Nestled between the hulking, sepia toned Table Mountain and the deep, blue, frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean lies the city of Cape Town, South Africa. It is the administrative capital of the Western Cape Province, and the seat of South Africa’s Parliament. Capetonians, as the residents proudly refer to themselves, have a rich and centuries old co-existing heritage of race and religion with Christians, Jews and Muslims represented across the black, white and colored populations of the city. “The reason everything works in the city is because the Democratic Alliance Party runs the Western Cape government,” were the smug words of my female taxi driver Kellie, who at 8 months pregnant, drove fast and furious to the airport through the palm tree lined boulevards that crisscrossed the beautiful city.
I had just completed a whistle-stop maiden trip to one of the most beautiful coastal cities in Africa, second only in my limited world view, to Tunis. I genuinely cannot remember a single city that I have visited on this continent with teeming hordes of tourists arriving in busloads into the hotels and archetypal tourist spots like the Table Mountain Cable Car ride or the V&A Waterfront. Large groups from India, China, Japan stuck out prominently armed with cameras and light winter coats relentlessly taking pictures and chattering up a storm on the open top double decker buses that ferried tourists in a scheduled circuit around the city that allowed one to hop on and hop off the bus at the tourist spot of their choice.
Photo from: http://www.holidaybug.co.za/
There is a heavy but subtle police presence to secure tourists and very little open crime in the streets. Opulence is well represented with Lamborghini and McLaren showrooms for the local partakers of sublime automotive fantasies while tasteful mansions dot the exclusive sea facing neighborhoods higher up towards the mountain.
But there are stark reminders of South Africa’s developing nation status as you pass the mabati shacks of Cape Town’s fastest growing township, Khayelitsha, that stands unabashedly next to the city’s main highway artery, the N2. The unapologetic vestiges of poverty conjure up mixed emotions as a notable number of the shacks bear the unmistakable middle class markers of a DSTV satellite dish and an old but clearly functional car parked in the front. “Some of these guys come own property where they come from in the Eastern Cape,” Kelly the cab driver told me. “They’re not all poor, they just like the township life.”
Photo from: http://www.sharkquests.com
I took the ubiquitous Table Mountain tour. The road leading up to the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway is a long, winding and twisted drive up the very steep base of the mountain. The month of May is the point where winter starts nibbling at the feet of the Western Cape and for about a kilometer before the cableway station, cars were parked along on the side of the road. Our driver informed us that those were cars of local residents who came to hike up and down the mountain over the weekend. Apparently during warmer weather the parked cars would be lined up for more than 3 kilometers! The aerial cableway was built in 1929 and has ferried over 24 million passengers since. A ride up to the mountain is not for the faint hearted as those little glass and steel bubbles move at 10 meters per second and you are suspended on a steep vertical incline as you climb 704 metres. Once you are spat out of the cable car at the summit which is 1067 metres above sea level, you emerge to find fairly fast free wi-fi for visitors as well as wheel chair friendly paths and accessibility to a self service restaurant and clean toilet facilities.
No female worth her favorite high heels can avoid a visit to a mall, so in keeping true to my gender’s requirement for occasional retail therapy, I made a rather cursory jaunt to Canal Walk which is apparently the third largest mall in Africa, with over 1.5 million square feet of retail space and 400 shops to pique a shopaholic’s interest. The mall owners have created a space where mid range stores like Adidas and Top Shop are co-located with low value offerings such as Shoe City and Ackermans.
Photo from: http://www.travel2capetown.com
And if you are so inclined, the absolutely cheap knock offs are sold in a discreet corridor aptly named Market Street where the shops look like something out of an Indian bazaar but, due to their hidden location, they do not detract from the high end look within the rest of the mall. Essentially the mall has shops that cater to all pockets and was full of shoppers, although this is a fairly common occurrence in many South African malls. This phenomenon is largely driven by the easy access to credit through bank credit cards or shop store credit cards. South Africans have some of the highest individual indebtedness on the continents with about 75% of monthly income spent on debt service according to different internet sources. In a February 2013 article on the Business Day Live online newspaper, a survey by the global payments technology company Visa reported that most middle class South Africans spent an average amount of ZAR 7,283 (Kshs 46,611 in today’s terms) to pay off debt each month. The survey was completed by 2000 people aged 18 to 65 of all races and across middle and higher income categories with half of the participants indicating that they would never be financially free. Meanwhile 68% of the other half said they would only achieve this after the age of 50. Two clear lessons emerged for me from this trip: First, if a county government wants to truly benchmark how to run a well-oiled tourism machine in Africa, Cape Town is a good start. Secondly, if you want your Kenyan mall to have multitudes of shoppers and not just sightseers, the role of consumer credit is tightly linked to the purchasing power of mall visitors.