Dispatch from South Africa: Politics, past and present

March 22, 2011
Editor's note: During Spring Break, 16 Penn State students made their way to Cape Town, South Africa, as part of a weeklong journalism expedition led by Tony Barbieri, professor of writing and editing. The immersive project, part of Barbieri's spring 2011 journalism course on "International Reporting," provided an opportunity for students to experience duties similar to those of foreign correspondents working for media outlets. During the first part of the semester, the students researched South Africa and developed story ideas. In South Africa, they conducted interviews with subjects in and around Cape Town, and assembled a final portfolio of projects from each student that will be marketed to newspapers across North America. In addition to the students and Barbieri, two other professors attended, along with two documentary film students who are producing a documentary on the group's expedition, and their adviser, Barbara Bird.
In this entry, Andy Colwell describes the group's tour of an Apartheid-era prison, while Kevin Cirilli focuses on politics in Cape Town.


The first full day, Saturday, March 5, brought an early breakfast made-to-order that was equal parts American and English – French toast, juice and cereal, but also eggs, bacon, tomato and baked beans. Following the meal, our professors made the trek to the Victorian and Alfred Waterfront, the city's tourism and commerce hub, with the help of our fixer, Rebecca, a graduate student from the University of Cape Town. With Rebecca's help, all received cell phones with local numbers, since few of our American phones even worked in-country – those that did were subjected to extravagant rates of up to $2 per minute. Again, we learned, "This is Africa." While the professors sought our communication devices, some of us went out to explore Gardens, our hotel's neighborhood, on our way to acquire rand, the South African currency. Cash in hand, we rallied at the hotel for phone distribution, then trekked down to the waterfront for a tour of Robben Island, the infamous Apartheid-era political prison.

Our tour was led by Kgotso Ntsoelengoe, a former prisoner of the site, who knew Nelson Mandela personally during their coinciding stay during the 1970s and 1980s. We knew going into the visit that we would hear and see unthinkable tales of strife and persecution, and we were rewarded with just what we expected: Kgotso's stories and recollections colored the prison as a place of solidarity for the prisoners even through decades of hate and maltreatment. Fellow visual journalist Mandy Hofmockel and I collaborated on an audio slideshow during the tour, with her capturing audio as I shot still images. View the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaWIzkSIAaY&feature=player_embedded#at=16 online. 
-- By Andy Colwell
"Today and tomorrow, you'll see the real Cape Town," Mayor Dan Plato, 50, told me Tuesday morning. I shadowed him on his tour through some of the city's most impoverished townships, where shacks are built from others' garbage.
But Plato didn't have answers for his people. In the township of Kalksteenfontein, a crowd of about 50 surrounded him Wednesday. They all had the same question: Where are the jobs? Plato stood with his hands on his hips and stared across the street. He was disconnected.
While a man continued to shout at him, Plato leaned down toward me and whispered in my left ear: "Do you see the children?"
Across the street, dozens of school children lined up behind the schoolyard's 15-foot fence to watch the mayor. Some smiled, others cheered, but most just stared blankly at the round, tall man in a suit who tried to answer the people's questions. Just 20 years ago he would've been the one shouting for answers at the government as he fought against the Apartheid.
His aides tapped his shoulder. He broke his stare and his security detail escorted him into his silver Toyota Prius. I quickly found my way into his security's black SUV and locked the door. The mayor's entourage sped away, dust from the dirt road clouding the tires. There still were two other townships to visit.
In between stops: Lunch at KFC.
"They didn't get what they want," he explained to me at a table with two of his aides. Twenty minutes later, we headed for another township.
"Plato will go anywhere," the mayor's driver Fred Lindt, 56, of Cape Town, told me Tuesday before dropping me off at the hotel. Jokingly called "Uncle" by his employer, Lindt has driven Cape Town's past five mayors and said his current boss travels the most. "He's taken me to places I've never been to -- the poorest of the poor."
Earlier in the week, Plato explained to me his reasoning.
"Disadvantaged people never had a taste of what it means to walk into a mayor's office," he said. "But it's their city. The mayor has to be approachable. We need to break down that wall."

-- By Kevin Cirilli

To follow the weeklong series of Dispatches after they have been posted, visit http://live.psu.edu/tag/Spring_Break_2011_South_Africa online.

  • Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato addresses a crowd of about 50 people in Kalksteenfontein, a poor community in the city, about job creation.

    IMAGE: Kevin Cirilli
Last Updated March 28, 2011