Strand Street marks the edge of Cape Town’s original beachfront (though you’d never guess it today), and all urban development to its north stands on reclaimed land. To its south is the Upper City Centre, containing the remains of the city’s 350-year-old historic core, which has survived the ravages of modernization and apartheid-inspired urban clearance, and emerged with enough charm to make it South Africa’s most pleasing city centre. The entire area from Strand Street to the southern foot of the mountain is a collage of Georgian, Cape Dutch, Victorian and twentieth-century architecture, as well as being the place where Europe, Asia and Africa meet in markets, alleyways and mosques. Among the drawcards here are Parliament, the Company’s Gardens and many of Cape Town’s major museums. North of Strand Street to the shore, the Lower City Centre takes in the still-functional Duncan Dock.
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On the slopes of Signal Hill, the Bo-Kaap is one of Cape Town’s oldest and most fascinating residential areas. Its streets are characterized by brightly coloured nineteenth-century Dutch and Georgian terraces, which conceal a network of alleyways that are the arteries of its Muslim community. The Bo-Kaap harbours its own strong identity, made all the more unique by the destruction of District Six, with which it had much in common. A particular dialect of Afrikaans is spoken here, although it is steadily being eroded by English. Long-time residents have sold off family properties, and, with the closing of a landmark halal butchery, the area is set for substantial change. A number of trendy outsiders have moved in, and some guesthouses have started up, capitalizing on the outstanding central city position, poised between Long Street distractions and the buzzing Waterkant district.
Bo-Kaap residents are descended from dissidents and slaves imported by the Dutch in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They became known collectively as “Cape Malay”, although most originated from Africa, India, Madagascar and Sri Lanka, with fewer than one percent actually from Malaysia.
Gold of Africa Museum
Gold of Africa Museum
Since the discovery of gold near Johannesburg in the late nineteenth century, South Africa has been closely associated in the Western mind with the precious metal and the riches it represents. However, the outstanding Gold of Africa Museum focuses on a completely different side to gold – the exquisite artworks crafted by nineteenth- and twentieth-century African goldsmiths from Mali, Senegal, Ghana and the Cote d’Ivoire. Arguably the most important such collection in the world, it traces Africa’s ancient gold routes, and includes several hundred beautiful items including precious masks, crocodiles, birds, a gold crown and human figures; the highlight is the sculpted Golden Lion from Ghana, which is the symbol of the museum.
There’s also a small auditorium with a continuous film show about the history of gold, a restaurant that serves pan-African cuisine with Malian puppets performing between courses, a studio where goldsmiths practise their art and where you can learn smithing, and a shop selling postcards, gold leaf and beautiful little souvenirs.
Lying only a few kilometres from the commerce of the Waterfront, flat and windswept Robben Island is suffused by a meditative, otherworldly silence. This key site of South Africa’s liberation struggle was intended to silence apartheid’s domestic critics, but instead became an international focus for opposition to the regime. Measuring six square kilometres and sparsely vegetated by low scrub, it was Nelson Mandela’s “home” for nearly two decades.
The ferry trip from the Waterfront takes about half an hour to reach the island. After arrival you are taken on a bus tour around the island and a tour of the prison. The bus tour stops off at several historical landmarks, the first of which is a beautiful shrine built in memory of Tuan Guru, a Muslim cleric from present-day Indonesia who was imprisoned here by the Dutch in the eighteenth century. On his release, he helped to establish Islam among slaves in Cape Town. The tour also passes a leper graveyard and church designed by Sir Herbert Baker.
Robert Sobukwe‘s house is perhaps the most affecting relic of incarceration on the island. It was here that Sobukwe, leader of the Pan Africanist Congress (a radical offshoot of the ANC), was held in solitary confinement for nine years. No other political prisoners were allowed to speak to him, but he would sometimes gesture his solidarity with them by letting sand trickle through his fingers as they walked past. After his release in 1969, Sobukwe was restricted to Kimberley under house arrest, until his death from cancer in 1978.
Another stopoff is the lime quarry where Nelson Mandela and his fellow inmates spent countless hours of hard labour.
Slavery at the Cape
Slavery at the Cape
Slavery was officially abolished at the Cape in 1838, but its legacy lives on in South Africa. The country’s coloured inhabitants, who make up fifty percent of Cape Town’s population, are largely descendants of slaves and indigenous Khoisan people, and some historians argue that apartheid was a natural successor to slavery.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the almost 26,000-strong slave population of the Cape exceeded that of the free burghers (citizens, mostly of European extraction). Despite the profound impact this had on the development of social relations in South Africa, it remained one of the most neglected topics of the country’s history, until the publication in the 1980s of a number of studies on slavery. There’s still a reluctance on the part of most coloureds to acknowledge their slave origins.
Few, if any, slaves were captured at the Cape for export, making the colony unique in the African trade. Paradoxically, while people were being captured elsewhere on the continent for export to the Americas, the Cape administration, forbidden by the VOC from enslaving the local indigenous population, had to look further afield. Of the 63,000 slaves imported to the Cape before 1808, most came from East Africa, Madagascar, India and Indonesia, representing one of the broadest cultural mixes of any slave society. This diversity initially worked against the establishment of a unified group identity, but eventually a Creolized culture emerged which, among other things, played a major role in the development of the Afrikaans language.