We wake up to our first glimpse of the the city of Cape Town. From our hotel room window we can see Table Mountain in front of us and the Lion’s Head to our right – the view is spectacular and we are surprised by just how close these two peaks are.
After breakfast we set off to explore the second most populous and oldest city in South Africa. Known as the ‘Mother City’ it has a cultural heritage spanning more than 300 years. Today, Cape Town is one of the top tourist destinations in the world and is home to Millionaire’s Row in Clifton, often referred to as Cape Town’s St. Tropez, and Table Mountain, one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
We change some money, jump in a taxi and head for the cable car at Table Mountain. As we get closer we can see cars parked all the way down the winding road. The queue for the cable-car is over two hours long and so we decide to abandon our plan and to walk back to the city. After all, we will be hiking to the top tomorrow anyway!
Soon we find ourselves in Greenmarket Square. This square has quite a lot of history; it has been a slave market, a fruit and vegetable market and even a humble car park. Now the square has a market selling all sorts of handicrafts and souvenirs is surrounded by cafeterias and restaurants. We have worked up quite an appetite from our walk and choose a cafeteria for a beer and a snack in the sun before browsing the market stalls.
After a relaxing break we walk to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. A man approaches us asking for a donation to fund a project for the homeless people of Cape Town. We have been surprised by the sheer number of homeless people that I have seen on the streets and stop to listen to him. He explains that the project receives no funding and so the workers are trying to raise funds in order to get a plot of land on which they can provide shelter for homeless people and run workshops. He has a bag with him and inside it is a folder with further information. He points to it and tells us that we are welcome to take a look but that he can’t use his arm to lift it out – it is then that I notice his left arm is swollen and what look like ‘track marks’ run up his forearm. I ask if the organisation has a website or if there is any way to contact them and he mumbles an incoherent reply, saying something about saving all the money for the land. We don’t give a donation but I do look for the organisation online and can’t find anything that fits his description.
While there is no formal statistic of the number of homeless people living on the streets of Cape Town it is clear that is it a very real issue. Hundreds of men, women, children and young people sleep on the streets, in doorways, on park benches or in shelters. Many make a living from begging while some find informal work as car park attendants and others have to steal to survive. The spread of HIV, AIDS, tuberculosis and other sicknesses and diseases become a very real threat to these people. We were particularly surprised by the number of children that we have seen on the streets of the Mother City. Many of these children have run away from abusive homes while scores of others are AIDS orphans who were left with no-where to go.
Alcohol and drug abuse is a big problem as many of the homeless adults simple give up on life. Gangs take on younger boys and make them beg while some girls are forced into prostitution. Among these street people are lawyers, doctors, teachers and people skilled in various trades who lost their jobs and then their houses.
While Cape Town prides itself on being one of the best-run cities, scores of households are struggling to feed themselves. In 2001 approximately 57% of individuals in South Africa were living below the poverty line. Over 36% of Cape Town’s 3.6 million residents were earning less than 3,500 rand (approximately 260 euros) per month in 2009 and in 2010 the 226 informal settlements in the Cape Town municipality were estimated to be housing around 500,000 people.
We arrive at the waterfront and pass the guards at the entrance. Past the barrier we are in a completely different city. The beggars and street people lying on the pavements and park benches have been replaced with tourists and locals wearing designer clothes and high-heels. Luxury yachts are berthed in the harbour, in front of the beautiful backdrop of Table Mountain.
We wander past Nobel Square, with its statues of South Africa’s four Nobel Peace Prize laureates: Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela. Nearby is the Peace and Democracy sculpture, a narrative work that acknowledges the contribution of women and children to the attainment of peace in South Africa.
The giant, 50 metre tall Cape Wheel towers above us as we continue to Victoria Wharf. The city’s waterside mall is full of high-end, luxury stores and expensive restaurants.
It has been an interesting afternoon in Cape Town and I am certainly beginning to understand that the Mother City has two very different sides. As the sun begins to set behind the majestic Table Mountain, we decide that it is time to return to our hotel. Tomorrow we will be getting up before dawn to set off for our hike up India Venster to the top of one of the seven natural wonders of the world.