Cape Town, South Africa: a thriving urban metropolis complete with beach, mountain and blue sky. The city’s reputation for exquisite scenery is well founded, with its vivid cerulean sea and bright green trees. It is also home to Table Mountain, Cape Town’s largest natural landmark, which, to no one’s surprise, is named after its flat-top and has a plethora of indigenous plants and animals including the elusive and fiercely territorial African wild cat, the Rooikat. Further to the wonders is Boulders Beach, a warm sandy shore complete with giant granite boulders and, bizarrely, a large colony of penguins; and the botanical gardens of Kirstenbosch on the slopes of the mountain, host to an incredible array of African plants often accompanied by classical, jazz and African musical concerts.
It is not only natural beauty which tempts tourists to choose Cape Town as a destination; it is a buzzing metropolis offering a huge range of five star hotels, eateries, galleries, markets and museums, both inside the heart of the city and the surrounding countryside. The wealth of the city can be seen around the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, an extensive shopping centre with a hub of designer shops, cinemas and seafood restaurants built on the harbour and surrounded by yachts, cruise-liners and overzealous seals.
However, it is difficult to ignore the fact that Cape Town is a city of discrepancies between poverty and affluence and, too often, between black and white. Just outside the airport are the shantytowns, known as the Cape Flats, filled with makeshift homes created from cardboard and corrugated iron; most have no running water or electricity. On the side of the street and at most junctions, friendly faces sell a variety of home-made goods to make a living: baskets, miniature models of African animals and jewellery made from beads or wood. The bubble protecting the privileged in South Africa is constantly permeated by tragic stories from the other side, stories that invariably involve poverty, AIDS, crime, racism, and violence. Behind high walls, with electric fences and beautiful gardens, those with the means can escape from the more sinister aspects of South Africa. However, many choose not to. There is a growing community in Cape Town who use their privileged positions not to escape but to help those surrounding them. Small non-profit organisations and charities have been established by locals to protect those citizens at risk, providing them with education, food, water, medicine and shelter. The diverse range of charities, tackling issues including AIDS, homelessness, poverty, unemployment, rape, cruelty to children, women and animals gives some insight into the widespread mix of socio-economic problems in Cape Town.
It is all too easy to characterise Cape Town as a thriving consumer city and to forget that it is part of Africa and the developing world. As a result, it has many of the same social issues, which are associated with all societies that have such polar opposites in wealth and social standing. However, Cape Town’s somewhat unsettling reputation should not dissuade would-be travellers from exploring the city’s vibrant history, natural landscapes and man-made achievements. While huge divisions between those who have and those who have not still exist, affirmative action, charity and governmental legislation ensure that the gap is increasingly closing and along with it, crime rates are falling. All travel comes with the possibility of danger, especially in Africa, but tourists and travellers should not let their fears convince them against experiencing the city of a lifetime.