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.
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.
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.
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.Read More
Weather is an abiding obsession of Capetonians, particularly the southeaster, the cool summer wind that blows in across False Bay. It can singlehandedly determine the kind of day you’re going to have, and when it gusts at over 60km/h you won’t want to be outdoors, let alone on the beach. Conversely, its gentler incarnation as the so-called Cape Doctor brings welcome relief on humid summer days, and lays the famous cloudy tablecloth on top of Table Mountain.
The language of colour
The language of colour
It’s striking just how un-African Cape Town looks and sounds. Halfway between East and West, Cape Town drew its population from Africa, Asia and Europe, and traces of all three continents are found in the genes, language, culture, religion and cuisine of South Africa’s coloured population. Afrikaans (a close relative of Dutch) is the mother tongue of over half the city’s population. Having said that, a very substantial number of Capetonians are born English-speakers and English punches well above its weight as the local lingua franca, which, in this multilingual society, virtually everyone can speak and understand.
Afrikaans is the mother tongue of a large proportion of the city’s coloured residents, as well as many whites. The term “coloured” is contentious, but in South Africa it doesn’t have the same tainted connotations as in Britain and the US; it refers to South Africans of mixed race. Most brown-skinned people in Cape Town (over fifty percent of Capetonians) are coloureds, with Asian, African and Khoikhoi ancestry.
New Year, New Year – so good they do it twice
New Year, New Year – so good they do it twice
A long-standing tradition in Cape Town is Tweede Nuwe Jaar (second New Year) on January 2 – until recently an official public holiday. Historically, this was the only day of the year slaves were allowed off, and the day has persisted as a holiday of epic proportions. If you’re in Cape Town over this period, Tweede Nuwe Jaar sees Cape Minstrels from the coloured community dancing through the streets of the city centre performing a traditional form of singing and riotous banjo playing. Expect each troupe to be dressed up in matching outfits, often featuring outrageous colour combinations. Some roads in the centre are blocked off during the day for the festivities, which process through the city and end up at Green Point Stadium.
Gay and lesbian Cape Town
Gay and lesbian Cape Town
Cape Town is South Africa’s – and indeed, the African continent’s – gay capital. The city has always had a vibrant gay culture, and is on its way to becoming an African Sydney, attracting gay travellers from across the country and the globe. Cape Town’s gay village, with B&Bs, guesthouses, pubs, clubs, cruise bars and steam baths, is concentrated along the entertainment strips of Somerset Road and in the interconnected inner-city suburbs of Green Point, Sea Point and, particularly, the chic De Waterkant, adjacent to the centre. The Pink Map (pinksa.co.za), published by A&C Maps, lists gay-friendly and gay-owned places in Cape Town and is distributed at the visitor centres, and viewable online.
Cape Town hosts a hugely popular annual gay costume party, organized by Mother City Queer Projects (www.mcqp.co.za), a ten-day festival held each December the week before Christmas. People dress as outrageously as possible according to the official yearly theme (past ones have included Kitchen Kitsch, The Twinkly Sea Project and Lights, Camera, Action) and the event seeks to rival Sydney’s Mardi Gras. There’s also an annual gay pride festival in February (capetownpride.org).
Besides the South African gay websites and resources listed, it’s worth having a look at www.gaynetcapetown.co.za, aimed specifically at gay and lesbian travellers to Cape Town, with restaurants and gay accommodation listings, as well as information about HIV/AIDS. In the De Waterkant, Health4Men at 24 Napier St (health4men.co.za) provides free sexual health services to men, including access to free ARV treatment for men living with HIV.
The best listings magazine is Out Africa Magazine, available from the bars and restaurants in De Waterkant, and from GAP Leisure (gapleisure.com), on the corner of Napier and Waterkant streets, an agency that specializes in finding gay accommodation in the De Waterkant and countrywide.
Though there are many lesbians living in Cape Town, there are no dedicated lesbian bars or clubs, but the lesbian publication L Magazine (lomag.co.za) is a good way to discover anything up-and-coming. Regular parties for women are arranged monthly at different venues; for more information, look at lushcapetown.co.za.
Cape Town has plenty of accommodation to suit all budgets, though booking ahead is recommended to guarantee the kind of place you want, especially over the Christmas holidays (mid-Dec to mid-Jan). Cape Town is a long peninsula and there are many different locations which all have their hotly debated advantages and varying physical beauties. You’ll need to choose whether you want to be central, with nightlife on your doorstep, or would prefer a quieter setting closer to the ocean, in which case you’ll travel further to get into the city. The greatest concentration of accommodation is in the City Centre, City Bowl and the Atlantic seaside strip as far as Camps Bay. If you find everything booked up, Cape Town Tourism has an efficient accommodation booking desk, and can be contacted before you arrive.
Eating out is one of the highlights of visiting Cape Town, and the city is home to a large number of relaxed and convivial restaurants, which generally serve imaginative food of a high standard. Prices are inexpensive compared with much of the developed world, and you can eat innovative food by outstanding chefs in upmarket restaurants for the kind of money you’d spend on a pizza back home. This is the place to splash out on whatever takes your fancy, and you’ll find the quality of meat and fish very high, with many vegetarian options available as well. There are a couple of restaurants dedicated to Cape or African Cuisine, though it’s not the thing to concentrate on when you’re choosing something to eat since other genres are done a lot better. You can expect fresh Cape fish at every good restaurant as well as seafood from warmer waters. Fish stocks are declining worldwide, however, and to be ecologically responsible, go for a delicious Cape fish like Yellow Tail which is not endangered.
Bars and clubs
Bars and clubs
Being a hedonistic city – especially in the summer – Cape Town has plenty of great places to drink and party, especially along Long Street where it’s safe and busy, and there are taxis to get you home. In the summer, the Atlantic Seaboard, notably Camps Bay, is a great option, especially for sundowners. When the dust has settled after Saturday’s hedonism, Sunday nights are notably quiet, though there are a couple of welcoming options. Most liquor licences stipulate that the last round is served at 2am, but this is far from strictly followed; bars often stay open until the last customer leaves. You’ll find that many drinking places are also restaurants, and may be better known as the latter; in a city where wine is produced, food and wine definitely go together. Drink prices obviously depend on the venue – a local beer in a sports bar might set you back R15, with international brews costing upwards of R20. A smart bar will charge up to R40 for a cocktail, while glasses of delicious Cape wine begin at R25. Clubs get going after 10pm and are pretty international in flavour, with DJs mixing house hits you’re bound to recognize. Some may have a cover charge, but this is usually only when they have live music on and it’s never more than R100. It’s really not a good idea to walk around late at night, so take a taxi number out with you. Many bars and clubs offer food as well, for those hungry moments before or after dancing. When it comes to live music, the best-known South African musicians are sadly better appreciated, and better remunerated, abroad than in their own country. Live music generally happens at a few restaurant/bars, where you may expect a small cover charge if live music is featured. If anyone good is in town, you will pick that up on posters or in a listings magazine. Cape Town is known for its brand of Cape Jazz, but there is nowhere regular to pick that up, though the best jazz event of the year happens in late March at the annual Cape Town International Jazz Festival. When you are in town, check out what is on at the Baxter and Artscape, which are likely venues for any good musical offerings.
There is a satisfying range of dramatic and musical performances on offer in Cape Town that are easily accessed as theatres are scarcely full, and easily affordable compared to the prices you’d pay in London or New York. Despite the virtual lack of arts funding by the government, there is a creative and lively arts scene. The best strategy in finding out what’s on in Cape Town is to check out the offerings at the two major arts venues, the Baxter and Artscape, where you are likely to find something appealing, whether a play, a classical concert, opera, contemporary dance or comedy. The daily Cape Times and Argus carry listings and reviews, and the O21 listings magazine (www.021cape.com), on sale at Vida e Caffe stores and local bookshops, has a comprehensive selection of cultural listings, as well as wine festivals, sporting events, art exhibitions and lectures.
Outdoor activities and sport
Outdoor activities and sport
One of Cape Town’s most remarkable features is the fact that it melds with the Table Mountain National Park, a patchwork of mountains, forests and coastline – all on the city’s doorstep. There are few, if any, other cities in the world where outdoor pursuits are so easily available and affordable. You can try activities such as sea kayaking, abseiling, rock climbing and scuba diving for little more than the price of a night out back home. Alternatively, just let everyone else get on with it while you sink a few beers and watch the cricket, rugby or football.
The V&A Waterfront is the city’s most popular shopping mall, with good reason: it has a vast range of shops, the setting on the harbour is lovely and there’s a huge choice of places to eat and drink when you want to rest your feet. The city centre also offers variety and, for some people’s taste, a grittier and more interesting venue for browsing, especially if you’re looking for collectibles, antiques and secondhand books. For crafts and gifts, wander about Kalk Bay’s Main Rd or Long Street, while the most sophisticated central shopping area – small, modern and full of desirable goods with great cafes – is the Cape Quarter in the Waterkant. Don’t expect much to be open on Sunday afternoons, except at the Waterfront.