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.