With its remarkable social history and ethnic diversity, South Africa offers clients cultural experiences that are every bit as intriguing as its celebrated game parks, according to travel agents who specialize in selling the destination.
Key to the country’s history and culture is the figure of Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician and politician who served as South Africa’s president from 1994 to 1999.
Mandela’s recent death has heightened the already strong interest in his journey from humble beginnings and imprisonment to his pivotal role in forging a reborn nation.
“Mandela’s death is really shining a light on South Africa’s recent history, with a lot of people looking to see where Mandela was brought up and where he lived and worked,” said Patricia Feige, an Africa specialist with ADT-Adventure Travel Desk in Wayland, Mass.
“South Africa is developing a map of the areas associated with his life, and more infrastructure is being developed to highlight the sites in Johannesburg and Soweto with a Mandela connection.”
A moving sight
For Connie Ebright, owner of Ebright Travel in Glendale, Calif., an Ensemble agency, the most moving glimpse into Mandela’s life came during a visit to Robbin Island off Cape Town, where he spent much of his 27-year incarceration in a tiny cell. Tours of the island are led by former convicts.
“It’s an earth-shaking experience that I highly recommend to clients,” Ebright said of the tour. “Our guide was just 15 when he was imprisoned and he was there for seven years until apartheid ended.
“He was allowed just one square of toilet paper a day, which he saved and wrote poetry on. Now he has a published book and a Master’s degree.”
Tours of the Soweto township, where both Mandela and Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu lived, and historical sites in Johannesburg are among the most memorable South African experiences for Margie Jordan, owner of Jordan Executive Travel, a Signature agency in Jacksonville, Fla.
Jordan has also arranged social history tours for clients through such operators as Ntabo Tours.
“A really good historical guide will give you a good idea of what happened during the apartheid era,” she said.
How people live
“We saw how people are living – and some of them are poor, living in shanty homes with metal walls and roofs,” said Jordan. “We have so many conveniences that they don’t have, yet they were some of the happiest and friendliest people I’d ever met. It really changes your perspective.”
Donna Evans, owner of Aurora, Colo.-based Team Travel/Advavo Travel, a Virtuoso agency, made a similar observation about township tours, which she recommends them to clients.
“There’s a lot of interest in visiting the townships, and even clients who are hesitant about seeing poverty find it a rewarding experience,” she said. “The people are very gracious.”
Jordan recommends a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg for clients who really want to understand South Africa’s history.
“As an African American, I found it somewhat difficult to go through it, as it really immerses you in the entire apartheid era,” she said. “There is artwork, news clips from the time, entrances marked ‘white’ and ‘colored.’ No one should miss it.”
Along with the Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg offers such sights as the Hector Pietersen Memorial and Museum, which commemorates the role of the country’s students in the struggle against apartheid.
For other cultural and historic experiences, a day trip out of Johannesburg can include both the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, home to the oldest human fossil every found, and Lesedi Cultural Village, which celebrates the traditions of several different South Africa peoples.
Jordan said there are ways to engage with South Africa’s local culture even when a trip is focused on safari. She often arranges such opportunities for clients.
“You can work with some of the safari lodges to arrange for people to visit local villages or schools and even be part of special celebrations,” Jordan said. “One of my clients ended up sponsoring a child for a year.”
For Ebright, a recent trip to South Africa that included her six grandchildren, brought opportunities to visit local orphanages and schools.
“My grandkids collected gently used tennis shoes, soccer outfits, 100 pairs of flip-flops and 250 Frisbees, which we gave to the kids we visited and to the guides,” she said.
Cape Town’s museums
Cape Town too has a compelling collection of historic and cultural attractions.
Lois Howes of Superior Travel, a TRAVELSAVERS agency in Freeport, N.Y., recommends the Gold of Africa Museum, which displays gold artifacts from throughout Africa.
“Not only is the collection fascinating to see, but the museum is a great place to take kids,” she said. “They arrange for them to participate in a special scavenger hunt around the museum.”
Feige also recommends the Gold of Africa Museum as well as other nearby attractions in Cape Town.
“Right within the Company Gardens area there are several museums within walking distance of each other, including the South African Museum and the South African Jewish Museum, both of which are fascinating.”
For clients with an interest in local crafts, Feige suggests the Midlands Meander, a tourism route near Pietermaritzburg known for its arts and crafts villages and shopping areas.