So Many Similarities

(with permission from Angela Garbes & Will Pittz)

April 10, 2012
South Africa

We can’t deny it. There are a couple of things that traveling throughout Africa (and traveling for five months straight) have made us long for–things like a kitchen of our own, hot showers, and the ability to flush toilet paper down the toilet…and ESPN. We had some tough moments traveling around Ethiopia, but the time with our friends was restorative. We were by no means tired of traveling but while in Addis we began to realize that what we needed, a little more than half-way into this journey, was to stop moving and settle in for a bit, cook ourselves meals, and get ready for our next big shift from Africa to Asia.

After hearing from many people over the years how beautiful the Western Cape region of South Africa is, we decided to rent an apartment near Cape Town—on a peninsula flanked by the Atlantic and Indian oceans that juts down into the point where their currents meet, and dominated by the stunning, flat-topped Table Mountain. Looking back on our time in South Africa, we can’t believe we had not planned on visiting this country all along.

We have been to some amazing places on this trip, but it is quite possible that on sheer natural beauty, the Cape Peninsula is the most gorgeous place we have ever seen. Just moments after hitting the highway in our little rental car, the Kia Picanto, we were confronted by epic views of granite mountains and ocean, large swaths of unfamiliar and striking trees, plants, and flowers. The mountains and plants presented us with seemingly infinite shades of gray and green, making us think of our beloved Pacific Northwest. The Cape Peninsula offers so much in-your-face-nature, as well as endless opportunities to be out in it. We were smitten immediately.

When we weren’t grilling on the backyard braii (the ubiquitous South African grill on which we cooked fresh whole fish and large steaks), making lavish breakfasts, or reading on our front deck, we spent our time hiking. We hiked straight up Table Mountain, the top of which felt like a surreal beach-cum-moonscape with haunting rock formations and echoes. On the recommendation of our hosts, we walked a rarely visited coastal trail south along the Atlantic toward the Cape of Good Hope. In under two hours, we saw baboons walking along the road, ostriches strolling and pecking their way through sand dunes, rare and beautiful bontebok (which resemble large antelope with dark, twisting horns) reclining under trees, and the remnants of one very large whale vertebrae.

A few days later, we were conversing with African penguins, a group of whom settled about a decade ago on a beach just ten minutes from our apartment. Despite the English being spoken around us, the supermarkets (with pre-washed spicy salad mixes in plastic bags!), and the hot showers, seeing the region’s native animals up close and personal was a reminder of how far from home we still were and how much wildness surrounded us.

After a week, we begrudgingly left our apartment for a road trip through the Western Cape’s wine country. (The “road trip” actually turned into a 4-night stay in a cottage in a quiet mountain desert town where we spent many late afternoon hours sitting on the lawn watching the sun color a wall of rock magnificent shades of orangey red.) On the way out of Cape Town, we stopped at a local market in Mitchell Plain, a “coloured” township sandwiched between sprawling, mostly black townships and the sea. Here we  really started to face the grim history of racism in South Africa and to get a sense, however small, of how much or how little has changed. Under apartheid, all South Africans were classified as Black, Coloured, Indian, or White and forced to live in segregated areas. The random system of classification divided families—husbands, wives, and children—based on arbitrary things like darkness of skin and texture of hair, and a police permit or “pass” was required to even set foot in another residential area. Despite the end of apartheid in 1991, most South Africans still live in de facto segregated townships like Mitchell Plain.

At the sprawling Saturday market we struck up conversation with a friendly local used bookseller. Like many people we’ve met during our travels, he was curious about where Angela was from and obviously disappointed when he heard “the United States.” When Angela offered that she was Filipina, his face lit up and he said, “I knew it! My wife is also Filipina.” We stepped into his tent and met his wife, whose family has lived in South Africa for several generations. She explained that there was a small community of Filipinos who ended up in the Cape Town area after a ship wreck stranded them on the Cape peninsula.

It was during moments like this (and there were quite a few of them) that we recognized our extreme ignorance of South African history and people. While we were familiar with the broad strokes of Apartheid, we knew very little and saw it mainly as a struggle between native black Africans and white Europeans. We quickly saw and learned that South Africa’s population is incredibly diverse and has been for centuries. When the Dutch arrived in the 16th century to settle the country, they were initially barred from enslaving the local Africans, so they imported slaves from their other colonies in Southeast Asia. We were embarrassed that we had virtually no knowledge of this. To this day, there is a huge South Asian population throughout South Africa comprised of Malays, Indonesians, Sri Lankans, and Indians. Add to this what South Africans call “Cape Coloureds,” or people who are a mix of European and South Asian or African. Then add that to the many different native tribes such as Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, as well as both Dutch and English colonists, and it’s easy to see how South Africa has ended up with 11 official languages.

We thought we had had our fill of slave castles and museums while in West Africa, but we couldn’t stay away from Slave Lodge, a museum which sheds even more light on the South Asian and African people who were brought to South Africa against their will. The Slave Lodge provided devastating historical perspective, but it was Cape Town’s District Six museum that provided a powerful, personal view of racial oppression. Pre-Apartheid, District Six was a thriving mixed neighborhood comprised of Cape Coloureds, Indians, blacks, and Malays who lived together without problems. It was precisely this racial co-existence and mixing that terrified the Afrikaaner National Party and which they targeted with the Group Areas Act, which created racially segregated communities and declared District Six’s land white only. For over a decade after the act was passed, the government systematically razed and destroyed District Six, displacing over 70,000 people.

Today, what was once District Six is now a giant, barren scar near downtown Cape Town. Most of the area was never redeveloped and is still home to many empty lots. In the middle of this, former residents of District Six have created a community-based museum where people can come together, share memories, and in small ways re-create their neighborhood. A sympathetic white construction worker saved the former District street signs, which are now grouped together in a sculpture that overlooks a floor-map where former residents can find the location of their old home and write their names. Nearly everyone who works at the museum is a former District Six resident, and the walls are filled with family stories, recipes, and photos of people’s climbs up Table Mountain, which was a permanent fixture in their lives.

After roaming around Cape Town proper, taking in every possible vista of Table Mountain and eating incredible Indian food, we caught a flight to Johannesburg and a taxi to South Africa’s most famous township, Soweto. Soweto is home to anywhere between 3.5 and 5 million people (no one has an accurate count), and was once home to both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. It has long been a destination for immigrants from all over Africa desperate for work or seeking a better life, and as a result of this history and mix of influences it is the birthplace of much of Africa’s vibrant culture.

We began to understand this diversity on our taxi ride, as our driver instructed us on common greetings in local dialects. There are perhaps dozens of different languages spoken in Soweto, he explained, but added with a laugh that Zulu has become a common language in the townships only because the proud and stubborn Zulu, once rulers of the land although not now a majority, refuse to learn other languages.

The township itself is separated from the city by human design, not only racially but geographically. Two “mountains,” built up from the tailings of the lucrative gold mines that made Johannesburg, stand hundreds of feet high, blocking the view of the Johannesburg skyline from the township and vice versa. It is hard not to assume that this physical divide between blacks and whites was as intentional as everything else under apartheid.

One of our most stirring experiences in Soweto was walking the street that students marched on on June 16, 1976 to protest a new requirement that they be taught in Afrikaans, a Dutch-based language created by white settlers as part of a movement to create a white national identity that was unfamiliar to most teachers and students. The unconscionable brutality of the Afrikaaner security forces was on full display that day, as they opened fire on the 20,000 marchers and continued chasing and gunning down children who were engaged in peaceful protest.

We visited the Hector Pieterson museum, named after the 13-year-old boy believed to be the first of over 600 students to be killed that day. Many students who survived fled the country, went into hiding, or were jailed or killed as the violence escalated. This massacre of innocent young people would turn out to be a critical turning point for the anti-apartheid movement.

We haven’t been able to stop thinking about the anti-apartheid movement: the conditions that forced its creation, how it was sustained over such a long period of time. It has become a borderline obsession. We have been inspired by the incredible organization of the opposition, the leadership of the Indian community and the importance of multiracial alliances, the ability of different elements of the movement to change and escalate tactics in the face of new forms of repression.

But our fascination continues also because of the fact that despite stark differences, there are so many similarities between South Africa and the United States – a predominantly white upper class clinging to power, a white working class that has often been manipulated by race-based fears, a diverse mix of people of color ( many brought to the country against their will at some point in history) – who face structural and institutional barriers to opportunity and prosperity, and tremendous wealth alongside gaping income inequality.

There is a difference – white people have never been the majority in South Africa, as they are now in the U.S. – but it is only a matter of time before this changes.

*Web note: Angela Garbes is the daughter of Brod Dr. Archimedes "Angie" and Josie Garbes, MD UPD'62B. They live in Seattle, WA area.



A word from Brod Angie:


Brod Tatang,

Haven't talked to you lately. I've been quiet but I have been following what is happening through the email group and am really saddened by all the sad news ( Boy M and Jun L ) and cannot help but pause to think about my own mortality. I am home alone Josie having left today to be with her ailing mother in Manila.

Anyway, I was looking at the website (You and Norman are doing a yeoman's job), and then I was reading my daughter's travel blog

The part about South Africa and the South Asia connection was too good to not share so I thought I'd share it with you. Feel free to share it as you see fit in your travelogue.

Give my best to Tess and the rest of your brood.

Cheerz, Brod.

Angie Garbes





(Back---> Travelogue)


(Back ---> Current Features)