I’m here in the self-proclaimed-Mothercity, at the very tip of Africa, a place once described (and yet still undersold) by Sir Francis Drake as ‘the fairest Cape in all the world’ — a beautiful, but discombobulating, slowly healing city. Now you may think you know Cape Town and her Usual Suspects: regal Table Mountain, pristine Camps Bay, the obligatory trip to Robben Island, the drive along Champan’s Peak and Stellensbosch for the wine.
But allow me to show you (to quote early 1990s hip-hop luminary Master Ace) ‘the other side of town; the place where the only skin you see’s the colour brown’. So instead of colonial-era hotels, bouji food markets and pallid hipsters with ironic facial hair, let me present Coloured Cape Town, the original and still the best. When I say ‘coloured’, I’m-talking about people like my family. In a-specific South African context it’s a perfectly-legitimate word.
Coloureds as a people descend from a mixture of the indigenous Khoi and San tribes, the Dutch settlers who arrived with Jan Van Riebeeck in 1652, the Javanese and Malay labourers brought here in the 18th and 19th centuries, the African slaves imported from Madagascar and elsewhere and 19th-century Caribbean immigrants. Put all those raw human ingredients in a pot then let them simmer for 300 years and you get Coloured people: a Creole community of brown-skinned people who speak English and Afrikaans as opposed to African tribal languages like Xhosa or Zulu.
For too long a forgotten people —-cruelly deemed ‘too white to be black and too black to be white’ — Coloureds have been maligned and misunderstood, banished to the sidelines of any political or racial discussion.
Fifty years ago, in February 1966, District Six — a densely populated Coloured neighbourhood on the outskirts of Cape Town — was reclassified as ‘Whites Only’ as part of the apartheid government’s-infamous Group Areas Act. Thus began the relocation of some 60,000 people to the Cape Flats townships — the forced removal of not only families but entire communities.
Hence my journey begins at the District Six Museum on the edge of the city centre, which strives to preserve the memory of the old neighbourhood and its former inhabitants. Human stories abound in photos, oral testimonies and floor maps of iconic streets. I watch as former residents give guided tours to schoolchildren from the ‘Born Free’ generation who listen with incredulity to wizened old men telling tales of fractured lives. Memory, identity and nostalgia also permeate literary descriptions of District Six, so I head to Clark’s Bookshop on Long Street to pick up A Walk in the Night (1962) and And A Threefold Cord (1964) by Alex La Guma, the ‘Black Dickens’, who strove to immortalise the Coloured plight in his work.
By now I am rather peckish. Coloured street food, which has African, European and Asian influences, is delicious. I go for mince samosas and koeksisters (fried doughnuts dipped in coconut and syrup), both morning staples and popular daytime snacks. To wash them down I need a-caffeine injection. Not the generic flat whites poured by bohemian barristas — I head instead to Anthony’s Golden Cup on Loop Street, the only coffee shop in the city centre owned and run by a Coloured man.
With more than 50 years of experience in the business, Anthony artfully selects, blends and grinds beans, while his octogenarian buddies help out behind the counter. This is coffee with soul; velvet to the taste, as smooth and pure as his burnished, copper-coloured skin.
At its most base, Cape Town is a monument to man’s inhumanity to man. The divisive contours of apartheid are so deeply entrenched in its collective ‘post-traumatic culture’ that it is impossible to avoid the–ethnic zoning that divides the affluent white suburbs from the sprawling Coloured and African ghettos.
But music animates the Mothercity and Cape Jazz is the pre-eminent Coloured sound. Titans like Abdullah Ibrahim, Basil Coetzee, Robbie Jansen and Hilton Schilder are the local heroes. Like all great music, Cape Jazz is both specific and universal. The Crypt on the corner of Adderley Street is the place to catch these venerable jazz cats.
Foodies should drive along the coast to Kalky’s in Kalk Bay. Who needs fancy tablecloths or oleaginous maitre d’s? Here, huge parcels of freshly fried snoek (the local barracuda-like fish), chips and calamari are eaten on benches by locals attracted by the quality and the price. Another recommendation is a ‘masala steak Gatsby’, the best being from the Golden Dish in Ryelands. Think steak in a gargantuan baguette with chips and sauce. As traditional as a hot dog in the Big Apple, a Gatsby is the stuff of Cape Townian post-clubbing legend.
Coloured Cape Town is often traduced, marginalised, or just plain ignored, but it is infinitely rewarding. This side of the city is a testament to the power of the human spirit in the face of adversity. No chi-chi attitude, no fawning artifice — just real people living real lives. Remember, you heard it here first. Coloured is most definitely the new black.