Inside Cape Town

Tourists are flocking to the city, but a former resident explains how the legacy of apartheid lingers

(Cheryl Carlin)
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From the deck of a 40-foot sloop plying the chilly waters of Table Bay, Paul Maré gazes back at the illuminated skyline of Cape Town. It is early evening, at the close of a clear day in December. Maré and his crew, racing in the Royal Cape Yacht Club's final regatta before Christmas, hoist the jib and head the sloop out to sea. A fierce southeaster is blowing, typical of this time of year, and Maré's crew members cheer as they tack round the last race buoy and speed back toward shore and a celebratory braai, or barbecue, awaiting them on the club's patio.

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Maré, the descendant of French Huguenots who immigrated to South Africa in the late 17th century, is president of the yacht club, one of many white colonial vestiges that still thrive in Cape Town—South Africa's "Mother City." The club, founded in 1904 after the Second Boer War, has drawn an almost exclusively white membership ever since. (Today, however, the club administers the Sail Training Academy, which provides instruction to disadvantaged youth, most of them blacks and coloureds.)

After Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) won power in South Africa in the democratic elections of 1994 (it has governed since), some of Maré's white friends left the country, fearing that it would suffer the economic decline, corruption and violence that befell other post-independence African nations. Maré's two grown children immigrated to London, but the 69-year-old engineering consultant does not regret remaining in the land of his birth. His life in suburban Newlands, one of the affluent enclaves on the verdant slopes of Table Mountain, is stable and comfortable. His leisure time is centered around his yacht, which he owns with a fellow white South African. "We'll be getting ready for our next crossing soon," says Maré, who has sailed three times across the often stormy south Atlantic.

More than a decade after the end of apartheid, Cape Town, founded in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company's Jan van Riebeeck, is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. Much of this sprawling metropolis of 3.3 million people at Africa's southern tip has the feel of a European or American playground, a hybrid of Wyoming's Tetons, California's Big Sur and the Provence region of France. White Capetonians enjoy a quality of life that most Europeans would envy—surfing and sailing off some of the world's most beautiful beaches, tasting wine at vineyards established more than 300 years ago by South Africa's first Dutch settlers, and mountain biking on wilderness trails high above the sea. Cape Town is the only major city in South Africa whose mayor is white, and whites still control most of its businesses. Not surprisingly, it's still known as "the most European city in South Africa."

But a closer look reveals a city in the throes of transformation. Downtown Cape Town, where one saw relatively few black faces in the early 1990s (the apartheid government's pass laws excluded nearly all black Africans from the Western Cape province), bustles with African markets. Each day at a central bus depot, combis, or minibuses, deposit immigrants by the hundreds from as far away as Nigeria and Senegal, nearly all of them seeking jobs. The ANC's "black economic empowerment" initiatives have elevated thousands of previously disadvantaged Africans to the middle class and created a new generation of black and mixed-race millionaires and even billionaires. With the racial hierarchy dictated by apartheid outlawed, the city has become a noisy mix of competing constituencies and ethnicities—all jockeying for a share of power. The post-apartheid boom has also seen spiraling crime in black townships and white suburbs, a high rate of HIV infection and a housing shortage that has forced tens of thousands of destitute black immigrants to live in dangerous squatter camps.

Now Cape Town has begun preparing for what will be the city's highest-profile event since the end of white-minority rule in 1994. In 2004, the world soccer federation, FIFA, selected South Africa as the venue for the 2010 World Cup. Preparations include construction of a $300 million, 68,000-seat showcase stadium in the prosperous Green Point neighborhood along the Atlantic Ocean and massive investment in infrastructure. Not surprisingly, the project has generated a controversy tinged with racial overtones. A group of affluent whites, who insist that the stadium will lose money and degrade the environment, has been pitted against black leaders convinced that opponents want to prevent black soccer fans from flooding into their neighborhood. The controversy has abated thanks to a promise by the Western Cape government, so far unfulfilled, to build an urban park next to the stadium. "For Capetonians, the World Cup is more than just a football match," says Shaun Johnson, a former executive of a newspaper group and a top aide to former President Mandela. "It's an opportunity to show ourselves off to the world."

For nearly two years, from August 2005 until April 2007, I experienced Cape Town's often surreal contradictions firsthand. I lived just off a winding country road high in the Steenberg Mountains, bordering Table Mountain National Park and overlooking False Bay, 12 miles south of Cape Town's city center. From my perch, it was easy to forget that I was living in Africa. Directly across the road from my house sprawled the Tokai forest, where I jogged or mountain-biked most mornings through dense groves of pine and eucalyptus planted by Cape Town's English colonial masters nearly a century ago. A half mile from my house, an 18th-century vineyard boasted three gourmet restaurants and a lily-white clientele; it could have been plucked whole from the French countryside.

Yet there were regular reminders of the legacy of apartheid. When I drove my son down the mountain to the American International School each morning, I passed a parade of black workers from the townships in the Cape Flats trudging uphill to manicure the gardens and clean the houses of my white neighbors. Next to my local shopping mall, and across the road from a golf course used almost exclusively by whites, stood an even starker reminder of South Africa's recent past: Pollsmoor Prison, where Mandela spent four and a half years after being moved from Robben Island in April 1984.

I also lived within sight of Table Mountain, the sandstone and granite massif that stands as the iconic image of the city. Formed 60 million years ago, when rock burst through the earth's surface during the violent tectonic split of Africa from South America, the 3,563-foot peak once rose as high as 19,500-foot Mount Kilimanjaro. No other place in Cape Town better symbolizes the city's grand scale, embrace of outdoor life and changing face. Table Mountain National Park—the preserve that Cecil Rhodes, prime minister of the Cape Colony in the late 19th century, carved out of private farms on the slopes of the mountain—has grown into a 60,000-acre contiguous wilderness, extending from the heart of the city to the southern tip of the Cape Peninsula; it includes dozens of miles of coastline. The park is a place of astonishing biodiversity; 8,500 varieties of bush-like flora, or fynbos—all unique to the Western Cape—cover the area, along with wildlife as varied as mountain goats, tortoises, springboks and baboons.

One December day I drive up to the park's rustic headquarters to meet Paddy Gordon, 44, area manager of the park section that lies within metropolitan Cape Town. Gordon exemplifies the changes that have taken place in the country over the past decade or so: a mixed-race science graduate of the once-segregated University of the Western Cape, he became, in 1989, the first nonwhite appointed to a managerial job in the entire national park system. Within 12 years he had worked his way up to the top job. "Before I came along we were only laborers," he says.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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