Saturday, July 21 , 2018, 1:48 pm | A Few Clouds 72º

Here & There

Frank McGinity: Trip to South Africa an Unexpected Journey Through Life of Nelson Mandela

Cruise touches triumphs and challenges of one of world’s historic and transformative figures


South Africa is not the easiest place to get to from Santa Barbara.

After a memorable flight of 28 hours from Los Angeles, we stayed two days at the Taj Hotel in Cape Town before boarding our ship, Oceania Cruises’ Nautica. Cape Town is famous for Table Mountain, a hikers’ and climbers’ paradise looming over the city and one of the more interesting rock formations you will see. We had a perfect view from our room.

While Cape Town is a larger city, with 434,000 residents, there are many similarities with Santa Barbara. It has the same beautiful weather. Many of the houses are on the hillside and face south, the beaches are excellent and there are many vineyards to enjoy.

Our itinerary included visits to the ports of Mossel Bay, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth and Walvis Bay in Namibia. But the surprise of the trip was seeing up close the influence that the life of Nelson Mandela had on this country, and what he did for the 50 million people of South Africa — and millions more around the world. Wherever we went, his influence was felt.

Mandela was a leader in the African National Congress during the protests against apartheid, South Africa’s then-system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination. When one protest became violent, the all-white government declared a state of emergency, and Mandela was arrested and incarcerated. That was in 1962.

It’s important to remember how severe apartheid laws were at the time. For example, all citizens had to carry a passbook that would identify their ethnicity. If you were black, you had to live in a specified location, your children received the lowest education with the smallest government subsidy, you had a separate entrance to government buildings and mixed marriages were forbidden, among many other punitive restrictions.

Mandela’s protest against such injustices would land him in prison for the next 27 years of his life.

While in the port of Cape Town, we had the opportunity to visit Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned. This was our first tour. After a pleasant half-hour ride on a large boat, we arrived at the 1,300-acre island six miles off the coast. Our guide showed us the prison grounds, Mandela’s cell and the lime quarry where prisoners were required to work.

It was difficult getting this tour ticket and is one indicator of the surge in tourist traffic from all over the world. In 1999, Robben Island was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We pushed on to our next port of Durban. It was near here where Mandela was captured. A small museum has been constructed at the site near Howick, and contains many artifacts and pictures memorializing that fateful day.

There is a beautiful steel sculpture by Italian artist Marco Cianfanelli, at the site as well. If you stand in a certain spot, an image emerges of Mandela through the series of laser-cut steel plates.

I remember one picture and story from this museum and a defining moment about Mandela. In 1995, there was a major rugby match between South Africa and New Zealand. A freed Mandela walked out on the field to a silent, disbelieving white crowd. Suddenly a cheer started, “Nel-son, Nel-son,” and the crowd roared in unison — a scene captured well in Clint Eastwood’s film, Invictus.

Port Elizabeth would give us an opportunity to visit a large animal preserve. The ship’s passengers were divided into groups of eight and we rode off in jeeps through the countryside. As we traversed the modulating dirt roads, we could observe groups of game up close and personal. Animal packs included impalas, zebras, giraffes and an occasional rhinoceros.

We also traveled outside of South Africa as our ship took us to the port of Walvis Bay in Namibia. We toured the vast desert in specially designed vehicles and viewed a 200-foot-high sand dune, unusually formed mountains and thousand-year-old plants. Such is the contrast of this desert.

If you have an interest in exploring the beaches and surfing spots beyond Santa Barbara, you will find miles and miles of beautiful coastline in Namibia.

After our 16-day cruise, we returned to Cape Town and the end of the story. Mandela was released from prison in 1990, after 27 years. He was elected president of South Africa just four years later and would serve for five years.

Mandela died in 2013 at age 95, but he left South Africa free at last with all discriminatory laws abolished. It prospers today as it continues to develop its significant wealth in minerals, agriculture and manufacturing.

So, we flew home after an exciting, memorable and educational cruise. We did have one more exciting event, however. We were upgraded to first class on our Airbus A380, and I was able to take a shower at 36,000 feet and check on the stock market through WiFi.

As in South Africa, how times have changed for the better.

— Frank McGinity is a Santa Barbara resident. The opinions expressed are his own.

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