Historical tourism, or just plain tourism?

Before I became interested in policy, before I fell in love with politics, I loved history. Modern history, to be more precise. It was my gateway to all that I have become passionate about (and pursued) since leaving high school. And it’s served me well because I firmly believe that you cannot truly understand a people or place without at least trying to understand their history. It applies to the societies we’ve grown up in and those in which we have not. It may be cliché, but I honestly believe that you cannot understand where people are going without understanding where they have been.

While I didn’t know that I would ever have the opportunity to work in South Africa at the time, I was able to study Southern African history during my undergrad. Because of that and my personal interest in South Africa, I came into this country feeling well versed with its history and excited to engage with the landmarks of its past – to finally see what I had only to that point read about. Shall we say, I wanted to do a little historical tourism. And South Africa, it would prove, is an incredible country for that. Everywhere I have been in this country, there is a reminder of the past – the bad and the good.

Over Christmas, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in Johannesburg. While staying with a friend and her family, I was given the run-down of things that I should see and do while in the city, after which we would engage in lively discussions about the impression I got – as an outsider – from visiting Soweto, or the Apartheid museum, or Constitutional Hill. In these discussions, I kept coming back to the realisation that, as atrocious as Apartheid was, it remains fully on display. The optimist in me wants to believe that the intent is to keep that history as a constant reminder, a statement of ‘never again’. Because sometimes a country and its people, themselves, can be sidetracked from their future goals by forgetting where they have been and what they have come from.

As an outsider, though, engaging with these reminders has felt disingenuous at times. Even as an outsider with a better-than-basic understanding of the people, places, events and their corresponding significance to this country – historically and currently – my experience of the museums, the monuments, the landmarks, feels trite. What I had originally been excited to finally see for myself has left me feeling like…a tourist. And I hate feeling like a tourist. So, as I try to make the most of my remaining weeks in Cape Town, I’m left with one looming question: to Robben Island, or not to Robben Island?

It’s probably the biggest tourist attraction (outside of Table Mountain) that Cape Town promotes, and I find that off-putting and – given its significance and symbolism – demeaning. While I know that my engagement with it wouldn’t be to just tick one more ‘attraction’ off the list, I find myself doing something I don’t normally do – caring how I’m perceived by others. Yet, I also don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to deepen my appreciation of this country’s history. So, what to do? I think this will be one of those spur of the moment things that happens, if it happens. And, if it doesn’t, I think I’ll be okay with that, too. I mean, I’ve fallen in love with this city so there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be back one day. And maybe, by then, I’ll have had enough time to fight this mental battle through to a proper decision.