Johannesburg is the heart of South Africa: mad, busy, chaotic and the centre of this country’s story. In contrast, the ‘Jacaranda City’ of Pretoria is a beautifully relaxing city. Delving into Jo’anna and Pretoria’s past makes for a moving, insightful trip
Words: VARDHAN KONDVIKAR
PHOTOGRAPHS: HIMANSHU PANDYA
Funny thing, to understand a country after you’ve left it, on the flight home. But that’s what Invictus did for me. This is the movie that made a lot of people confuse Morgan Freeman with the actual Nelson Mandela, and this is the movie I watched on the flight home, finally helping me put together what South Africa was about, and making me order a large number of drinks to wash down the sizeable lump in my throat. If you’ve seen it, you’ll understand why Mandela is a bit of a personal hero.
To help you understand my initial confusion, you’ll have to imagine that the first place you see, on your first visit to South Africa, is Johannesburg, the biggest city, the centre of so much history, the subject of so much bad press for so many decades. And that the first place you visit in Johannesburg (known to the locals as Jozi, or Jo’burg) is the prison complex on Constitution Hill, where both Mandela and a certain MK Gandhi were incarcerated. This, let me warn you, is not a happy place. There’s a better bit, which I’m going to return to later, but first, let me break your spirit a bit.
Our main visit is to Number Four, where black and coloured prisoners were held, Gandhi included. Mandela’s Robben Island imprisonment was more famous, but he was here too, in the Old Fort prison, the only black prisoner among whites, kept here because he was deemed too inflammatory to be kept with other blacks.
Number Four is Hell.
It’s a place that was designed to strip you of dignity, of courage, of humanity; it made you turn on everyone else, on yourself, pull the darkest, vilest layers of your soul and wear them on the outside as a cloak, simply so you could survive. Conditions were ghastly: prisoners were beaten, tortured, starved, used as sexual slaves. One part of the prison is the solitary-confinement wing, a row of cells so evil it makes you sick to look at them. These are dark, tiny holes: Geoff, our guide to Jo’burg, stands inside and extends his arms in exactly the same way as Matt Damon’s Francois Pienaar measures Mandela’s cell on Robben Island in the film – and his arms remain slightly bent. The door slams, and all you get is a sliver of light to tell you that there is still a world outside. When it rained, water would collect inside the cells: either you slept in a few inches of water, or remained standing. You weren’t even an animal here, you were nothing.
So why tell you about this? It’s because Mandela and Gandhi endured this, and changed – into better men, and I love that. They could have turned into monsters, but, instead, they became healers, saviours, gentle men who brought people together instead of tearing them apart. The better bit of the prison I spoke of is an exhibit on them, where you get insight into them as men, not just as leaders. You learn that Gandhi was horrified at the idea of being lumped in with the blacks, not something you expect from a man so known for championing equality. You learn that, at first, Mandela did turn to violence when he thought it necessary, not what you expect from someone revered for his contribution to peace. And you learn that they had the courage to think things over, admit they were wrong, and change. That ability to change is what makes them so special to me – and the same with South Africa, which, too, admitted it was wrong, and had the strength to do something about it. Mandela forgave – how many can do that? South Africa forgave, and it’s why I’m starting to fall in love with this country.
South Africa isn’t just a tourist destination, but a country with a past and, more importantly, a future. To travel this trip NOW, check out LPMI’s October 2017 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.