A Cityscape Divided

Part 1: Setting the Scene

I recently returned from spending one month in Cape Town participating in a study abroad program. Each day this week I will post a new article exploring, in order, the social context, the defensive architecture I observed, government led low-income urban sprawl, Cape Town’s ingenious Minibus taxis, and a selection of photos from the trip. The posts are intended to be a guided exploration of a topic of interest, based in my observations in Cape Town. This trip was my first to South Africa, and I welcome and encourage comments.

Cape TownDuring my recent study abroad trip to South Africa, our faculty adviser described the country as “a first world country and a third world country squished together.” Indeed, for much of South Africa’s history, inequality based on racial categories was legally enforced. Privileged classes benefited from the country’s productive farms and rich natural resources while non-whites were largely excluded. Although it has been thirteen years since multiracial elections under the new democratic constitution, the country remains deeply divided.

Clifton BeachAccording to World Bank statistics, the country has one of the largest gaps between rich and poor of any country in the world. The official unemployment statistic – around 25% – doesn’t adequately explain the context. (As a matter of comparison, the state with the highest unemployment in the USA and generally thought to be in deep economic trouble is Michigan, with unemployment around 10%). In South Africa, the poorest communities can have official unemployment levels as high as 50% and above. In reality, most people in these communities are working: selling candy, beer, drugs, or working in a low-wage or seasonal formal sector job that pays too little to feed their families. A recent teacher’s strike raised concerns students in poor areas would be weak and half-starved after the two week strike because their families have so little money to feed them. Shantytowns are common around large cities, and poor people in rural areas often lack resources to build or maintain homes, and live in overcrowded or substandard conditions.

Langa Apartment BuildingThe desperate economic situation has profound social implications. Cape Town, where I studied for a month, has been struggling with high rates of AIDS/HIV infection, and has a serious crystal meth (or Tik, as it is known locally) problem. During our visit in one neighborhood anti-drug crusaders were battling drug dealers – burning their cars and marching on their houses — while police struggled to contain both the drug gangs and the vigilantes. While in general I’m skeptical of exaggerated concerns about crime, our personal experiences suggested the rates are high and concern is warranted.

The government struggling with these problems is socially progressive by world standards, and operates under a progressive constitution that mandates local municipalities “structure and manage its administration, and budgeting and planning processes to give priority to the basic needs of the community, and to promote the social and economic development of the community.” Although there has been plenty of criticisms of the government’s success implementing the ideals of the constitution, South Africa is in the unique position of having first world funding and technical expertise to tackle the country’s third world problems.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Great read its sad to see the difference between the lower and upper class in South Africa showing the one side of the mountain the rich then showing the other side the poor.

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