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Cape Town, Southern Africa’s Most Beautiful City: Captown And The Capepeninsula

Cape Town is Southern Africa’s most beautiful, most romantic and most visited city. Its physical setting is extraordinary, something its pre-colonial Khoikhoi inhabitants acknowledged when they referred to Table Mountain, the city’s most famous landmark, as Hoerikwaggo – the mountains in the sea. Even more extraordinary is that so close to the national park that extends over much of the peninsula, there’s a pumping metropolis with a nightlife that matches the city’s wildlife. You can hang out with baboons and zebras at Cape Point in the morning, dine at an Atlantic seaboard bistro for lunch, tipple at a Constantia wine estate in the afternoon and party the night away in a Long Street club. All in a Cape Town day.

More than a scenic backdrop, Table Mountain is the solid core of Cape Town, dividing the city into distinct zones with public gardens, wilderness, forests, hiking routes, vineyards and desirable residential areas trailing down its lower slopes. Standing on the tabletop, you can look north for a giddy view of the city centre, its docks lined with matchbox ships. To the west, beyond the mountainous Twelve Apostles, the drop is sheer and your eye sweeps across Africa’s priciest real estate, clinging to the slopes along the chilly but spectacularly beautiful Atlantic seaboard. To the south, the mountainsides are forested and several historic vineyards and the marvellous Botanical Gardens creep up the lower slopes. Beyond the oak-lined suburbs of Newlands and Constantia lies the warmer False Bay seaboard, which curves around towards Cape Point. Finally, relegated to the grim industrial east, are the coloured townships and black ghettos, spluttering in winter under the smoky pall of coal fires – your stark introduction to Cape Town when driving in from the airport on the eastern outskirts of the city.

To appreciate Cape Town you need to spend time outdoors, as Capetonians do: they hike, picnic or sunbathe, often choose mountain bikes in preference to cars, and turn adventure activities into an obsession. Sailboarders from around the world head for Table Bay for some of the world’s best windsurfing, and the brave (or unhinged) jump off Lion’s Head and paraglide down close to the Clifton beachfront. But the city offers sedate pleasures as well, along its hundreds of paths and 150km of beaches.

Cape Town’s rich urban texture is immediately apparent in its diverse architecture: an indigenous Cape Dutch style, rooted in northern Europe, seen at its most diverse in the Constantia wine estates, which were influenced by French refugees in the seventeenth century; Muslim dissidents and slaves, freed in the nineteenth century, added their minarets to the skyline; and the English, who invaded and freed these slaves, introduced Georgian and Victorian buildings. In the tightly packed terraces of the present-day Bo-Kaap and the tenements of District Six, coloured descendants of slaves evolved a unique, evocatively Capetonian brand of jazz, which is well worth catching live if you can.

Brief history

San hunter-gatherers, South Africa’s first human inhabitants, moved freely through the Cape Peninsula for tens of millennia before being edged into the interior some two thousand years ago by the arrival of sheep-herding Khoikhoi migrants from the north. Over the following 1600 years, the Khoikhoi held sway over the Cape pastures. Portuguese mariners, in search of a stopoff point en route to East Africa and the East Indies, first rounded the Cape in the 1480s, and named it Cabo de Boa Esperanza (Cape of Good Hope), but their attempts at trading with the Khoikhoi were short-lived.

The Cape goes Dutch

Europeans did not seriously attempt to create a permanent stopping-off point at the Cape until the Dutch East India Company (VOC) cruised into Table Bay in 1652 and set up shop.

The VOC, the world’s largest corporation at the time, planned little more than a halfway house, to provide fresh produce to their ships trading between Europe and the East. Their small landing party, led by Jan van Riebeeck, built a mud fort where the Grand Parade now stands and established vegetable gardens, which they hoped to work with indigenous labour.

The Khoikhoi were understandably none too keen to swap their freedom for a nine-to-five job, so Van Riebeeck began to import slaves in 1658, first from West Africa and later the East Indies. The growth of the Dutch settlement alarmed the Khoikhoi, who in 1659 tried to drive the Europeans out; however, they were defeated and had to cede the peninsula to the colonists. By 1700, the settlement had grown into an urban centre, referred to as “Kaapstad” (Cape Town).

During the early eighteenth century, Western Cape Khoikhoi society disintegrated, German and French religious refugees swelled the European population, and slavery became the economic backbone of the colony, now a minor colonial village of canals and low, whitewashed, flat-roofed houses. By 1750, Cape Town was a town of over a thousand buildings, with 2500 inhabitants.

Goodbye slavery, hello segregation

In 1795, Britain, deeply concerned by Napoleonic expansionism, grabbed Cape Town to secure the strategic sea route to the East. This displeased the settlement’s Calvinist Dutch burghers, but was better news for the substantially Muslim slave population, as Britain ordered the abolition of slavery in 1834. The British also allowed freedom of religion, and South Africa’s first mosque was soon built by freed slaves, in Dorp Street in the Bo-Kaap.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, Cape Town had become one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world and a seaport of major significance, growing under the influence of the British Empire. The Commercial Exchange was completed in 1819, followed by department stores, banks and insurance company buildings. In the 1860s the docks were begun, Victoria Road from the city to Sea Point was built, and the suburban railway line to Wynberg, one of the southern suburbs, was laid. Since slavery had been abolished, Victorian Cape Town had to be built by convicts and prisoners of war transported from the colonial frontier in the Eastern Cape. Racial segregation wasn’t far behind, and an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1901 gave the town council a pretext to establish N’dabeni, Cape Town’s first black location, near Maitland.

In 1910, Cape Town was drawn into the political centre of the newly federated South Africa when it became the legislative capital of the Union. Africans and coloureds, excluded from the cosy deal between Boers and the British, had to find expression in the workplace. In 1919, they flexed their collective muscle on the docks, forming the mighty Industrial and Commercial Workers Union, which boasted two hundred thousand members in its heyday.


Competing nationalisms
Increasing industrialization brought an influx of black workers to the city, who were housed in the locations of Guguletu and Nyanga, built in 1945. Three years later, the whites-only National Party came to power, promising a fearful white electorate that it would reverse the flow of Africans to the cities. In Cape Town it introduced a policy favouring coloureds for employment, rather than Africans, and among Africans, only men who had jobs were admitted to Cape Town (the women were excluded altogether), and the construction of family accommodation for Africans was forbidden.

Langa township, a few kilometres east of the city’s southern suburbs, became a stronghold of the exclusively black Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which organized a peaceful anti-pass demonstration in Cape Town on April 8, 1960. During the demonstration, police fired on the crowd, killing three people and wounding many more. As a result, the government declared a state of emergency and banned anti-apartheid opposition groups, including the PAC and ANC.

In 1966, the notorious Group Areas Act was used to uproot whole coloured communities from District Six and move them to the desolate Cape Flats. Here, rampant gangsterism took root and remains one of Cape Town’s most pressing problems today. To compound the issue, the National Party stripped away coloured representation on the town council in 1972.

Resistance resumes

Eleven years later, at a huge meeting on the Cape Flats, the extra-parliamentary opposition defied government repression and re-formed as the United Democratic Front, heralding a period of intensified opposition to apartheid. In 1986, one of the major pillars crumbled when the government was forced to scrap influx control; blacks began pouring into Cape Town seeking work and erecting shantytowns, making Cape Town one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. On February 11, 1990, the city’s history took a neat twist when, just hours after being released from prison, Nelson Mandela made his first public speech from the balcony of City Hall to a jubilant crowd spilling across the Grand Parade, the very site of the first Dutch fort. Four years later, he entered the formerly whites-only Parliament, 500m away, as South Africa’s first democratically elected president.


One of the anomalies of the 1994 election was that while most of South Africa delivered an ANC landslide, the Western Cape returned the National Party, the party that invented apartheid, as its provincial government. Politics in South Africa were not, it turned out, divided along a faultline that separated whites from the rest of the population as many had assumed; the majority of coloureds had voted for the party that had once stripped them of the vote, regarding it with less suspicion than the ANC. Apart from the period between 2002 and 2006, when Capetonians elected an ANC administration, the Western Cape and its capital have consistently bucked South Africa’s national trend of overwhelming ANC dominance. Since 2006 both have been governed by the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA), which increased its proportion of the vote in the 2011 local elections.

During the ANC’s first term in national government under Mandela (1994–99), affirmative action policies and a racial shift in the economy led to the rise of a black middle class, but even so this represented a tiny fraction of the African and coloured population, and many people felt that transformation hadn’t gone far enough. Indeed after nearly two decades of non-racial democracy, Cape Town is still a very divided city and one that is becoming increasingly so.

A tale of two cities

On the one hand, the Mother City has been titivating itself for tourists and investors, with the post-apartheid period bringing a wave of economic confidence expressed by investors in a number of monumental developments, among them the megalomaniacal Century City (1997) in the northern suburbs, a retail, residential, office-complex, theme-park, wannabe-city-in-itself, with Tuscan architecture and Venice-inspired canals. More tasteful was the expansion of the V&A Waterfront to include the hugely symbolic Nelson Mandela Gateway (2001) occupying a prime site and the nearby Cape Town International Convention Centre (2003), which finally gave the Mother City the world-class conference facility it so badly needed. As part of South Africa’s successful hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the iconic Cape Town Stadium (2009) went up on Green Point Common and Cape Town International Airport got a brand-new Central Terminal Building (2009), at last providing a facility that can cope with the city’s expanding air traffic. To cap it all, the state-of-the-art Cape Town Film Studio (2010) was already attracting major projects by 2011, kicking off with the production of 3D extravaganza Judge Dredd.

On the other hand, as the biggest city within over a thousand kilometres, Cape Town continued (and continues) to attract a steady influx of people seeking a better life, mostly from the rural Eastern Cape, but also from all over Africa, with shacks proliferating wherever there are available open spaces in the townships. The city estimates that nearly a quarter of its households live in so-called “informal dwellings” or shacks. In 2005, the ANC national housing minister launched the N2 Gateway Project, to substitute brick buildings for some of the shacks that lined the N1 from the airport to the city. Whether it was a serious attempt to alleviate the housing shortage or just grandstanding for the electorate and eye candy for tourists arriving by air in the Mother City is a moot point. Either way, housing is still one of the biggest problems facing the metropolis (and the whole of South Africa), and a growing one: between 1998 and 2008 Cape Town’s housing backlog grew from 150,000 to 300,000.

The housing shortage means that hundreds of thousands of Capetonians have limited access to services, such as running water, waterborne-sewerage and electricity. It’s also symptomatic of the city’s slew of other problems: poverty, unemployment, rampant crime, and high infection rates for HIV and TB. Planners project that within the next twenty years the city’s population will grow from its present 3.5 million to anywhere between five and seven million inhabitants.

Industry has long been the route for urbanizing societies to rapidly create employment. But industrialization comes at an environmental cost and Cape Town’s environment is one of its greatest assets: a tangible source of income and employment through tourism. But on its own, tourism is not enough. The city’s planners and politicians face some tough choices.



Written by PH

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