In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cape Town

  • Introduction
  • History of Cape Town (to 1990)
  • Overviews of Post-Apartheid Cape Town (after 1990)
  • Poverty, Inequality, and Exclusion in Cape Town
  • Place and Space in Cape Town
  • Governance of Cape Town
  • Neoliberalism in Cape Town
  • Crime and Violence in Cape Town
  • Tourism in Cape Town
  • Cape Town and the Natural Environment
  • Fiction and Popular Works about Cape Town

Urban Studies Cape Town
Warren Smit
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0036


Cape Town is the second-largest city in South Africa, with a population of over four million people. Established by Dutch colonists in 1652, it is a diverse and complex city, with a long history of segregation and inequity. The city continues to be characterized by high levels of inequity, most tangibly manifested in the presence of informal settlements. Much of this inequity is along racial lines as a result of enforced spatial segregation during colonial and apartheid times. Since South Africa’s transition to democracy in the 1990s, the city has continued to evolve, with significant urban regeneration initiatives (such as the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront) and with major governance reforms (with the fifty-seven local government bodies and regional government body that existed in the early 1990s being merged into one local government body in 2000). Cape Town has been the site of much research, from a range of perspectives. During the apartheid era, this research largely focused on the implementation of apartheid segregation and the resistance to apartheid, whereas since the 1990s, the focus has been on the implementation of developmental local government, continued inequities, and the roll-out of neoliberalism. Research from a “developmental local government” perspective has focused on government reform and the large amount of service delivery (for example, housing delivery) that has occurred since the 1990s. Another major focus of research has been on the implementation of neoliberal urban strategies and the resistance of civil society to this (although some scholars of “southern urbanism” would argue that the importance of Neoliberalism in Cape Town and other cities in the Global South has been overemphasized by scholars from the Global North). Given its location in a magnificent setting with unique levels of biodiversity, tourism and the urban interface with the natural environment have also become major topics of research. Probably the most effective reflections of life in Cape Town have been in fiction and popular nonfiction works, so it is important to also consider these as well. The bibliography is structured in the following sections: History of Cape Town (to 1990); Overviews of Post-Apartheid Cape Town (after 1990); Poverty, Inequality, and Exclusion in Cape Town; Place and Space in Cape Town; Governance of Cape Town; Neoliberalism in Cape Town; Crime and Violence in Cape Town; Tourism in Cape Town; Cape Town and the Natural Environment; and Fiction and Popular Works about Cape Town.

History of Cape Town (to 1990)

The Cape Town area has been inhabited by humans for at least 30,000 years. By the time European seafarers on the route from Europe to the East started visiting the Cape Peninsula in 1487, Khoikhoi pastoralists had been living there for more than a thousand years. In 1652, the Vereenigde Ostindische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company) established De Kaap (Cape Town) as a refreshment station on the sea route to their colonies in the East Indies. Cape Town was subsequently captured by the British in 1795 and thereafter governed by them (with a brief interruption from 1800 to 1803) as the capital of the Cape Colony until the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. In the late 19th century, Cape Town grew rapidly as the major port and administrative capital of the Cape Colony. Its complex history resulted in great ethnic diversity, with the emergence of three main socially constructed “race groups” (these categories are still officially used): “Coloured”, “Black African,” and “White”. Strict racial residential segregation began with the establishment of the township of Ndabeni in 1904 to house black Africans. In 1910, the Cape Colony became part of the Union of South Africa, and the new central government began to make moves toward increased racial segregation, which accelerated after the adoption of the policy of “apartheid” (segregation) in the 1950s. From the 1950s onward, construction of segregated townships on the Cape Flats took place on a large scale, and large numbers of black African and Coloured residents were forcibly evicted from where they stayed and relocated to these townships. The impact of the forced removal of hundreds of thousands of people left a large and lasting impact on Cape Town. Worden, et al. 1998 and Bickford-Smith, et al. 1999 are the best overall books on the history of Cape Town. Boonzaier, et al. 1996 provides a good historical overview of the indigenous people in the Cape Town area. James and Simons 1989 provides an overview of the social and economy history of the broader region that Cape Town is in, while Bickford-Smith 2016 places 20th-century Cape Town in its broader South African context. The growth of racial prejudice in 19th-century Cape Town is explored in Bickford-Smith 1995. The best brief overviews of apartheid Cape Town (1950s to 1980s) are Cook 1991 and Western 1985. Western 1981 is the best book on the forced removals in Cape Town in the 1960s and 1970s. Another key feature of apartheid Cape Town was the migrant labor system, with migrant workers forced to live in single-sex hostels; Ramphele 1993 examines the impacts of this on family life.

  • Bickford-Smith, Vivian. Ethnic Pride and Racial Prejudice in Victorian Cape Town: Group Identity and Social Practice, 1875–1902. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    The roots of apartheid racial segregation in Cape Town and the rest of South Africa lie in the 19th century, and this book explores the beginnings of this process (although the first segregated township, Ndabeni, was only established in 1904). A paperback edition was published in 2003.

  • Bickford-Smith, Vivian. The Emergence of the South African Metropolis: Cities and Identities in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139021814

    This book examines how South Africa’s three big cities (Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban) evolved and were perceived during the 20th century, placing Cape Town within its broader context. A paperback edition was published in 2019.

  • Bickford-Smith, Vivian, Elizabeth van Heyningen, and Nigel Worden. Cape Town in the Twentieth Century: An Illustrated Social History. Cape Town: David Philip, 1999.

    A companion volume to Worden, et al. 1998, this book is the most comprehensive overview of the history of Cape Town in the 20th century. Comprehensively illustrated, it narrates the history of the city from the late British colonial era in 1899 up to the early postapartheid period in the 1990s.

  • Boonzaier, Emile, Candy Malherbe, Penny Berens, and Andy Smith. The Cape Herders: A History of the Khoikhoi of Southern Africa. Cape Town: David Philip, 1996.

    The authors examine the indigenous people that inhabited the western part of South Africa. A large proportion of the indigenous population of the region died as the result of the impacts of colonization (mainly through exposure to diseases brought by Europeans), but the remaining indigenous population were merged (together with slaves from Asia and the rest of Africa, and people of mixed race) into the artificially constructed racial group of “Coloureds” that makes up the largest proportion of Cape Town’s demographic profile.

  • Cook, G. P. “Cape Town.” In Homes Apart: South Africa’s Segregated Cities. Edited by Anthony Lemon. Cape Town: David Philip, 1991.

    This chapter provides an overview of segregation in apartheid Cape Town, in a book on the segregated cities of apartheid South Africa.

  • James, Wilmot G., and Mary Simons, eds. The Angry Divide: Social and Economic History of the Western Cape. Cape Town: David Philip, 1989.

    This is a social and economic history of the Western Cape, which is the broader region that Cape Town is in. Much of the content focuses on Cape Town.

  • Ramphele, Mamphela. A Bed Called Home: Life in the Migrant Labour Hostels of Cape Town. Cape Town: David Phillip, 1993.

    The migrant labor system was one of the manifestations of colonialism and apartheid, resulting in workers living in appalling conditions in single-sex hostels. In this book, Mamphela Ramphele documents the impacts of hostel life on residents.

  • Western, John. Outcast Cape Town. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 1981.

    This is the best overview of forced relocations in Cape Town during the apartheid era. The book explores the elaborate attempts to enforce (and resist or modify) segregation in Cape Town in the 1960s and 1970s (under the Group Areas Act of 1950), and the severely negative impact of forced relocations to segregated peripheral townships on residents and on overall social cohesion.

  • Western, John. “Undoing the Colonial City?” Geographical Review 75.3 (1985): 335–357.

    DOI: 10.2307/214489

    This is a brief overview of colonial apartheid Cape Town, along with a comparison with Tianjin in China, showing how both are still tangibly influenced by the legacy of colonialism.

  • Worden, Nigel, Elizabeth van Heyningen, and Vivian Bickford-Smith. Cape Town: The Making of a City. Cape Town: David Philip, 1998.

    This is the most comprehensive history of Cape Town, written by experts on the city’s history. A companion volume to Bickford-Smith, et al. 1999, this book narrates the history of the city from 1620 (a few decades before the Dutch officially founded a permanent settlement in 1652) up until 1899, the eve of the South African War of 1899–1902. The book is beautifully illustrated with contemporary paintings and sketches.

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