Cape Town: A Potted History
When the Dutch East India Company sent Jan Van Riebeeck to establish a colony in Cape Town in 1652, he quickly turned it into an efficient waystation for ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope en route to the spice-producing lands of the east. Cape Town quickly outgrew its original purpose, becoming the economic and cultural hub of the Cape Colony. Indeed, prior to the Witwatersrand Gold Rush and the development of Johannesburg, the current location of the country’s stock exchange, Cape Town was the largest and most prosperous city in South Africa.
With the French occupation of the Netherlands during the French Revolution and Napoleonic War, Great Britain began to occupy and conquer Dutch colonies, including Cape Town, which was captured in 1795 and legally ceded to Britain in 1814. The conflict between Britain and the inland Boer Republics would later lead to the Second Boer War between 1899 and 1901, which was won by Britain, resulting in the entire area’s establishment as the Union of South Africa.
By 1929 general elections were being conducted under a system that allowed white men to vote while only a tiny number of black and colored men were so empowered, a privilege they were denied completely after 1939. The basis for this treatment lay in Afrikaaner and British perceptions of coloreds as a slave class (as they were descended from Cape Malays originally shipped to Cape Town to make up for the shortage of manual laborers in the city) and of Africans as savages (as their ancestors had lived as tribal hunter-gatherers prior to the arrival of the Dutch).
In 1948, the National Party won South Africa’s general elections. Their campaign platform had been one of ‘apartheid’, an Afrikaans word meaning ‘separateness’, implying a policy of racial segregation later passed into law as the Group Areas Act. The campaign preyed on the fears of white South Africans with a slogan referring to the ‘swart gevaar’, or ‘black threat’ that the African population supposedly posed to the security of the European-descended population.
Apartheid saw formerly multi-racial suburbs of Cape Town ‘purged’ of unlawful inhabitants (often their homes and possessions were outright destroyed), who were sent to live in the Cape Flats or the townships, far from the central areas of City Bowl.
It’s just 10km from the shores of Cape Town, visible from the beaches of the West Coast, that you’ll see Robben Island, where many leaders in the fight against Apartheid were held prisoner, and it was from the balcony of Cape Town’s city hall that Nelson Mandela made his first public speech in decades just hours after his release in 1990. Mandela’s election as president and head of the African National Congress in 1994 marked the beginning of a new era of economic prosperity for the country, ushering in massive booms in Cape Town’s real estate and tourism industries.
Cape Town’s suitability for expatriates
Incidents of xenophobic violence swept South Africa in early 2008. They began in the month of May in the township of Alexandra in Gauteng, where residents attacked Malawian, Zimbabwean and Mozambiquan immigrants, killing two and injuring 40 more. Soon similar incidents occurred in nearby townships, and it became apparent that the attacks were spreading, virally, it seemed. They would eventually reach the coastal areas of Durban and Cape Town
In the end, the attacks left 62 people dead and several hundred injured, not to mention a huge amount of immigrant-owned property, including shops and stalls, destroyed.
There’s been much talk surrounding these attacks and their significance to foreigners looking to relocate to Cape Town. People are being warned that immigrants to Cape Town run the risk of facing a similar fate.
The fact is, prominent among the various factors identified by the Human Sciences Resource Council, that these attacks were triggered by the relative deprivation of the people and areas where the attacks occurred. The perpetrators and the victims were, typically, in intense competition for the same jobs, as well as for basic housing and commodities. As such, those attacked were primarily refugee asylum-seekers perceived to be taking the bottom-rung jobs that would otherwise have been available to needy locals.
So, as hideous as their fates may have been, the situations of the victims of the xenophobic attacks are not remotely comparable to those of most expatriates engaging in deliberate relocation. By contrast, the latter tend to be well educated and in pursuit of highly skilled jobs, or better yet, responsible for their own job-creating businesses. If they weren’t, they’d face a great deal of trouble getting a residence or work permit.
Cape Town, on the whole, is very hospitable to expatriates, with numerous clubs and societies binding together substantial expatriate communities of varied European and American origin, and restaurants catering to every culture and taste. Many of these are listed in various parts of this guide.
Cape Town is centered on City Bowl, the business district surrounded by the dramatic peaks and crags of three mountains that form a natural amphitheatre facing onto Table Bay, where Cape Town’s busy harbor borders on the Central Business District. The municipal area of the city encircles these mountains and sprawls out along the West Coast and over much of the Cape Peninsula. Cape Town’s varied, dynamic geography is discussed more thoroughly under ‘City Structure’.