South Africa is known for its great safari and outdoor activities. From the top of Table Mountain to the barren desert of the Kalahari with both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans to choose from, South Africa is considered the most geographically diverse with unbelievably beautiful nature reserves and wildlife on the African continent.
But, aside from spectacular landscapes and natural beauty, the country offers sites full of vast culture and historical value.
South Africa has a colorful history at the heart of which lies the Apartheid and the legacy that it left behind. To get to know the country, you have to understand its history. And this is just what I did when I travelled to South Africa with two friends – taking the Liberation Heritage tour.
Most of the historical sites can be found at the vibrant city of Johannesburg where you will find links to key Apartheid historical sights.
First stop is the Apartheid Museum. It was a bit of a gruesome experience which reminded me of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia because of its provocative and violent film footages and actual photographs. However, unlike the Tuol Sleng, the Apartheid Museum brings the visitors to an emotional journey based on the struggle to overthrow tyranny and racial discrimination. The museum tour will actually make you feel like you are actually in the Apartheid era where the segregation of black and white are re-enacted from the time you enter the museum grounds. This is a fundamental trip particularly for those who wants to understand the Apartheid. The only downside is that taking photos is not allowed inside the museum. With R65.00 (about $6) admission fee for adults, it is all worth your money. For more information, visit their official website at: http://www.apartheidmuseum.org/.
Next stop is Soweto short for South-West Township, the most famous district in the country. We took a guided tour to revisit its history and its significance in the resistance movement during the Apartheid in the 70s to 80s. On the way, we passed by homes ranging from extravagant mansions from the prosperous white areas to makeshift shacks that traditionally houses the black workers. Under the Apartheid, this city was developed as a township for black people. It was the center of the struggle against Apartheid.
One of the places that encapsulates the spirit of resistance is the Regina Mundi, the largest Catholic Church in the country where gatherings of various political and anti-apartheid organizations happened.
In June 16, 1976, during a student uprising, the church became the refuge of protesting students fleeing from the police’s bullets and teargas canisters. Many were injured and the church’s sacred symbols were damaged . Despite its renovation, it has retained the damaged altar and bullet holes in the ceilings bearing testimony of what happened on that fateful day in Soweto. Beautiful stained-glass windows donated by Poland in 1998 surrounding the walls are a welcome invitation.
A mini exhibition was built for visitors (ranging from 200 a day) wanting to have a glimpse of its historical value. Entrance is free but donations are welcome.
Another important stop in Soweto is the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum. It was erected in honor of the late Pieterson, the 12-year old boy shot dead by police during the 1976 student uprising.
The museum is located not far from where Pieterson was shot and killed. On the day he was killed on June 16, students were protesting against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools. The supposedly peaceful protests ended in a deadly riots with police firing openly to the protesters. His death was captured by a photo-journalist and was published globally.
Since then, Hector Pieterson has become something of an iconic image of the Apartheid uprising.
The museum is open Monday to Saturday with a fee of R25 ($2.42). Unfortunately, photography is again not allowed inside the museum.
Other attractions in Soweto are residences of famous anti-apartheid activists such as the Sisulu residence, the house of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the mansion belonging to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, second wife of Nelson Mandela and lastly the first house of Nelson Mandela which is now a popular tourist attraction.
The Nelson Mandela’s humble house in Orlando West, Soweto, has been transformed into the Mandela Family Museum. The house was preserved the same state it was when the Mandelas lived in it in the 1960s.
The house contains assortment of memorabilia, paintings and photographs of the late Nelson Mandela.
When I visited this place in 2011, I find that it was not worth the R65 ($6) fee for international tourists. At that time, it was just a small building and does not fall as a high quality tourist destination.
However, the Soweto Heritage Trust is keen to improve the museum and expand the area. And with the untimely death of Nelson Mandela, this place might turn into a worthwhile point of interest in South Africa. For updated information, visit its official page, http://www.mandelahouse.com/.
If you want to learn more about Nelson Mandela, the first South Africa’s democratically elected black president, visiting Robben Island is a must if you visit Cape Town. Over the centuries, the island has been used as a hospital, mental institution and a military base.
However, it is most famous for being a political prison during Apartheid where Mandela spent 18 years of the 27 years of his prison life.
Since 1997, it has been a museum and a heritage site with ferries departing from the mainland regularly (each tour takes approximately 3.5 hours).
A bus will take you around the island stopping over at the Lepers’ Graveyard, Kramat Shrine, the house where Robert Sobukwe lived in solitary confinement, the lime quarry area where prisoners including Mandela did hard labour and the maximum security prison where Mandela’s cell was left in its original state.
One of the interesting things of this trip is the on-foot-tour with the former inmate giving their firsthand accounts of prison life, making the whole visit a personal and poignant tour.
Aside from its historical significance, Robben Island is a home to African penguins and interesting mix of flora and fauna.
Ferries depart from Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town and costs R250 (about $24) for adults and P120 (about $11.60) for children. For more information, visit http://www.robben-island.org.za/.
South Africa, is definitely one of my favorite African destinations. With Mandela’s death, South African tourism is likely to boost, not just as a premier outdoor destination but also as a country of eclectic cultures and a fascinating history.