View over Kalkbaai or Kalk Bay showing harbor, Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa. (Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
Many iterations: Kalk Bay’s earlier guises include a lime quarry, a loading point and a whaling centre © UIG via Getty Images

Some time in the 1840s, a boat belonging to Filipino fishermen was shipwrecked — or possibly impounded — off Kalk Bay, in what is now an upwardly mobile suburb of Cape Town. The fishermen liked it so much they stayed. A thriving Filipino fishing community took root, later augmented by freed slaves from Malaysia and Indonesia, brought to South Africa by British and Dutch colonialists.

Kalk Bay had been through several iterations before as a lime quarry, a whaling centre and a loading point for the ox-drawn wagons carrying supplies to Simon’s Town, an anchorage point for ships from the Dutch East India Company. It would go through several more. In 1883, when the railway came and the village became more accessible, wealthy homes sprang up in the mountains that rear up behind it.

During apartheid, Kalk Bay was one of the few communities to resist the Group Areas Act, an instrument of apartheid that ordered the removal of non-whites from designated “white-only” areas.

Today, it retains its free-spirited atmosphere and has become a sought-after residence for artists, writers and filmmakers. The fishing community is still intact. The single shopping street that hugs the coastline is lined with bric-a-brac shops, cafés and restaurants.

“The other side, on the Atlantic, is very flash,” says estate agent Jackie de Waal of Engel & Völkers, referring to more upscale suburbs such as Camps Bay, Clifton and Llandudno to the west of Cape Town. The latter boast stunning views of the Atlantic surf that have traditionally attracted big money from South Africans and foreigners seeking a first or second home and a good investment. Foreigners can buy property with no restrictions and few who have done so have lost money.

Though Kalk Bay is closing the gap in terms of prices, similar-sized properties still go for a third of those in the more upmarket suburbs. A family home in Kalk Bay or neighbouring St James, about a 30-minute drive from Cape Town, costs about R10m-R15m ($680,000-$1.02m), says Ms de Waal. Still, it retains its bohemian feel. “This is the sort of place you can go to the shop in your pyjamas and no one will give you a second look,” she says.

Andreas Blöchliger moved to Kalk Bay a decade ago from Sea Point, an affluent suburb north-west of Cape Town on the Atlantic coast. He picked up a rambling house with sea views that he has turned into a hotel — the Chartfield Guesthouse — and now runs about 15 other properties through Airbnb.

Mr Blöchliger, who grew up in Switzerland, describes as “unbelievable” what has happened to prices as Capetonians and people he calls “rich hippies” cotton on to the once-hidden charms of Kalk Bay. A lot behind his hotel that sold for R400,000 about 10 years ago fetched R5m recently, he says. “There are no more bargains here.”

The gentrification of Kalk Bay is but a tiny piece of Cape Town’s complex property mosaic. The fishing village resisted apartheid, but much of the city’s spatial landscape still bears the imprint of recent history.

Guy Briggs, head of urban design at DHK Architects, says Cape Town was one of the most successful cities in implementing the grotesque doctrine of separate living. Before apartheid was established in 1948, he says, inner-city communities such as Salt River, Woodstock and District Six were racially integrated. District Six was declared a whites-only area in 1966 and forcible removals of residents began two years later. Today, much of it stands empty.

“The reality is the Cape Town spatial structure is very racially entrenched,” says Mr Briggs. “If you look at spatial distribution by income and spatial distribution by race, those two things mirror each other and they are not very distant at all from how they would have been 25 years ago.”

The Cape Flats are a case in point. A big, low-lying sandy area to the south-east of the business district and stretching most of the way to the picturesque university town of Stellenbosch, the flats have been described as “apartheid’s dumping ground”. Many black and mixed race residents were forced to build improvised dwellings in what became sprawling slums.

After the advent of a new black-majority government in 1994, the African National Congress promised to build proper housing for people in the townships. Though millions of Reconstruction and Development Programme homes have been built, many people are still waiting.

Those that were constructed, says Mr Briggs, had a problem. They were built in the old township areas, replicating apartheid-era problems of isolation and distance from employment. This is beginning to change as the provincial government wakes up to the idea of building social housing — or contracting construction out to private developers — in the previously neglected inner city.

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Some of those who received an RDP house in the township have sold it on, or built a shack in the back garden to rent out for about R1,000 a month. Many of the shack residents are migrants from other parts of South Africa or abroad, and are sometimes the target of violence.

Trymore, a Zimbabwean Uber driver who came to live in Cape Town six years ago, spent eight difficult months in a township near the international airport. He says the Cape Flats are now full of little two, three or four-storey constructions built on land allocated for RDP housing.

Rooms as small as 10 sq m with shared toilets fetch rents that recoup the cost of construction in a couple of years or less. “People are really making money on property there,” he says.

Indeed, says Mr Briggs, metre for metre, the cramped housing in the townships probably yields a better return from their struggling residents than the fanciest apartments in the upmarket coastal suburbs. It is just one of the ways in which the inequalities of the past are replicated in the present.

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