“Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows
And vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody
Wants to come down here no more”
Those are not my words. It belongs to Bruce Springsteen’s hauntingly melancholic “My Hometown”. But lately, when I look at Cape Town’s city centre, the lyrics seem unsettlingly apt. Yes, this is a plea to South Africans tourists to help safe our city.
Most locals know the role the Mother City played in shaping the South Africa we know today. Starting with the indigenous San and Khoi Khoi, to European explorers and colonialists, through rebellions and wars, right to up to Madiba’s first appearance as a free man, Cape Town has played her part in our turbulent and fascinating history.
It’s hard to convince most people on holiday to interrupt their summer beach sessions and sundowners for a trip down history lane, but as someone once said: “We need to introduce a little balance into life. Part of this balance means not missing out on some of the marvels of life around you, the fun, some excitement, or other challenges in life.”
Cape Town’s city centre is the hub of historical sites, stories, buildings, moments, museums, and some very unexpected treasures. We will not give it all away here, but if you are still not convinced that spending time in the Mother City’s historical heart, we might change your attitude.
From St George’s Mall, within a 2km radius you can cover parts of this country’s history, dine, walk, talk, take selfies, experience street art and music and stumble upon magnificent architecture.
St George’s Cathedral on Wale Street is the oldest cathedral in South Africa. The British have James Bond, Belgium have Jean Claude van Damme, have Australia have Crocodile Dundee, but we have Tutu – South Africa’s first black archbishop was stationed here in 1986. The history of the cathedral includes a Purple Rain March, a black Madonna and 30 000 people of all races walking in the name of peace and inclusivity. Just do not miss the piece of the Berlin Wall on your way there.
Head up Queen Victoria Street, and opposite the Company’s Garden, there are two benches on the sidewalk telling the story of Apartheid in their stoic, concrete way. You can sit on them for a breather. Behind you is the old Race Classification Appeal Board, where the Apartheid government decided whether the colour of your skin can elevate you into the privileged sectors of society. And yes, the pencil test was used as an assessment of a person’s race.
The Company’s Garden is more than just a picnic spot. It is also home to the South African Museum and the Cape Town Holocaust Centre. Here you can also find the South African National Gallery with its impressive permanent collection of South African, Africa, British, French, Dutch and Flemish art. On our walking tour we will also introduce you to Cape Town’s “oldest citizen”. No, it is not a human being, so small talk is unnecessary. The Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome is at the top end of the garden. It is the most advanced digital planetarium on the African continent.
On your way out stop at Tuynhuys, the office of our president, and previously the official residence of almost all the governors of the Cape. It was here where FW de Klerk announced on 18 March 1992 that South Africa has closed the book on Apartheid. It was also here where the blood-soaked carpet after Verwoerd’s assassination were kept until 2010. We share with you the story of his assassin, Dimitri Tsafendas. For decades most South Africans believed Tsafendas was inspired by a tape worm to murder the then president. All hogwash. This man is actually South Africa’s longest serving political prisoner – 33 years.
If you exit the garden on Government Avenue, you will leave underneath an arch called Arch for Arch, a monument created to commemorate the life and work of Desmond Tutu. And yes, it has free Wi-Fi.
On the corner, between the statues of Queen Victoria and Jan Smuts is the Iziko Slave Lodge. “From human wrongs to human rights”, exhibitions at the museum explore the long history of slavery in South Africa. On the Spin Street side of the museum is Church Square. You will notice 11 marble blocks, seemingly placed there at random. This display is a memorial to the enslaved. In the middle of Spin Street, is the Slave Tree Plaque. This is where slaves were auctioned off. Between Church Square and the Slave Lodge is the Groote Kerk, the first Dutch Reform Church in South Africa. Under the church are the tombs of several historical figures, and this includes the famous Krotoa, niece of Autshumao, a Khoi leader. Her story needs to be told.
About 500m further you will get to the District Six Museum. Approximately 60 000 people were forcefully evicted from the area by the Apartheid government. Many people still alive today have lived through the trauma of these removals, and through the museum we can better understand the scars of those memories and the impact of the ordeal.
Another 450m from there is the Castle of Good Hope, the Parade and Cape Town’s City Hall. If you can imagine it: the Castle is the oldest standing European structure in South Africa, and if you turn towards City Hall, you’ll see the statue of Nelson Mandela, honouring the exact spot where he first appeared as a free man. If you are standing on the Parade, imagine doing so with 100 000 people who waited for their first glimpse of Madiba 30 years ago.
Then there is the Bo Kaap. Technically it is just outside the city centre, but Cape Town would not be complete without the colourful area and its people. Also known as the oldest neighbourhood in South Africa, the Bo Kaap is more than just colourful houses. The oldest mosque in South Africa is there. When you walk through the district, allow the brightly painted houses of the Bo Kaap to “tell” you their story. Smell the spices and taste the food that reveal their cultural heritage. Allow the people’s history to show who they are and what they have achieved.
There is no need to travel across the oceans to enjoy a holiday. We have become complacent of the places around us. Cape Town is synonymous with tourism, and there is a good reason why people from across the globe, in fact 2.6 million international tourists in 2018, come to the Mother City. Now it is the locals’ turn. We need you – you can take a walking tour with us, and we will share our beautiful city from sidewalk level. Or visit and support any of the historical places that has been part of Cape Town’s heartbeat for centuries. Take back the city streets and keep this heart beating.