Cape Town's historic Waterfront

CNN International's Inside Africa explores Cape Town's historic Waterfront

CNN International's Inside Africa recently explored the history and revitalisation of Cape Town's Waterfront - the first colonial port and the most visited landmark in South Africa - which attracts 24 million visitors a year.

Cape Town Waterfront

Dating back to the 1600’s, the area boasts a rich history, and today’s custodians, are tapping into this to build a foundation for the future. One of the main attractions of the area is the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa which was opened by Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The museum building dates to the turn of the last century and has been transformed by Heatherwick Design Studio.

Heatherwick Studio designer, Thomas Heatherwick discusses the project: “This has been the site that we were tasked with turning into the continent's first museum for showing the contemporary artwork of the people of that continent. That doesn't sound as powerful as when you compare though to Europe, Asia, North America, where there's a contemporary art museum in every city. Everyone wants to have that. The whole of Africa, this is the first major institution, public cultural institution, since the Cairo museum a century ago.”

An innovative approach edged in Cape Town's history

The museum building was originally used to connect Africa’s grain trade to sea traffic. It was the tallest building in sub-Saharan Africa, dwarfing the port on which it stood. Instead of knocking it down it was hollowed out from the inside.

Thomas Heatherwick explains this innovative approach: “Our idea was that this building had stored trillions of grains of corn and moved vertically through each of these silo units. We managed to get hold of some of the original corn. We digitally scanned the shapes of those. Then we picked one of them and enlarged that digital information to be 10 stories high, and so, used that one grain of corn as the cutting device to give this building a heart.”

The core of the art collection on display was donated by philanthropist Jochen Zeitz and includes some of the biggest names in African art – it is an expression of today's African aesthetic, curated across 80 galleries.

David Green, V&A Waterfront CEO told CNN about how accessible the museum is to everyone and hopes to attract young visitors: “The museum is free to anybody under 18. No attractions of this nature are free to people under 18, so it's very much a young-person thing. Every African will get free access on a Wednesday morning to it. So, I think we've started from the outset to say, ‘this is about inclusivity, accessibility. It's about everybody having their place, having their voice within the museum, and we're hoping that it will be a gift to Cape Town, the waterfront, and Africa.”

For centuries, the dock was a place from which political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, were dispatched to Robben Island. Today tours leave daily for a glimpse of one of the world's most famous prison cells. Before apartheid, convicts were held at Breakwater Prison which was located at the port. Today the Breakwater Prison is a business school – where walls once imprisoned, they now liberate through knowledge.

The sea and sailing opportunity

The harbour is also adjacent to the Royal Cape Yacht Club where a number of high profile sailing races such as the Clipper Round the World Race and the Volvo Ocean Race stop at the waterfront. The partnership between the waterfront and yacht club has yielded dividends not only for many Cape Town companies but also individuals.

Lindani Mchunu has spent several years delivering South African-made yachts overseas. His life changed when he stepped on board a sailing ship – it’s that sense of opportunity that Lindani wants the club to provide to future generations. He manages the Royal Cape Yacht Club's Sailing Academy (RCYCSA) and describes how he hopes this will encourage young people from different backgrounds to get involved: “We're trying to change the tide, if you will. Our sport has been one that has been historically very white elitist and we're trying to change that view by introducing kids that would have never had the opportunity.”

Further opportunities are presented by the vast yachts that are moored at the waterfront, including the largest single-masted yacht ever built. Steven Bentley, V&A Waterfront harbour master, explains the benefits that such yachts bring to the area: “What's very good for us and our shipbuilding industry in the Western Cape, is that these vessels will stay on for maintenance. So very often there'll be a lot of pomp and ceremony when they arrive and then they go into a maintenance mode, and these are all maintained locally in the Western Cape region.”

The variety of jobs that such yachts bring to the region has been identified by Mchunu who hopes they will inspire young sailors and provide them with a livelihood and career options that they may not have otherwise considered: “Well, the job opportunities that could be available for kids, like boat building, and to have skippers is another job opportunity for them – to actually be skippers and see the world. Then there's sail making, which is another component of the boat. We have some great sail makers here in South Africa. There's boat design. The list is endless.”

Uniting traditions, cultures and art

The renovated waterfront has also become a home for musicians. Mvuzo Ndengezi, leader of Hlanganani explains: “We are coming from Lange township, the name of the band is Hlanganani, the word means to unite and we are here to embrace traditional music, Xhosa traditional music and African traditional music, to try and restore and preserve our culture to an art form.”

Ndengezi told CNN about the opportunities that he has benefitted from: “The Waterfront is a stage where we can market ourselves. They gave us auditions to come and showcase. And then they chose us. It gives us the opportunity to speak with people freely without a middleman. Many band-members are unable to make a living as musicians in their home townships, but here there are new opportunities every day. Waterfront has given us a platform to showcase the music.”

David Green, V&A Waterfront CEO discusses the importance of working with and attracting locals to the area: “Everything we do is to try and encourage locals. The actual most rewarding experiences for a tourist is a safe platform where they can engage with locals, and, surprisingly, 72% of the people who come are Africans. Only 28% of the visitors who come to the waterfront are international visitors.”

Cape Town's Waterfront has made history its business by highlighting its past, while creating a future that embraces people and projects which continue to keep it alive.

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