Lake Michelle / Masiphumelele.

Cape Town is gorgeous, complicated, violent and misunderstood. A beautiful (the MOST beautiful) city in the world, and quite possibly the most divided as well. It regularly tops the list of "best travel destinations" and other similar lists, yet cross the line into the Cape Flats are you'll be presented with unimaginable violence and deprivation. The murder rate in this city, South Africa's worst, is 12th worst in the world. Almost 9 people die, every day, from homicides. Hundreds of thousands of people live in tin shacks, on sandy soil with no running water. 
Yet drive 20 minutes to the Atlantic seaboard, where cafes with crypto bros and models abound, hang gliders soar above tourists' heads and foreign money helps inflate a gigantic property bubble. This was the dichotomous environment I found myself in when I began this project in 2016, and in some ways still do. I hope you find the project as interesting, impactful, and painful as I have.

The original Unequal Scene; Cape Town, South Africa. April 2016. 

November 2017, with visible drainage canals now in place.

February 2018.

July 2019.

September 2022. A large fire in 2021 displaced thousands; the city then built improved houses in the southern zone (top of the photo).

June 2023.

May 2024. 

The Southern Cape Peninsula, about 20km from Cape Town’s city center, is comprised of several idyllic, picturesque suburbs such as Noordhoek, Kommetjie, and Fish Hoek. Horse riding tours are common on nearby Long Beach. Surfing is a popular pastime. 
 Sandwiched within the “Sun Valley” communities is Masiphumelele. There are approximately 38000 people living there, many in small tin shacks. There is no police station, only one small day clinic, and it’s estimated that up to 35% of the population is infected with HIV or TB. Fires are common in winter, which sweep through the shacks, sometimes displacing residents by the hundreds.
 Across a narrow wetlands, the community of Lake Michelle is surrounded by an electrified fence and accessed through a guardhouse. Current prices on real estate sites put their value at several million rands. On the day I flew overhead, several people paddle-boarded in the choppy lake waters. I see the wetlands between them as a sort of no-man’s land; an area too scary to venture into from either side. I imagine both sides peer across at their neighbors with distrust and suspicion.

This is a testament to the city as an organic entity, growing, shedding, and living just like a biological organism. 

Hout Bay / Imizamo Yethu

Hout Bay / Imizamo Yethu.

Hout Bay is a picturesque valley about 15km south of Cape Town, situated between several mountains. There is a protected harbor at one end of the valley, which is one of the busiest fishing harbors in the Western Cape, along with several wealthy housing estates, hotels, and small farms.

Nestled between two of these affluent housing estates is the suburb of Imizamo Yethu. Imizamo Yethu (IY) is comprised of both a designated housing area and an “informal settlement” area, which is largely comprised of small shack dwellings which stretch up the steep slopes of the mountain behind it.

The shacks in this informal settlement reach right to the very edge of the demarcated area, in a densely packed jumble of tin roofs. In fact, even though the total area of IY is much smaller than the whole Hout Bay valley, the two have roughly the same population, 15538 vs. 17329. (City of Cape Town Census 2011)

The striking visual dissimilarities between the richer estate to the north, Tierboskloof, and IY are immediately apparent when viewed from the air. The line of trees which divides the two hides (several) heavily fortified fences, and many distrustful neighbors. In some cases, the houses (some with swimming pools) are just a stone’s throw from the shacks.

The most striking thing to me is the number of trees in Tierboskloof, versus the almost treeless IY. On the day I flew overhead, it was scorchingly hot, almost reaching 30 degrees. I imagined that the temperatures underneath the tin roofs must have been stifling.

Endless shacks stretch towards the summit of Skorsteenberg, the mountain which looms over IY. 

The beautiful valley of Hout Bay means "Wood Bay", for the ample wood used to supply vessels on their journey round the Cape of Good Hope. 

Penzance Estate borders IY to the south.

Contrasting zinc shacks with winter's green slopes on Table Mountain National Park.

Vast differences side by side on the northern side of IY. 

Little Lion's Head, as a strong westerly wind blows in off the cold Atlantic Ocean. 

The Cape Flats

Shacks proliferate in Khayelitsha, Cape Town's biggest township. Over a million people live here. When I first visited in 2016, the shacks were not built past the dirt road in the center of the photo. Now, in 2023, they extend all the way to the paved road near the ocean.

The Cape Flats, a sprawling area to the east of Cape Town, is a poignant reflection of the country's historic struggle with racial segregation and socio-economic inequality. The Flats were a creation of apartheid's brutal policies; a vast, sandy stretch designated as a residential area for non-whites during the mid-20th century following their forced removal from Cape Town's urban core.
Today, the area is a vibrant and diverse community, home to Coloured, Black African, and immigrant populations. However, the legacy of apartheid continues to manifest in profound socio-economic disparities. In contrast to the stunning affluence of areas like Clifton or Camps Bay, the Cape Flats are marked by high levels of poverty, unemployment, and crime.
Inadequate infrastructure, lack of opportunities, and an epidemic of gang violence are stark reminders of the systemic inequality rooted in historic injustice. Despite these challenges, residents exhibit incredible resilience, maintaining strong communities and pushing for change. 

Sweet Home was primarily a dumping ground for builder’s rubble like bricks, which you can still see being recycled on the side of the road today near the south end of the settlement. Services and conditions are poor. Vukuzenzele, just to the north, was developed in collaboration with a fund to provide affordable housing to South Africans. The visual difference between the two is stark.

Farms and shacks near Dunoon, Cape Town. 



A checkerboard pattern of inequality near Somerset West, about 40km east of Cape Town.

Squalid conditions for thousands who live in the shacks of Nomzamo, with an interesting walled "Access Road" along the creek between gated estates. 

Shacks and the MyCiti bus yard along the N7 north of Cape Town.

The organic network of roads and dwellings to the south contrasts sharply with the orderly, geometric patterns of the planned community to the north. This means much more than simply representing a difference in wealth, writes Diana Mitlin.

“Just as the community capacity building element provides an essential legacy in being a social asset that will help enable the community to address its future goals, so the development of physical assets provides essential assistance. In this case, the physical assets incorporate secure tenure, access to adequate services and improved living conditions. This enables families to have access to healthy living conditions and offers them the opportunity to accumulate resources. However, the development of physical assets is also important for another reason; it provides the arena within which collective skills and capacities can develop.”


Dunoon inundated by the Diep River just after a winter storm.

The Cape Floristic Region is one of only six on earth, and by far the smallest. It comprises the Cape Peninsula and a small part of the surrounding landscape. This otherwise arid part of Africa receives just the right amount of rainfall every winter to boast incredibly diverse and productive agricultural areas, which provide a striking juxtaposition to the hundreds of thousands who live in shacks on the periphery of the city.  

Many people, including residents of the City of Cape Town's relocation site called Wolwerivier languish in poorly serviced settlements, far from jobs or other economic activity in the dusty periphery. This means that while they are not "side by side" in unequal scenes, they represent the hidden, and arguably more pernicious majority of impoverished South Africans, for whom the verdant peaks of Table Mountain represent an ethereal Shangri-La, glittering mirage-like on the horizon. 

Stellenbosch / Kayamandi

In a stunning display of contrast, Kayamandi sits at the top of a hill overlooking one of the most beautiful winelands in the world, those of the Western Cape of South Africa. As far as one can see, the rich vineyards sprawl underneath purple mountain cliffs, amongst some of the most valuable real estate on the continent, all visible from this classic South African township made of corrugated tin, wood scraps, and recycled adverts used as wallpaper. Below these shacks sits the town of Stellenbosch, hosting one of the best universities in Africa. 

Like many townships, Kayamandi was founded in the 1950s as a specific non-whites area for laborers who were working on the surrounding farms. It continues to grow to this day, and new houses are clearly visible at the top of the ridgeline. The official census figure of 24000 inhabitants almost certainly is a low estimate. Water, such an abundant necessity in a township, sits tantalizingly close to Kayamandi in the form of irrigation dams for the vineyards.

The contrast in Kayamandi is a gap of extreme wealth disparity, but also a blight hidden in plain sight to the thousands of tourists and holiday makers who travel to the Cape Winelands every year. Stellenbosch is renowned throughout South Africa as the country’s second oldest city, an esteemed university town, and the centre of the wine industry. The stark reality of the thousands of impoverished people living just above the city centre is a woeful reminder of just how unequal South Africa really is.

District Six

The footprint of roads from the early 20th century are still visible in District Six.

District Six was named the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town in 1867. Originally established as a mixed community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, laborers and immigrants, it was a vibrant center with close links to the city and the port. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the process of removals and marginalization had begun.
The first to be forced out were black South Africans who were displaced from the District in 1901. As the more prosperous moved away to the suburbs, the area became a neglected ward of the city.
On 11 February 1966 it was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act of 1950, and by 1982, the life of the community was over. More than 60 000 people were forcibly removed to barren outlying areas aptly known as the Cape Flats, and their houses in District Six were flattened by bulldozers.​​​​​​​

District Six still exists as a series of empty lots, piles of rubble, and the skeleton of city streets only partially visible amongst the tall grass. Dozens of homeless people construct their shacks in the grass among the rubble, only to be periodically harassed and dispersed by municipal workers and the occasional brush fire. It seems as if every day of the week, at every time of day, a different group utilizes the space, disappearing in a few hours and then leaving the space barren and empty.

Conflicting emotions are present, as the space feels both like a memorial, a cemetery, and a park. Maybe above all else, it stands as a testament to the great wastefulness and futility that apartheid engendered. The refusal to redevelop the land, vacant for decades, speaks to the heightened emotions that still exist around the space. 

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