Big City Tales

Set Your Sights on the Cities of South Africa | April 3, 2018

Just like its flag of many colours, South Africa’s “rainbow nation” nickname reflects the diversity of the country’s people, languages, geography and climate. Set your sights on the cities of South Africa and be prepared for dazzling displays that are unique to each region yet collectively weave together the country’s rich multi-ethnic cultural heritage and its amazing natural wonders.

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Cape Town

Located in the Western Cape province, Cape Town is a coastal city and the oldest urban area in the country.

First established by the Dutch East India Company in the 1600s, the city was an important supply station for Dutch ships sailing from Europe to points in East Africa, India and the Far East. The Castle of Good Hope was constructed between 1666 and 1679 to help fortify the city against the threat of an attack, specifically by Britain. The stone castle was laid out in the shape of a pentagon with a gated entrance and provided space for a church, bakery, living quarters, merchant shops and other facilities.

Along with its proximity to the ocean, Cape Town is flanked by Table Mountain, a flat-topped peak that is part of Table Mountain National Park and offers fantastic views of the city centre and harbour. From above, the area looks like a natural amphitheatre and thus is referred to as the City Bowl district. The Port of Cape Town is one of the busiest in the country that serves as a container port, maintenance facility, and berth for cruise ships.

In light of the city’s rapid growth, especially following the end of the controversial political period known as ‘Apartheid’ in 1994, Cape Town has experienced highs and lows. On the plus side, the city has been lauded for its architectural design and for its charm as a tourist destination. On the negative side, a severe drought has plagued the region for the past three years resulting in record low water levels and strict rationing. Despite the prospect of the city’s water reservoir drying up completely, Cape Town continues to thrive and will hopefully survive this dire imminent threat.


Famous for its Golden Mile stretch of sandy beach along the shores of the Indian Ocean, Durban attracts the sun and surf crowd eager to bask in its subtropical warmth. African culture is on full display along the Golden Mile with local artisans selling their crafts. Rickshaw drivers wear costumes and headdress unique to the KwaZulu-Natal province; their carts are also painted in bright colours and decorated with geometric patterns.

Durban is also known for its Indian population, which is the largest outside of India and  is where Mahatma Ghandi resided in the Phoenix Settlement communal society located along the historic Inanda Heritage Route. While living in Durban, Ghandi founded a newspaper called ‘Opinion’ that was printed from 1903 to 1961 by the International Printing Press company at their namesake building, which still stands today. Indian influence on Durban is also evident in the city’s cuisine with curry dishes and samosas being popular. As well, many Indian women are proud to wear sarees in homage to their traditional dress.

In addition to the busy beachfront scene, Durban has many recreational and theme parks. One of the largest is uShaka Marine World that is located at the end of the Golden Mile and is divided into five sections. Along with a water park with slides, other activities include snorkeling and shark cage diving.

Soccer fans and adrenaline-rush seekers will want to check out Moses Mabhida Stadium, which was one of the host venues during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and is also known for its thrilling Big Rush – Big Swing free fall jump, and the city views from the SkyCar ride. There is also an Adventure Walk to the top of the stadium’s iconic arch and a Segway Gliding Tour around the grounds.


Home of the Apartheid Museum that tells the story of South Africa’s journey from segregation to democracy, Johannesburg is also where the first public statue of Nelson Mandela was unveiled. Standing six-metres high, the bronze statue is located in Nelson Mandela Square in the Sandton retail district and is symbolic of the optimism and success achieved by Johannesburg residents and citizens of South Africa as a whole post-Apartheid. In a similar vein, the Nelson Mandela Bridge that was built to modernize the inner city and connect two of the city’s business districts was so-named because of Mandela’s role in unifying South African society.

As Johannesburg is the centre of South Africa’s gold and diamond trades, the city is generally affluent and is considered to be the economic powerhouse of the entire continent of Africa. The Ponte City Apartments in the Berea district is the tallest residential skyscraper in Africa and the first with a cylindrical design. It was once the most coveted home address in the city because of its unique construction, main floor retail shops and incredible city views in all directions. After a period of civil unrest in the 1990s when the complex fell into the hands of squatters and subsequent disrepair, Ponte City has been restored to a desirable living space.

While the riches in some areas are plenty, Johannesburg is also infamous for its townships such as Soweto where many of the city’s poorest residents live in shacks and have to endure sub-par conditions. Nelson Mandela lived in Soweto from 1946 to 1962 and his family’s original red-brick matchbox house (commonly called Mandela House) is now a national museum and historic site.


Taking its name from the Boer military and political leader, Andries Pretorius, who was a driving force in the creation of the Republic of South Africa, Pretoria is the seat of the country’s executive branch of government.

The office of the President is located in the Union Buildings that sit atop a hill named Meintjieskop, which is the highest point in the city and is a national heritage site. The Union Buildings are divided into two wings that each have a domed tower and are joined together by an inner court area which is intended to symbolize the union of the country. Terraced gardens cascade down the hill and contain various monuments, statues and memorials, as well as indigenous plants. One of the noteworthy garden statues is of former President Nelson Mandela. The expansive front lawn area is where presidential inaugurations are held.

Pretoria’s nickname is ‘Jacaranda City’ that refers to the thousands of jacaranda trees planted along streets and in parks and gardens. The telltale sign of a southern hemisphere spring arriving in Pretoria is the lush, purple jacaranda blooms that burst from the trees in October and November. The city has embraced the colour purple in its logos and services such as the rapid bus system.

Another famous landmark in and around Pretoria is the Voortrekker Monument that pays homage to the early Boer farming pioneers who travelled from the Cape Colony in the south over the mountains and eastward between 1835 and 1854. The monument includes a 40-metre high granite structure that contains a cenotaph and historical frieze. A statue of a Voortrekker woman and her two children sits at the foot of the monument and is meant to honour the heroic efforts of women who kept their families intact and triumphed over the dangers of the African wild. From the highway, the main entrance to the monument passes through a nature reserve where a series of 64 ox-driven wagons have been carved into a wall depicting the Voortrekker’s mode of transportation.


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