Street art at the heart of Cape Town

Steve McKenna

In the South African city renowned for its natural beauty, Steve McKenna finds creative flair in abundance.

When you visit Cape Town, it’s hard to stop gawping at Table Mountain, that flat-roofed, often cloud-tickled chunk of granite and sandstone that lords so majestically over South Africa’s “Mother City”. But I’m genuinely trying to ignore it right now, because an affable chap called Juma Mkwela is explaining why an artist from Melbourne has painted a giant elephant on the side of the house we’re standing next to.

Born in Malawi and educated in Zimbabwe, Juma is now an established Capetonian artist and craftsman who, among other things, leads engaging walking tours that highlight the city’s booming street-art scene. The epicentre of these dazzling murals is Woodstock, one of South Africa’s most hip and happening neighbourhoods.

Table Mountain is a captivating presence in the distance but Woodstock has dozens of worthy distractions of its own. Juma’s tour is just one of them. It begins and ends outside the Woodstock Exchange. Known as the WEX, this old industrial warehouse and squat is a now haven of creativity: full to the brim with offices, galleries, studios, cafes, boutiques and restaurants, and staffed and frequented by a cross-section of Capetonian society.

The WEX is seen as the symbol of the “new” Woodstock, a traditionally working-class industrial neighbourhood, which, in recent years, has seen an influx of trendy new developments alongside its traditional, old-fashioned businesses such as panelbeaters, barbers, fabric shops, garages and halal stores. Woodstock’s appeal to budding entrepreneurs boils down to the location (one train stop east of the CBD), affordable rents (especially compared to Cape Town’s leafier suburbs), cosmopolitan make-up (this was the only suburb to remain largely racially integrated during apartheid) and the myriad potential bases (run-down and jazzed-up studios, factories and warehouses edge Albert Road, the bustling main thoroughfare).

The Woodstock Foundry and The Old Biscuit Mill are two examples of Woodstock’s new-found cool — both comprising eclectic stores, galleries and eateries, with the latter home to The Test Kitchen and Pot Luck Club, which are run by South Africa’s British-born celebrity chef Luke Dale-Roberts. When I come to the “Mill” on a Saturday morning, it is jam-packed, thanks to its weekly Neighbourgoods Market, where foodies fossick for fresh produce and an array of artisanal baked treats. Woodstock’s Sir Lowry Road is also worth seeking out, with some charming little spots such as The Kitchen — a tiny deli that welcomed Michelle Obama during her 2011 visit to Cape Town.

There’s a distinctly gentrified tone to proceedings in parts of Woodstock — one critic called it a “hipsterific love-fest”. But, as Juma’s tour hammers home, this district — like the city, and indeed country (and world) as a whole — is still scarred by economic deprivation.

Navigating the downtrodden backstreets off Albert Road, Juma tells me how socially conscious artists from South Africa and beyond have joined forces to help spruce up, and add colour to, the grittier, poorer parts of this neighbourhood. Their calling cards showcase issues close to their hearts, such as the rich/poor wealth chasm, climate change, the poaching of endangered wildlife and the persistent exploitation of the continent’s natural resources (such as diamonds). Juma points out murals left by artists from Beijing, Lisbon, Vancouver and Rio de Janeiro — as well as the work of Melburnian Mike “Makatron” Maka.

The philosophy behind the murals, explains Juma, is motivated by the belief that design and creativity can — in the absence of bucketloads of money — assist in the social and economic regeneration of dilapidated, gang-blighted urban areas. As we stroll, Juma stops to chat with the residents who, he says, are fully behind the street art. “The artists must ask the residents’ permission if they want to paint on their walls,” says Juma. “They usually say yes.”

Keen to pass his love of art on to the next generation, Juma runs workshops with children both here and in Cape Town’s outlying shanty township of Khayelitsha (where he also leads tours). Woodstock and Khayelitsha were among the districts involved in projects for Cape Town’s year as World Design Capital, which ran for the whole of 2014 and comprised conferences, festivals and schemes featuring local and international collaborators promoting the concept of design as a tool for sustainable transformation. The hope is that better design principles in future can help solve some of the long-running problems found in South Africa, whose complex history — including its divisive Dutch and British colonial periods, and the apartheid years — has left a slew of social and economic problems.

Not far from Woodstock, in another up-and-coming inner-city hotspot known as “The Fringe”, I admire a mural celebrating that architect of the anti-apartheid movement, Nelson Mandela. Sprinkled with trendy bakeries, cafes and restaurants but still retaining a slightly shabby aura, The Fringe borders the old “District Six” — which was depopulated and demolished during apartheid. The shocking story of how the neighbourhood’s 60,000 black and mixed-race residents were forcibly removed from their homes during the 1960s and 70s is told in the excellent District Six Museum.

Enthralled, but tired after clocking up so many kilometres on foot, I pop across the road for a caffeine jolt in new local landmark, Truth Coffee. In keeping with the artistic fervour sweeping Cape Town, it’s one of the most visually spectacular coffee shops I’ve ever seen, its furniture and decor infused with a steampunk vibe.

Thankfully, the coffee here — roasted in the shop’s giant 1940s Probat machine — tastes almost as good as it smells.

Steve McKenna was a guest of Cape Town tourism and The Backpack.

FACT FILE

Juma Tours offers mural tours in Woodstock and Khayelitsha on demand. See facebook.com/jumatoursmurals, or contact him at juma.mkwela@gmail.com or on +27 73 400 4064.

Alternatively, a tour can be booked via many of Cape Town’s hotels and hostels, including The Backpack, which accommodates more than 100 people in a wide selection of private rooms, apartments and dorms in the pleasant Gardens neighbourhood. backpackers.co.za.

For more on visiting Cape Town, go to capetown.travel.