Mo Goes to South Africa


images-4A number of years ago, maybe eight, I get a call on a Monday that I am to fly to Cape Town, South Africa the next day to shoot a Food Network commercial.

Forget about the 20 hour flight, IN COACH, where I want to fling myself out of the plane above the Sal Islands where we stop to refuel.   Forget about the days of disorientation during the shoot.  The makeup artist (it’s always the makeup artist) says my dizziness is due to my chakras being affected by Table Mountain.  Really? So you don’t think it has anything to do with being suspending in midair for a day?

images-5She asks if I know Shaka Zulu.  Forgive me, I am embarrassed to admit that at the time I did not.  I know Chaka Chan, but that doesn’t impress.  I have since learned that Shaka Zulu (real name: Shaka kaZenzangakhona) was the most influential leader of the Zulu people.

I learn a lot about South African history in a short time.  Cape Town remains the most spectacular place I have visited.   And not in a safari kind of way.  I don’t do safari.   There’s nothing appealing about proving I can be friends with a lion.  Cape Town is far from safari-ish.    It is where the mountains meet the sea.  Beautiful, fragrant flowers blossom all around.   Running along the harbor, I pass restaurants with abundant seafood.  The dollar is strong (9 Rand to $1), so I order an appetizer of fresh fish for two.  I am one and the plate is humongous.  I’m embarrassed as an overflowing mound of shellfish is carried to my table, but I am happy.  I buy drinks for the honeymooning couple next to me and ask them if they’d like a shrimp.

It looks safe and gorgeous here, but I am told not to walk alone after dark no matter how  inviting and un-intimidating the road along the water looks.  Walk directly from the restaurant to the taxi.

We finish shooting early and I decide on a trip to the District Six Museum over a hike up Table Mountain (and I like my hikes), but what a rare opportunity to peruse a museum dedicated solely to a neighborhood decimated by apartheid. images-3

The museum is quiet and I am given a one-to-one talk and tour by a man named Noor Ebrahim who grew up in District Six and was one of the more than 60-thousand people, mostly coloreds (as brown people were labeled) forced from their homes, many of  which were bulldozed, when District Six was designated a “whites only” zone during apartheid in the 1960s.

Until then about 10% of Cape Town’s population; artists, shop owners, laborers, and immigrants, called District Six home.  A mix of blacks, whites, and coloreds could worship, or not, at a mosque, church or temple.   Noor tells me about the families he knew who were torn apart because of the color of their skin.  A white woman and her black husband separated and forced to live in different communities.  Their brown child made to live in a colored community.

The Race Classification Board made the final decision on a person’s race.  People must carry documents identifying the group to which they belong. Interracial marriage is against the law.  A brown or black woman making a living cleaning the office of a white doctor now has to endure the hardship of commuting 15 or more miles from outside of town without a car.  Many lose their jobs.

These are the stories Noor tells me as we sit down on a “Europeans only” bench, a relic of just a few decades earlier.    Apartheid ends in 1994, and some people like Noor are given the chance to reclaim the land on which their homes once stood – if they can afford to make that a reality.  Some can.  Many can’t.

Can a person ever reclaim a house once it’s been destroyed?  Of course not.  When I heard of Nelson Mandela’s passing yesterday, I thought of Noor and how the courage of a man like Mandela made it possible for him to go home again – not to a house – but to a place of dignity.  That’s quite a legacy.

Noor Ebrahim’s book is called Noor’s Story: My Life in District Six.

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