Last year, I visited Cape Town for a few days and I found it a splendid city and the most beautiful one I’ve ever been to. However the Guardian had a bleak article about Cape Town, using Desmond Tutu’s celebration of his 80th birthday last week in Cape Town to lament the extreme inequality of that city. It seems a bit harsh, but for sure there is a lot of poverty right outside the city in the vast low-income and shanty neighborhoods that include townships like Gugulethu and Khayelitsha, said to be the biggest township in South Africa with over 1 million people. The city itself is really nice and has a European or San Francisco feel to it, with good museums and scenic places like Table Mountain and the V & A Waterfront. Yet as my tour guide mentioned (and which the article also describes), Cape Town is great for tourists but not for many locals, alluding to the poor, most of whom are blacks or colored. It’s a striking example of the vivid issues and problems that afflict South Africa, and make it such a fascinating country.
These are a few pictures showing Cape Town in all its splendor. This should be my last post on Cape Town regarding my stay there, but you never know.
Table Mountain viewed from the V&A Waterfront.
These signs showed testimony from the Truth and Reconciliation hearings that were chaired by Desmond Tutu during the 90s to promote reconciliation. This was part of an exhibit inside the Mandela Robben Island ferry pier.
The words on the wall at left read: “While we will not forget the brutality of apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil, a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness. A triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.” Wise words indeed. At right is the sleek catamaran that was our ferry.
At left is the limestone quarry or “Robben Island University” where Mandela and many other prisoners taught and learnt from each other. According to the guide, the limestone posed health risks especially to prisoners’ lungs. Mandela got off lightly, because the main health problem he got was damage to his eyes and tear ducts, preventing him from shedding tears when crying. At right is a sign near the entrance to the maximum security prison.
At left is the outside of the maximum security prison. Meanwhile once we got inside, “Sparks” started off the tour by giving us a talk in a cell where 60 prisoners were kept at a time. The charts showed the specific dietary allocations for prisoners of different races. Needless to say, blacks got less than the others.
At left is Nelson Mandela’s cell, small, nondescript and toilet-less. At right is a guard tower seen from outside the compound.
It’s impossible to leave out Table Mountain when talking about Cape Town, but I almost didn’t get to go there. It rained on the day I had scheduled a hike up there and it got canceled. However, on the morning of my last day, the weather cleared up and I hastily (without any reservation whatsoever) decided to go up there. I only spent less than an hour on top and I had to rush back to meet my airport pickup (who ended up waiting 10 minutes) but it was worth it.
This is how Table Mountain looks on a good day from the area I stayed at, left, while the right-side picture shows Table Mountain from the cable car station.
People abseil (scale down a cliffside) on the side of Table Mountain facing the Atlantic. The city centre is on the other of Lion Rock, the peak in the middle.
The city centre, with Lion Rock and Signal Hill on the left, and the city’s World Cup stadium, Green Point, the bowl structure in the background middle. There is too much glare otherwise the photo would have been much better but it couldn’t be helped.
Alright, so after several posts, this is set to be my last one on my travels in Cape Town. Or maybe not because I still got some photos to put up.
Robben Island is one of the most famous of Cape Town’s myriad attractions, being where Nelson Mandela was jailed for 18 years. It’s a tiny dot of an island just half an hour from Cape Town by ferry, but it has history stretching back over 350 years when it was used to imprison African chiefs and other high-ranking rebellious figures. It’s also a World Heritage Site.
I went to Robben Island in the afternoon after visiting townships earlier in the day, and it seemed like a good fit, in terms of the somber attributes of the places. It turned out well as I got to enjoy a spirited narrative by our Robben bus guide, slightly marred by some jackass/ rascally Argentines who probably weren’t sure why they were there, a great boat ride from and to Cape Town, and two great acts of kindness from English and South African folks I had met that day.
Going to Robben Island entails first booking online or buying a ticket that covers the ferry ride to and from the island, a bus tour and a walking tour of the maximum security prison and the very cell where Mandela was jailed. The ferry pier is at the V&A Waterfront from where you get a great view of Table Mountain. The scene of the mountain framing the yachts and elegant waterfront buildings seems so Mediterranean, though I’ve never been to that region.
After disembarking at Robben Island, we get called onto the tour buses which take us past the lepers’ graveyard, an Anglican church, the limestone quarry or “University of Robben Island” where Mandela and so many prisoners exchanged a lot of ideas, and the house where Robert Sobukwe was kept in isolation away from the other political prisoners. Sobukwe was a staunch opponent of apartheid and the leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress, a party that broke away from the ANC, so he wasn’t exactly chums with Mandela.
We stopped for a while at a place directly overlooking Cape Town, a magnificent view of the city with Table Mountain and Lion Rock forming the backdrop, while the sky took on a nice hue as the day came closer to evening. What a torment for the prisoners on this little piece of rock, to be able to gaze at such a fine scene every day and be so close. Some daring, or rather desperate, souls have tried to swim and escape, but only a handful ever made it across to land; the rest having fallen victim to sharks or the cold waters.
During the whole tour, our guide Craig gave us a superb, running commentary on all the sights. At the end, we were treated to a speech about the island, and “Mr. Mandela” and the
hopes for his country which still faces numerous problems in this day, including the effects of apartheid. The only thing that was problematic was the presence of a group of Argentine football fans who kept interrupting with their loud talking while Craig was doing his thing.
The last part of the tour was the maximum security prison, where we got off the bus, said our goodbyes to Craig, and walked inside, passing the empty guard towers and signs showing happy pictures of joyful ex-prisoners, leaving the prison for good, and then coming back to the jail for a reunion. Inside, our new guide was there and ushered us into a long cell room which was quite roomy. Of course, it had to be because it held 60 prisoners. Sparks was the name of our ex-prisoner guide, having served 7 years in Robben for being involved in the ANC militant wing. Ex-inmates always lead this part of the tour. It seems weird that they’d want to work in the very place they were locked up. I’m sure for some leading these tours serves as a form of pride or solace, to help turn their former prison into a place to educate tourists and visitors. Or maybe it was because they had been conditioned or worn down too much by their prison experience to want to go back into the outside world, said M, a black Englishwoman who I had actually met earlier on the township tour and who had strong views on much of what she saw.
I can’t deny that the touristy aspect of the tour didn’t take away from fully appreciating the historical significance of the prison. The Argentine football clowns were a big reason initially, but by the time we got to the maximum security prison, things seemed maybe a little too ordinary. We finally saw the cell Mandela was kept, which was nondescript, small (about 2.5 metres wide), and had no toilet. Bleak it was, but not really too harsh, I think.
After the ferry took us back onto shore, I was invited by M along with a young black couple from Johannesburg and their little daughter to dinner. After M’s friend joined us, we went into Spur, a local BBQ chain that has an American Wild West theme, which is really strange given we’re in Africa. To highlight this theme, every 20 minutes or so, the waiters and waitresses performed line dances to the same corny Western song. I also couldn’t help noticing that most of the patrons were white and the waiters were all black. (It’s not always a good thing to mention race but in SA it’s really relevant.) Suffice it to say that the people I was with didn’t seem too amused. I was actually the only person who wasn’t black or Africa at the table and to some of the patrons and staff it must have seemed weird, but it was all cool. M’s friend, who herself was from Zambia, came with a friend who was from the Rep. of Congo (as opposed to the Democratic Republic of Congo which is much larger and well-known, though more for its immense humanitarian tragedy) but had been living in SA for a while. This Congolese guy was friendly but didn’t have the best English plus he had a strong accent. He asked me a bunch of questions about Taiwan and China, hoping that I would have some expertise in doing business in China and could shed some light, but he was asking the wrong guy.
After dinner ended, I was planning to take a taxi home, but the guy from Johannesburg offered me
a ride. We were at the waterfront and their hotel was very close but they chose to drive me to my hotel half an hour across town in the opposite direction. African hospitality at its best, as I was experiencing ubuntu, the spirit of unity and helping others out, as the guy himself said when I asked him if he was sure it was no trouble. Ubuntu is a much-bandied about word in Africa used by black Africans to explain their sense of values, and sometimes it is mocked such as when bad things happen and non-blacks say “where’s the ubuntu?” In this case, I experienced a genuine case of ubuntu. We had an interesting conversation in the car when the guy talked about his experience working with Chinese (he’s an engineer) and how he was a little fazed and bewildered by differences. I wasn’t too surprised as it’s true Chinese and Africans/blacks have a lot of cultural differences and I tried to tell him this but not in an overbearing way. The weirdest example he gave was about going to a restaurant in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, where he was on a business trip, with a Chinese colleague when he met another Chinese person. After talking to this second Chinese, he found out the guy was from the same hometown as his colleague so he introduced them to each other, but apparently they didn’t say much. “You’re halfway around the world deep in Africa and you meet somebody from your hometown and you don’t even talk?” said my benefactor. I couldn’t explain it but maybe there was some business rivalry or something to keep your privacy, even from somebody from your hometown?
It was pity I only spent 4 days in Cape Town but I experienced a lot. The city was spectacular but it’s not immune from problems. For instance, the previous day while walking back from the waterfront to the city centre, I was accosted by a guy (not black) who introduced himself to me politely, then proceeded to ask me to give him a few rand …. or else. I walked off and he followed me, escalating his threats and pulling on my jacket. It was almost surreal as the guy and I traded comments – “just give me a few rand, sir” “I don’t have” “don’t f*cking lie” “don’t curse me, leave me along” “you better give me a few rand or I’ll stab you and take all your money” “I don’t have any money, why do you think I’m walking in this rain” (it really was raining though I did have some money) – while walking, looking like we were two guys having a normal conversation though it was like an attempted mugging by intimidation. We went on like this over a walkover, then crossed one street while passing some people until we reached a point where seemingly there was nobody. I panicked internally, then looked to the side, saw a car dealership in an office building, and walked into it. The jackass, by now it really had descended into a farce though at that exact moment as events were unfolding it seemed much, much worse, threatened to walk in with me but as soon as I opened the door, he pulled on my jacket and said something like “don’t leave me, please!” That was the last I saw or heard him because I walked up to the receptionist in the lobby, told her what happened and basically pleaded for her to call a taxi. She told me there was one just up the road and I basically went nuts because after all, I just came in from that same road to get away from a potential mugger. “It’s only right up the road” she said. “I was just being harassed on that road and you’re telling me to go outside again” was what I said. In the end, the taxi was literally right up the road and I took it to my hotel. Writing about it now, it seems kind of ludicrous but when it was happening it was quite scary. I couldn’t help thinking, is this really happening to me, and any minute I expected him to pull out a knife or something.
Nothing else bad really happened, other than passing a crime scene downtown where I saw a body lying on the ground surrounded by police (the guy was part of a gang who robbed a store and fired on the cops who fired back) and on my first evening, walking back from a nearby restaurant to my hotel and passing several guys standing in the middle of the road begging. This is a relatively upscale area and it shocked me because during the day it seemed really safe (it was). It was unnerving to see it take on a much different “ambience” in the evening (about 7 which is not late at all) with the beggars standing around.
Ironically, it’d seem like I had so many negative experiences in Cape Town whereas I didn’t have a single similar problem in Durban or Johannesburg, but this is only because in Cape Town, I did a lot of walking around by myself. If I had done the same in those other 2 cities, who knows what bad things might have happened to me. Don’t take this to mean South Africa is fearfully dangerous. It’s not. It does have high levels of crime so you do have to be alert at all times. But it’s not as terrible as some media reports may make it out to be and once you get past the apparent and high levels of security measures and worries, and take necessary precautions, you’ll be ok.
I wrote about this back in June, but I’ve decided to put up a more detailed post. As I said before, Cape Town was really spectacular and it’s my favorite city, hands down. Its beauty is tempered by the fact that, just like other cities in South Africa, it has a significant amount of poor and working-class people who live in townships outside its city center. One of these townships, Khayelitsha, is even believed to have a million residents and is considered the largest township in the country (Soweto is a collection of townships so it doesn’t count). The townships are literally an entirely different world from the city proper that’s just 15 minutes’ drive away. And yes, I know that’s probably become such a cliche when talking about SA but it is true.
I did a township tour that started with a visit to the District 6 Musuem, that’s profiled in an earlier post. After getting a sense of how insidious apartheid was during its time, we were taken to the physical manifestation of the apartheid policies in the present- the townships. Driving into Langa, the oldest in Cape Town, it didn’t seem that bad at first. There were a lot of modest one-story brick and concrete houses on decent paved streets. The more we saw and the longer we spent there, the less “idyllic” things seemed. There were a lot of small shops and stalls selling things like vegetables, snacks and drinks, call centers (for people who don’t have phones) and even barber stalls. There weren’t any formal businesses such as supermarkets or restaurants. Eventually we saw a lot of shacks, made of wood or galvanize, as well and wooden outhouses.
At some parts, there were wooden shacks built in the backyards of regular brick and concrete homes, suggesting either more people coming in from elsewhere or a problem with the homes. It wasn’t that the townships were giant slums with overflowing gutters and garbage everywhere, like what you’d see in parts of Nairobi or Mumbai or along the Beetham (Trinidad), but there was a sense of sterility that accentuated the people’s poverty. Originally residents had been forced into these areas in the past and I’d think that for the previous government, these areas warranted not much beyond basic infrastructure. You also need to remember that people didn’t come here by their own free will originally, they were forced to come here.
Some regular houses, left, and an apartment block by one of our stops. Both are in Langa, a black township.
The unemployment rate is high in the townships, above 40% for adults according to Thabani, our affable guide. But he also stressed that contrary to the perception that many of these unemployed people weren’t looking for jobs, a lot of these people couldn’t get jobs because of a lack of education. Under the Bantu education given to blacks during apartheid, subjects like maths and science weren’t really taught, in order to keep them uneducated and to train for manual work as opposed to the medical or engineering fields. Thabani wasn’t shy about telling us about apartheid and its effects such as his defense of jobless township residents above. Though he was a funny, talkative guy , this tour wasn’t about laughs and kicks as he gave a continuous, stirring commentary on apartheid, the townships and the nation that included an optimistic view of where the country and its government was heading.
Of course, the tour wasn’t just a running commentary on the nation’s ills, but consisted of several actual stops. In Langa, we visited an arts centre, a kindergarten, a “hostel” (but not for backpackers), and an apartment. Then Thabani drove to Gugulethu township, another black township, and stopped at two memorials of people killed by opposite sides of the race divide, the first was for 7 young ANC activists who were ambushed and killed by police, and the second paid tribute to an America grad student who was killed by black radicals.
While Langa, Gugulethu and Khayelitsha are black townships, we also drove through a colored township. This was another aspect of government policy during apartheid where blacks and coloreds not only had to live in townships, but were forced into separate ones. Nowadays, people can move around freely, but the majority of people in each township are still of the original ethnicity.
A “hostel,” left, and the van we came in, with a partial view of Table Mountain, in Langa.
Another of our stops was a kindergarten, which was surrounded by a wire fence topped with razor wire. Outside the kindergarten, a little guy ran up to me and made me take his picture. For some reason he didn’t attend the school.
Inside the kindergarten, a group of kids sang, then these two did some dancing whilst the others continued to sing. On the right, this was one of the better houses in the township.
The decent houses soon gave way to shanties and shacks like these. At right, a shack sells bags of oranges, one of many little stores.
It’s easy for some to see these kind of tours as a bit of poverty “porn,” making a spectacle of poverty and hardship. There is a little element of that, but I think a big part of these township visits is getting an indepth look and understanding of something that’s a major part of the society. Besides the fact that these tours contribute something financially to the communities, these tours let tourists and visitors pick up some social awareness as well. I’ve seen poverty close-up before, both in Trinidad and Toronto, but the visit to the Cape Town townships was unique and troubling.
Even in a sprawling collection of township houses and wooden shacks, Table Mountain looms splendidly.
Some more wooden shacks, left, and recently-built government-subsidized houses, right.
This is part of Khayelitsha, the largest township in Cape Town and probably, all of South Africa. In the right-hand side photo, a line of portable toilets are clearly seen, for the use of residents of the shacks, I’d think.
The attractions of Cape Town are so numerous that it’s not surprising that it often warrants a whole section in many South Africa tourist books, even exceeding the entries for whole provinces. Table Mountain, Robben Island and Cape Point are the most famous places to visit, and Long Street and the V&A Waterfront (you take the ferry to Robben Island here) are other well-known places to check out.
Besides these, Cape Town also has a number of worthy museums and historical buildings to check out, which shouldn’t be surprising given its long history and status as South Africa’s first city hence its nickname. The following were the ones I managed to visit during my all-too-brief stay there.
South Africa Museum
I was very impressed by this museum, which features a strong range of natural science, archaeological and zoological exhibits in really modern and well-maintained surroundings.
Skulls, skeletons, fossils (real and replicas), and rocks are certainly aplenty.
The most eyecatching set is three complete whale skeletons (the largest being that of a 20.5m blue whale, the others being those of a sperm whale and a Southern Right whale) hung up in one part of the museum (see the first picture).
The Cape is an ancient area, so when it comes to dinosaur fossils, geology and anthropology,
it has a rich heritage and source of artifacts that the museum is able to showcase.
The Charles Darwin exhibit that describes his life and details his visit to the Cape in 1836, and had an enormous pair of horns from the now-extinct Cape buffalo, that lived until 12,000 years ago.
The dinosaur section had several fossils and replicas, but the thing that really struck me was a unique kind of pre-dinosaur creature that was the ugliest I’d ever seen. Looking like a mix between a pig and a dog, the dicynodont was a mammal-like reptile herbivore that wandered the vast Karoo plains (the expanse of land that extends across much of the Western Cape). According to the museum’s information, these creatures lived 50 million years before dinosaurs and eventually one group of these creatures evolved into mammals. As mammals include us humans, it means the dicynodonts are our ancestors! Some people already have enough trouble
with the possibility that we’re descended from apes, so it’d probably be even more disturbing if they heard about these creatures. Strange that I’ve never heard of them before.
Somehow I really don’t find these creatures appealing in any way.
The zoological exhibit has a room full of stuffed African animals ranging from a tiny hedgehog to antelopes and even lion and elephant. Pretty much every African mammal is represented. There are also animal skulls including one shelf lined up with skulls belonging to large antelopes that amply shows off their massive and impressive horns.
The museum is located right inside the Company Gardens, a large rectangular park which boasts many historical buildings and attractions, such as the National Gallery. Taking a walk straight down the Gardens takes you past the South African Parliament and into the city centre.
That’s the museum in the back center, with part of Table Mountain on the left and Lion Rock on the right. In the foreground is the Delville Wood Memorial, which honors the South Africans who died in a bloody World War I battle of that name.
Alas, these fine dinosaur skeleton frames are replicas.
Housed in a renovated complex built in 1679 that was used to hold human slaves, it came as no surprise that the first floor is mostly dedicated to the history of slavery in the Cape.
Besides displays and exhibits on slavery itself, there is also a room full of objects from other parts of Africa like Mozambique, India and SE Asia, mostly Indonesia. These were where the slaves came from, though most of them were from Asia. I never knew slaves were ever taken from India and SE Asia so this surprised me greatly. This slave trade was conducted by the Dutch East India Company, not the British, though they and the Arabs certainly indulged in a lot of large-scale slave trading. Later at Robben Island, itself a prison for unruly slaves, I saw a display listing global slavery sites in which Cape Town was included, along with Bahia (Brazil), Mombasa (Kenya), and places in Ghana, Senegal and Mozambique.
The Slave Lodge is the elegant but unassuming building with the black door.
Map showing where the slaves in Cape Town were bought from.
At that time, there was a special exhibition on Nelson Mandela, which I would later see again in Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum. This exhibit is a series of photos and informations that show Mandela’s life from his early tribal upbringing to his student and ANC militant days until his ultimate triumph as the president of South Africa and an international statesman runs until December. The displays really revealed Mandela as much more than just the gentle, elderly, always-smiling icon that most of us are probably most familiar with (I didn’t know too much about his life). Some of the more striking parts concerned his ANC militant career, he was the chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe their militant wing, and his time on Robben Island which was pivotal in changing him, especially in softening his character and making him more conciliatory and open-minded. Surprisingly in one of the last displays about his presidency, Mandela’s flaws are described including being slow to deal with the AIDS scourge, a tendency to be autocratic but on the other hand, also to be too trusting.
The 2nd floor has several extensive collections of European items such as musical instruments, watches and jewelry that hark to the Slave Lodge’s past as a cultural history museum.
They weren’t too interesting to me and made a peculiar contrast with the first floor’s exhibits, given the name of the museum and its purpose is to show the history of slavery in Cape Town.
It wasn’t until I asked a friendly museum staff that she told me the antiques were from when the Slave Lodge used to be the SA Cultural History museum. Before then, the lodge also used to be a government office and housed the Supreme Court, which I think is quite an illustrious history for a rather modest building. Some Egyptian antiques, weaponry from all over the world and even Chinese ceramic wares were also on exhibit.
The 2nd floor also had a gallery of newspaper cartoons about Nelson Mandela. Many of them are witty, but my favorites were one with China’s president giving Mandela a medal for “struggle against oppression” while a Chinese officer looking on whispers to a colleague “lucky he’s not Chinese” as a pair of hands belonging to a “dissident” are seen clasping onto the jail bars of a building at the side, and another showing Mandela looking down on a giant called Apartheid, who he has just vanquished a la David against Goliath, except that behind Mandela, an even larger giant looms, so huge and mencacing that only the legs are visible. The name of this new giant- crime. While the cartoons were all drawn by one artist, a Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro), I’d think that South Africa must be a heaven for political cartoonists because they have so many famous and notable politicians.
The Slave Lodge is located near the South African Parliament on Adderley Street after you exit the Gardens (no need to cross the road).
District 6 Museum
Filled with vivid color and imagery from floor to ceiling, the District 6 Museum pays tribute to an entire neighborhood where over 60,000 non-white residents were made to move away in the 70s. Under the Group Areas Act under apartheid, District 6 was declared a whites-only area so non-whites had to move out. The people of District 6 were dispersed towards the townships outside Cape Town.
As soon as you enter the museum, you’ll notice a 2-storey “tower” made up of street signs at the center across the room. You also won’t fail to be hit by an array of images, photos and banners all around you that convey the soul and vibrancy of the neighborhood that used to exist here.
There are several striking exhibits including a map laid out on the main room, 2-storey-high banners and photos, portraits and voice recordings of former residents describing their lives. It’s said that the district was a lively place and the displays project this really well, making the knowledge of their fate even more poignant.
The building, which is over 170 years old, used to be a church which the window at one end of the 2nd floor (and its surrounding images) somehow gave me a sense of.
As I mentioned before, this place is really colorful but it had an impact on me beyond pure aesthetics. It’s impossible to fully grasp how ghastly it is to force out people of an entire area until I was in the museum looking at their pictures and reading their stories.
Frankly, I wasn’t too interested in this museum when I was researching places to visit in Cape Town but the museum really impressed me so I was glad to have gone, albeit as part of my township tour.
Castle of Good Hope
Really a fortress than a castle, this nevertheless imposing star-shaped structure was a military base built in 1666 for the former Dutch VOC (Dutch East India Company) rulers of Cape Town. Now, the castle functions as a multipurpose museum, workshop and a base that is still used by the South African army. After crossing the green-water filled moat and entering the castle’s gates, you’ll see the interior is filled up by a courtyard while rooms line the surrounding walls. The courtyard is bisected by one section that runs from one end to the other end, and you can walk through this section to the other side of the courtyard.
It is also possible to get up and walk along the top ramparts, which are still decked out with ancient cannons. Unfortunately the weather was bad and I had to curtail my stay on top because of rain and get back down without completing the walk around.
The flags of South Africa, apartheid-era SA, Holland and the UK proudly flutter along this wall.
The exhibits on show include displays in the military museum, Cape Town’s New Year Carnival (until Jan. 2011), and the William Fehr collection of old paintings, furniture and other household items that belonged to and exemplify the luxury of Cape Town elites in the 19th century.
The military museum is small but informative, as it was here I learned how Cape Town became British.
There is an impressive display of British regimental regalia including weapons, uniforms, medals and even a full-size horse (stuffed or model, I’m not sure) with saddle and stirrups. Besides that, there are displays on the Khoi-Dutch, Anglo-Dutch battles and Anglo-Boer wars. The Anglo-Dutch battles led to the British taking Cape Town, while the Anglo-Boer war was when the British defeated the Boers/ Afrikaaners (descendants of the Dutch settlers) who had formed republics in the South African interior. The British defeated the Dutch in a battle (Muizenberg) in 1795 near Cape Town, took Cape Town which had been in Dutch hands for over 140 years, then returned it to the Dutch in 1803. Then again in 1806, the British fought the Dutch again (Blaauwberg) and took Cape Town for good, until South Africa’s independence. All this was due to political and military events in Europe and this would turn out to have a major influence on Southern Africa, as the British capture of Cape Town was the springboard for its expansion and colonization of the region.
The castle is near the City Hall and the train station. It took me about 20 minutes’ walk from the Slave Lodge as I had to turn into some side streets, which caused me a little trepidation even though this was Cape Town, and passed a magisterial court.
The interior of the front wall, left, and one part of the military museum.
Cape Town’s City Hall, seen from the street just outside the castle, left, and looking at the same city hall from on top of the castle wall.
So besides the museums that I visited, there are still several good ones that I didn’t have the time to go to.
There’s the Bo-Kaap Museum, located in the colorful Malay Muslim neighborhood of the same name that, not surprisingly, showcases the residents’ heritage, the Gold of Africa Museum that shows off gold artefacts from Western and Southern Africa, the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, which is a memorial to the Jews who were killed in the Holocaust and a few others. To put it frankly, Cape Town just has too much places to check out.
Let me start by saying this city is really as amazing and beautiful as its reputation makes it out to be. As South Africa’s, and maybe Africa’s, most famous city, the Mother City really is blessed with having Table Mountain looming right over it, scenic attractions, close proximity to nice places like the winelands and Cape Point, where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean, and last but not least, a strong historical heritage.
Table Mountain, the city’s world-famous landmark, is that flat-topped mountain that stands right over the city. That was the main highlight of my trip and I almost didn’t get to go up, due to the bad weather the first two days I was there. Luckily, I got to squeeze in an hour up there on my last morning, though I didn’t get to do the hike that I had booked for one of the previous days.
Looking up at the mountain anywhere from Cape Town or from afar, it’s a magnificent sight.
It looked great from my hotel, it looked great from the V&A Waterfront, and it looked great from the townships. On top the mountain, you can look down and enjoy good views of the city “bowl” directly beneath you and the towns on Cape Town’s East stretching into the distance that frame Table Bay on one side and the Atlantic coast on the other. This is unless clouds get in your way, which happened part of the time I was on the mountaintop, because Table Mountain is also famous for the clouds that drift in but never seem to disappear much of the time. Even in good weather, when the city itself is under blue skies, it’s no guarantee that the mountaintop will be clear. It’s also a UN World Heritage site (together with Cape Point), as is Robben Island (I’ll get to that a little later) due to the great diversity of plants.
The V&A waterfront was also quite scenic. It certainly didn’t disappoint with elegant buildings
like the Table Bay Hotel and Clock Tower though for shoppers, it’s probably a marvelously spectacular place. Besides hotels and malls, there’s also the Robben Island ferry dock and an impressive arts and crafts market filled with a lot of local African art. Then there’s the African Trading Post, which is a 3-story outlet selling, as you guessed it, African art, ornaments, trinkets and even weapons. The Two Oceans Aquarium is also located there and it was really decent.
Robben Island is a little desolate island just off the coast of Cape Town that was the “home” of Nelson Mandela for 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment. It was used to hold political prisoners by the Apartheid regime, the most notable of who was of course Nelson Mandela. Others included Robert Sobukwe, a leader of an opposition party who died in self confinement on the island, and the current president Zuma. Robben Island has a history of being used to imprison political leaders since the end of the 17th century and also as a leper colony. Our guide, who was excellent throughout, gave a particularly striking commentary on Sobukwe, who was a strong opponent against the Apartheid regime but was kept in isolation from other prisoners during his stay on the Robben Island. All Robben Island visitors get a guided bus tour that takes you to various points on the island, including a church, lepers’ graveyard and a vantage point looking directly towards Cape Town; then go on another guided tour, led by a former political prisoner, directly inside the maximum security prison where Mandela was held. My experience was slightly sullied by several boisterous Argentinian fans who spent much of the time talking loudly and even asked the guide to talk in Spanish (they were half-joking). You can only get to the island from Cape Town and back by ferry boat, and on the way back the view of the city in the evening was, you guessed it, amazing.
Cape Town is probably the most renowned world-class city in South Africa (and maybe Africa), and much of its appearance, its ambience and its impressive and sleek tourist attractions all reinforce this impression. I walked around downtown to various places, including from my hotel to the World Cup Green Point stadium (one hour), and to the V&A harborfront (about 45 minutes) and I’m quite sure this couldn’t happen in any other major South African city. At least not if I wanted to have my belongings or health intact. I didn’t do this in Durban nor Johannesburg.
Yet I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was in a different world from most of South Africa. In some ways, the city seems almost European, and I’m not talking about just architecture.
The city is diverse, with a strong Afrikaans and Colored population, in addition to blacks. Afrikaans is widely spoken, as I heard it being spoken not just by Afrikaan people but Colored.
This diversity means that when I walked around certain areas, you feel like you’re in one place, and in other areas you’re in another. It’s natural, as this is what makes cities and societies diverse and fascinating, but in South Africa the differences are more pronounced and highlight serious socioeconomic differences. All you need to do is take a look at public areas like the bus stops or train stations, and the downtown streets (less so in Cape Town) and it’s easy to see or not see certain people.
My guide on my township tour spoke a lot about Apartheid and its lingering effect on the psyche of people like himself (he was black) as well as its more immediate effect. “Cape Town is good for tourists and certain kinds of people but not so much for others,” he said at one point. It doesn’t take much to read behind the lines of what he said. He didn’t say this with any rancor or anger and it was in line with his attempt to make us understand the social problems of modern South Africa and prepare us for entering the townships. It sounds like a cliche but entering the vast townships, it is a completely different world from the rest of Cape Town. You can still see the distinctive shape of Table Mountain in the distance, and it looks just as impressive from afar, but the mood and atmosphere is much different.
The townships are huge, with the largest one Khayelitsha said to have over a million inhabitants.
It’s no surprise that there’s a lot of poverty and hardship, but that’s not to say they were massive slums. You had your typical slum shacks, made out of wood or galvanize, but you also had houses that wouldn’t look out of place in a decent Western middle-class neighborhood. There was also a lot of government-subsidized homes which were newly-built though it was obvious they were inadequate.
While much of the townships had what looked like decent neighborhoods, it must be remembered that originally people did not choose to go there to live; they were basically herded into there by the Apartheid-era government who wanted non-whites away from the city. It was very noticeable that there were a lot of shacks selling stuff and a few street vendors, but no real substantial businesses like supermarkets, appliance stores and hardware stores.
Cape Town is really an amazing city and I can say for sure that it is the most beautiful city I’ve ever been to, with Hangzhou in China’s Zhejiang province second. I recommend it for most people though it is important to realize that not everything about the city is glamorous. It’s good to go on a township tour or visit museums like District 6, which pay tribute to a city neighborhood where the entire non-white population was forced out in the 1960s, to get a sense of the less spectacular but still important attributes of Cape Town.