In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, my father was sent from the UK to manage the South African arm of a multinational British company in Cape Town. My mother, sister and I went with him. I was to spend five years there growing up in what I thought to be the most beautiful place I had ever seen. In March, forty years later, I went back (with my wife) for the first time to find Cape Town changed in so many ways, but still gorgeous.
IT’S A LITTLE MUSEUM housing a mighty awful story. District Six Museum on Buitenkant Street in Cape Town caught me completely off guard. The story portrayed around its walls, on its floor, and upwards to the ceiling by an installation of original street signs rescued from communities razed to the ground in the name of apartheid, brought me to the verge of tears.
It wasn’t as though I should have been surprised by the story. I knew of it, having lived as a teenager in Cape Town in the early 1970s when the last of the forced removals from District Six took place. But when you are 13 other distractions are more important than the harsh realities, for others, of living under the apartheid regime.
The District Six Museum tells through photographs, newspaper cuttings, tapestries and storyboards how the 60,000-strong multiracial community in the centre of Cape Town was forcibly broken apart, with people removed and the neighbourhoods flattened to make way for a “whites only” area under the Group Areas Act of 1966. A display shows a luggage tag on a suitcase, the contents of which was about all they could take with them: “Remembering 60,000 Forced Goodbyes”.
Over 40 years after I left South Africa I had returned to Cape Town for the first time. The museum and the passion displayed by the guides, ex-residents of District Six, demonstrated in a way that couldn’t have been more powerful just how much the city, and country, has changed since I was last there.
The museum bench with its emblazoned lettering, “Europeans only”, and toilet sign, “FOR USE BY WHITE PERSONS”, seemed so familiar, yet so removed from today’s reality, that I had to pinch myself that I had actually lived under such a heinous system. Today its vibrant streets, bars, restaurants and public spaces are teeming with people of all races mixing together, which of course feels perfectly natural. But it felt strange talking to South Africans under 30 to whom apartheid was a historical curiosity and who perhaps took today’s status quo for granted.
However, it’s obvious life remains hard for the majority of people. Inequality is stark, and homelessness and begging are a noticeable feature of the city’s streets and parks, which weren’t in evidence in the bad old days. National crime levels are unprecedented – my old house and neighbourhood were unrecognisable with their high walls, razor wire and security gates. The shanty towns and townships that used to line the airport highway outside the whites only boundaries, and which were always hotbeds of violent crime, have expanded in size beyond belief into a giant sprawl that stretches seamlessly away into the hazy, dusty distance of the Cape Flats as far as the eye can see. The largest township is Khayelitsha, second in size in South Africa only to Soweto, created by the apartheid government of PW Botha in 1983. It means “new home”.
There’s no begging at what used to be the old docks and harbour – the impressive V&A Waterfront development of shops, bars, restaurants and swanky apartments. It draws in huge numbers of both tourists and locals, to what has become Cape Town’s premier entertainment and retail venue.
International tourism is now the major economic driver of the city where it was once mostly domestically generated. Forty years ago, visitors to the city centre, the best beaches and other tourist hotspots were white, and most of those were South Africans. Today the world seems to be touring the Cape, despite the city’s current water crisis, which, at face value, didn’t seem to have affected visitor numbers a great deal.
An old school friend, who has since become one of South Africa’s leading businessmen, told me that tourism to his country comprised largely of those visiting the Kruger National Park and other game parks, and the Cape. In comparison, the rest of the country didn’t see much tourism, he said. I found that in the Cape tourists are being milked for every last drop, like its water supply.
That’s hardly surprising given the spectacular natural attributes the region possesses and the urgent priority of the country to generate employment for its previously disenfranchised population. A car hire representative told me he was glad I hadn’t brought the car back spotless and tidy, as it would have deprived the man whose duty it was to clean it from being paid.
I took a boat ride out to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned – the boat trip affords fantastic views of Table Bay. Robben Island had long been on my list of places to see, ever since I read the great man’s autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom.
I couldn’t help wondering what Mandela would have made of today’s hordes of tourists, and I mean hordes, disembarking from boats to board phalanxes of coaches for their tours of his former abode. Each coach had a guide who gave us a history of places we passed, like the lime quarry where Mandela’s eyesight was affected by the harsh glare.
We were invited to ask questions. An American boy, not yet 10, piped up: “Why were black people treated so differently to white people?” There was an eruption of laughter in sympathy for our guide having to explain the inexplicable.
The petty-minded racial cruelty of apartheid’s gatekeepers on Robben Island was illustrated by the diet that coloured and Bantu (black) prisoners were given. The lighter your skin the more you were given: coloureds would get one ounce of jam, Bantu none; coloureds two ounces of sugar, Bantu one ounce, etc.
Inside the prison ex-inmates guided each coach party, making the obligatory stop at Mandela’s tiny cell. His bed was a thin mat on the floor with a thinner blanket. When he was incarcerated there was no glass in the small, barred window, and in winter the wind howled through it and the rain swept in. Mandela spent 18 years in that cell.
Immediately after the worthwhile but austere experience of Robben Island I decided to go up Table Mountain. I last went up in 1973 when the cable car was small and rickety and we had just a handful of passengers for company. Things are very different today. Two large circular cars that rotate as they ascend carry a never-ending cargo of humans, crammed like sardines, up and down in their thousands, from 8am to 8pm. At the base where you buy tickets the queue was a hundred metres long. Prebook to avoid it.
Once at the top the views are superb in every direction, all the way to Cape Point, with the seaside suburbs of Camps Bay and Sea Point directly below, and Robben Island sitting like a large pancake in Table Bay. The mountain is pretty flat and narrow, with many pathways to explore. I came across some dassies, or rock hyrax, a rabbit-sized rodent which lives among the rock crevices on the mountain where they are preyed upon by eagles and hawks. They are quite unafraid of humans. An afternoon visit that takes in the sunset is probably the best time to go up the mountain. The cableway is often closed without notice due to cloud or wind, and in Cape Town the wind can really blow.
If you don’t hire a car, you can get the Red Bus, which is a get on, get off method of seeing the major sights outside the city. But a car will give you much better flexibility. One of the first stops of the Red Bus, or your car, should be Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain.
Kirstenbosch is world famous, and rightly so; more impressive gardens I have not seen. They are extensive and you should set aside at least a few hours to do them justice. The highlight is the Boomslang (a tree snake) Canopy Walkway which winds above the tree line affording spectacular views.
Get to Cape Point by doing a tour that encompasses both sides of the peninsula. Drive to the popular surf beach of Muizenburg, then past the colourful coastal communities of Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek and colonial Simonstown. This road will take you directly to Cape Point, but first stop in Simonstown at Boulders Beach to visit the fantastically accessible African penguin colony which has established itself there.
Simonstown, South Africa’s naval base
Cape Point is now part of Table Mountain National Park, which it is really nowhere near, but it sounds good. I remembered how beautiful it was – where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet and the surf pounds in at Buffels Bay. We would sit and eat sandwiches in the car while Chacma baboons would scamper about us or climb on the bonnet. Sometimes we would spy antelope or ostrich while exploring the roads leading to lonely coves or lookouts.
You can still experience all of those things, but for the majority of tourists, that tranquillity and isolated splendour has been obliterated in the mad dash by coaches and cars down the main road to reach the Cape Point lighthouse with its funicular railway up the mountain. The bedlam of buses and crowds is bringing in the tourism dollars, but something has been lost along the way.
If there’s one aspect of a Cape Town holiday guaranteed to leave you with a satisfied grin it’s the wine farms. I visited a lot of them, in the winelands of Constantia just outside the city, and further afield in Stellenbosch and lovely Franschhoek, about an hour’s drive away.
As a teenager my parents never took me to the wine farms. They should have done, not for the obvious reasons but because of the magnificent Cape Dutch architecture that I happened to be studying in art class. Groot Constantia, Buitenverwachting, Boschendal, La Motte, Grand Provence Estate, and Spier were just some of those whose vintages I sampled 40 years later in grand old buildings dating back to the 1640s.
Set in sprawling estates ringed by dramatic mountains, the wine farm experience in the Cape is very sophisticated, and outstanding value. At beautiful Buitenverwachting in Constantia I was given a picnic rug to spread under the trees and had a platter of breads, cheeses, meats, pates and a bottle of their delicious Blanc de Noir for about A$20, more than I could possibly finish.
Forty years was a long wait to go back to a place that has always loomed so large in my memories of childhood. The landscape was just as I remembered it, beautiful and hypnotically dramatic – I used to gaze in a daydream out of the window at school at Devils Peak and the rear of Table Mountain, lost in wonder, instead of the text in front of me.
But what I found coming back in this post-apartheid era was that the deeper beauty of Cape Town today lies in just how incredible the recent past appears. I never expected how very happy that would make me this time around.
Cape Town Must Do’s
Kirstensbosch Botanical Gardens – one of the finest plant collections you will ever see, spectacularly set on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain
Table Mountain – Cape Town’s famous mountain is almost as spectacular from the top
Castle of Good Hope – the oldest colonial building in South Africa on what was once the foreshore
Cape Point – The foot of Africa, where two mighty oceans meet
Robben Island – Mandela’s prison island, a fascinating outing with tremendous views of Table Bay
Chapmans Peak drive – scenic road cut into the mountains between Hout Bay and beautiful Noordhoek Beach
Boulders Beach – accessible and brilliant colony of African Penguins near Simonstown
Cape Winelands – world-class wines and food at historic estates in Constantia, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek
Cape Town’s Water Crisis
Cape Town was due to run out of water shortly after we left April, but the crisis was averted through strict rationing and a concerted and ongoing effort by the population to conserve. But the shortage remains, and will do so for the foreseeable future. For the visitor it’s an inconvenience but no big deal. We stayed with friends and had to ration our use very carefully: one two minute shower every two days, catching the water in a bucket for toilet flushing. If you stay in a hotel expect baths with no plugs and two minute showers. Public toilets and restaurant bathrooms generally only have hand sanitisers, or one tap working.
You could always have a swim in the sea.
If you are interested, you can read about what life was like for white teenager growing up in apartheid South Africa here