IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics (Fall)

Cape Town, South Africa Letter Home

By IHP Trustees Fellow Daniel Woodard with input from Rachel Collens, Charlie Cubeta, Charlotte Heyrman, Julia Hobbs, Christine Hsu, Teddy Kent, and Sarah Krumholz.

The poems in this Letter are experts from a haiku competition that the students held as their Reflection on Learning session at the end of the South Africa program.

Descending into the city bowl formed between Table Mountain and the bay that shares its name, we entered Cape Town, South Africa on a cool Saturday evening. The view riding in from the airport was picturesque as the city lights shone brightly against the dark blue contrast of the water. Focusing our thoughts on our new location, we began to wonder how the scenery and landscape of Cape Town could provide a means for understanding the city’s population, its history and its potential.

We were struck by a constant duality. On the one hand, it is impossible to miss the constant reminders of South Africa’s 46 years of Apartheid, which officially ended in 1994. On the other hand, efforts to push that political system of racial segregation even further into the past are unending and inspiring.

As we walked through the central business district, we began to read the city’s story of development through its physical aspects. Several historical monuments, statues, and buildings such as the Mount Nelson Hotel (left), a luxury hotel first opened in 1899 to accommodate the Union and Castle ocean liner passengers, exposed South Africa’s colonial history and establishment as a modern state. The District Six Museum, a commemoration of the 60,000 residents who were forcefully removed from an ethnically mixed neighborhood in the city center, embodied a more recent past dictated by the policies of Apartheid and racial segregation.

There were also examples of reuse such as the former city hall, now converted into a mosque, and Huxley Square, former student housing units that are now retrofitted for boutiques and coffee shops. “It is fascinating to see Cape Town reconcile its present day culture with its historic past,” Julia Hobbs says. “Cape Town maintains the architecture of colonialism and the scars from apartheid but residents are trying to weave a new narrative of Cape Town as a globalized city.”  As we saw examples of change throughout the city, we wondered what forces lay behind these changes and how well they represented the ideals of reconciliation, integration and South Africa’s image as a “Rainbow Nation.” 

Neighborhoods remain
Do rainbows ever change?
Double rainbow life
Poem by Rachel Collens

Among Cape Town’s stunning physical features are its mountains which provide grand views of the city and region.

Moving into our homestays, we stayed in the two neighborhoods of Bo Kaap and Langa. Bo Kaap is a traditionally Muslim neighborhood developed in the 1840s for former slaves brought from South and Southeast Asia. We learned from Dr. Mohamed Adhikari, professor of history at the University of Cape Town (UCT), that apartheid zoning plans designated Bo Kaap for “coloured” residents, a race classification that represented a heterogeneous mix of individuals not included in the black and white dichotomy represented in a majority of the country.

Since the advent of South Africa's democracy, Bo Kapp has been a neighborhood in flux. Its prime location, tucked away on the rim of the central business district with picturesque views of Table Mountain and the city center, has made it a target for developers and businesses. As property values rise, families with roots in the area have begun to move out and into new neighborhoods lacking the cohesive community present in Bo Kaap. “Living in Bo Kaap redefined the meaning of community for me,” said Teddy Kent. “On my first night there we took a walk with our homestay father and he introduced us to almost half of the neighborhood. His interactions with everyone showed the shared memories and trust that exists between him and his neighbors.” Seeing this deep sense of community, many in our group began to question whether something should or could be done to check market forces and allow these families to remain in their homes.

The view from one of our homestays in the Bo Kaap neighborhood. These beautiful views are one reason why real estate prices in the area have increased and forced some residents to relocate.

You say the world is
flat, you say, but the mountain
is tall. Other side.
Poem by Charlotte Heryman

For our second homestay in Cape Town we stayed with families in Langa, one of the first black townships constructed during the apartheid era. Displaced black families were resettled in this barren stretch of land, located in the Cape Flats on the other side of Table Mountain from the CBD and inland from the coast. The residents were moved here without sufficient housing and infrastructure. The area was intended primarily as a bedroom for the city’s black labor force while neither business nor commerce were planned or ever fully developed in the area. “Living in Langa taught me about the frustrations that exist when access to basic resources is limited,” explains Sarah Krumholz. “Comforts that I usually take for granted, such as a fully stocked grocery store and access to a variety of healthy food options, did not exist in Langa. Living there taught me so much more than simply hearing a lecture or reading an article about it.”

Bo Schlagel, Becca Heywood, and Rebecca Coven complete a mapping assignment that compares the layout and design of the Bo Kaap and Langa neighborhoods

Apartheid is gone
Thank you, Nelson Mandela
But wait, is it gone?
Poem by Charlie Cubeta

Even after democratic reforms, the Cape Flats continues to be ignored as economic development spreads elsewhere. Vanessa Watson, professor at the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics at UCT, spoke about Cape Town’s spatial planning. She explained that despite population density in the Cape Flats, economic and employment opportunities still lag far behind those in the CBD. Due to this separation of jobs from housing, most people living in the Cape Flats region must commute great distances to work every day. Cheap public transportation is a high priority for these residents but the current system of buses and trains lack sufficient accessibility and reliability. A BRT system has been planned, but the first lines are being constructed to service new suburbs along the northern coastline.

Filling the gaps in this network is an informal system of transport that uses private mini-bus taxis to pick up and drop off passengers along a flexible route.  Roger Behrens, professor in the Department of Engineering at UCT, said that mini-bus taxis are the second most used form of public transportation in Cape Town, with most trips running from the Flats into the economic corridor. However, the lack of formal oversight and regulation creates a gap in accountability where poorly maintained vans and aggressive driving habits have led to a number of fatal accidents. We began to question this system of taxis and ask how it could be better managed and integrated into a formalized and regulated branch of the transportation network.

Practice makes perfect
But all good things take time
Puberty is tough
Poem by Christine Hsu

We soon discovered that many of the problems in the city’s development are rooted in the structural issues of South Africa’s young democracy. Justin Sylvester, the Director of the Human Rights and Government Programme at the Open Society Foundation, explained that the parliamentary system used in South Africa promotes interest of the party over interest of the citizens. He claimed the consequences to be weak oversight, low transparency and a high rate of corruption.

Students sit in Auntie Gertie’s house in Valhalla Park as she recounts the story of her fight for the rights of her settlement.

However, this has not stopped many local groups from taking matters into their own hands. On a site visit to Valhalla Park, we met Gertrude Square, commonly known as “Auntie Gertie,” who had protested and fought against the government to secure rights of the informal settlements in her neighborhood. Auntie Gertie won her court case based on the grounds that the government was not providing sufficient services to the public. Christine Hsu, impressed by Auntie Gertie’s experience, commented on her visit. “You hear a lot about grassroots and ground movements but it’s hard to understand until you see them first-hand. Hearing the story of their protests outside the government buildings while standing exactly where it happened is a very powerful and moving experience. They are not highly formally educated but very knowledgeable about their own community and demanded change. It shows that community efforts can really pay off.”

Sam Maldonado, Jie Wu and Amily He admire one of the street art installments in Woodstock.

Visiting a few artist cooperatives and the Percy Bartley Orphanage, a home that provides street art as a creative outlet for boys aged eight to eighteen, we met with young people who were changing perceptions in their suburb of Woodstock through art installments on buildings. They were proud of the art that they had made and of the space they were creating. Charlotte Heryman reflects on her lesson learned. “Art sometimes has the ability to change the feeling of the place and help people find a way to invest themselves in their neighborhood.”

Before saying goodbye to South Africa, we had a week’s break from the busy program schedule to enjoy a vacation. Just as Cape Town’s residents had reinvented their city with new and varied meanings, so too did we hope to revisit and find further meaning in our experiences through some rest and reflection. As we left Cape Town to head on to Hanoi we all look forward to the excitement and challenges that await us on the last leg of our journey.

Request Information
Apply Now
Continue My Application

Credits: 16

Duration: Fall, 16 weeks

Program Sites:
New York, NY, USA; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa; Hanoi, Vietnam.

Prerequisites: Previous college-level coursework and/or other preparation in urban studies, anthropology, political science, or other related fields is strongly recommended but not required. Learn More...

Student Evaluations

View Student Evaluations for this program:

About the Evaluations (PDF)

Fall 2012 Evaluations

Fall 2013 Evaluations


Connect With Us

Connect icons

888.272.7881 (toll-free in US)



Mailing Address:
PO Box 676, 1 Kipling Road
Brattleboro, VT 05302 USA

Contact us by email.