The Best Places to Experience Culture & History in South Africa
Robben Island (Cape Town): A prison for political activists since the 17th century, including its most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, the island was commonly known as the Alcatraz of Africa. Today the island is a museum and a nature reserve, and a tangible symbol of South Africa's transformation.
Bo-Kaap (Cape Town): This Cape Malay area, replete with cobbled streets and quaint historical homes, was one of the few "nonwhite" areas to escape destruction during the apartheid era, despite its proximity to the city. Visible today only as large tracts of cleared land on the southern outskirts of town (opposite the Bo-Kaap), this once vibrant suburb was razed in the 1960s.
Wupperthal Moravian Mission Station (Cederberg, Western Cape): At the end of a long, dusty road in the Cederberg Mountains, Wupperthal remains unchanged to this day and is both an architectural and cultural living legacy of the early missionaries. Other mission stations worth visiting are Elim and Genadendal, both in the Overberg.
The Red Location Museum (Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape): This award-winning architectural wonder is made up of 12 individual, rusty, corrugated iron "memory boxes," filled with exhibits and narratives about local life and culture, and the community's contribution to the struggle against apartheid.
Apartheid Museum (Johannesburg, Gauteng): Few other museums are able to achieve the emotional impact generated by this reminder of South Africa's ugly past. The collection of images, audiovisual presentations, and intimate tales of human suffering and triumph in the face of adversity is staggering; raw and vivid, the journey from oppression to democracy is powerfully evoked here.
Origins Centre (Johannesburg, Gauteng): For anyone interested in understanding the great genetic strand that purportedly binds all of humanity to a common African ancestor, this new museum is filled with clues, from little bits of sharpened rock to fascinating films depicting the shamanic trance rites of the nomadic San people. While the design and layout owes much to contemporary art galleries, this new attraction is a source of fairly hard-core academic knowledge, including DNA testing (at a price) that may provide you with a better idea of where your own ancestral roots may lie.
Cradle of Humankind (Gauteng): Having shot to fame in 1947 with the discovery of a 2.5-million-year-old hominid skull, the region continues to produce fascinating finds about the origins of mankind. Tours with paleontologists introduce you to many intriguing aspects of human evolution, in an area that's remained unchanged for millions of years.
Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana (Battlefields, KwaZulu-Natal): These two Anglo-Zulu War battlefield sites, within walking distance of each other, encompass both the British Empire's most humiliating defeat and its most heroic victory in the colonies. At the Battle of Isandlwana, more than 1,300 armed men were wiped out by a "bunch of savages armed with sticks," as the mighty Zulu nation was then referred to. Hours later, 139 British soldiers (35 of them ill) warded off a force of 4,000 Zulus for 12 hours, for which an unprecedented 11 Victorian Crosses were awarded.
The Vukani Collection (Eshowe, KwaZulu-Natal): While most Westerners head for the cultural villages to gain some insight into Zulu tribal customs and culture, Vukani is where Zulu parents take their children. With the largest collection of Zulu artifacts in the world, this is a highly recommended excursion, particularly for those interested in crafts. Note that if you aren't venturing this far afield, the Campbell Collection in Durban is an alternative.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.