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Cape Town's Future
Cape Town is 350 years old. It is an isolated city that hugs the furthest tip of Africa. It is far from Europe and Asia, whose people established it, far even from Pretoria, whose apartheid government forced segregation upon it and whose new government would like to see it become more 'African'.

To this beautiful place tourists come in large and increasing numbers. It is a celebrated city, with wonderful places and great lifestyle, where many of Africa's leading institutions, like the University of Cape Town, are located and where the world's first heart transplant was performed. Yet the legacy of apartheid is evident in deep poverty and social problems.

What lies ahead? Can history give us any pointers to the future for this famous city of more than three million people?
Climate change is a hot topic. Just north of Cape Town the land is semi-desert, and only the winter months give the mountains of the Cape the rainfall required for its large and growing population. Could changing weather patterns turn the Cape into an arid region?

Furthermore, much of the population lives on the 'Cape Flats', a sandy area not much higher than sea level. There have been times in history when the Cape Flats and Fish Hoek Valley have been beneath the oceans, and the peninsula reduced to two islands off the African coast. Could global warming flood the Cape Flats, displacing perhaps two million people? Will high walls be needed to protect the city?

Pelagoniums growing on Table Mountain, with Cape Town in the backgroundWith climate change, what will happen to the extraordinary flora of the Cape, which is the smallest Plant Kingdom but also the most diverse by area, containing thousands of unique species. Cape Town lies in an area of outstanding ecological importance. It was described by early scientists as a 'botanical garden left to grow wild'. Tremendous efforts have been made by passionate groups and the authorities to protect fauna and large areas of flora, earning international World Heritage Status. But will conservation succeed against the threats of population and economic growth and environmental change. Certainly Cape Town will need committed scientists, conservationists and engineers, as well as receptive politicians and bureaucrats, if it is to preserve its ecological diversity.
Cape Town has always been an international city. For much of its history it has been primarily influenced by Europe, and still has a euro-centric 'feel'. Only in recent times has there been a significant African cultural influence. However, this will grow.

Vast migration from remote rural areas to the city since 1988 has created huge new settlements on the Cape Flats, many of them unplanned and poorly serviced, with large areas of rudimentary shacks. The migration has also brought significant numbers of black people into the workplace and ANC politicians into positions of power.

The Dutch, British and apartheid governments each had a major impact upon the city. Today, the ANC government wants to see change. It is uncomfortable with the 'untransformed' character of Cape Town, arguing that black people are marginalized in the city. 'Coloureds' meanwhile believe black 'newcomers' are favoured, especially in work and housing. For their part 'whites' feel the influx of poor people and rapid growth are creating deep social problems, including widespread crime. How will these tensions be resolved? No doubt the city will become more 'African', as South Africa transforms and migrants continue to arrive from across the continent, how will this change Cape Town's traditionally Euro-centric culture?

Cape Town has always been a cosmopolitan city and, at least for some, a city of fun. The city's first houses were guesthouses and it was well known as the 'tavern of the seas'. Table Mountain Cable Car and Lion's Head Since the early 1990s tourism has again boomed and for visitors and many residents it is a relaxed, fun loving city, that appreciates the good things in life - surf, nature, wine, good food, hospitality, art…. these are all parts of its leisure loving, laid-back character, but also a vital aspect of its economy. Tourism is the city's largest employer. But tourism is highly vulnerable to changes in perception, particularly regarding safety .

Beneath the fun and the beauty of Cape Town there has always been a darker side. It was here that the ancient KhoeSan were persecuted, and smallpox from the harbour decimated their population. Here slaves were forced to labour and die, so far from their Asian homes. In Cape Town Nelson Mandela and so many other freedom leaders were subjected to cruel imprisonment.

In times of oppression, which have come and passed several times, there has always been a liberal tradition in the Cape that spoke up, and demonstrated against the abuse of human rights. But there has also been a silent conservatism and complicity. In the future will Cape Town be known as a compassionate city, committed to the dignity of all citizens?

There has always been a gap between rich and poor in Cape Town, but never on the scale there is now. Apartheid did much damage to communities, and Townshipsdeliberately under-educated and disregarded the needs of the majority. The inability of the ANC government to reverse these trends means that the depth and complexity of social problems in many poorer areas have become overwhelming to the authorities and many people. The future of the city depends to a large degree upon whether communities and government can effectively face the grave challenges of housing, health, crime, unemployment and drugs.

If these are not addressed, then even for the rich, Cape Town's freedom and good life could ebb away.

Roddy Bray, May 1st 2008


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