Cape Town: Africa’s ‘Mother City’

The first European settlement in South Africa is an intriguing blend of colonial architecture and apartheid-era heritage. Tom Hall explores the history of Cape Town, from the 'Tavern of the Seas' to Mandela's jail

Colourful streets of the Bo-Kaap district in Cape Town South Africa

There’s only really one place to start exploring the dramatically situated ‘Mother City’ – from the top of Table Mountain. From here, visitors can gaze down on the safe harbour that made this spot the perfect toehold on the continent, and look beyond to see Africa spread before them.

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The Cape Peninsula, stretching south towards the Cape of Good Hope, may not truly be the southernmost point on the continent – that honour goes to Cape Agulhas – but for centuries it has symbolised the uttermost end of Africa in the minds of travellers. For now, whether you’ve taken the cable car or walked up, breathe in the fresh mountain air and savour a world-class panorama charged with stories. To reach the summit mountain, follow the signs to Maclear’s Beacon, 5km from the cable-car station.

With your bearings established, it’s time to hit the streets of Cape Town, which tell the story of the city’s development. The settlement that would become Kaapstad (Cape Town) was established in 1652 as a refuelling point, providing water and food for ships travelling to Asia, by the Dutch East India Company (abbreviated as VOC) – the world’s first multinational corporation, and the first to issue shares. The star fort called the Castle of Good Hope, built between 1666 and 1679, is the oldest building in South Africa and is still the headquarters of the army in the Western Cape. Clamber up onto the bastions for the perfect view of the fort’s interior and surroundings.

It’s a short walk from the castle to Company’s Garden, planted as the VOC’s vegetable patch in 1652 and now fragrant with the scents of the city’s finest rose garden. You’ll also find here the Delville Wood Memorial, honouring South African soldiers who fought in the First World War. As a British Dominion, South Africa stood alongside Britain in the conflict, and nearly 150,000 of its troops served in the Middle East, in east Africa and on the western front. This memorial specifically commemorates the 1916 battle of Delville Wood, part of the Somme offensive, in which some 2,500 South African soldiers were killed.

Stroll north-east to Strand Street, one of the oldest in the city, where many townhouses of Cape Colony merchants were built during the centuries of Dutch and British rule, including Koopmans-de Wet House, constructed for a wealthy Capetonian family in the late 18th century. Now a museum, it showcases the wealth of the city in an era when it was known as the ‘Tavern of the Seas’ – a party town for sailors revictualling, trading and carousing here.

Many townhouses of Cape Colony merchants were built during the centuries of Dutch and British rule, including Koopmans-de Wet House

The city’s story isn’t all big houses and barracks, though; for centuries, ordinary people arrived as traders, refugees, slaves and soldiers. To discover one facet of this, amble along Strand Street and turn onto Chiappini, Rose and Wale Streets to explore the most picturesque parts of the Bo-Kaap suburb on the lower slopes of Signal Hill. These colourful low-rise buildings and cobblestone streets have long been home to the city’s Cape Malay (often also referred to as Cape Muslim) population, originally freed slaves from south-east Asia, Madagascar and elsewhere. On Wale Street you’ll find the Bo-Kaap Museum, an interesting stop where you’ll learn more about this area’s heritage. The Auwal Mosque is nearby; South Africa’s first, it dates from 1794.

Cecil Rhodes dominated the final years of British rule in South Africa; his memorial, standing at his favourite viewpoint on the east side of Table Mountain, is viewed by some as bombastic and grandiose. The simple wooden bench nearby was his own, and is the perfect place to ponder his controversial legacy.

The darkest stain on South Africa’s history is, though, the segregation of the apartheid era (1948–91). For a deeper understanding of the issues and events of that time, join the crowds at the site of Nelson Mandela’s incarceration on Robben Island, and visit the District Six Museum in East City, which explains how this multicultural area was dismantled and sets the scene for the many township tours that stop here.

Cape Town in eight sites

  • 1: Table Mountain – Panoramic views across old Cape Town – www.tablemountain.net
  • 2: Castle of Good Hope – 17th-century fort, oldest in South Africa – castleofgoodhope.co.za
  • 3: Company’s Garden – The VOC’s vegetable patch
  • 4: Koopmans-de Wet House – Beautifully preserved 18th-century home – 35 Strand Street – www.iziko.org.za
  • 5: Bo-Kaap district and museum – Colourful houses of Malay settlers, and museum showcasing Islamic heritage – www.iziko.org.za
  • 6: Rhodes Memorial – Monument on Table Mountain
  • 7: Robben Island – Infamous apartheid-era jail – www.robben-island.org.za
  • 8: District Six Museum – More apartheid history – 25A Buitenkant Streetwww.districtsix.co.za

Tom Hall is a travel writer and editorial director of Lonely Planet publications

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This article was taken from issue 2 of BBC World Histories Magazine, first published in February 2017