Cape Town – the “Mother City” in Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s “Rainbow Nation” – sprawls languorously beneath the Devil’s Peak, the Twelve Apostles and the Lion Head Mountain, all part of the fabulous Table Mountain National Park.
The city and its far-flung suburbs show great prosperity, with modern and carefully preserved colonial buildings, and wide roads and fast motorways. Restaurants and bars abound, and fresh food stalls offer wonderful ready-made meals. New housing developments are everywhere and near the pretty suburb of Strand and its long white sandy beach is the huge new Paardevlei retirement village. The adjacent posh-looking private Busamed Hospital is already up and running and ready for its first wealthy retirees to hobble in on their Zimmer frames.
I have put my name on the waiting lists …
But then there is the other side – one of abject poverty.
I saw many people sleeping rough in parks, or lying on scraps of cardboard waiting for the Haven Shelter in Napier Street to open its doors and its heart. I’m not sure what the usual chemical composition of urine is but where the homeless had pissed up against neighbourhood sandstone walls considerable erosion had taken place. Perhaps it was a case of (H2O + H2NCONH2 + Cl + Na + K + C4H7N3O + S) + NaAlSi3O8 = smelly dribbles down the wall and across the footpath.
I saw men scavenging through roadside garbage bins, and shovelling into their mouths food scraps that had been discarded by others. A ragged man stopped to lift up an access cover in the footpath to check his secret stash of battered plastic bags, and another at another access point pulled out half a bottle of beer to keep him going.
Although the government is running an excellent housing project providing low-cost homes, the infamous “townships” offer shelter to the poorest of the poor. One Cape Town tour operator offers to take visitors in to see what living conditions are like at Imizamo Yethu (home, apparently, of tea bags recycled into new art forms), but most of the townships are decidedly off-limits to visitors.
Khayelitsha is a shantytown on the N2 that extends for miles, and is home to over 800,000 people from South Africa, the Congo, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Communal lavatories are plonked on the outskirts of the towns. Houses are rough corrugated iron sheds, all of which are linked legally or illegally to towering electricity poles. A surprising number of the shacks have satellite television dishes erected above their iron roofs – with large rocks tossed on top to stop the sheets of iron from flying away. There are high-tech security fences – often broken or pulled apart – but I do not know if these fences are to keep people out – or in.
I was told that if a fire breaks out in these towns, perhaps as a result of a cooking fire that got out of hand or an exploding gas bottle, fire engines simply cannot get in to put out the blaze.
To enter the lion’s den …
I had been warned before going to South Africa that security is always an issue, but as always, things are relative. My driver, George, told me:
- During the daytime in the city or by the waterfront you are almost certainly going to be OK, with probably one chance in a hundred of being mugged or pickpocketed. If you walk alone in the downtown area late at night your chances are much higher … and if you wander alone into one of the townships you are almost guaranteed to be attacked.
Well, I thought that was fair enough.
If one is foolish enough to enter a lion’s cage and to poke the animals, they will almost certainly strike back. If one is foolish enough to go into a dangerous area with a white skin and a wrist watch and a camera and a backpack obviously full of all sorts of goodies, just to gawp at the poor locals, who could blame them for thinking that you are – if not a walking “Meals on Wheels” – then at least a fat money bag ripe for plucking.
I spent about a week in Cape Town and – mostly – enjoyed my experiences, but one thing I could not get used to was the segregation.
Yes – apartheid officially ended in the early 1990s – but in Cape Town restaurants every diner was white and every waiter was black. In supermarkets every shopper was white and every checkout chick, shelf-sweeper and floor-mopper was black. One night I went to the Fugard Theatre where virtually every patron was white and where every ticket seller, bar tender, usher and doorman was black. I have travelled in many countries but this is the first time I have found such an absolute division between “Have” and “Have Not”.
[A footnote: I later arrived in Pretoria, about 1500 km north of Cape Town, and found that the population was much more integrated with whites serving in shops and with blacks, whites and coloureds eating in restaurants. I cannot account for the differences between the two cities – but I do welcome the better mix of colours and nations found in Pretoria.]
On every street corner of downtown Cape Town are members of the CCID (Central City Improvement District) staff in their high-vis jackets to help people in times of troubles … and then there are the street touts in their copycat faded and tattered yellow jackets who offer to help people cross the road in a hustle to extract a few pennies. Every house and gated residential community has formidable razor wire and electric fences, closed-circuit security cameras and large signs advising potential bandits that the properties are protected by armed response teams. German shepherds (and poodles) bark savagely at passers-by, and law enforcement and security vehicles prowl the street. All night the sounds of police – or ambulance – sirens rip through the air.
Beggars at traffic lights hold up battered McDonalds drink containers hoping for a few coins from charitable motorists stuck at the lights. The beggars can apparently make R 150 (South African rand) (about US$10.50) a day this way – which beats working at any particular job when the official minimum wage is below R 3000 (US$215.00) per month.
In 2018 a new national minimum wage of R 3500 (US$250.00) will be introduced. In Thailand the current minimum monthly wage is about US$300.00 and in Australia the minimum monthly wage is US$2140.00.
Three people – a white South African, a black South African and a man from Zimbabwe – told me on separate occasions that South Africans are lazy and do not like to work … and prefer to rely on handouts. That has as much sense as saying that all French are arrogant or that all Americans are loud and brash but is there a sliver of truth in it? The SA government is trying desperately to overcome this problem – one that in similar forms can be found in Australia and the USA and other countries as well – by providing good but inexpensive housing for people who are willing to work and trying to scrabble up the economic ladder one tough rung at a time.
South Africa has about 28% unemployment – or one in every four people – and yet there are floods of legal and illegal immigrants from all over the African continent, trying to make a new life. Perhaps the migrants are more willing to make a go of it – my Zimbabwean taxi driver was certainly proof that work is there if you want it.
On the other hand …
Perhaps not for all, but for a good percentage of the locals and for visitors, Cape Town is a vibrant, fun town, with dramatic mountains as a backdrop, superb long white sandy beaches, great eating and drinking, stunning coastal scenery and a sense of history.
The English and the Dutch played a large – and often questionable – part in the development of modern South Africa – as did later pioneers, activists, politicians and priests including Mandela, Biko, Tambo and Tutu. Georgian buildings can be found tucked side by side by Cape Dutch mansions and the kaleidoscopic, multi-hued houses of the Muslim area of Bo-Kaap. The historic Slave Lodge presents a pretty grim tale of historical slavery – and of the modern-day slavery endured by children and others sold into the sex trade. The museum also examines the issues faced by sufferers worldwide of HIV-AIDS. Although I had just a short time in this important building, I came out feeling rather depressed.
A night at the wonderful Fugard Theatre (www.thefugard.com) was anything but depressing.
I had been able to book a great seat for a performance of Shakespeare in Love by Lee Hall and adapted from the Stoppard / Norman 1999 Oscar-winning film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Judi Dench and just about every other top-notch UK actor. While none of these great stars performed in the Fugard production, it was a slick and shining performance with Dylan Edy as young Will, and Roxane Hayward as Viola de Lesseps in the principal roles, and a strong supporting cast. The theatre is named in honour of Athol Fugard (born in 1932 and still going strong), one of South Africa’s best-known playwrights.
Just as much fun was the Victoria and Albert Waterfront and its gaily painted clock tower (see left).
The V&A is reminiscent of Hobart’s Salamanca Place: both have towering mountainous backdrops (Hobart’s Mt Wellington is 1271m while Table Mountain is only a whisker over 1000m), sparkling waters, restaurants, buskers and street bands, all sorts of entertainment, and yachts of all sizes including the dozen clippers participating in a Round-the-World race (www.clipperroundtheworld.com). The clippers’ next couple of stops – typhoons and whales permitting – will be Freemantle and Hobart before finally ending up back in Liverpool.
Again, like Hobart, this waterfront area was once heart of a bustling marine industry but is today a setting for superb outdoor living. Hobart’s waterfront silos were converted many years ago into wonderful waterside accommodation, and just last month a new development in Cape Town turned its old silos into the wonderful Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA)(http://zeitzmocaa.museum), with a glass and steel cube plopped on top of the whole lot offering stylish accommodation in The Silo Hotel. Rooms in this new hotel are only US$1400.00 per night – but the views are worth it and I am sure the
hand soap is worth pinching as a souvenir.
MOCAA showcases African art from all over the continent and the art works are challenging at times, whimsical at others but always interesting. The six floors of galleries are arranged around a vast six-storey atrium carved out of other silos giving a dragon’s lair feeling enhanced by the giant leather and steel critter “flying” his way across the seven seas.
Nearby are huge dry docks, where ships from all over the world come for refurbishment. Bella, Blue Jay and Fu Yuan Yu were all there having their bottoms scraped, their faces painted and their propellers polished so that tomorrow they will be able to sail serenely out of the dock and reclaim their places as grand dames of those seven seas.
Please Pass the Salt
Hobart has its twelve-storey Empress Towers – a huge, unsightly architectural monolith in the heart of historic Battery Point. It is said that every Tasmanian architect worth his salt wants to live in an apartment in this tower – so he does not ever have to look at it again.
Cape Town has its own example of “architectural terrorism”: Disa Park – known as “Pepper, Salt and Mustard” or the “Toilet Rolls” or even less reverently as “Tampon Towers”. These are three seventeen-story circular apartment blocks built on the slopes of Table Mountain’s foothills. Wise City Fathers (and no doubt Mothers as well) decreed that no building could be erected above a certain point on the foothills. Canny – or cunning or crafty or cheating – developers laid foundations well below the last legal limit – and then erected three monstrosities that tower above every other – single-storey – structure in the area and destroy the natural beauty of the hillside.
Table Mountain is wonderful – well worth its salt and well worth the wait.
I had been told by two Swiss women that they had queued for three hours to get up to the top of the mountain, so I was very pleasantly surprised to find it took just twenty-five minutes from joining the queue at the lower station of the cable car, to be walking through the chilly mists at the top of the mountain.
On a good day you can see for ever from the top – and there is a signpost telling visitors where, and how far away, are the cities of Bangkok, Sydney, San Francisco, but it would be stretching a point that you can really see that far. On other days, clouds roll in like the 7.25 Express train to Oosterzee, and visibility is cut to almost nothing, with trekkers on the many trails looming like ghostly apparitions out of the mists and disappearing into them once again, and all that can be seen of Cape Town are the cable car cables disappearing sadly into the mists.
The Table Mountain National Park (www.tablemountainnationalpark.org) is one of the Seven New Wonders of Nature – others include the spectacular Brazil’s Iguaçu Falls, Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay and the Amazon River. There are many walking trails on the top and several pathways for hikers and mountain climbers if they are feeling more adventurous than the crowds who clamber aboard the cable cars and their crowd-pleasing rotating floors.
I am not sure which country’s national anthem includes the line
- From mountain top to ocean shore
… and if the anthem is not South Africa’s, it should be.
I went on several tours while in Cape Town – a lovely full-day down to the Cape of Good Hope, lunching in the pretty little village of Simon’s Town, seal watching at Kalk Bay, and back through the leafy suburbs of Bishopscourt and Claremont – and another to the vineyards near the beautiful town of Stellenbosch and its Dutch-Colonial heritage buildings, its superb oak trees, and its Paul Roos Gymnasium (school) for boys – a school that is a breeding place for future Rugby Union, cricket and performing arts stars.
On each of these tours, cloud-capped mountains loomed and sandy beaches popped up everywhere. Camps Bay beach seemed the most popular of the beaches I saw, with kids playing football, a few intrepid swimmers dashing in and out of the chilly waters while surfboard riders in thick wetsuits waded further out. Beach vendors strolled up and down offering original works of art, sunglasses, hats and ice creams: it could have been Bondi Beach or Kuta Beach.
Unfortunately I did not get to the nudist beach at Sandy Bay but did have a chance to work on my all-over tan by the pool at the lovely little Pink Rose Guest House and Spa (www.pinkroseguesthouse.com) in the Somerset West / Strand area.
Perhaps one of the reasons people were flocking to beach was because Cape Town is suffering a very serious drought, with dams and reservoirs standing at just 27% of capacity. I trekked off one morning to go to the historic (1908) Long Street Baths and Turkish Bath to find it closed. Other swimming pools I saw at the Cape Town High School and the coastal pools along Coast Road were also closed, so I will have to wait until I get to Durban to go for my morning swim.
A year or two ago my travelling psych was challenged when I visited Israel and Jordan: two ancient countries rubbing shoulders with each other, yet never allowing an eye for an eye and always seeking a tooth for a tooth. Cape Town is a bit like that, with beaches, mountains, vineyards, fine dining … and poverty, desperation and hopelessness …
This is a country that produces superb diamonds that meet all the demands of the Four Cs: Colour, Clarity, Cut and Carat weight. But the labourers who mine those stones, and the grand dames who wear them show the almost unbelievable range of lifestyles in South Africa. Would Madam please subject herself to a body cavity search to show she was not stealing un-cut gems? Would Mr Digger please show that he has the cash to pay for a 20,00 rand room at The Silo Hotel?
It is a challenging and a difficult country … and as a one-week expert … I think I like it.
Journey October 2017
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2017
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.
Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship