the Mother Lode
Cape Town has long been on the radar for its natural beauty, but now the city is reinventing itself as a cultural capital with a thriving arts and dining scene. Madeleine Ross gets a taste of what’s on offer
Cape Town has long been on the radar for its natural beauty, but now the city is reinventing itself as a cultural capital with a thriving arts and dining scene
It’s surreal to think that less than three decades ago, Cape Town was living under the scourge of apartheid, ostracised by the international community and cut off culturally and economically from the West. Today, South Africa’s oldest city is vibrant and cosmopolitan, with a thriving art and design scene, fantastic food and wine and a liberal-minded body politic.
Of course, gastronomy and creativity are its less conspicuous virtues. The Mother City, as it’s known, is fabled for its extraordinary natural beauty: a dramatic coastline, white sand beaches and swathes of pristine wilderness. When Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994 and the era of racial segregation gave way to one of reconciliation, the former pariah quickly became the stopover of choice for adventure-seekers on their way to safaris in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
Indeed, Cape Town’s striking and unspoiled landscape is reason enough to add the city to your bucket list. This hook-shaped peninsula that curls into the tempestuous waters of the South Atlantic Ocean is arguably the most spectacular of South Africa’s three official capitals (Cape Town is the country’s legislative capital, Bloemfontein its judicial capital and Pretoria its administrative capital). With urban corridors that weave around the foothills of mountains and forests, it has the theatricality of Rio de Janeiro, the beauty of Sydney and a rawness that is very much its own.
Much of its grandeur stems from the majestic monolith that is Table Mountain. Part of the 300-million-yearold Cape Fold Belt, this prominence is a Mecca for nature lovers and fitness fanatics, many of whom make regular pilgrimages to its plateau. “Capetonians feel very connected to the ocean and the land,” says Mark Coetzee, curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), which is scheduled to open on the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in 2017. “They refer to this great, inspiring hunk of stone as ‘our mountain.’ There is this real feeling of humanity at one with nature—people are very careful not to litter, not to ruin the natural environment, and because of this awareness of the natural world we live in a very balanced way. Everything is toned down.”
Capetonians use various incarnations of “toned down” to describe their city, usually when comparing it to Johannesburg. The two metropolises have vastly different characters—the latter is South Africa’s commercial centre; Cape Town is its lifestyle and leisure capital. “Joburg is all about labels, the bling, what I’m wearing, what I’m drinking, where I’m hanging,” says Pamela Mconie, who runs bespoke tours of the city. “Cape Town is all about wearing funky young designers, vintage T-shirts and Ugg boots, about drinking great coffee and eating amazing organic food.” Cape Town is also known as the continent’s gay capital and is the most popular destination for LGBT tourists in South Africa.
Cape Town’s blessed geography is just the beginning. Blossoming as a cultural capital to rival Basel or Miami, it is now on the radar of the art fraternity. The catalyst for this cultural renaissance? A string of major investments in the arts—and an influx of foreign highflyers. Seduced by Cape Town’s laid-back ambience, temperate climate and dearth of paparazzi, the jet set are snapping up real estate on the city’s “Riviera,” which includes the seaside suburbs of Camps Bay, Fresnaye, Bantry Bay and Clifton. “Increasingly we are seeing lots of wealthy Americans, French and British
buy places and spend the northern hemisphere winters here,” says Coetzee. “With this kind of cosmopolitan presence we have seen the emergence of culture, new restaurants, wine farms, a whole sort of sophistication around the rediscovery of Cape Town. It’s a city of foodies. They take their coffee and their wine incredibly seriously.”
In 2014 Cape Town was named World Design Capital in recognition of its innovative use of design for urban regeneration and community uplift. It was a boon to the creative scene. “Cape Town has always had this edge but over the last few years it has really started booming. I think being a World Design Capital played a big part in that,” says local artist Lorraine Loots, whose thumbnail-sized watercolours have amassed a cult following. “There is just so much creativity in this city now. You can really make a career as a creative, whereas a few years ago it wasn’t possible. The ceiling was very, very low.”
Nothing heralds the city’s creative transformation like the Zeitz MOCAA, scheduled to open in September next year. A former grain silo which has been gutted and repurposed by industrial designer Thomas Heatherwick, it’s set to
be the world’s largest museum devoted to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. The museum’s foremost patron is Capetonian businessman Jochen Zeitz, former CEO of Puma, who engaged Coetzee as the museum’s executive director and chief curator. “Normally when you start museums you get very idiosyncratic collections, but in this case we could start from scratch,” says Coetzee. “This wasn’t about buying what we like, but buying what we believe represents the continent.”
Capetonians hope the Zeitz MOCAA does for them what the Guggenheim Museum did for Bilbao. They also see it as an important means to tell the African story. “It reaffirms Cape Town as a cultural centre and it symbolises the confidence that African people feel right now,” says Coetzee. “Africa has been excluded from cultural history for too long. Until recently people have equated the continent’s creativity with masks and skins and anthropological utilitarian objects. The notion that we have no contemporary practice
is rubbish. Furthermore, Africa has been very good at exporting stories of poverty and corruption but that is not the true story of Africa—it is a component of what we have had to deal with, but it’s not everything. Africans are tired of having these stories imposed on them. This museum provides an opportunity for them to take ownership of their story.”
Commercial galleries, too, have sprung up over the past decade, fuelled by a new global interest in African contemporary art. The Goodman Gallery, What If The World, Smac Gallery and Stevenson Gallery are worth a visit if you’re looking for an investment piece. For cutting-edge contemporary design, be sure to stop by Southern Guild, which shows work by the likes of Porky Hefer (his fantastical hanging chairs sell for tens of thousands of US dollars) and Dokter and Misses, known for its limited edition, collectible furniture.
The best way to see Cape Town’s galleries is to do a private tour with art dealer João Ferreira, who established the city’s first contemporary art gallery in 1998. “Our gallery system in South Africa is very young because we had the cultural boycott until 1994,” he notes. “International anti-apartheid sanctions made it extremely difficult for South African artists to gain any kind of profile or get exhibitions abroad. So the galleries only established themselves late. It’s rather incredible the way they’ve managed to make up for lost time.”
Soak up the city’s creative spirit a little more casually at First Thursdays— galleries in the central district stay open late on the first Thursday of every month. “This is an absolute must,” says Loots. “Everyone finishes work early and spills out into the streets with wine to talk about art and see art. It’s very laidback and a lot of fun.”
It’s also worth checking out the grittier side of Cape Town’s art scene in Woodstock. This former industrial neighbourhood is becoming a hub for advertising agencies, artist workshops,
boutiques and cafes. Its gentrification has been driven to a large extent by the proliferation of street art. Simple terrace houses are now canvases for striking works that speak to distinctly South African issues, like the trauma of apartheid and the loss of endangered wildlife. Residents get frustrated by tourists photographing their homes, so it’s best to view the works with a local guide (we recommend Juma Mkwela, who runs Juma Art Tours). Stop by the Woodstock Exchange afterwards for a coffee at Rosetta Roastery, and don’t miss the Old Biscuit Mill for organic produce, craft and design.
Cape Town’s dining scene is also booming. Bree Street, the city’s foremost gastronomic strip, is peppered with cafes, delicatessens and restaurants for which “farm to table” is a religion. At Jason Bakery, bespectacled thirtysomethings perch on crates eating
pasteis de nata and sipping flat whites. Don’t miss the home-brewed pomegranate kombucha and the many artisan cheeses at Culture Club Cheese a few doors down. Bacon on Bree serves decadent variations on the classic BLT using organic free-range pork from pigs reared on the owner’s farm. “The artisan thing is just exploding. Literally every two weeks something new is opening around here,” says Mconie.
And there are plenty of options for fine dining. Don’t let the no-reservations
policy at Chefs Warehouse deter you from its innovative set menu of tapas, which changes nightly. Also a must is Mulberry & Prince, a sleek, contemporary eatery with copper tables and Mediterranean fare. The most talked about restaurant in Cape Town is The Test Kitchen in Woodstock’s Old Biscuit Mill. Chef Luke Dale-roberts serves painstakingly crafted dishes like springbok with black pudding-stuffed sprouts, and Japanese egg custard with wild mushrooms, sweetbreads and duck livers. With the picturesque vineyards of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek just an hour’s drive away, wine lists are dominated by top local drops.
The flavours of the Far East are also prominent in Capetonian cuisine. When the Dutch East India Company colonised the Cape in 1652, it brought in slaves from what is modern-day Indonesia (then the East Indies), which was also a colonial possession of the Dutch. These immigrants, known as the Cape Malay, preserved the cooking traditions of their homeland.
When slavery was abolished in 1834, the Asian community clustered in an area now called the Bo-kaap. The once poor neighbourhood is now highly sought-after, its brightly coloured houses and cobblestone streets home to descendants of those slaves. A highlight of my trip to the Bo-kaap is a cooking class with Gamidah Jacobs, who teaches me in the kitchen of her sky-blue home to fold samosas and whip up sweet Cape Malay-style donuts known as koeksisters.
For all its virtues, Cape Town also faces significant challenges. In spite of its cultural diversity and overarching mood of peace and harmony, there are clear disparities between the living standards of different ethnic groups. It’s also worth noting that Capetonians speak very freely about race, which is
done without malice but can be rather jarring at first. Members of the Cape Malay community generally identify as “coloured,” while people of Dutch or British descent are “white” and those of African descent are “black.”
Hundreds of thousands of Capetonians still live in “townships”— precincts akin to shantytowns that were reserved for black and coloured communities during apartheid. Crime is high here, but much is being done by the government and private organisations to improve living conditions and employment opportunities for residents. Visits to the townships are best organised through Uthando, a non-profit organisation that channels the funds it earns from tourism into programmes to build schools, promote female empowerment and teach job skills.
If you’re savvy when visiting townships, Cape Town feels as safe as any other major city. “Many of our visitors say they feel safer coming to Africa than they do other parts of the world because of the threat of terrorism in Europe and the US. It’s interesting how perceptions have changed,” says Coetzee. He has no doubt the city will be flooded with tourists when the Zeitz MOCAA opens. “We’re getting major attention globally and we haven’t even opened yet,” Coetzee says of the museum. “Cape Town is ready for this. The world is ready for this.”
Madeleine Ross’ personalised itinerary was organised by boutique tour operator Jacada Travel. jacadatravel.com
state of the arts Clockwise from top left: Bettina esca (2014), a hanging chair made of leather, fishnet and steel by Capetonian designer Porky hefer, who creates one-of-a-kind collectible pieces of furniture; a rendering of the foyer of the Zeitz MOCAA, a former grain silo that is being transformed into an art museum by Thomas heatherwick; the Southern guild design studio
Cape Town is obsessed by coffee right now. If you’re hankering for a caffeine fix, be sure to go for the terribly fashionable flat white— anything else is social suicide
industrial strength Clockwise from left: repurposed factory buildings, like the old Biscuit mill in woodstock, now house cafes, artisan boutiques and design studios; Jason Bakery on Bree Street serves the best coffee and pastries; street art is part of the gentrification of woodstock
food for thought From left: the menu changes nightly at Chef warehouse, which serves avant-garde tapas; a visit to Test kitchen is a must; the historic Bo-kaap neighbourhood; gamidah Jacobs runs cooking classes in her home