This was a memorable and emotional trip. Leaving London in damp, bleak weather for the early summer of SA, Michael & I were a bit dismayed to find that for a time the grey skies had followed us there. However the spirit of Cape Town is not a jot dreary - it is encompassed by its warm, strong and passionate people, the staggering beauty of the countryside and the sustaining hope of transformation.
We stayed at the Town House - a comfortable and welcoming hotel in the centre of Cape Town (found by the wonderful organiser, Frank Barat) - the perfect starting point for our first week of political activity and education about apartheid and its ramifications.
Day one was a meeting with 'The Arch', as he calls himself, Desmond Tutu. Michael was allocated 20 minutes to interview him for a Guardian article about the Russell Tribunal on Palestine’s (RPT) third session being held in CT, which Tutu was opening.
He started with a prayer, specially chosen to be non-denominational but which was nevertheless a bit daunting for two atheists!
What a privilege to meet this 80 year old bundle of fun and compassion!
He has both a serious historical perspective on the dark days he experienced and opposed, but also great insight into the current needs of his people and the dangers facing them in the future. He is not afraid to speak out and criticise those in power who have made themselves remote from and unaccountable to the millions of poor still living in townships across SA. Nor is he afraid to condemn the Israelis for their oppression of the Palestinians.
We took tea with him after the meeting and he is without doubt one of the most engaging and inspiring people I have ever met.
The next day we were taken on a bus trip with the organisers and jury of the RTP round District Six. Originally established in 1867 as a mixed community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, labourers and immigrants, District Six was a vibrant centre with close links to the city and the port. By 1901, however, the process of removals and marginalisation had begun. The first to be 'resettled' were black South Africans.
In 1966 District Six was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act 1950, and by 1982, the life of the community was over - 60,000 people were forcibly removed to barren outlying areas aptly known as the Cape Flats, (where over 1.5 million people still live), and their houses were flattened by bulldozers.
There has been a sustained and successful campaign over many years to secure the land of District Six for its people and re-house many of the original families in new homes. We stood by the pile of stones which symbolises this struggle and heard of the huge efforts required to realise this dream.
We also heard the extraordinary testimony of Ahmed Kathara, who spent eighteen years in the cell next to Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. His dignity and the descriptions of his exculpation of his jailors were humbling.
The Russell Peoples Tribunal was held in the emblematic District Six Museum. It was tasked with answering the question: "Are Israel’s practices against the Palestinian People in breach of the prohibition on Apartheid under International Law?"
The testimonies of those who had suffered under apartheid in SA and those enduring even worse abuses and persecution now in Palestine, were harrowing but also strangely uplifting. There is a strength and power found in adversity which flows through people and transmits itself to those listening - it engenders guilt, anger, remorse, empathy - and, in me, a sincere wish to help change the situation… somehow.
The jury was an especially impressive one including Michael - and others like the wonderful Stephane Hessel, Ronnie Kasrils and Mairead Maguire who have become dear friends - but also Alice Walker (The Colour Purple author and academic) and Yasmin Sooka, (Director of the Foundation for Human Rights, SA).
Their findings were thoughtful, intelligent and unequivocal - yes, Israel is practicing Apartheid. Their suggestions for remedy are many but include referring Israel to the International Criminal Court.
(You can see the sessions and read the recommendations at www.russelltribunalonpalestine.com) although at the time of the Tribunal the site was hacked by agents of the Israeli state and blocked).
We then had a rest overlooking the Atlantic for a few days!
But had fun in Cape Town too!
We saw a great world music band, Desert Rose, (hear Spirit of Africa at www.desertrosemusic.co.za). And at the iconic Athol Fugard Theatre, an amazing combo: Karen Zoid and Vusi Mahlasela - two huge, passionate voices who could never have appeared together only 18 years before.
And stood on top of Table Mountain.
How we got there was the scariest ten minutes of my life!
It was a relief to get down!
We had wonderful trips, with our friend Aslam, to see cheetahs, owls, and my favourites, the penguins! To find by chance the Huguenot Memorial, to delight in the world famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, to discover at the National Gallery Peter Clarke's prolific paintings, woodcuts, collages and writings - and have the incredible fortune to visit him at his home in a township overlooking the ocean…
Peter Clarke outside & in his home in Ocean View…
Listening to Distant Thunder
Peter Clarke was born in Simon's Town in 1929 and worked in the dockyard there for a number of years. He became a professional artist in 1956 and during his career, spanning six decades, recorded many aspects of South African life. Although he and his family were forcibly removed from their home during the apartheid era, his art, though strong, is without bitterness. Often humorous, it is rather a scrutiny and celebration of life and an expression of his ongoing delight in everyday experiences. He has a twinkle in his eye and a charm which captivated us. We came home with a brilliant woodcut and book entitled Fanfare.
And then to Stellenbosch…
…to taste (too much) delicious wine!
To witness, in awful juxtaposition, abject poverty
with the most stunning scenery…
Our trip was highly charged - the contradictions sometimes too much to endure - landscape on an immense and magnificent scale yet battered by 'the Cape Doctor', the terrifying wind so ferocious it howls and screeches round the Cape's many bays - Camps, Hout, False… destructive but cleansing the land of pollution, thus it's healing name; the night we dined with some of the Palestinian witnesses who had courageously travelled to bear witness, one learnt that 33 of his community's houses had been demolished in the Negev desert that day; Haneen Zoubi, one of the few Palestinian MP's in the Knesset was threatened with loss of her Israeli citizenship and thus expulsion for speaking out… the persecution continues at a level of systematic inhumanity which is only truly understood by those we met in SA who had endured it too. We will not forget any of them.