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Notes on the Geography of South Africa: Cape Town Suburbs

A quick look around the north and east side of Table Mountain.

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"Energy," by G.F. Watts, stands famously at the Rhodes Memorial on the east slope of Devil's Peak, an eastern hook of Table Mountain. The rider gazes towards Rhodesia. Another casting of the statue stands in the Kensington Gardens near London's Albert Hall. (Smokers of a certain age may recall that a drawing of the statue appeared on packages and cans of Rhodian cigarettes, once made by British-American from Rhodesian tobacco.)

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Rhodes died in 1902, and the memorial was dedicated ten years later. The design, evocative of the Pergamon temple (now in Berlin) was by Herbert Baker. The 49 steps are not accidental: Rhodes died at that age.

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Creepy eyes? Once again, as with the statue of Rhodes in Cape Town's Company Gardens, a vandal has targeted the wicked imperialist. The bust is by J. M. Swan, a prominent British sculptor; the lines are the last from Kipling's "The Burial," which was read aloud at Rhodes' interment and published in The Times and other papers.

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A century later, Rhodes looks discouraged. He'd look even worse if he knew how he is treated in Africa today. It's true, on the other hand, that he feared that the name Rhodesia would not last.

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Rhodes bequeathed to the state a lot of nearby land, including what became the campus of the University of Cape Town. Here a gateway, made in London about 1900.

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This is Mostert's Mill, half a mile downhill from the Rhodes Memorial. It was built in 1796 as the first private mill in the colony; before that time, only mills belonging to the VOC were allowed. The mill, whose thatched cap rotates to catch the wind, was in operation until 1873. Derelict, it was sold in 1891 to Rhodes. It sat for almost forty years, but in 1936 Prime Minister Hertzog attended the ceremony marking its restoration as a working monument.

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An adjoining threshing floor.

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We're half a dozen miles to the south, along the east slope of Table Mountain.

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There are lots of visitors, but traffic is shooed off the original approach drive.

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Land for Groot Constantia (who was she? there are various theories) was granted for this farm in 1685 to no less than the governor, Simon van der Stel. He retired here in 1699 and lived on the place until his death in 1712. During his lifetime, 8,000 trees were planted, more than half of them fruit. There were vineyards, too. The house owes its present form, however, to a later owner, Hendrik Cloete, who hired Anton Anreith to rebuild the house about 1790.

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Cloete's descendants sold the farm in 1875, when phylloxera had devastated the vineyards. The buyer was the colonial government, which turned the place into an experimental farm. The house burned in 1925, but like Mostert's Mill was rebuilt at the government's expense.

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The Dining Hall: beautiful, but hard, uncomfortable.

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A built-in cabinet.

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Between Mostert's Mill and Groot Constantia, and still on the east side of Table Mountainn, the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden was created on more land bequeathed by Rhodes. Work began in 1913 at the hand of Henry Pearson, a botanist from Cambridge who had arrived in South Africa in 1903. Though he taught at what became the University of Cape Town, he later on lived on the site of this garden, which probably gave him lots of good ideas, including the one that the garden would specialize in indigenous plants, not the importations that were the bread and butter of most botanical gardens.

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Here's an example, the shrub or heath that occurs in the Cape's area of Mediterranean climate.

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Pearson, who died in 1916, is still on the grounds.

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"If ye seek his monument, look around."

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Just two miles to the east, there's a village called Wynberg. You're not impressed so far?

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We're stopped randomly at a cottage on Durban Road, just west of Maynardville Park. The house was built, it turns out, for a British officer stationed nearby. On South Africa's official list of heritage sites, this house is listed as "one of the finest and least altered in old Wynberg; building well set back from street; full hipped thatch roof; possibly original sash windows (24 panes); inappropriate unpainted shutters and new casement. Current use: house." Looks as though the owner got some paint, but it's hard to see the whole building.

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Across the street.

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Victoria Street is lined with more of these houses, immaculate and looking almost exactly as they did in 1850.

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Some 40 houses here were built before that date.

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No, people here don't dress in archaic clothes.

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The owner of this house has cracked open the egg but seems happy with the result.

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Maintenance work.

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The center of the village is here, at the intersection of Durban and Wolfe.

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A shop.

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Skylights, perhaps a forgivable alteration.

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Wouldn't want to convey the impression that the suburbs are a Victorian museum.

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Here, just before its demolition, is the Werdmuller Centre, opened in 1975 and much praised by architects, though not by shoppers.

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Efforts to save it failed.

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Farther east, Enkanini is an informal settlement of 11,000 huts on the edge of Khayelitsha, which itself is a settlement of perhaps half a million people about 15 miles east of Table Mountain. Settlement began here after the Group Areas Act forced blacks out of Cape Town. The core of Khayelitsha was planned and built by the government, but growth continued, some planned, some not. In 1990, 14 percent of the 450,000 residents lived in houses, 54 percent in serviced shacks, and 32 percent in unserviced ones like these. Electricity finally arrived in Enkanini in 2012. The name Khayelisha, by the way, is Xhosa for "New Home," a fine bit of public relations, fit for a dystopic science-fiction fantasy.


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