Cape Town: Introduction

  • © ha17es,

    © ha17es,


A ritual takes place every year in Cape Town at Christmas time. On the first Sunday of Advent, Capetonians flock to the four-laned Adderley Street, which is closed to traffic for the afternoon. A stage is set up for the occasion, and South Africa's pop stars and dancers entertain the crowds in anticipation of the big moment. As soon as it gets dark. a switch is ceremoniously flipped and the city's colourful Christmas lights are switched on. As the countdown begins, the master of ceremony asks the crowd: 'Isn't Cape Town the most beautiful city in the world?' and tens of thousands of Capetonians raise their voices in agreement.

Moments like this make it clear just how proud the people of Cape Town are of their city. It is South Africa's oldest city and known as the Mother City – the mother of all South African cities. More than 300 years ago, the first European settlers set up camp here. They too would have probably been as captivated by the natural beauty of Table Mountain as any visitor today.

Table Mountain metropolis

At the focal point the metropolis, which has a population of around three million, is the 1086m/3563ft high Table Mountain in all its majestic glory. Nestled below in its shadow lies the city centre and business district, where skyscrapers stand tall alongside small Victorian houses. Sprawling out on both sides of Table Mountain, and flanked by several rocky mountain chains, are numerous suburbs with very different atmospheres. Only once you get to look down from Table Mountain across the vast expanse that stretches south towards the horizon do you get a feel for how big the city really is. Two million of its residents live away from the mountains and the sea in densely populated urban areas and low income townships. The peninsula – at the head of which lies Cape Town – stretches all the way to the Cape of Good Hope. Here, the landscape is a mix of idyllic seaside villages and wild, seemingly untouched nature.

What makes Cape Town and its surroundings so unique is the generous natural beauty that nature has bestowed on this southerly tip of Africa. The magnificent mountain range that spans the peninsula not only makes for excellent hiking trails, but also allows you to see panoramic vistas that you would normally only get to see from an aircraft just as it is about to land. The clear Atlantic Ocean washes its chilly waters onto sun kissed beaches, and there are so many beaches that everyone is guaranteed a spot in the soft sand and the sun. On the Atlantic side are places like Clifton and Camps Bay, where the in-crowd hangs out by day and then flaunts their new tans at the stylish cafés on the promenade in the evening. Across the way is False Bay, where the warmer waters are more family-friendly; ideal for picnics and beachball games. Above them all, the hot summer sun rises at six in the morning and then dips into the ocean with spectacular sunsets in the evening.

Township versus world class city

The beauty Capetonians are surrounded by is infectious, and seems to spill over into their nature - their friendliness is as well known and as unshakeable as Table Mountain itself. They are as proud of their relaxed lifestyle as they are of the charm of the city. Some locals will tell you with a wry smile that the reason it is known as the Mother City is because everything takes at least nine months to get done! This relaxed and leisurely way of life is however in no way to blame for the enormous challenges still facing the city – almost a full two decades after the first democratic elections in 1994. The transition to democracy and the legacy of apartheid means that the city still faces an ongoing political and administrative tug of war, leaving many key problems seemingly unsolvable. One of the biggest challenges is the fact that there is still a huge divide between the wealthy minority and poor majority, who struggle with the consequences of their extreme poverty.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic, that has South Africa at its epicentre, predominantly affects the poor in the townships. When Nelson Mandela spoke to the cheering masses from the balcony of city hall in February 1990 after his release, it was the first step in the establishment of a new democracy. In reality however, it will take a long time for Cape Town to become the rainbow nation that the country's flag optimistically symbolises, and the city's various population groups still tend to keep very much to themselves. Cape Town's residents are made up of Afrikaners (whose ancestors were Dutch immigrants), the English-speaking community (descendent of British immigrants), the indigenous black community and the so-called 'coloured' community (descendent of Europeans and African and Asian slaves).

Many residents were counting on the 2010 World Cup Soccer tournament to help solve the city's social problems and give it a new lease on life. However, the tournament did not bring with it the hoped for visitor numbers nor the job creation. In fact, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost in response to the ongoing economic crisis that started in 2008 – mostly in the mining sector, the backbone of the South African economy. Unemployment mostly affects the country's young adolescents, who regularly stage service delivery protests against the African National Congress (ANC) government.

City with a poignant past

To understand why so many different population groups live in the shadow of Table Mountain one has to back through Cape Town’s 300-year history. The city's founders were Dutch seafarers who established a supply station, the Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie (VOC) here, to supply produce for the trade they conducted between the Netherlands and Southeast Asia. In the 17th and 18th century, governors Jan van Riebeeck and Simon van der Stel turned the halfway station into a flourishing colony. However, its prosperity did not benefit everyone. The indigenous African population found itself subjugated to slavery, as did the workers imported from Southeast Asia. By the end of the 18th century, the flagship of the Dutch shipping company sank, the VOC went bankrupt and the British took command of the colony. At this time, Cape Town was a thriving provincial town even if it lacked status. When the world's biggest diamond rush began in Kimberley (halfway between Cape Town and Johannesburg) in the 19th century, and gold was later discovered in Johannesburg, Cape Town with its harbour developed into an important shipping hub. In 1910 Cape Town finally became the legislative capital of the Union of South Africa, established by the British. To this day, parliament sits in Cape Town and its legislative system is based on the one used by its British founders.

The apartheid era in the 20th century cemented the city's existing social structures. The Group Areas Act of 1950 was used to justify the forced removal of black and coloured communities from many of the city's prime areas. Today, the city's white population continue to reside mainly in the well-to-do coastal areas or in the city's quiet and leafy suburbs. A large majority of the residents live outside of the centre, in the city's sprawling informal shanty towns and low income townships. South Africa's social divide – one of the world's largest – is even more evident in Cape Town. A microcosm of the severity of the situation is seen in Imizamo Yethu, a township a mere stone's throw from the chic homes of Hout Bay. Here, 18,000 people live in an area designed in the early 1990s for only a fraction of that number. The housing problem has also been further exacerbated by the country's lax immigration policies that have seen millions of refugees from countries like Zimbabwe and Mozambique coming into South Africa and competing with the locals for low-wage jobs, adding to the existing social tensions. The level of poverty is not as apparent in Cape Town now as it was in the past because the city deals with its beggars far more proactively than anywhere else in the country.

A challenging time ahead

A number of white South Africans seem to have the tendency to be pessimistic about the country's future. However, even though the country is plagued by corruption, the fact of the matter is that the situation for whites is by comparison still better than for other South Africans. Over 70% of executive positions are in white hands, and even the lower middle class white families can afford to have a servant in the home. The social divide between rich and poor is even more apparent today than at the end of the apartheid era. Key to reversing this is education; South Africa spends 7% of its gross domestic product on education, more than any other African country. Sadly, this outlay is not yet delivering tangible results..

One question that anyone travelling to Cape Town will no doubt ask is whether or not the city is safe for tourists. If you abide by the usual unwritten safety rules, there is no reason why you cannot experience this metropolis as a city that is as safe as it is beautiful. Keep in mind this guiding principle: undue anxiety is as debilitating as downright carelessness. This way, you can look forward to a city whose amazing beauty will captivate you as much as the spirit of its people. And when you look out of your aeroplane window for your final glimpse of the city and Table Mountain, you will understand just why Capetonians are so proud of their home.

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Cape Town

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Cape Town

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South Africa, Namibia, Botswana

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