What does Cape Town mean to you? Today’s city is more inclusive than ever, the range of experiences available considerably expanded, and it is constantly evolving, challenging conventional perceptions. There’s never been a more exciting time to visit.
n 2017, something happened in the township of Langa, Cape Town, that just a few people took note of. A new crypto currency called Project UBU (Universal Basic Unit) was quietly launched.
Typically you would expect that a crypto would launch in a big financial centre, which for South Africa means probably Sandton, in Johannesburg. But UBU was initiated in Langa, the oldest township in South Africa, home to a largely informal economy and some distance from any major traditional economic hub.
Bringing ‘township’ and ‘digital currency’ together in one sentence is to suggest a whole new way of seeing things. In this new reality, the informal is hi-tech and super-connected to the global. Townships are digital pioneers. Townships hold the centre of new modes of operating and are no longer a marginalised and disconnected mass on the periphery of the city.
Launching a global digital currency in a township is a way of moving the centre.
In the heyday of the Cape Colony, the city established by the Dutch was a teeny little settlement on the slopes of Table Mountain. Its centre was what we know today as Green Market Square. Fast forward 300 and a few years, and we still mark distance in Cape Town in relation to Green Market Square. Those signposts on the N2 freeway are showing kilometres from Green Market Square. The turnoff to Langa from the N2 is Exit 12, 12km from Green Market Square. The turnoff to Stellenbosch is Exit 33, exactly 33km from Green Market Square.
Our cartographic sensibilities lock us into an outdated notion of where the centre of Cape Town is. And that shapes how we relate to the city. In this way of seeing the city, Langa is indeed peripheral, 12km away from Green Market Square. But in a city that has expanded dramatically, and where most of the population lives outside of the historic centre, Green Market Square is now the periphery and Langa is the centre. ‘Cape Town, on the periphery of Langa’, is much truer in 2019 than ‘Langa, on the periphery of Cape Town’…
What does it mean if Langa (or Khayelitsha or any other township) is the centre of the city? Moving the centres has always caused seismic shifts. Copernicus’ thesis that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around, fundamentally transformed physics. When the South African Olympic athlete Caster Semenya won her court case against the International Association of Athletics Federations (they wanted her to compete as a man), she helped to displace anachronistic notions of what defines us as men and women, and positioned a new, inclusive definition in the mainstream.
Moving the centre fundamentally shifts power. It can take time – Copernicus was dead some 60 years when his thesis started to have its full effect. Semenya has been challenging ideas of gender her whole life. If Langa is seen as the centre of the city, suddenly it is freed from the restrictive definitions imposed upon it by the narratives of the city. Suddenly, Langa can be anything it wants to be. When Langa is the centre and not the periphery, Langa controls the narrative.
Under apartheid, township streets weren’t given names. Instead they were marked generically as NY1 or NY23 etcetera, where NY stands for Native Yard. It was part of a process of rendering nameless, muting identity and value.
Music producer Koko Nkalashe’s Jazz in the Native Yards initiative started out as something to showcase township jazz talent at the intimate Kwa Sec venue in Guguletu. Today, Jazz in the Native Yards is Cape Town’s go-to brand for jazz events, presenting concerts in the townships, the winelands and Cape Town city, reshaping the city in its own image. The periphery, where names were removed, is now stamping its namelessness all over the city. Now everywhere is a Native Yard.
There’s a perceptible shift in the winelands too. There’s a new generation of wine entrepreneurs and winemakers who have never owned land, nor means of production, nor any cultural connection to wine. And what should be a distinct barrier has forced them to approach the sector completely differently. As a result they have an overview that is unique to them, and see things that the established wine industry cannot.
Mphumi Ndlangisa opened his Magna Carta Winery, producing natural wines, in the fast gentrifying Woodstock, just next to historic Cape Town centre. Nomhle Zondani presents pairings of black-owned wines with isiXhosa cuisine at her Wine Shaq Private Tastings in Langa. Rosemary Mosia of Bridge of Hope Wines offers tastings at her home in leafy suburban Rondebosch. And Nondumiso Pikashe conducts tastings of her Sesfikile Wines at her home in Guguletu township. Carmen Stevens is using her Naked Wines to fund a foundation that feeds thousands of vulnerable kids a year on the Cape Flats where she grew up.
Their stories, their approaches, the intention they’ve all brought to wine, is a whole new world in the South African wine industry. My friend Akin Omotoso made a film about this, called The Colour of Wine, and Harriet Perlman published a book version. Coffeebeans Routes has created a tour version too, the Colour of Wine Safari.
A big part of moving the centre is telling the stories that have been living at the margins. The more those stories are shared, the more space they occupy in mainstream consciousness.
Mix and blend
All across Cape Town, so much is becoming possible, in the most unexpected places. Township fine dining, indigenous people’s cultural food in the heart of the winelands, concerts with musicians in their homes, theatre productions in backyards, buying coffee with digital currency… You can spend days and days in Cape Town engaging deeply before even getting to the Mountain, the Island, and Cape Point.
And that’s the best part: moving the centre in this story means more inclusivity. It means there is The Mountain, The Island, Cape Point and other essentials… AS WELL AS dozens and dozens of other options. While the centre is moving, the must-visit places are very much still in play; it’s just that they are no longer the extent of the city’s options.
Just a few years ago there were six main Cape Town attractions that were promoted in most brochures. What a joy in 2019 to have so many choices. It makes for an incredibly rich visit. It means that the destination is evolving, creating and re-inventing.
Today you can thread things together in totally fresh ways. Start the day with a visit to Table Mountain for an aerial view of Cape Town, getting a sense of the city’s different elements and how they fit together, and basking in her incredible beauty. It is breathtaking. You can then meet an indigenous poet in the Company’s Gardens and learn about the city’s Khoekhoe origins, learn some Khoekhoegowab, the oldest language of this place, and listen to some original music inspired by ancient sounds and times. Then a quick coffee, paid for with UBU crypto currency, at the Langa Quarter, before arriving at Nomhle Zondani’s Wine Shaq in Langa where she presents a tasting of black-owned wine brands, served with a spread of traditional isiXhosa dishes. And you can finish the day catching the 3pm ferry to Robben Island, where you should try to pay attention to the Robert Sobukwe narrative: he’s not given much attention, but his story complements the Mandela narrative, and provides perspective beyond the rainbow. That’s a full day that showcases multiple sides to the city.
Now, when visiting the winelands, guests can sample great wines, opt for a traditional home-cooked tomatie bredie with roosterbrood and melktart for lunch at the home of Siena Charles in Kylemore, between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, catch some street art in the Dwars River Valley, and that night enjoy a ten-course tasting menu at the Restaurant at Waterkloof, 2018’s Eat Out Best Restaurant in South Africa.
It’s a whole new world, where those wanting great depth and nuanced insight, as well as great sights can be easily satisfied. And those with time for only a handful of the basics will still be blown away.
Welcome to the new Cape Town!
By Iain Harris, first published in Travel Africa magazine, edition 86, April-June 2019. To purchase this edition, click here.