South Africa From The Eyes of a First Time Visitor

8 min readMay 10, 2023
Different faces of Olorunnisola Abe

Quarterly Aspen-styled seminars under the Education programme is one of the integral components of the Kashim Ibrahim Fellowship; the 3rd quarter seminar, however, happens in South Africa. It was going to be my first trip outside Nigeria, and I looked forward to it.

On Saturday, April 29th, my colleagues and I landed in Stellenbosch, the second oldest town located about 50 kilometres (31 miles) east of Cape Town in South Africa. The moment we arrived our hotel and the city’s cold hit my body, I just shut down.

My colleagues and I (The Class of Phoenix)

It was too cold, and I don’t do well in a cold environment. It felt like someone had turned off my happy mood and I found myself constantly struggling to stay afloat for the few days we spent there. Even the tours around and outside the city did nothing to lift my mood.

While I did not have fun as much as I would have loved to, or take as many photos as I wanted, I found solace in how much I learnt in such a short time. Through this article, you would be seeing South Africa through my eyes.

I hope you have fun (or learn something).


The first thing we did at Stellenbosch was to take a tour of the city.

Though it had clean and tarred roads, beautiful buildings, oak-shaded streets lined with cafes, boutiques and art galleries, I couldn’t help but notice that I barely saw a Black person on the street.

A street in Stellenbosch

We walked and drove round the city and in both cases, I could count the number of Whites I saw against the Blacks. To me, Stellenbosch looked like the city for Whites.

Ok… wait, I think I remember.

I saw many Black people at the hotel where we lodged but they were the ones doing the menial jobs. And then I asked myself, “Has Apartheid truly ended?” because the Inequality was palpable.

Even though I had an idea of the response to my question, a trip to Robben Island further confirmed my suspicions.


The next day, my colleagues and I were transported to Robben Island through a ferry. Robben Island was the political prison for people who opposed Apartheid. The Dutch named the island ‘Robben’ because it is full of seals while the British called it Penguin Island because it is full of penguins.

I was still struggling with my mood when we got there, and it left me concerned about how I would document my experience without photos of myself.

Entrance to the Robben Island

Ntando Mbatha, the first tour guide we met at the island helped me to redirect my focus. I decided to learn as much as I could about SA’s history in the short time I had to spend there.

Mbatha, an ex-prisoner on the island, now works there as a tour guide. He shares harrowing and tear-jacking stories of himself and thousands of other prisoners including Nelson Mandela who spent 18 of his 27 years in the prison with millions of tourists who visit the island.

On the island, prisoners were dehumanised, robbed of their dignity, handcuffed, and stripped naked. They lost their identities as names and surnames ceased to exist. Only their prison numbers mattered!

“My prison number was 71/84 because I was the 71st prisoner to arrive at the prison in 1984,” Mbatha revealed.

Only male political prisoners (Blacks, Indians and Coloured) were held on the island. Prisoners were divided based on clothing and Blacks were given short pants with no shoes. This was to remind them that, although they were challenging Apartheid, it did not erase their lowly status.

Ntando Mbatha

As Mbatha ended the tour and urged tourists to ask questions, a colleague asked if the present South Africa was what he envisaged during his fight against Apartheid.

“Although we gained political freedom, we do not have economic freedom. We did not do a complete job,” he responded, adding that people were still being killed, students were still fighting for a right to education, and they still lacked infrastructures.

“For Black people living in Townships (underdeveloped racially segregated urban areas reserved for non-whites), there has been no change!” Mr. Mbatha concluded.


I was only 19 years when I became a member of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS). During those days, as Black students in this country, we were fighting against that system of education which was designed by Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid to make Blacks in the country nothing but slaves. But unfortunately, when the youths were protesting peacefully against that system of education, response from the regime was always negative because we were teargassed and some of our students were even killed.

I was arrested in Soweto in 1984 when I was 24 years. I was then taken to Protea police station where you are detained for not less than six months. To me, those six months in detention were like 100 years because in detention, life was very tough. In detention, you consider yourself as fortunate if you came out of that place alive because so many activists were killed in detention.

Mbatha showing tourists where the kitchen was situated when it used to be a prison

I was severely tortured, both physically and psychologically. I cannot begin to tell you the type of torture I was subjected to whilst in the cell. But it was even worse with our females. The security police did unspeakable things to our females in detention. I respect and salute all those females who were at the forefront in the fight against apartheid because some of them still suffer today because of the type of torture administered to them in detention.

After six months in Protea police station, I was charged to court and sentenced to 7 years imprisonment. If I were to choose between the 7 years I spent in Robben Island and the six months I spent in Protea detention, I would choose the 7 years here because it was tough. We were kept in a very small cell, never allowed any visitors except the unwanted visitors — the interrogators who come to torture me because they wanted information. I still remember the chief interrogating officer; he made my life a living hell.

I remember when I had my first child in 1993. My father said to me, ‘look my son, I’m very happy for you that you have been able to father a child because what I heard took place in detention, I did not think that you would be able to father a child.’


As Mbatha narrated his sad story of Apartheid, I caught a colleague wiping away tears from her face. No word perfectly describes the depth of damage that Apartheid caused Black South Africans.

However, one question that sat on my mind even as I sympathized with them was, “Would South Africa have the infrastructural development it currently has in some parts of the country without the Whites?”

When I returned to Nigeria and shared my thoughts with Dada Yusuff who is a past Fellow, his explanation seemed to answer my question, so I encouraged him to add his voice to this article.

Here’s what DADA YUSUFF thinks:

Almost three decades after the end of apartheid, South Africa remains a country struggling to fulfill the hopes and aspirations of its people. The ANC, once celebrated as a beacon of hope, now stands accused of squandering the legacy of Nelson Mandela and his fellow freedom fighters.

The initial euphoria of liberation has given way to a sense of disillusionment, as South Africans watch their country fall into disrepair. Despite Thabo Mbeki’s modernist policies, the country’s economy remains sluggish, with many Black South Africans lacking the skills and innovation needed to sustain it.

The past decade has seen a succession of corrupt leaders, from Jacob Zuma to Cyril Ramaphosa, who have presided over a steady decline in the fortunes of their people. Poverty, unemployment, and inequality remain endemic, while xenophobia and corruption are rampant.

It is a tragic irony that the very people who fought so hard for their freedom are now failing to build a prosperous and just society. The dream of a “Rainbow Nation” has turned into a nightmare of insecurity, underfunded public services, and dysfunctional institutions.

Yet the question remains: why have African countries struggled so much to achieve post-colonial success? Why have Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and South Africa failed to live up to their potential?

The answer may be found in the complex dynamics of power and privilege. The transition from white minority rule to black majority rule was never going to be easy, but it has exposed the fault lines of a society still deeply divided by race and class. The entrenchment of corruption and entitlement among black elites have only worsened these divisions, creating a toxic mix of anger, frustration, and disillusionment.

Ultimately, the challenge facing South Africa and other African countries is to find a new way forward. To build a truly inclusive and prosperous society will require a new generation of leaders, committed to justice, integrity, and the common good. It will require a renewed sense of national purpose, grounded in the values of human dignity and social justice. And it will require a willingness to learn from the mistakes of the past, and to chart a new course towards a brighter future.


Titled, ‘The Good Society II,’ Seminar 3 material included topics on leadership and the analysis of various countries. Though technical as it involved numbers, I found the reading interesting. Country analysis involved examining histories and analysing the different stages of the economic development of various countries, while noting their strategy, context, and performance.

The analysis of the countries we discussed gave me an insight into how their history influences the decisions that shape their current reality. By the time we got to the analysis of South Africa, I already had a bit of understanding because of the eye-opening and thought provoking tours.

For me, the implication of visiting South Africa and analysing the economic history of various countries is that I would never see a country the same way again. Rather than visit a country just for fun and pictures, I would be curious to know its people, understand its history and culture, learn about its economic growth, and incorporate lessons learnt into my leadership journey.

I am grateful to the Kaduna State Government for this experience!




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