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Student news: Haggles and history in downtown Cape Town

Greenmarket Square in downtown Cape Town, South Africa, is a vibrant, bustling collection of tented stalls crammed close together. The narrow aisles become a maze through statues, jewelry and endless other African crafts. Constant calls of, “You pick something, I give you a special price,” from the vendors don’t allow customers to linger long over an item—you either bargain or you move on.

Late Saturday morning, the 30 UW-Madison engineering students participating in the 2007 LeaderShape Institute found themselves in the middle of Greenmarket. Some students had never bargained before, but the first vendors a student interacted with served as a crash course in countering first prices with low offers and negotiating steadily to a midpoint.

Greenmarket Square was only one of many sights the students toured in the city’s center. Saturday was a flexible day for the students to choose the museums, markets and neighborhoods that most interested them, and they traveled in groups of six or seven to get a closer look at Cape Town’s culture and people.

The sky was clear blue and the weather was hot, though the occasional Southeaster wind blew through. The students began their explorations as the daily noon shot was fired from an old British cannon on nearby Signal Hill.

Jera Pashouwer and Rebecca Gilsdorf

Jera Pashouwer (left) and Rebecca Gilsdorf in the stairwell at the Castle of Good Hope (large image)

Many students began by visiting the Castle of Good Hope, which is South Africa’s oldest building dating from around 1666. Built by the Dutch East India Company, the pentagon-shaped castle serves as a museum of art and artifacts from the days of colonialism in South Africa. Though it has an outer brick wall and moat, the term fort better describes the flat-topped yellow-walled inner section.

The castle didn’t offer many signs or brochures, and students saw mostly paintings and military equipment. However, the infinite doorways and stairwells led to an upper level that offered a more exciting view without the comfort of any guardrails. Downtown Cape Town, set against Table Mountain, sprawls out beneath the castle. In plain view is City Hall, the last major Victorian building constructed in Cape Town and home of a massive 3,165-pipe organ. Nelson Mandela delivered his first speech at City Hall after his release from prison in 1990.

From the castle, many students wandered to the heart of Cape Town: the markets. Of the three markets, Greenmarket Square attracted most students, who found a variety of souvenirs that included the same African drums used in their Thursday night drum circle. One student bought a large drum, which now periodically vibrates the walls of the University of Cape Town dorm. All others opted for the smaller, more decorative drums.

Students learned the ritual-like bargaining process with varying degrees of success. Andrew Burton, a junior chemical engineering student, had a lengthy negotiation for a spear, and he and the vendor played their roles expertly: Burton approached the spear, looking at it with disinterest while complimenting the vendor. The vendor offered a special price, 450 rands (equivalent roughly to $65). Too high, replied Burton, saying he only had 150 rands, an almost accurate statement, and wouldn’t go higher. The vendor dropped quickly, but they hit a stalemate at 200 rands and Burton started walking away. The vendor called him back, and the process continued until the final agreement: 180 rands and Burton came away with the intricately carved, dark wood shaft capped with metal at both ends.

“I didn’t think that would actually be successful,” he commented as he handled his well-wrapped prize.

From the markets, the student groups dispersed to museums and other attractions. Many visited the District Six Museum, where students listened to a resident of the famous District Six neighborhood, which gained notoriety in the 1960s when Cape Town moved the black and “colored” residents out and declared the neighborhood a “whites-only” zone. The living memory of apartheid greatly impressed the Madison students.

Others ventured into the Bo-Kaap (pronounced booah-cup) neighborhood, which is home to a large concentration of Cape Town’s Muslim residents. The buildings were painted in bright pastels, and the rainbow effect drew attention to the top of the neighborhood’s hill, where a band of Bo-Kaap schoolchildren dressed in blue and white striped shirts were preparing to play and march through the streets. Students could hear the start of the show as they walked past a few neighborhood residents with painted, glittered faces.

Fuller Hall courtyard

Fuller Hall courtyard (large image)

Back in the main part of downtown, many student groups wandered along the Company’s Garden, a street that once was a garden that provided ships with fresh produce. A variety of museums, churches and governmental buildings are located along the avenue, with lots of white pillars and towers. A natural highlight is the botanical gardens, where students spotted birds and ducks, as well as plenty of flowers and palm trees. At the end of the garden, a wedding reception was taking place.

When the students regrouped, the Jammie shuttle was noisy with students comparing purchases and stories of the day. Ostrich eggs, ebony art and fishbone bracelets were only a few of the varied goods won in the bargaining battles. And overall, this walking lesson in South African history, culture and commerce energized even those still aching from climbing Table Mountain the day before.