I came to Cape Town when I was seventeen. The official reason was to go to university, but beneath that there was a layering of motives: a need to escape, a need to find myself. There's a character in a Margaret Atwood novel who keeps moving west across Canada until, running out of country, she ends up in Vancouver. The long evening vista across the mild ocean calms her soul. Thus it was for me. I was running out of country.

I came to live in Cape Town in 1985. My arrival in the city coincided with the declaration of the first State of Emergency, the years of the township revolts, People's Power, the years that broke the back of apartheid. I remember standing on the great plaza of the university campus, poised above the city on the slopes of Devil's Peak, watching the smoke curl crisply upwards from the burning barricades, the torched houses.

Later it all came closer to home. The marches, the pamphlet drops, rain in the holding-pen of the Sea Point police station, a lemon tree in someone's back garden, a box of banned books stashed under my bed (which gave off an energy, a kinesis, which first kept me awake at night and then invaded my dreams). I could take you swimming at my favourite beaches, walk with you through the fynbos, negotiate the crowds at the Waterfront, or flick through the pages of memory and reminiscence. But my chosen trade, my discipline (my affliction) is archaeology.

For a while I came to know the city from below: its hidden strata, patterned ceramics from the forester's cottage, motes of dust in the electric light of the grain cellar, the corpses with their wrists wired together, buried higgledy-piggledy near the place of execution. The point is, everyone has his or her own city. It presents a new face to each inhabitant; we invent it day-by-day. Place, habitats and self are entwined. I need a device ­ we need a device ­ a way into the subject. Very well then, here goes: Welcome to Cape Town. Welcome to my day.

Wake up! Gaah. Six o'clock. Alarm flashing and beeping. Flail about. A spring morning, let us say. September 24th, Heritage Day, a holiday, the sky beginning to lighten in the East. I leave Nicola sleeping serenely, leave our daughter Rosa aged three-and-three-quarters, for whom each new phase of the day arrives like heavy weather off the Atlantic (all sunshine, all rain), tossed, adrift on a sea of sleep. Tiptoe from the room. Clothes on. Super. Nick. Nick Shepherd. Aged thirty-five, half way round the track, neither up nor down. Terrible hour, but we've got a lot to get through, a whole city to lay before your eyes. I thought coffee and a chat at the deli down the road. Eat breakfast if you're hungry. On the way we'll stop off at the beach, look for whales. Nice house don't you think? We're renting at the moment, but hoping to buy. House prices have gone bonkers recently. Lots of dollar and euro buyers, wanting a place with a sea-view. Cape Town's got it all: ocean, mountains, vineyards. Our place, you're looking at close-on a million bucks, South African. A hundred grand if you're talking euros. A snip innit? Cost of a garage in Southwark.

Down these steps here. That's the sea in front of us, no more than sixty yards – hear it lying in bed. We're in Kalk Bay – Lime Bay – a small fishing village on the False Bay coast. Half an hour from the city centre if you're driving. Do you have a patch of the world that feels exactly right, your soul's ease? Where you know every bit of it? Feel a lightening in your chest when you return? This is mine. No more than a kilometre of seafront between Kalk Bay and St James. My patch.

To the beach. Here, under this subway. Mind that pile of shit. We'll want to hurry through here. Homeless people use it as a loo. Quite right really ­ God knows there's nowhere else to go. Could bury it on the beach, I suppose, but at least here you see it. Forewarned is forearmed. Saw an old woman once, in a fantastic state of déshabillé, lean forward from the waist, drop her tracksuit pants, let fly against the wall, and then hoick up her pants. The whole thing was over in about five seconds. Amazing. Left me thoughtful. I wanted to ask: why standing?

Ah, the beach. Rocks, sand, a tidal pool. Dalebrook, super kiddies' beach. To our left, Danger Beach. To our right, Kalk Bay harbour. Nice break down there, a Left, only works in a big swell. Look at that, a giant tail fin rising out of the sea. It's a whale, just off the kelp; you could lob a stone and hit it. You see, everything laid on for you. The whales come in July and August and stay for a couple of months. Mainly Southern Rights and Humpbacks. They calve and mate in the bay before heading south for the krill grounds. People feel pretty protective about them. Often you'll see a group of cars stopped on the coast road, everyone watching the whales. Around July people will ask: Have you seen the whales? Have they come?

Should we get that coffee? Let me tell you about Kalk Bay as we walk. You'll see how we're sandwiched between the mountain and the sea. People have lived here a long time. The rocky point at the head of the bay used to be covered by shell middens left by hunting and gathering folk over the millennia. The mountains around here are full of caves. If you scratch around you'll find bits of ochre, flaked stone, accumulations of animal bone and seashell. You'll also find old mattresses and wine bottles. There's a transient population of bergies – mountain people – who live up there in the winter. Kalk Bay's different that way. I like to think it's more tolerant, although maybe that's changing. In summer the tourist buses invade. There used to be all sorts of useful shops here, a pharmacy, a lawnmower repair shop. Now it's all antiques, trendy clothes and restaurants. We're theming ourselves. Kalk Bay's becoming "Kalk Bay".

Here we are. Café Olympia. The food's divine. What about over here? Nice view of the harbour. You comfortable? Time for a history lesson. Cape Town has always been a point of conflux, one of the world's great portal cities. Sticking like a toe into the Atlantic, mediating the traffic between north and south, east and west. The winds of globalisation ­ its Trade Winds, its Roaring Forties ­ howl through the city. There's something exposed and raw about it, something implacable. The ragged militias splashing ashore from the wooden ships. Pretty soon they're shooting and fucking, all one to them. The first permanent building in Cape Town was a fortress (not a school, not a church, not a market). As soon as it was finished they began work on a bigger one. How's that for a script for colonialism? Touchdown. Build fortress. Build bigger fortress. All downhill from there. Imagine what it must have been like to have all this arrive on your shore. I like the Zapiro cartoon (Zapiro? Best cartoonist at work in South Africa. Lives in the city): two Khoisan blokes watching the new arrivals; chap turns to his friend, "There goes the neighbourhood".

The nature of the city was shaped by colonialism and its institutions. Foremost amongst these was the racial politics of slavery. The city has passed through several sets of hands. Initially it was a Dutch colonial entrepôt. At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was incorporated as part of the British Empire. Slaves were manumitted in the 1830s. In the 1860s diamonds were discovered in Kimberley and Cape Town acted as a point of shipment for people and materials. Following the Act of Union in 1910 the city was incorporated as the legislative centre of the newly formed South African state. When the Afrikaner nationalists were elevated to power in the elections of 1948 they inherited a creolised city stamped by three centuries of contact and exchange at the southern corner of the Atlantic system. The admixture of people, cultures, religions and languages was breathtaking: the indigenous people of the Cape; the descendants of freed slaves from Java, Sumatra, Angola and Mozambique; Dutch and British settlers; Norwegian whalers; Jews from Eastern Europe; adventurers bound for the mines of the interior; runaways and desperadoes.

In the twentieth century successive governments did two things to utterly transform the character of the city. They embarked on an ambitious land reclamation scheme on the foreshore, which pushed the coastline hundreds of metres further out and created tracts of new land at the head of the city. Onto these barren acres they transposed a megalomanical architecture, giant freeway overpasses and mammoth civic buildings, eight-lane boulevards, fountains and statues. In summer a gritty south-east wind is hurled with desolating velocity down these urban canyons, and the city feels stricken, forsaken. A coastal city that turned its back on the sea.

And the second thing that they did? Are you ready for it, the city's dirty secret? Beginning in the late 1960s the government embarked on a programme of ethnic cleansing, the forced removals, which reordered the city as a series of racially defined ghettoes. They took a pattern which was nascent in the colonial city, a white core, a black periphery, and forced it through with terrifying thoroughness. In the process they uprooted families, neighbourhoods, whole suburbs. You will have heard of District Six, but there was hardly a corner of the city that was not affected. Cavendish Square, those pretty cottages in Upper Newlands, the white suburbs of Little Mowbray and Harfield Village, all on land cleared by forced removals and sold cheaply to incoming Whites. My favourite Old South African statistic comes from Bill Johnson in his book How Long Will South Africa Survive?. At some point around 1970 white South Africans overtook Californians as the single most affluent group in the world. It didn't last long of course, but there you have it, the settler dream, Fat City in the White South.

You see that settlement across the bay, off to the right? Simonstown. I worked there for a while in the early 1990s, running an excavation in what had once been the Dutch colonial governor's residence. Archaeology's strange. There you are, week in and week out, digging down through layers of the past, and yet it began to seem to me that the real interest, the real exotica, lay in the present. As many as half the town's people were forcibly removed in the late 1960s, everyone who wasn't the palest white, who didn't meet the requisite standard of racial purity. The town persists, of course, but as a pale shadow of itself ­ literally a white-out. How do you live with the accumulated guilt and anger of the past?

And Kalk Bay? Like I said, Kalk Bay's different that way. The operators of the fishing fleet, who are mostly coloured or mixed-race people, successfully petitioned to be allowed to stay. Their argument was unanswerable. The boats leave the harbour at 4am. How were they to travel from some distant place of residence and still be at the fishing grounds by first light? As it was, about twenty families were removed, but most held out. In Afrikaans there is a word vaal, meaning sallow or drab. It's a word best applied to apartheid's bureaucrats. In the case of Kalk Bay it has always surprised me that in the vaal hearts of the vaal men in their vaal suits a modicum of mercy could be found.

I was there on the day of Nelson Mandela's release from prison in February 1990, part of the huge crowd gathered in front of the city hall. We'd been excavating up the West Coast at a site near Elands Bay when the news reached us. We rushed back to town in an old jalopy which kept threatening to break down. The atmosphere on the Grand Parade was unbelievably exciting and tense. Youths looted shops and set fire to the cool-drink stalls near the podium. Smoke and teargas drifted across the gathering, and police shotguns were going pop pop in the distance. You have to understand the edginess, the sense of expectation. Mandela had been incommunicado for 27 years, no words, no images, held fast on an island like the prince in a fairytale. And then suddenly he stood before us. His first word, "Amandla!" and in calm, measured tones he began his set speech. An extraordinary moment, a freeze-frame from a movie, a moment when only cliché will do. Grown men stood with tears rolling down their cheeks. You could have heard a pin drop.

Fast-forward to the contemporary city. Have a look at this. A 2000 special edition of ADA magazine (something of an institution in South Africa) dealing with Cape Town. It describes itself as "An insider's view of the city". Cape Town is presented as a series of gorgeous panoramas. At the back is a list of forty "Things not to miss": "The Top of Table Mountain", "District Six Museum", "Cape Point", "Howling at the full moon" ("Make the most of the moonlight by walking up Lion's Head at full moon"). In ADA we get an aestheticised Cape Town, which hides the poverty and the grime. Cape Town is a metropolis "that is on the move". It is a place "of magical charm". Table Mountain is "awesome". The city is "mesmerizing" with its "undulating mountains and azure oceans".

There's a trend here, tied to tourism and the current drive to represent Cape Town as a world city; call it the aestheticisation of poverty. Take the recently published Shack Chic: Art and Innovation in South African Shack-Lands, for example. A deeply ironic work which presents itself without irony. Page after page of artfully-shot shack interiors. Let me read from the blurb: "Like a colourful blight, shacks festoon South Africa's landscape. They're often krom and skeef [crooked, casually-made], being made of little more than lord-have-mercy-on-us wood and tin. But these pondokkies [shacks] are forging a new decorating style recognized overseas... in which pilchard labels parade as wallpaper, and sharp citrussy greens, tangerines, aegean blues and Barbie-pink paint, show that every pondokkie has the heart of a palazzo." Shack dwellers, "shack chic" notwithstanding, live at the bottom of the heap. They are people who either haven't qualified for, or are on a waiting list for, a government housing subsidy that can be parleyed into a tiny bricks-and-mortar matchbox house. Shacks regularly succumb to fire and flooding. They're windy, damp and unhealthy. As a result, Cape Town has one of the highest rates of tuberculosis in the world.

In fact, as a visitor to Cape Town, one's over-riding impression is likely to be of the contradictions, the enormous contrasts. Immense wealth stacked side-by-side with unimaginable poverty. Beauty and squalor. Rows of luxury German sedans and famished packs of street-children. Rubbish-pickers and subway-shitters contending for space with plush suburban matrons and an international backpacker elite. Is this what it means to be a global city?

You want to know what its like to live in such a place? You want honesty, or ­ given the medium ­ the appearance of honesty? All right, I'll tell you. It feels precarious. It feels like living on the edge of something. But then show me a place that doesn't. Where are you from anyway?

Do you also wake up in the night and listen?

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Nick Shepherd is Senior Lecturer in the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town. Trained as an archaeologist, he has published widely in the fields of African Archaeology, African Studies and Cultural Studies. His most recent award has been a Mandela Fellowship to attend Harvard University, where he will be based in the W.E.B. du Bois Centre for Afro-American Studies.

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