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The City and the Writer: In Cape Town with Margie Orford

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Cape Town as you feel/see it?

Capricious, seductive. Cape Town is known in South Africa as the Mother City, but this city is no nurturing earth mother. The city is charming, cruel, changeable, demanding, and ultimately complacent. Pleased with her own company, Cape Town elicits in the visitor and resident alike adoration. You can’t help yourself; there is the dramatic natural beauty of the mountains, the two competing oceans. Warm Indian, cold Atlantic; there is the feeling of remoteness, of being at the end of a vast continent. Cape Town has the allure of being the beginning of another journey into the Indian Ocean and everything that the unvisited East promises. Adoration is always—think of your last love affair—met with indifference. Great beauty demands absolute devotion but it gives little of itself, despite its charm.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Cape Town had its heart ripped out when the residents of District Six were forcibly removed in the 1970s by the apartheid government and dumped in the wind-scoured Cape Flats. District Six—the hybrid spirit of Cape Town—remains empty to this day. An accusation, a reminder, a green scar where the grass has failed to cover the stumps of demolished homes. Apartheid was a body blow to Cape Town. It may have healed over but the past remains—a ghost limb that throbs, reminding us of what we could have been. Which future was not chosen.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Cape Town exists most fully in sound. The triptych of mountains that face Table Bay create an amphitheater with perfect acoustics. A web of sounds holds this disparate city together. The muezzin in the old Malay Quarter calling into the silent dawn. The church bells in Long Street following thereafter. The melancholic anxiety of the foghorn at Moullie Point that heralds the mists that slip off the Atlantic into the city. The crash of the Noon Gun that startles everyone every day as it bisects morning from afternoon. The hoot of the Cape Eagle owls that haunt the houses on the periphery of the city. The roar of the waterfalls off Table Mountain after rain. And always the boom of the ocean.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Imraan Coovadia. Especially his essays. The poets Ingrid Jonker, Antjie Krog, and Stephen Watson. Zoe Wicomb’s collection of short stories, You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town. Ashraf Kagee’s Khalil’s Journey.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I walk on the mountain every day I can. Out of my house, up one street, and then on the serene, granite face that Table Mountain turns toward the North, toward the rest of Africa. Below me is the city with its hum of traffic and sirens. The sound fills one ear. On the other side is the ancient silence of the mountain. Sometimes, if it is late enough in the evening, I hear nightjars call.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

There is the Book Lounge—it is on Roeland Street in the socially textured East City. It is halfway between the old jail and parliament—so a beacon of inquiry, charm, and books that make you glad again that someone bothered to teach you to read.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The cities of slavery. Cape Town was a slave city for only a handful of years fewer than it has been free. There are living traces everywhere—the kramats high on the slopes of Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head. The snaking lines of pilgrims that visit the graves. The Malay Quarter (or the Bo-Kaap, as it is also known) and the constellation of little stone fishing villages that ring the Peninsula. At first glance, Cape Town looks like many other former colonial cities, but the imprint of the Indian Ocean—and especially of Indonesia—is strong. In the food, in the faces of people, and in the mongrel tongue, Afrikaans, that was born out of the Babel of languages of the early Cape.

Where does passion live here?

Passion. Rio is a passionate city. New York is a passionate city. Even tired old London has passion. Cape Town, on the other hand, is a seductive city. It works its magic on you secretly. If you live here long enough, you are no longer able to really live anywhere else. A yearning for the wind, for the cold sea, for the drama of the landscape, even for the city’s inexcusable indifference to its own poor, forces you to return. A city of loss perhaps, of never really getting from it what you want, of eternal leavings and returns. Perhaps that is passion. Cape Town was built, after all, as a way station to elsewhere. So those of who live here were unintended.

What is the title of one of your works about Cape Town and what inspired it exactly?

Gallows Hill is about Cape Town. A few years ago, I was walking through the city when I came across a building site in Green Point, one of the oldest parts of the city. The developers had excavated it and in the process had unearthed hundreds of skeletons. It had just happened and the dark soil was filled with femurs, pelvic bones, and pale, fragile skulls. It was so startling, this vast foundation of bones. The development, the graveyard—some for slaves, some not—sparked a great deal of social conflict. About memory, history, slavery, ownership of the past, belonging. It was irresistible for a novelist. So I put an imaginary and more recent skeleton in that contested graveyard—I am a crime novelist—and was able to surround the whole site with crime scene tape and investigate imaginatively how our past, and especially the violation and violence of slavery, lives on in the present. The title comes from the area: it was once a hill and it was the site of the gallows. The gallows were high enough to be visible form all ships entering Table Bay—so the crucified were left up as a warning to visiting sailors that this was a place where the law would be seen to be done. In many of the old illustrations, these gibbets are visible.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Cape Town, does an outside exist?”

Cape Town—beautiful as it is—is one of the places where one longs to be elsewhere. It is so far away—closer to the Antarctic than most other places. There is a sleepy remoteness, a complacent, parochial stillness that at times one has to escape. But as I leave—as I fly and the pilot banks so that we can get one last view of Table Mountain— I regret my decision. I am homesick before I have left. I go—there is no choice on a plane—but I carry with me the knowledge that this is home. That no matter how long I stay away, I must return. And that when I die there will be no lovelier place from which to have my ashes scattered than the forgiving grey buttresses of Table Mountain. The original name for Table Mountain was Hoerikwaggo. It means “Watcher of the South.” It is not a gaze one can escape.


Margie Orford, born in London to South African parents and raised in Namibia and South Africa, is an award-winning journalist and internationally acclaimed writer. As a Fulbright Scholar, she was educated in South Africa and the United States. Her series of crime novels have been widely translated and she has written for a number of papers including the Guardian, the Observer, the Telegraph, the Mail & Guardian, the Sunday Times, and the Cape Times in South Africa. She has published children’s books, academic books, and non-fiction, including a book on climate change, on rural development in South Africa, and a history of the anti-apartheid group, The Black Sash. She was an editor of Women Writing Africa, the Southern Volume, a groundbreaking feminist retrieval project published by the Feminist Press at CUNY. She was a student activist and journalist during the turbulent 1980s and wrote her final bachelor exams while in detention in South Africa. She is the President of PEN South Africa and she is a member of the board of PEN International. She is currently the patron of Rape Crisis and of the children’s book charity, the Little Hands Trust. She lives in Cape Town. Her website is

Published Nov 24, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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