Cape Town is a beautiful city. Its location guarantees spectacular views, interesting nature, and the confluence of two major oceans – the Indian and Atlantic. It’s a lot nicer than I was expecting, and I guess that tells you more about my own expectations about coming to Africa than what’s really happening on the ground.

More than a decade ago, when I was in college, I went to take supplies to a group of Navajo Indians resisting forced relocation from their homes near Big Mountain – a sacred area. I was all geared up to see people in buckskin, living as their great-great-great ancestors did.

What I encountered was completely different. Two young guys rode up on Yamaha motorcycles, and asked us if we would lend them our truck’s battery, so they could hook up their portable TV to watch the football game that was going to be on. So much for a lifestyle of great-great ancestors.

What was much more telling was my own expectations about coming to the place. The same dynamic is at play here. I expected very different things, but am disappointed – but for the better. While I expected intermittent power, difficult officials – the entire Stereotype of Africa – what I’m seeing is a lot more positive and vibrant.

The waterfront at Cape Town has been turned into a major tourism/shopping destination similar to Pier 39 in San Francisco. While that on one hand would give you the creeps (icky tourists!) it’s a bit different in Cape Town.

What is different is this: the country, like their Central and Eastern European counterparts, are undergoing a massive transition. In Cape Town, an area that was originally built as a playground of the white minority now hosts a state-of-the-art facility ferrying tourists to and from Robben Island, the prison infamous for holding Nelson Mandela and others who resisted apartheid.

In contrast to the Eastern Europeans, who seem in places eager to bury their Communist history, the South Africans are taking a much more active role, promoting tourism to places like Robben Island, which is officially designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, alongside places like Cesky Krumlov.

High-speed catamarans ferry visitors to and from Robben Island, and the view of Cape Town, and its dominant natural feature, Table Mountain. But once you’re on the island, the feeling is decidedly different. It is obvious, as you walk through the gates, that you are entering a place of unspeakable cruelty, but also of unstoppable hope and pride. It’s Terezin with a happy ending.

So many things are remarkable about Robben Island, but one thing sticks out in my mind: the tours are run by former political prisoners. Our guide, Phineas Poho, was imprisoned on Robben Island from 1985 to 1990 for crimes such as sedition, organizing against the government, and treason.

He had a very dry sense of humor, warning us beforehand that we would remain in the prison’s cells until we had asked enough questions. It was all ha-ha funny until, on entering the solitary confinement block the door closed behind me with a ferocious slam. The pleasant tourist experience immediately turned into something much scarier.

One by one we respectfully filed by the cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in solitary confinement. We tried to take pictures, but how can a little flash capture that kind of place, that kind of horror, and that kind of hope? I instead tried to focus on the view from the windows, the view above the walls, the big African sky, trying to console myself with the fact that in this case, the good guys did win. There was a happy ending.

The problem with happy endings is that you have to make them last, and that’s exactly where today’s South Africans find themselves. All the people I talked to in Cape Town mentioned their endemic unemployment (40%), the subsequent crime (high) and the brain drain, which holds much more dire long-term consequences.

Is this sounding enough like Eastern Europe for you yet?

What is deeply different than the CEE countries is that the infrastructure in South Africa – its roads, electricity, water, etc. – are first rate. I’ve been surprised in Cape Town how much it reminded me of San Francisco. Complete with townships conveniently out of view of the tourists, but that’s another story, I guess.

The short story on Cape Town? It’s beautiful, fascinating and excellent. I definitely want to come back here.

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