Inside Africa

Racers in Slave Route Challenge follow in steps of Cape Town history

Thomas Page, for CNNUpdated 21st June 2016
(CNN) — Slavery in Africa has always been keenly intertwined with race: the subjugation of one's fellow man for the color of their skin.
Now slavery's bitter history is being remembered with a race of a different kind in Cape Town, South Africa.
The Slave Route Challenge follows the path once taken by enslaved individuals entering the onetime colony, charting a course between sites from a troubling chapter in the nation's history.
The colorful homes of Cape Town's Bo-Kaap neighborhood make up one of the oldest and most fascinating parts of the city, known for its large Muslim population.
The import of slaves from Africa and Asia to the Cape started in the 1600s and continued until slavery was abolished in Cape Town in 1834.
Two thousand runners took part in the first race in 2011, swelling to 8,000 this year. The route takes in landmarks including the whipping post and the Castle of Good Hope, before finishing at the Grand Parade, a site once used for slave auctions -- a bittersweet end to an educational journey.

A hidden history

"I basically started the Slavery Challenge primarily just to highlight a lot of the heritage tied within the city of Cape Town," says Farouk Meyer, organizer and Cape Town native.
"It's something that's almost hidden away from all of us," he says of the history of slavery in the city. On the route the signs of slavery are subtle; some sites show none at all.
Runners wear a bib as part of the remembrance, each printed with a slave name, a symbol to show each slave was an individual.
The diverse people of the Bo Kaap community have come to be known as Cape Malays, the progeny of a group of mostly Indonesian exiles and enslaved people from Asia and Africa who were brought to South Africa starting in the 16th Century.
The race, which varies in length between 6.2 and 13.5 miles, takes runners through Bo-Kaap, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Cape Town and an area central to the city's immigrant history.
Known for its colorful homes, cobblestone streets and large Muslim population, the people of Bo-Kaap have been called Cape Malay for hundreds of years. A community born of oppression, Bo-Kaap can trace its roots to the 16th century, as immigrants and slaves from Asia and India, or political exiles from Indonesia, expelled by Dutch colonialists.
"These exiles were actually aristocrats," says Thania Pietersen, whose forefathers established themselves in Bo-Kaap. "They were royalty and they were educated and they were also incredibly influential... because they were a threat they were brought here and put in exile far away from their homes and their families."

Throwing off the shackles

Five centuries later, Pietersen's heritage lives on through music and dance. Minstrel shows -- quite unlike those from America, which have their roots in racial stereotyping -- bring Bo-Kaap's community together in a vibrant street parade called "Tweede Nuwe Jaar," or "Second New Year."
It's believed that Tweede Nuwe Jaar was once the day on which Malay slaves were given time off, because their masters celebrated on New Year's Day.
Comparable to Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the Notting Hill Carnival in London, it's an unashamedly flamboyant display of civic pride. Bedecked in bright outfits and playing all manner of instruments, the carnival thumbs its nose at the idea that colonial powers could suppress the cultures that found their way to Bo-Kaap.
"I think pride is very important," says Pietersen, "because when you take people's pride away from them they lose something... [it's] very important to the survival of people's spirit."