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Cape Town: Palimpsest City

Edgar Pieterse *


Cape Town is a deceptive city. Most people assume that the city is nestled below Table Mountain, as the postcard iconography of the city would suggest, but in actual fact the majority of the city's 3,5 million inhabitants live out their lives in the shadow of the mountain, behind its back. This topography proves incredibly confusing for visitors who always find themselves at odd, almost indistinguishable angles with the mountain inducing frustration at the slippery geography of the city.


Atypical city

Cape Town is also deceptive because it is in many ways atypical in the South African context in terms of its population make-up and peculiar cultural mix.

Cape Town's 3,5 million population is comprised of a Coloured majority (48,1%), followed by black Africans (31,7%), then whites (19,8%) and a miniscule Asian population (1,4%). This atypical demographic profile (Coloureds comprise 9% of the national population) is a direct result of the Coloured Labour Preference Policy that was in force until 1984 and prevented black African peo-ple from settling in the city without fixed employment. There is no other urban space of this scale in Africa where the “mixed-race” population is such a large majority, and consequently, profoundly influential in shaping the city's identity and dynamics.

Cape Town is a powerful attractor. It ranks as one of the most important tourist visitor destinations on the African continent, manifested in over 2 million visitors per annum by the last count. However, the people who are drawn to the city are not just visitors with disposable income but also large numbers of very poor internal migrants in search of public services and employment. Thirty five percent of the city's population growth between 1996-2001 was due to internal migration and this number is likely to have increased or remain stable since then. (1) Over and above, it is crucial to emphasize the youthfulness of the city's population: the cohort between 15-23 years comprise 38% of the city's population and over half of the internal migrants to the city fall into the same bracket. This holds vital implications for the cultural character and dynamics of city.


The first colonial settlement

The atypical character of the city also arises from its identity as the first colonial settlement in present-day South Africa. On the 6 th April 1952 a representative of the Dutch East India Company arrived at Table Bay below Table Mountain to establish a refreshment post of the vessels making their way from Europe to the lucrative colonies in South Asia. (2) At that point the dominant local populations were from two indigenous tribes called the Khoi Khoi and the San. Within eighty years of the arrival of the Dutch settles, almost the entire Khoi Khoi population was wiped out by violent confrontations and especially disease (smallpox) brought from Europe. The stench and violence of this genocide continue to haunt the psyche and identity of the city, manifested most blatantly in the incapacity of the city to find effective ways of memorialising the founding dwellers of this region of the world, or for that matter more contemporary heroes from the twentieth century who played a pivotal role in the anti-apartheid and anti-segregationist movements that characterised civil life in the city.

Furthermore, with the decimation of local populations, the Dutch East Indian Company turned to slave labour from India, Indonesia, East Africa and Madagascar to work the farms that sprang up around the defensive fort built shortly after van Riebeeck's arrival. It is this slave population that gives Cape Town its unique demographic profile and melange of colloquial cultures (language, religion, cuisine, aesthetic, spatiality). (3) However, it is also this slave history of routine violation that lie at the root of a very violent and self-destructive popular culture manifested in the violent and sexual crime figures of the city, although almost exclusively restricted to the poor and working-class quarters. Cape Town boasts the highest national violent crime rates, which is an unenviable achievement given that South African is one of the most violent countries in the world. (4) The identity of the city is almost impossible to apprehend without engaging with the seam of violence that runs like a magnetic field throughout the city, turning communities, cultures, genders, generations and classes against each other or at least suspicious of the other.


The most important cultural centre

However, having acknowledged the dark edge that one finds just below the glamorous surface of the city, it is equally valid to acknowledge just how productive difference and trauma has been. Cape Town is beyond doubt one of the most important cultural centres in the country and is known for having spawned an illustrious league of profound artists working across musical, visual, literary and performative mediums. Legends that come to mind is world renowned jazz virtuoso, Abdullah Ibrahim; nobel-prize winning writer, J. M. Coetzee; world-wide recognised hip hop crew, Prophets of Da City; amongst many others. Ideas and writing has also always mattered in Cape Town, which is generally regarded as the home of dissident and discordant thought. Thus, whenever political or cultural movements have splintered over the past two centuries, the seeds can always be traced back to debating salons and backrooms somewhere in Cape Town.

Fast-forward to the contemporary moment, on the cusp of South Africa hosting the biggest sporting spectacle in the world in 2010, the Soccer World Cup, and it is possible to identify the first serious effort by the public, private and civil sectors to focus on the cultural identity and potential of the city as a driver for both development and a more shared urban culture across the many divides that mark Cape Town. Specifically, a public-private body called the Cape Town Partnership has embarked on Creative Cape Town programme/movement to galvanise diverse energies and resources. At its core this initiative seeks to use memory and history as a tool to foster a sharper sense of local distinctiveness, which in turn could serve as a resource, simultaneously, for civic engagement, cultural tourism and creative industries. This thrust is complemented by an explicitly spatial focus to reconfigure the heart of the city (oldest quarter which bares the deepest scares of the city's traumatic history) by connecting various functional uses and spaces, and most importantly, engineering a resettlement process to double the inner city's population over the next decade so as to achieve the required social density to sustain more vibrant cultural production, cultural industries and becoming a learning city. (5)

As a product of colonial exploitation and apartheid socio-spatial engineering, Cape Town remains a city of dualism and polarisation. This applies to both its people and topographical features of the city. Mountains, valleys, rolling beaches, vineyards, forests, dunes, come together in breathtaking combinations to make the city one of the most beguiling places in the world, competing with iconic cities like Rio de Janeiro and Barcelona. Into this natural setting bubbles a rich cauldron of cultural pluralism. Yet, despite all its natural and human potential it seems to be a city intent on undermining itself, always falling short of realising its unlimited potential and this goes back to the central flaw in the city's being: its inability to unflinchingly confront its traumatic past and finding a realistic and pragmatic discourse to use the palimpsests of diverse cultures, layered by time, to grow comfortable in own skin and strike out on its own terms.


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1 - OECD (2008) – Cape Town Territorial Review . Paris: OECD.

2 - WESTERN, J. (1996) – Outcast Cape Town . Berkeley: University of California Press.

3 - LESTER, A., NEL, E. & BINNS, T. (2000) – South Africa: Past, Present and the Future. Gold at the end of the Rainbow? Harlow: Longman.

4 - JENSEN, S. (2008) – Gangs, Politics & Dignity in Cape Town . Oxford: James Curry.

5 - Based on interviews with Zayd Minty, the Creative Cape Town Coordinator at the Cape Town Partnership.


* Edgar Pieterse

Mestre em Development Studies pelo Instituto de Estudos Sociais de Haia, Holanda. Doutorado na London School of Economics. Director do Centre for Cities da University of Cape Town.

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