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The Maastricht Diplomat

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Urban realities in post-apartheid South Africa

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

By Hendrik Jaschob

A visitor’s first impression of Cape Town is often bound up with its way from Cape Town International Airport towards the city centre. Driving along the N2 from the airport lets you pass massive informal settlements and townships with Cape Town’s Table Mountain in distant reach which potentially shocks a first visitor to the city that is inhabited by almost four million people. However, Cape Town has become one of the most visited places in the world. Recently, The Telegraph listed 22 reasons why Cape Town is the world’s best city, highlighting the city’s diversity and range of activities from hiking adventures, road trips and wine tasting to its historical significance during the struggle against the apartheid regime.  The Travel+Leisure magazine also ranked Cape Town as the 9th best city in the world in 2015. Especially for Germans, Cape Town has become a major destination to start a new life abroad, having big German communities in the city bowl. The city bowl is the cosmopolitan part of the city which is close to the lifestyle that Europeans or Americans know from home. Then, there are Sea Point and Camps Bay where properties and apartments are barely affordable for most South Africans and where you find a lot of internationals from anywhere in the world. Nonetheless, these parts of the city are mainly dominated by whites who have no relation to life realities behind the separating mountain.

Cape Town’s Legacy

To understand Cape Town, it is important to grasp the country’s history of colonial separation which had been perfected by the apartheid regime. The Group Areas Act was implemented in 1950 and assigned racial groups (blacks, coloureds, whites) to specific residential and business areas in order to separate urban life. Although, aspiring black and coloured individuals have moved back to these mostly “white” areas since 1994, urban segregation is still very visible in Cape Town. The city behind Table Mountain spreads 40 or 50 kilometres towards False Bay in its racially assigned residential areas. Driving along the M9 and starting from Khayelitsha, which is the second-largest township in the country, towards Wynberg and Constantia, you pass by different worlds. The American writer Paul Theroux notes in his book The Last Train to Zona Verde that “the majority of black South Africans live in the lower depths, not in the picturesque hamlets or thatched huts on verdant hillsides. Three quarters of city-dwelling Africans live in the nastiest slums and squatter camps.” But what is the story behind the big informal settlements and townships such as Khayelitsha, Nyanga, Crossroads or Mfuleni? What do the people say?

Distant Township Life

Samantha* says that a lot has changed since apartheid is over. She is in her 50’s and lives in Mfuleni which is a relatively new township which is 40 kilometres away from the actual city centre. She is engaged in urban farming and proudly shows her growing vegetables. She highlights the new opportunities to travel around the city which was not possible before. “The government even gives free tickets for weekend travel to pensioners”, she says with curiosity to get around the city. However, Samantha worriedly speaks about the barriers that still persist in the daily interaction with white people. “White South Africans still don’t like us black people”, she tells. It is an expression that also underlines the different life realities that are shaped in such a spatially divided city. Yet, there are more pressuring issues that have influenced township life in Cape Town since 1994. The South African author Rian Malan wrote in 1994 about the new influx of people in township communities from all over the country, as follows: “It was as if a distant dam had broken, allowing a mass of desperate and hopeful humanity to come flooding over the mountains and spread out across the Cape Flats”, which was caused by new travel opportunities, after the pass laws were abolished by the new government in 1994. He further notes that “within two years, the sand dunes had vanished under an enormous sea of shacks and shanties, as densely packed as a medieval city”. Today, South African cities have also become an attractive place for many immigrants from other African countries. This new influx has occasionally caused xenophobic violence over the last few years and therefore become another urging issue in urban South Africa.

Growing Together

Michael*, who is a very committed person in his community, lives in Retreat which is rather known as a coloured dominated area in the Cape Flats. He hopes that the country can grow together, beyond the frustrating state of politics in the country. “The ANC** is currently ruining the country through all these corruptions issues and its inability to transform life of the socio-economically weakest in the country”, he says. Pointing at younger generations he states that “the future of this country lies in the younger generations that have the opportunity to go to school and grow together”. There is a certain kind of optimism in his voice with respect to the potential to lower barriers within the city, to create a new feeling of a mutual life in times of desegregation and to stir agency of Capetonians to contribute to change. The former leadership of the ANC around Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, or Ahmed Kathadra, that were crucial figures in the struggle again apartheid, was not wrong when they stated that the long walk of South Africans to freedom had just begun. This walk will continue.

*Names have been changed

**African National Congress


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