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Point of hope

Published: 01/04/2015 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2015 » April 2015 » Destinations » Home » Features »

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Cape Town is the oldest European settlement in South Africa and its second-largest city. With the 3,300-foot Table Mountain rising as a dramatic backdrop and Table Bay in the foreground, the geography forms something called the “city bowl.” It’s easy to see why; from the top of the mountain the entire expanse of downtown stretches out before you. 

Cape Town and Table Mountain lie on the northern edges of the Cape Peninsula, an arm of land that reaches down the Atlantic coast to Cape Point, a promontory that is the southwestern-most tip of Africa. It’s located just a short hike from the more well-known Cape of Good Hope – so called because the ancient mariners who sailed through the treacherous waters where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet knew that once they rounded this cape, the worst of their journey was behind them.

Situated at the tip of the continent, Cape Town’s inviting bay has been a stopover for sailing ships since the late 16th century. The city’s mild climate, rich flora and spectacular panoramas, together with its provocative, if troubled, history and its proximity to a world-class wine-producing region, prompted The New York Times to name it the best place in the world to visit in 2014.

On a globe, Cape Town may appear to be one of those faraway, you-can’t-get-there-from-here places, but thanks to an abundance of flights serving its international airport – the third-busiest on the African continent – the Mother City, as it’s known, is readily accessible from most anywhere on the planet. In part, this is due to a decade-long effort to get South Africa ready to take center stage, hosting world events.

The work began in earnest with preparations for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The country invested $1.8 billion in road work, airport upgrades and highway expansions, and an additional $40 million in telecommunications improvements. The result has been a South Africa that is easier to get to and work in than ever before.  

A Year of Design 

And 2014 was a banner year for Cape Town when it won the title “World Design Capital” (WDC). Some 460 events took place across the city – from the Red Bull Doodle Art competition to the reviving of a 17th-century community vegetable patch in Company’s Garden.

Now in its fourth iteration, the World Design Capital title has previously been awarded to Turin (2008), Seoul (2010) and Helsinki (2012). In 2016 it will go to Taipei. But while former destinations have won the bid based on strong creative heritage, Cape Town’s pitch promised the use of design for social and economic transformation.

“Cape Town is the fastest-growing city in South Africa,” Richard Perez, director of World Design Capital 2014, City of Cape Town, says. “How do you use design to deal with that? You have a lot of informal settlements, the legacy of apartheid. How can we reconnect communities? Design isn’t just an object, it’s a thinking process – and you can’t use the same thinking to solve a problem you created.”

Although there is optimism that being World Design Capital will help to draw in business and stimulate the economy, not everyone is convinced. Despite 20 years of democracy in South Africa, the divide between the “rich white and poor black” is still very much apparent. The more than 200 informal settlements (or townships, as they are known) remain a sad testament to the legacy of apartheid’s urban planning, as they continue to be populated by more than a million poverty-stricken non-whites, places where the privileged rarely venture.

The South African Rand is also weak against the US dollar (R12.36 to $1) and, last year, GDP growth was only 1.5 percent, its slowest rate since 2009, while other African countries are hitting 5 to 7 percent.

As one tour guide put it: “What about jobs? What are we changing outside the public eye? Some people say it’s just a smokescreen and has no positive impact on the local community – the divide between the haves and have-nots is just too big. The shacks stretch for 7 kilometers along the N2 road, for example. It’s a bit overwhelming how many people are squeezed in. The townships are like an ocean, they are very unexplored.”

That said, he acknowledges this is changing: “There are tours of the townships where you can see people turning tires into shoes, wood into statues, for example. It creates awareness, which is a good thing for the townships as they get to sell more of their products. We need to get in touch with the streets, be objective and listen to a whole host of different people so we can move from where we have been to where we are going.”

While the WDC projects taking place in the townships are not going to solve problems overnight, there is a sense they are helping to put Cape Town on the right path.

Global Creative Hub 

Aside from development projects, Cape Town wants to show that it is a creative hub that can operate globally. It has dozens of galleries, a strong advertising and film industry, many architectural firms and numerous top-ranking universities and art schools.

“One of our drivers is to attract R&D companies to tap our pool of young creative thinkers – we lose a lot of people to Johannesburg, who go there for the jobs, but we want to retain them,” Perez notes. 

“Being World Design Capital is only the beginning, but it has established Cape Town as something more than just a tourist destination,” says Priscilla Urquhart, spokeswoman for Cape Town Design. “The local minister for business has been upbeat about the extra attention from businesses and we have a no-red tape policy that has opened so many doors.”

One of the highest profile beneficiaries of no-red tape has been the thriving filmmaking scene. Such Hollywood notables as Charlize Theron, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Sacha Baron Cohen and Sean Penn have been in production here. The third season of the US TV show Homeland, also being shot here, has been causing a stir, with local streets being made to look like Pakistan. 

Driving towards the vineyards of Stellenbosch, you’re likely to spot the incongruous sight of a pair of pirate galleons rising out of the grassland – it’s a Cape Town Film Studios lot, where another US drama, Black Sails, is in production. Cape Town City Councilor Garreth Bloor says that in 2013 the film industry contributed R5 billion ($404 million) to the local economy, and companies “get a good deal here because there is a favorable exchange rate.”

When it comes to innovation, in everything from food to tech, the most cutting-edge district is Woodstock, east of the central business district. Here you’ll find an eatery ranked among the world’s top 50 restaurants by, the Test Kitchen ( It’s run by British chef Luke Dale-Roberts in the Old Biscuit Mill on Albert Road.

The converted 19th-century mill ( is

owned by innovative Indigo Properties and houses a second renowned Dale-Roberts restaurant on the roof – the Pot Luck Club – as well as the Cape Town Creative Academy and the Cocoafair chocolate factory.

Not far down the road are the mural-covered warehouses of the Foundry ( Another trendy new development, it’s home to Bronze Age, a gallery and foundry for metalwork sculpture; Tribe Coffee, which roasts its own beans on-site; and Cinderwood, which makes geometric terrariums filled with miniature plants.

The Woodstock Exchange ( is another former factory space converted by Indigo Properties a couple of years ago. It’s this place, with its freshly painted walkways and al fresco art installations, that really captures Cape Town’s zeal for creativity – in residence are fashion labels, design studios, artisan workshops, technology companies, publishing houses, photo agencies and delis. 

Here, Bandwidth Barn ( provides short-term leases, office space, networking events and business support for start-ups. Partnered with the Silicon Cape Initiative (, which “serves to attract and bring together local and foreign investors, the brightest technical talent, and the most promising entrepreneurs,” it’s home to Google’s first technology incubator in South Africa, launched in 2011.

Outside, you don’t have to walk far to see that the surrounding areas are poor and rundown – a striking contrast to the pristine Exchange, which wouldn’t look out of place in Manhattan’s Silicon Alley. Cape Town is doing its best to ensure guests that the city is a safe place to visit, but nonetheless it’s wise to take precautions, especially in suburbs such as Woodstock, where your best bet is to have a driver take you around.

“I am happy to say there has been a lot of job creation as a spin-off from places like Woodstock,” Urquhart says. “And we hope that the ripple will continue and that neighboring areas will get a new lease of life. As a local, I wouldn’t venture into some of those places at night or even in the day, but that’s not to say in a couple of years we won’t see a facelift.”  

By Jenny Southan and Dan Booth

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