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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We drive high above the city along Kloof Road—a lively strip of nightclubs, French bistros and pan-Asian restaurants. After parking the car in a tourist lot at the base of the mountain, we begin climbing a rocky trail that hundreds of thousands of hikers follow each year to Table Mountain's summit. In a fierce summer wind (typical of this season, when frigid antarctic currents collide with southern Africa's warming landmass), Gordon points out fields of wild olives and asparagus, fynbos and yellow fire lilies, which burst into flower after wildfires that can erupt there. "We've got the greatest diversity in such a small area of anywhere in the world," he says, adding that development and tourism have made the challenges of conservation more difficult. In January 2006, at the height of Cape Town's summer dry season, a hiker dropped a lit cigarette in a parking lot at the base of this trail. Within minutes, fire spread across the mountain, asphyxiating another climber who had become disoriented in the smoke. The fire burned for 11 days, destroying multimillion-dollar houses and requiring the efforts of hundreds of firefighters and helicopters ferrying loads of seawater to extinguish. "It burned everything," Gordon tells me. "But the fynbos is coming up pretty well. This stuff has an amazing ability to regenerate itself."

Gordon points out a clear trailside stream created by mist condensation at the top of the plateau. "It's one of the only water sources on the mountain's western face," he says. The stream, Platte Klipp, was the primary reason that the 17th-century Dutch seaman Jan van Riebeeck built a supply station for the Dutch East India Company at the base of Table Mountain. The station grew into a thriving outpost, Kaapstadt; it became the starting point for the Voortrekkers, Dutch immigrants who crossed desert and veld by ox wagon to establish the Afrikaner presence across southern Africa.

The Mother City has steered the nation's destiny ever since. In 1795, the British seized Cape Town, maintaining their hold over the entire colony for more than 100 years. Even today, English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites gravitate toward opposite corners of the city. English speakers prefer the southern suburbs around Table Mountain and beachfront communities south of the city center. Afrikaners tend to live in northern suburbs a few miles inland from the Atlantic coast. The British introduced the first racist laws in the country, but it was the Afrikaner Daniel François Malan—born just outside Cape Town—who became the main proponent of white-racist philosophy. In 1948, Malan's National Party swept to victory; he became prime minister and codified his racist views into the legal system known as apartheid.

The Group Areas Act of 1950 banished all black Africans from Western Cape province, except those living in three black townships. Cape coloureds (predominantly mixed-race, Afrikaans-speaking descendants of Dutch settlers, their slaves and local indigenous inhabitants) became the main source of cheap labor; they remained second-class citizens who could be evicted from their homes by government decree and arrested if they so much as set foot on Cape Town's segregated beaches. From 1968 to 1982, the apartheid regime forcibly removed 60,000 coloureds from a neighborhood near the city center to the Cape Flats, five miles from downtown Cape Town, then bulldozed their houses to make room for a proposed whites-only development. (Protests stopped construction; even today, the neighborhood, District Six, remains largely a wasteland.)

During the height of anti-apartheid protests in the 1970s and 1980s, Cape Town, geographically isolated and insulated from racial strife by the near absence of a black population, remained quiet in comparison with Johannesburg's seething townships. Then, during the dying days of apartheid, blacks began to pour into Cape Town—as many as 50,000 a year over the past decade. In the 1994 election campaign, the white-dominated National Party exploited coloureds' fear that a black-led government would give their jobs to blacks; most chose the National Party over the ANC. While many blacks resent mixed-race Capetonians for their failure to embrace the ANC, many coloureds still fear black competition for government grants and jobs. "The divide between blacks and coloureds is the real racial fault line in Cape Town," I was told by Henry Jeffreys, a Johannesburg resident who moved to Cape Town last year to become the first nonwhite editor of the newspaper Die Burger. (A former editor was the architect of apartheid, D. F. Malan.)

But the gap is closing. The Western Cape province, of which Cape Town is the heart, boasts one of the fastest-growing economies in South Africa. An infusion of foreign and local investment has transformed the once moribund city center into what civic leader Shaun Johnson calls a "forest of cranes." In late 2006, a Dubai consortium paid more than $1 billion for the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a complex of hotels, restaurants and shops—and the terminal for ferries that transport tourists across Table Bay to Robben Island. The price of real estate has skyrocketed, even in once-rundown seaside neighborhoods such as Mouille Point, and the bubble shows no signs of bursting.

The new economic activity is enriching South Africans who couldn't dream of sharing in the wealth not that long ago. One bright morning, I drive south along the slopes of Table Mountain to Constantia Valley, a lush expanse of villas and vineyards; its leafy byways epitomize the privileged lives of Cape Town's white elite—the horsey "mink and manure set." I have come to meet Ragavan Moonsamy, 43, or "Ragi," as he prefers to be called, one of South Africa's newest multimillionaires.

Here, bougainvillea-shrouded mansions lie hidden behind high walls; horse trails wind up forested hills cloaked in chestnut, birch, pine and eucalyptus. Armed "rapid response" security teams patrol the quiet lanes. I drive through the electric gates of a three-acre estate, passing landscaped gardens before I pull up in front of a neocolonial mansion, parking beside a Bentley, two Porsches and a Lamborghini Spyder. Moonsamy, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, is waiting for me at the door.

As recently as 15 years ago, the only way that Moonsamy would have gained entrance to this neighborhood would have been as a gardener or laborer. He grew up with eight siblings in a two-room house in Athlone, a dreary township in the Cape Flats. His great-grandparents had come to the South African port of Durban from southern India to work the sugar-cane fields as indentured servants in the late 19th century. Moonsamy's parents moved illegally from Durban to Cape Town in the 1940s. He says he and his siblings "saw Table Mountain every day, but we were indoctrinated by apartheid to believe we do not belong there. From the time I was a young teenager, I knew I wanted to get out."

After graduating from a segregated high school, Moonsamy dabbled in anti-apartheid activism. In 1995, as the ANC government began seeking ways of propelling "previously disadvantaged" people into the mainstream economy, Moonsamy started his own finance company, UniPalm Investments. He organized thousands of black and mixed-race investors to buy shares in large companies such as a subsidiary of Telkom, South Africa's state-owned phone monopoly, and bought significant stakes in them himself. Over ten years, Moonsamy has put together billions of dollars in deals, made tens of millions for himself and, in 1996, purchased this property in the most exclusive corner of Upper Constantia, one of the first nonwhites to do so. He says he's just getting started. "Ninety-five percent of this economy is still white-owned, and changing the ownership will take a long time," he told me. Speaking figuratively, he adds that the city is the place to seize opportunity: "If you want to catch a marlin, you've got to come to Cape Town."

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

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

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