a South African Metropolis
ape Town is a place unlike any other in the world, with a breathtaking landscape and a unique blend of cultural influences. While South Africa’s tumultuous history can be painful to confront, it’s impossible to truly understand and appreciate this city without looking back at the formidable events that shaped it. Keep reading to get to know the most impactful moments in the making of Cape Town.
The story of Cape Town begins 800 million years ago, when sandstone began to form under the sea, creating the basis for the city’s iconic backdrop. Table Mountain is six times older than the Himalayas and five times older than the Rockies. Rising with the split of the continents and eventually growing a kilometer high, the mountain created a rain shadow and provided streams to the coastal valley below, ultimately attracting human settlement. Today you can ride a cable car from the city center and be at the top of the mountain in just five minutes.
We didn’t find a critical consensus as to why they call Cape Town the Mother City, but we were interested to learn that the area rivals East Africa as the cradle of humankind. The oldest evidence of modern humans—bones dating back 100,000 years—were found here, while sophisticated cave paintings up to 75,000 years old can be seen in the surrounding mountains. Meanwhile you can visit the SA Museum to witness “The Footsteps of Eve,” a set of prints left behind 117,000 years ago. These remnants were probably left by ancestors of the local Khoe and San people, two semi-nomadic cultures who speak a click-based language and were still thriving in the area when Europeans finally arrived.
Another reason people call Cape Town the Mother City is that it’s where European settlement of South Africa began. The Dutch East India Company originally set up shop on the Cape in 1652, intending only to provide food and supplies to passing ships. They were to barter with the local Khoe people, who were semi-nomadic herders, and no town would be built. As demand outstripped what the Khoe could provide however, company men were released from duty to plant farms and the settlement began. These men became known as the Boers (Dutch for Farmers) and their descendants would eventually speak Afrikaans, a language evolved from the Dutch vernacular. Today 13.75 percent of Cape Town residents still speak Afrikaans.
It was after a long, drawn out war with Napoleon that the British were granted Cape Town in 1814. At first, the city continued along Dutch lines, with a few English aristocrats in the mix. As more and more British merchants moved to the area, a new English-speaking middle class emerged and introduced liberal ideals. The English wanted to turn Cape Town from a rural Dutch town to a cosmopolitan global city. To resist the British influence, the Dutch descendants labeled themselves “Afrikaaners” and when British parliament abolished slavery in 1834, many fled to establish sovereign territories on the eastern Cape.
As their settlement in Cape Town grew, the Dutch East India Company imported slaves from not only elsewhere in Africa, but predominantly from their colonies in Southeast Asia. This group became known as the Cape Malays, who identify together not so much for their ancestry, which is mixed, but for their religion, Islam. After the rise of British Rule and the abolition of slavery, the Cape Malays finally enjoyed the freedom to worship, constructing Mosques and settling the community of Bo-Kaap, famous for its pastel-colored buildings, cuisine and music.
The discovery of gold and diamonds on the Cape in the late 1800s allowed the city to boom, but also inflamed tensions between the British and the sovereign Boer territories, who both asserted claims over the mines. The South African War that ensued only further enriched the city, which grew to 200,000 by the dawn of the twentieth century. Though the British won the war by use of force, the shameful mood of their victory led them to give up political power while maintaining economic integration. In 1910, South Africa became a united country and the capital moved east to Pretoria, where the new national government worked to roll back the rights of those they once enslaved.
In 1910, Cape Town was an Imperial Capital. It was a rich, diverse city that was reasonably integrated, with many people of color working in professional classes. With the Union of South Africa however, an attitude bred in the country’s now-powerful rural regions quickly took over. Prejudices against people of color normalized. Economic differences, laws and policies worked to separate people more and more along racial lines. The climate reached a new level after the 1948 election, when a right-wing party won the presidency (elected by only whites) and instituted a ruthless hierarchy of privilege and exclusion known as apartheid. Over the next forty years, tens of thousands of Africans were forcibly removed from Cape Town and made to live in suburban slums.
Opposition to apartheid existed at its inception, and the government took immediate and extreme measures to quell any resistance. One tactic was to arrest prominent activist leaders like Nelson Mandela and his fellow executives of the African National Congress. Mandela’s imprisonment ushered in a time of fear and silence but by the 1980s the movement to abolish apartheid was global and vocal. World leaders vehemently disapproved, encouraging radical resistance among people of all ethnicities in liberal-minded Cape Town. Eventually President FW de Klerk heard their cry. In 1990, he unexpectedly opened parliament declaring the end of apartheid. Mandela was released as soon as possible from his 27 years in prison and four years later, became the President of South Africa, beginning a new era of progress and promise.