The Braille Monitor                                                                                                     February 2005

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Springtime in December

by Barbara Pierce

Table Mountain in the heart of Cape Town as seen from Robben Island
Table Mountain in the heart of Cape Town as seen from Robben Island

To some international readers of the Braille Monitor the above title is nothing more than life as usual, but for the North Americans who traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, for the sixth quadrennium of the World Blind Union (WBU) one of the offsetting benefits of spending well over twenty hours in the air to get there was more than a week of brilliant sunshine and temperatures in the high seventies during the day and the high sixties in the evening.

While the women's forum and the general assembly were in session, we were, of course, seated indoors, taking part in the meetings, but we had evenings and two weekends in which to appreciate the beauty and diversity of this southwesternmost protrusion of the African continent, which culminates in the Cape of Good Hope. A mountain range stretches the length of the Cape, running through Cape Town. The most famous peak, if it can be called that, is Table Mountain, which is 1,086 meters high and looks from the streets of Cape Town as if a giant craftsman had simply sawed off the top of the mountain, leaving a flat surface of several square kilometers. Walking around on the top, one may question the concept of flatness; the walking is pretty rough in many places.

Patricia Maurer stands on Table Mountain,   Behind her part of Cape Town can be seen, including its newly renovated waterfront.
Patricia Maurer stands on Table Mountain. Behind her part of Cape Town can be seen, including its newly renovated waterfront.
The courtyard in Nelson Mandela's Robben Island prison block, where prisoners broke rock all day.
The courtyard in Nelson Mandela's Robben Island prison block, where prisoners broke rock all day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More than two hundred different routes are available for climbing up or down the faces of the mountain, and Cape youngsters often make the two-hour climb on a Sunday morning and then ride the cable car back down. We soft Americans were happy to use the cable car in both directions. The views from the top are spectacular, and while up there one can examine large relief maps of both the top of Table Mountain and the entire Cape.

Perhaps the most effective effort the ten-year-old South African democracy has made to communicate to the world what it is learning about overcoming the past and forgiving one's enemies is its tours of Robben Island, eleven kilometers from Cape Town in the Atlantic. For over four hundred years Robben Island--its name is derived from a Dutch word for the seals that once inhabited the island--was used almost exclusively to imprison those that successive regional governments wanted to be rid of. In the early years this included Malay princes and other political enemies. But involuntary residents have also included lepers and those with mental illnesses. The apartheid regime that took power after the British vacated in 1961 used Robben Island to imprison convicted members of the ANC (African National Congress). Nelson Mandela, the first president of the new South African democracy, spent the majority of his twenty-seven years of incarceration on Robben Island. Among the most moving displays in the area where passengers wait to board the ferry for Robben Island is a giant photograph of prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, sitting in the courtyard of their prison block, using five-pound hammers to crush rock. The only purpose of this work was to exhaust and demoralize the Black, Colored, and Indian prisoners.

The tour guides for both the bus tours of the island and the prison tours are themselves former prisoners and members of their families. Our guide explained that he was committed to doing this work to ensure that the world remembers what happened to the people fighting for freedom and equality in the South Africa of 1961 to 1993. He assured our group that they had forgiven their oppressors, but that they would never allow themselves to forget the experience of oppression for fear that, if they forgot those painful lessons, they might themselves be capable of perpetrating the same injustices on others. He sent us back to our ferry urging us to remember that the human spirit is greater than the evil of hatred.

Barbara Pierce and Jessica Thompson smile as they kneel, poised to pet Joseph, a two-and-a-half-year-old cheetah.   The trainer kneels, straddling the cat's head.  Joseph relaxes with his eyes shut and tail and legs extended
Barbara Pierce and Jessica Thompson smile as they kneel, poised to pet Joseph, a two-and-a-half-year-old cheetah. The trainer kneels, straddling the cat's head. Joseph relaxes with his eyes shut and tail and legs extended.
Elephants browse twenty-two hours a day.   This one was far more interested in lunch than our car..
Elephants browse twenty-two hours a day. This one was far more interested in lunch than our car.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the earliest years colonizing the Cape, Europeans recognized that the rolling hills and valleys of the western Cape were ideally suited for growing grapes and making wine. Not until Huguenots were forced to leave the wine-making provinces of France, however, did farmers arrive with the expertise to grow grapes successfully and begin to develop South Africa's wine production. On the Sunday between the women's forum and the beginning of the WBU general sessions, President Maurer's secretary, Jessica Thompson, and the Pierces joined a small tour of the Stellenbosch wine region. The area was lovely, and one farm was even conducting a wine tasting. We can testify that the South African wines are truly excellent, even if they are not much imported by the United States.

But the most memorable part of the day was a stop at the Spier Cheetah Preserve, where a band of dedicated professionals are fighting to keep these smallest of the big cats from complete extinction. For a small fee visitors can watch and even stroke cheetahs, though only after they have been fed and a handler is present to keep them relaxed. Cats from this preserve are used in films and public appearances to educate people about their plight.

The sign behind the Pierces announces the latitude and longitude of the Cape of Good Hope.  The Atlantic can be seen on the right.
The sign behind the Pierces announces the latitude and longitude of the Cape of Good Hope. The Atlantic can be seen on the right.
A mother ostrich supervises several chicks.  An ostrich can lay up to sixty eggs, though if they are not taken away from her by predators or by farmers to stimulate production, she will stop laying at about twenty-five -  the number she and her mate can cover with their bodies and outspread wings.   Male ostriches are black because they sit on the nest at night.   The brown female has brooding duty during the day.
A mother ostrich supervises several chicks. An ostrich can lay up to sixty eggs, though if they are not taken away from her by predators or by farmers to stimulate production, she will stop at about twenty-five--the number she or her mate can cover with their bodies and outspread wings. Male ostriches are black because they sit on the nest at night. The brown female has brooding duty during the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the conclusion of the quadrennium the Pierces flew to Port Elizabeth, where we spent a day touring the Addo Elephant Preserve. This fenced park is home to about three hundred fifty elephant, eleven zebra, six lions, several cape buffalo, and many antelope of several kinds, ostriches, secretary birds (who hunt in pairs and kill snakes by kicking them), and innumerable lesser birds and beasts. Visitors are warned to leave citrus fruit behind when entering the park, since elephants think nothing of opening a car to help themselves to oranges and lemons. Our driver/guide also mentioned that, when it is cool, elephants are delighted to sit on the hood of a car to enjoy the warmth. We were relieved that the temperatures were well into the eighties that day.

Mary Ellen Jernigan and Marc Maurer receive permission to climb to the top of the lighthouseat Cape Point.   Here they stand on the platform, lighthouse keeper behind them, and enjoy what the keeper called a light breeze
Mary Ellen Jernigan and Marc Maurer receive permission to climb to the top of the lighthouse at Cape Point. Here they stand on the platform, lighthouse keeper behind them, and enjoy what the keeper called a light breeze.

The following day we drove to the Cape of Good Hope and enjoyed watching the penguin colony, ostriches and their chicks, and troops of baboon strolling along the road, eating berries and observing the visitors. We learned of one interesting hazard that we do not have to worry about in this country. It seems that, as civilization in South Africa encroaches on baboon habitat, homeowners risk break-ins by baboons. The first thing the invader does is to mark every room to keep other baboon from following into the promised land. This results in a particularly smelly clean-up job, which is then compounded by the additional damage done by the baboon. They cannot open jars, so they drop them on the floor and pick goodies out of the broken glass. They also can and do empty refrigerators. The damage they can inflict in a short time is staggering, but it is not covered by homeowners' insurance. It is comforting to know that American society is free from a few hazards.

We very much enjoyed our visit to Cape Town and admire what the South African people are attempting to accomplish. This experiment in democracy is very new, and the country still faces staggering problems. The poverty of many Blacks is almost inconceivable. The "informal" housing, as the hovels erected by millions of desperately poor people are euphemistically called, simply cannot be imagined unless they are seen. The continuing ignorance of many, many people in rural areas was symbolized for me by a statement made by a South African delegate to the women's forum. She told those of us seated at her table that in addition to the myth that intercourse with a virgin will cure AIDS, some rural men are now being told that sex with disabled women will cure them. As a result the incidence of AIDS among rural blind women is rapidly increasing. In addition South Africa is coping with an unemployment rate of more than 40 percent, despite many more service staff working in every area of South African life than one ever sees in the developed world.

We can only hope that this bold experiment with democracy and equality will succeed and that South Africa will learn to make the most of its many resources and its wonderful people.

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