This is a city that’s been rescued by faith. Time and time again. The wandering Khoisan and Khoikhoi were drawn here by the benevolence of Table Mountain, which provides the city with water through its porous sandstone structure. They called it Camissa, or ‘place of sweet water’.
Framed by mountains and fringed by beaches, Cape Town proved irresistible to the ships of traders and merchants who docked here — Portuguese, Dutch, British… Eventually, the slave trade was rampant, drawing labour from all over the world to build the city. You know the rest of the story — after all, it’s unnervingly recent history. Apartheid. Rebellion. Freedom. Forgiveness.
As the old order changed, it was faith — in their country, leaders and themselves — that kept the South Africans from plunging into anarchy. Of course, there were, and still are, massive problems — unemployment, poverty and crime. Post-freedom, the country’s biggest cities became recklessly dangerous. Today, this intimidating reputation for violence lingers. A reputation they’re working hard on changing.
Cape Town’s now a playground for the rich. Yet, for a long time, its inner city suffocated under a deluge of graffiti, theft and violence. Till the Cape Town Partnership stepped in. Since 1999, it’s been bringing together corporates, citizens and the Government, to rejuvenate the historic downtown area.
They have faith in the city, believing it’s worth saving for its remarkable beauty as well as history, containing lessons for the world. The partnership has repaired street lights, cleaned graffiti, and worked on crime prevention. Now, they’re inviting businesses, tourists and locals into the inner city to enjoy its public spaces together, with art exhibits, concerts and markets.
“We want to get the locals to come here. Get them out of their cars, high-security buildings and shopping malls…” says Andrew Boraine, chief executive of The Cape Town Partnership. “We run walking tours to teach people the history of our city, which is the history of our country… This is the oldest area of modern human settlement on the planet. People have lived here for 75,000 years.”
Lined with graceful heritage buildings, each with a chequered past, the centre of South Africa’s ‘Mother City’ certainly has atmosphere. History leaves its mark. Especially, when it’s turbulent.
Take the Purple Rain revolt, for instance. In 1989, thousands of anti-apartheid protestors were on the streets with banners stating ‘The People Shall Govern.’ When the police turned a water cannon filled with purple paint on them, intending to mark and arrest, a student swung it around, showering the police. The next day walls were scrawled with triumphant graffiti declaring: ‘The purple shall govern’.
Today, the event is celebrated by stories, public artwork, and the ‘Purple Turtle,’ a club that calls itself ‘the cornerstone of eccentricity and culture in the South African music scene’. As Cape Town has discovered, history stays relevant when it keeps pace with the lives of its people. Hence, reinvention is essential. This way buildings and stories continue to serve a purpose, instead of merely becoming empty repositories for stories and fading memories.
Taj Cape Town, a joint partnership between Tata’s Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces and Eurocape (an Irish property investment company), for instance, is housed within the historic South African Reserve Bank and Temple Chambers buildings located in the downtown area. Significant to Capetonians, it not just gives a fillip to inner city rejuvenation, but is also a tribute to the rainbow people.
After all, Cape Town’s first Indians, among many other nationalities, first arrived in on filthy slave ships in chains between the 17th and 18th Centuries. The Slave Lodge down the road from the hotel, once a dilapidated, filthy prison, locked in about 9,000 slaves between 1697 and 1811. Today, it’s a glossy museum endeavouring to convey the horror of its past. South Africa has discovered that air-brushing its tumultuous history does nobody any favours. Over here, healing comes with truth, no matter how painful, and reconciliation, no matter how difficult.
Groote Kerk, next door to the Slave Lodge, offered little comfort in those days. The site of the oldest Christian congregation in South Africa, it was open only to the whites. On the other hand, St George’s Cathedral, just down the road, surmounted its inevitable colonial beginnings to become a symbol of protest for the anti-apartheid regime, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Once home to vigils and high drama, it’s now peacefully hushed, lit by the candles flickering around a striking black Madonna and vivid stained-glass windows.
Today, the inner city is still speckled with barbed wire. Houses and stores bristle with menacing grills, locks and posters promising an ‘Armed Response’ to break-ins. Yet, the streets feel non-threatening.
South Africa’s current focus on tourism has involved locals and traders, explaining how important it is for tourists to feel safe. It helps that everyone we meet is fiercely proud of the country. The bargaining at Greenmarket square, once a place to sell slaves, and now the site of a bustling flea market, is cheerfully spirited. One charming woman selling quirky hand-made jewellery even seals the deal by enveloping me in an unexpected hug.
Healing comes in many ways. Perhaps, Cape Town’s performance poet Malika Ndlovu said it best — “In the light of memory and remembering / Through the streams of ourselves / reconnecting / recollecting / we find our way home.”
(Jet Airways recently inaugurated non-stop flights from Mumbai to Johannesburg, six days a week. Return Economy fares start at Rs. 35,595, while return Premiere (Business Class) fares start at Rs. 1,16,020. Jet Airways’ new Airbus 330-200 aircraft departs from Mumbai at 0205 hours, and arrives in Johannesburg at 0735 hrs. From there, it’s a two-hour flight to Cape Town)