where many Muslims still reside and pray five times a day. A visit to the Bo-Kaap Museum on Wale Street grants a more in-depth look at the Bo-Kaap customs, beliefs, and struggles.

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