Exploring Cape Town's revival

Nicholas De Renzo 11 November 2021

A generation after the end of apartheid, the city is buzzing with a new creative energy that is waiting to be tapped into

Perched on the southwesternmost edge of the continent, Cape Town can feel like the tip of the African iceberg—and many visitors don’t realize how much depth lies beneath the surface. They sunbathe on its beaches, cage-dive with its great white sharks, sip its wine—but do they ever truly engage with its people?

A quarter century after the end of apartheid, a new generation of creative Capetonians demands to be seen and heard for the first time. Formerly ignored cuisines from the area’s Xhosa people and Muslim-majority Cape Malay community are coming to the fore; African contemporary art has finally gotten a museum that feels as vital as Paris’s famed Centre Pompidou; and even the townships are embracing their status as entrepreneurial hubs.

To squeeze in as much of the region’s dramatic scenery as possible, I begin my visit with a half-day tour with Cape Sidecar Adventures, which offers rides on a fleet of 1950s and ’60s motorcycle sidecars.

Owner Tim Clarke outfits me in a leather jacket, helmet, goggles, and gloves, and introduces me to the company’s “marketing manager”: a rescue mutt named Brody who wears “doggles.” Brody and I hop into the tandem sidecar. I’m not a dog person, but it’s can’t-fight-this-feeling-anymore cute when he rests his head on my shoulder throughout the drive.

In the fishing village of Hout Bay, we wait for the coastal fog to lift. Inside Bay Harbour Market I drink a red latte, made with rooibos “tea”—actually a scrubby bush that grows in the Western Cape—then snack on biltong (dried, cured meat) and droëwors (dried sausage).

Cape Town's Bo Kaap neighbourhood is filled with brightly painted buildings

On our way out of town, Brody gets into a barking match with a fur seal on the dock. People grin and flail their arms like kids as we pass. I wave back, and Clarke shouts over the motor, pointing at Brody, “They’re not smiling at you!”

We zigzag along the scenic paths on the Cape Peninsula—the jutting landmass that ends in the famed Cape of Good Hope, the continent’s southwesternmost point. I keep my eyes peeled for breaching right whales. No such luck.

Our next stop is the penguin colony at Boulders Beach. “We used to take our kids to swim with them,” Clarke tells me. Dozens of penguins squawk, waddle, and roll around in the surf. Tourists ooh and aah at the fluffy chicks and wildly snap photos. It’s impossible not to be swept up in the scene.

"Dozens of penguins squawk, waddle, and roll around in the surf"

After the tour, I grab a rideshare to Woodstock, a burgeoning but still scrappy neighborhood where factories are being converted into galleries and high-end restaurants. At the Old Biscuit Mill, an early 20th-century red-brick factory, I ride an elevator up to The Pot Luck Club, sister restaurant to The Test Kitchen (Africa’s only entry on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list) downstairs.

Up here, with outlandish views toward flat-topped Table Mountain, I order a Thai green curry martini, springbok antelope loin with fermented black beans and vermicelli rice noodles, and deboned lamb ribs with tomatoes infused with pomegranate juice.

I work off that hearty lunch at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, at Table Mountain’s eastern foot. South Africa’s plants don’t get equal billing with its lions and elephants, but this mountain has more botanical diversity than the entire United Kingdom. It is part of the Cape Floral Region, a 2.7 million-acre belt of protected areas.

The penguins at Bounders Beach put on quite a show for the visitors

In the park, I track mongoose, chubby guinea fowl, and partridge-like Cape francolins, and then climb onto a wooden platform that snakes over the canopy. Back on the ground, I marvel at the proteas, flowering plants that look like Seussian artichokes (and that gave their name to the national cricket team).

The next morning I set out to do a deep dive into the city’s townships, formerly segregated neighborhoods that are a lasting reminder of the apartheid era. Some 60 percent of Capetonians make their homes in townships or other informal settlements. Despite a reputation for crime, these areas are hotbeds of creativity.

"Despite a reputation for crime, townships are hotbeds of creativity"

In the Gardens area of downtown, I meet tour guide Keith Sparks. As we drive east, he recalls township tours of the past. “I used to see these buses pull up on the highway, and people would jump out and take photos at the fence. It was almost like a zoo experience.” This tour, the “City Futures” itinerary, on the other hand, is based on the idea that the city’s entrepreneurial future lies here.

In Langa, the region’s oldest township, British-Jamaican Tony Elvin—who moved here to open a social-enterprise restaurant for celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and decided to stay—welcomes us to his arts hub and business incubator, iKhaya le Langa NPC. It supports some 106 enterprises, from artists to jewelers to hot-sauce makers.

Elvin leads me into the complex’s Sun Diner. “They say don’t go to the townships, but Langa is a gateway into another Cape Town that’s bubbling up. We’re calling Langa the new city center—the Afrocentric heart of the city.”

Table Mountain looms over Cape Town. Sadly, some 500 hectares of land burned in a wildfire there in 2019.

Sparks and I head back to the highway, toward Khayelitsha, which he compares to Johannesburg’s city-size township, Soweto. We drive past people braaiing (barbecuing) fragrant meats outside colorful corrugated-tin houses and pull into a school parking lot to meet gardener Athi Ndulula of iKhaya Kulture Garden.

“iKhaya means home, so I want you to feel at home,” Ndulula says as he ushers us past living walls and soil-filled tires. “We wanted to show the youth what they can do with minimal space.” We sample crisp dune spinach, naartjie (a citrus fruit), and spekboom (a lemony succulent).

Before I leave, Ndulula tells me to check out his side job: He’s an aspiring rapper who goes by the name Artist-X. “The ‘X’ is for my mother tongue, Xhosa,” he says.

All that nibbling has stoked my appetite, so I thank Sparks and depart for chef Abigail Mbalo-Mokoena’s place in Khayelitsha: 4Roomed The Restaurant. A former dental technician, Mbalo-Mokoena greets me warmly, dressed in a T-shirt that says, “Africa Your Time is Now.” In 2019 and 2020, Food & Wine and Travel + Leisure magazines jointly named 4Roomed one of the world’s 30 best restaurants.

“We love heavy spice,” she says, as she serves Xhosa-inspired dishes: isonka samanzi (steamed bread), sous vide beef, and samp (mashed corn kernels) and beans, reportedly Nelson Mandela’s favorite food. Her version, made with hominy, tarragon, and coconut cream, tastes so good I wish I had a Xhosa grandma to cook it for me.

“My dental profession was a ticket out of the ’hood, but people leaving was depriving the area of black professionals,” Mbalo-Mokoena says. “I needed a purpose, and my purpose was to move back to the townships—to use food to bring people together.”

I take a car to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town’s answer to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. At the Watershed market I stock up on souvenirs: sleek ostrich-eggshell jewelry and animal figurines carved from upcycled flip-flops found on the beach.

Murals brighten up the revitalised neighbourhood of Woodstock

Nearby, I stop at the experimental Cause Effect Cocktail Kitchen and Cape Brandy Bar, where bar manager Justin Shaw pours me a South African brandy. Cognac-smooth, it was born of necessity: Apartheid-era sanctions limited booze from abroad, so South Africans crafted their own spirits. “It’s our duty to retell the story of brandy in a non-pretentious way,” Shaw says.

Baskets of botanicals that guests can use for custom infusions hang over the bar. “Fynbos has been a part of the food culture here from before the Ice Age,” Shaw says, referring to the scrubby, hardy vegetation that grows in these parts. I have a hot, spiced negroni, made with fynbos-infused gin and vermouth.

"Apartheid-era sanctions limited booze from abroad, so South Africans crafted their own spirits"

In the morning I head to the Waterfront’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), which opened in 2017 in a converted 1921 grain silo. Walls carved out of 42 concrete cylinders create an atrium that is run through with curves, ovals, and parabolas.

Tour guide Siseko Maweyi points up to a vast wall-hanging by Ghana’s El Anatsui. What looks like a luxurious textile is made from scraps of copper wire and smashed bottle caps. “It confronts notions of consumerism and waste,” Maweyi says.

A growing entrepreneurial spirit is creating a brighter future in the townships, including for these kids in Hout Bay 

I pick up a rental car and drive south for lunch at La Colombe, a fine-dining restaurant at the Silvermist Organic Wine Estate, in the suburb of Constantia. One bite in the meal I’ll remember for years: a foie gras mousse with springbok tartare on a paper-thin wafer. Is any other country, I wonder, so comfortable eating its national mascot?

My final stop is a peaceful retreat called Babylonstoren, near the Franschhoek Valley. Born in the 1600s as a Cape Dutch farm, the estate takes its name from a pyramidal hill that reminded settlers of the Tower of Babel—an apt allusion, given that this country has 11 official languages.

I drive through miles of vineyard, braking hard once or twice to let baboons cross the road, and pull into the 500-acre wonderland, drop my bags off at my cottage and head out to explore the orchards, olive groves, and a veritable zoo’s worth of turkeys, chickens, ducks, geese, and donkeys that run to the fence for behind-the-ear scratches.

Before I know it, it’s time for dinner. As the staff at the hotel’s Bakery Restaurant serves family-style boerewors (coriander-spiced sausages), chargrilled biltong, and dry-aged cuts cooked over hot coals, a duo plays Afrikaner folk music on guitar and accordion. The wine is flowing. Waiters and waitresses begin grabbing guests and twirling them around between the tables. It feels as if I’ve stumbled into a 19th-century Boer harvest festival.

On the walk back to my cottage, I’m literally starstruck by how dazzling the constellations and the Milky Way are out here, miles from the city lights. I have to admit there’s something immensely special and satisfying about being welcomed into the South African family—if only for a while.

Note: 4Roomed is no longer a sit-down restaurant—it now offers meals across the city with its food truck.

From Hemispheres (December 1, 2019), Copyright © 2019 by Hemispheres for United Airlines

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