Cape Flats (Afrikaans: Die Kaapse Vlakte) is an expansive,
low-lying, flat area situated to the southeast of the central business
district of Cape Town. To many people in Cape Town, the area is known
simply as "The Flats".
Landsat image of
Cape Town and environs, looking roughly east. Cape
Peninsula in the foreground;
Table Bay with
Robben Island to the left;
False Bay with Seal Island (small white dot) to the right. The
mountains of the Boland to the rear. The oval (long axis about 25km)
roughly encompasses the Cape Flats.
Described by some as "apartheid's dumping ground", from the 1950s the
area became home to people the apartheid government designated as
non-White. Race-based legislation such as the
Group Areas Act
Group Areas Act and pass
laws either forced non-white people out of more central urban areas
designated for white people and into government-built townships in the
Flats, or made living in the area illegal, forcing many people
designated as Black and
Coloured into informal settlements elsewhere
in the Flats. The Flats have since then been home to much of the
population of Greater Cape Town.
1 Geology and geography
2.1 Before 1950
2.2 Since 1950
3 Culture and politics
4 Areas on the Cape Flats
5 See also
7 External links
Geology and geography
In geological terms, the area is essentially a vast sheet of aeolian
sand, ultimately of marine origin, which has blown up from the
adjacent beaches over a period on the order of a hundred thousand
years. Below the sand, the bedrock is in general the Malmesbury Shale,
except on part of the western margin between
Zeekoevlei to the south
and Claremont and Wetton to the north, where an intrusive mass of Cape
Granite is to be found.
The western boundary of the
Cape Flats consisting of Constantia Nek,
the Back Table, Table Mountain, and Devil's Peak. From the Cape Flats
Table Mountain is seen "side on", and therefore does not resemble the
flat-topped mountain depicted in most of the scenic views of this
iconic massif. The continuation of the
Cape Peninsula mountain chain
Constantia Nek (i.e. beyond the left hand border of
the photograph) as far as False Bay, are Vlakkenberg, Constantiaberg
(with its prominent TV mast), Steenberg and the Muizenberg. This view
Table Mountain is the one that greets a visitor to Cape Town
arriving by road from the east (particularly along the N2). The
Constantia Nek to the lower slopes of Devil's Peak on
the right hand side of the photograph is 9 km (as the crow flies).
To the west the expanse of the
Cape Flats is limited by rising ground
that slopes up to the steep cliffs of the
Cape Peninsula mountain
chain (see the photograph on the left), while in the east the land
rises gradually towards the equally rugged cliffs of Hottentots
Holland mountains and other elevated regions of the interior of the
Most of the sand is unconsolidated; however, in some places near the
False Bay coast the oldest sand dunes have been cemented into a soft
sandstone. These formations contain important fossils of animals such
as the extinct Cape lion and also provide evidence that stone-age
people hunted here tens of thousands of years ago.
The area has a Mediterranean climate, with warm dry summers and cool,
damp winters. It is generally exposed to the wind, both from the NW
(winter) and SE (summer). Flooding can be a problem, especially in
July and August. Cold wet spells, especially in August and September,
can make life very difficult for those living in sub-standard housing.
The noted English naturalist, William John Burchell, remarked in 1811
that the deep sand of the Flats made travel by cart or wagon extremely
difficult. The situation was aggravated by a widespread shortage of
firewood, causing fuel collectors to cut the relatively few indigenous
shrubs and trees that stabilised the sand.
During the second half of the 19th century, the area was completely
overrun by alien vegetation, mainly of Australian origin. The
plants included hakeas and especially wattles (genus Acacia). The
principal reason for this infestation lay in decisions made by the
colonial authorities. It was an era before the advent of modern
technological methods for the construction of permanent roads and in
those days the
Cape Flats was a massive sea of unstabilised sand dunes
that moved at will before the winds. This made travel between Cape
Town and the interior very difficult, particularly for the large
ox-drawn wagons of the time. The authorities decided to try to
stabilise the sand with plants native to the British colonies of New
South Wales and Western Australia.
The earliest importation of wattles was in 1827. Massive plantings
were established in the 1840s and 1850s and the work continued until
well after 1875.
At the time, the plan worked well enough: the march of the dunes was
arrested. The price paid, in ecological terms, was that the Cape Flats
was carpeted by invasive species. Serious efforts have in recent years
been made to roll back this alien scourge.
Cape Flats has undergone revolutionary change in the past half a
century. In 1950 the area was practically uninhabited. There was a
single, narrow road across the Flats from
Cape Town to The Strand that
ran between walls of alien rooikrans bushes and one could travel for
miles without seeing any sign of habitation other that a few fences
and a handful of farmhouses. Native antelope roamed at will between
the dense thickets of wattles. The army used the area for military
exercises and the few farmers who inhabited the Flats eked out a
living by growing vegetables in pockets of relatively poor soil
between the barren dunes. Modern amenities were unknown; telephones
were unknown, drinking water was collected in tanks from roofs and at
night the rooms were lit by oil lamps.
West Side and Thug Life murals in the
Coloured township of Manenberg,
in Hard Livings gang territory
Street scene in
Cape Flats train station
Cape Flats scrap collectors
Shantytown in Cape Flats
The era of sand and antelopes vanished completely in little more than
a generation. Vegetable farming persisted, but to a much lesser
extent, because urbanisation enveloped vast tracts of land in short
order. During the apartheid era, large housing projects were built
here, mostly as part of the Nationalist government's larger effort to
force the so-called
Coloured community out of the central and western
areas of Cape Town, which the political theorists of the day had
designated as whites-only areas. This meant that only whites could
reside there permanently; people of colour could work in the city but
could not live there. Additionally, other large townships of black
people (such as
Khayelitsha and Gugulethu) grew up on the flats as a
product of both informal settlement and forced government relocations.
Xhosa people of the region—including people born and
raised in the
Cape Town area—were designated under apartheid as
residents of Bantustans, many were obliged to live in the area
illegally, further contributing to the growth of informal settlements.
These consisted in the main of shacks made of "tin" (in reality
corrugated iron which, confusingly, is nowadays made from mild steel),
cardboard and wood. In 1993,
Cape Town had a housing backlog of
approximately 40 000 houses and with the numbers of people migrating
from the rural areas increasing each year, so the backlog increases.
One of the major priorities of the RDP (Reconstruction &
Development Programme) is to build houses.
Since the end of apartheid, these communities are no longer legally
bound by racial restrictions; but history, language, economics and
ethnic politics still contribute to homogeneity of local areas. So,
for example, most residents of
Mitchell's Plain likely still speak a
locally inflected version of Afrikaans, along with English and either
they or their parents were designated as
Coloured by apartheid; most
Khayelitsha still speak Xhosa and English and either they
or their parents were designated as Black by apartheid. Nonetheless,
some areas of the
Cape Flats have an increasing diversity of
residents, with Xhosa-speaking people an increasingly noticeable
presence in some previously mainly Afrikaans-speaking areas.
Culture and politics
Cape Flats is home to a remarkable cultural history.
Its music spans from the serious-minded jazz of
Abdullah Ibrahim and
Basil Coetzee and their anthem "Mannenberg" (named after a Cape Flats
township), to the bubbly pop hits of Brenda Fassie; and continues in a
new hip-hop movement.
Its religious communities include (to name only a few),
Afrikaans-speaking congregations of the Dutch Reformed Church,
Rastafarian communities, people who engage only in traditional Xhosa
practices, syncretic Xhosa Christian churches, evangelical Christian
churches, and southern Africa's largest
Muslim community (drawing its
oldest roots from the historic Cape
Muslim community, which dates back
to the 17th century).
In the 1940s, a type of dental modification known as a passion gap
became fashionable and remains popular today. The modification
involves the removal of a person's top front teeth.
Its political history is complex and sometimes baffling even to
insiders: for instance, the politics of the
Coloured communities of
Cape Flats have included
Trotskyist activism in earlier years, and
mobilisation for the United Democratic Front in the 80s; and then,
widespread support for the historically white National Party (which
had presided over apartheid) in the early post-apartheid elections.
More recently, the area has seen an expansion of African National
Congress strength from its base in the black townships and into
Coloured areas, as well as a
particularly strong local growth of left-wing social movements like
Treatment Action Campaign
Treatment Action Campaign which offer a critique of government
policies. Sometimes violent
Islamist movements have
Cape Flats communities, along with other notable
figures within the
Muslim community, such as Fareed Ishaq, who embody
an ecumenical strain of religious progressivism.
Almost all of the communities of the
Cape Flats remain, to one degree
or another, poverty stricken. Serious social problems include a high
rate of unemployment and disturbing levels of gang activity. During
the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was significant armed conflict
between various gangs and
PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism and
Drugs), a vigilante organisation. Post-apartheid development projects,
such as the RDP, have also led to violent conflicts within
communities. As of 2014, efforts to combat gangs include Hanover
Park’s Ceasefire programme, where former gang members "use their
experiences to mediate gang disputes and help young men and women quit
A wide range of community empowerment organisations work non-violently
to combat poverty, crime and health problems, and the role of civil
society in many parts of the area is relatively strong.
Areas on the Cape Flats
Cape Flats Dune Strandveld
Cape Flats Dune Strandveld – habitat
Cape Flats Sand Fynbos
Cape Flats Sand Fynbos – habitat
Lansdowne, Cape Town
List of nature reserves in Cape Town
Nyanga, Cape Town
Mfuleni, Cape Town
Crossroads, Cape Town
Delft, Cape Town
^ Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa - William J. Burchell
^ Stirton, C. H. (1978). Plant invaders. Cape Town: Department of
Nature and Environmental Conservation of the Cape Provincial
Administration. ISBN 0-7984-0092-7.
^ "Townships of the Cape Flats", Welcome to the Cape Flats.
^ Fran Blandy (2009-10-07). "Cape Town's passion gap: sexual myth or
fashion victimhood?". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2014-04-03.
^ Institute of Security Studies. Archived 17 December 2005 at the
^ Bähre, Erik. "Housing for the Urban Poor: A post-apartheid dream or
nightmare?" Archived 14 July 2014 at the Wayback Machine. Global Built
Environment Review 1(1). 2001.
^ Dziewanski, Dariusz. "Unusual suspects – women and gangs in South
IRIN Africa. Retrieved 2014-06-12.
Cape Flats Details An extensive photojournalism project on the area
and its people.
Capeflats.org A personal web site with an overview of the language,
politics and culture of the area.
Cape Flats Development Association's website.
Cape Flats tourism[permanent dead link] A government Cape Flats
tourism initiative hopes to bring more visitors.
CapeFlatsNature.org Organisation aims to organise impoverished
residents to help sustain areas of biodiversity.
CFNR The website of the
Cape Flats Nature Reserve.
ISS paper June 2003 paper on "The social contradictions of organised
crime on the Cape Flats".
Cape Flats Website
Communities of City of
Cape Town Metropolitan Municipality, Western
Seat: Cape Town
Sir Lowry's Pass Village
Da Gama Park
Devil's Peak Estate
Three Anchor Bay
Joe Slovo Park
Coordinates: 34°0′S 18°40′E / 34.000°S 18.667°E