South Africa, Victoria Falls (Zambia) and Botswana

Buoyed by legal protections for gays and lesbians,
Cape Town is emerging as a queer capital.
By Matthew Link, Out Magazine
February 2002

Photo by David Penney, Copyright. DavidTravel

"Gay bars used to be located down blind alleys, where you had to knock on doors to secretly be let in," Tian, a strapping redheaded lad, tells us over a microphone in his lilting Afrikaans accent.  He mentions this as our tour bus full of gay Americans pulls up to Green Point in Cape Town, where numerous establishments flaunt rainbow flags and sexy male pictures in their windows.  Tian flashes a toothy grin.  "Things have changed quite a bit."

Our group from David Tours [DavidTrave], a company specializing in luxury gay travel, was made up of wide-eyed Americans who expected to see undeveloped Africa but instead beheld a sparkling, cosmopolitan city of 3 million rising out of the South Atlantic, with picturesque Table Mountain cradling it in her arms.  No wonder they call it the "Mother City."

When we visited Robben Island, a rocky outcrop directly off the shore of the city where Nelson Mandela was interned for an astounding 20 years, it was difficult to fully grasp it.  As we watched blacks and "coloreds" (a nonracist term referring to mixed-race people) strolling along the waterfront amid million-dollar condos and chic cafes, it felt like apartheid was some sort of baffling nightmare from long, long ago.  It's hard to believe that South Africa has been "free" only since 1994.  It's even harder to picture this lighter-than-air, easygoing metropolis having been through such a dark age, in which blacks were not allowed on public beaches and gays were imprisoned for sodomy.  To say that South Africa is experiencing the greatest renaissance in its history is an understatement.

Besides racial emancipation, South Africa is undergoing all-out gay liberation as well.  It's one of only a handful of nations securing gay and lesbian rights in its constitution.  And Cape Town, with its wide beaches, modern mansions, stunning mountainsides and friendly nightlife, is at the center of the hippest gay scene today in Africa. No wonder in-the-know American gays are purchasing dirt cheap winter vacation homes here by the scores.

South Africa's new liberalism is apparent everywhere in Cape Town.  To underscore the point, unlike the United States, South Africa has legalized male prostitution: The city is home to "houses of boys" like Knights (+27-21-434-0428), open 24 hours, or The Barracks (+27-21-425-4700), with one-way viewing booths and showers, both located in the gay Green Point area.  (The exchange rate ensures a sex bargain at $30 an hour.) And unheard-of in Africa, Cape Town's nudist beach Sandy Bay is a sweeping landscape of mountains and sea, where gay men frolic and fondle all day long with no harassment.

Cape Town is also home to one of the world's most gorgeous bathhouses, Hothouse (18 Jarvis Street, +27-21-418-3888), an upmarket sauna with amazing sundeck views over the city and ocean.  For above-the-belt socializing, the best-known establishments are Club 55 and The Bronx Action Bar, catercorner from each other on Napier and Somerset streets.  Club 55 (+27-21-425-2739) is a trendy, club-kid techno scene, while the Bronx is a traditional gay bar with windows lining the street corner and a lively cruise scene inside.  The industrial atmosphere of nearby Bar Code (16 Hudson St., +27-21-421-5305) could give any Amsterdam bar a run for its money, with hard-core leather daddies looking for love in the dark indoor maze and outdoor yard.

Theater is another thriving form of gay nightlife in Cape Town.  As cousin Australia has Dame Edna, South Africa has a national drag goddess in the form of Evita Bezuidenhout, who boldly skewered apartheid when it wasn't in favor to do so and continues to poke fun at local mores.  Catch her when she's in town at the On Broadway theater on Monday nights (Somerset Road, +27-21-418-8338).

Cape Town is home to over a dozen classy gay guest houses.  Amsterdam Guesthouse is centrally located with great views, videos, sauna, steam room, swimming pool, and Jacuzzi.  The Blackheath Lodge is a fancy yet homey B&B with a pool, library, lounge, and friendly gay hosts.  Be sure to find out if there are any private gay parties going on at people's homes; the local gay scene adores the fresh air American visitors bring with them.

And lastly, one cannot mention Africa today with mentioning AIDS.  Our tour visited a busy AIDS clinic in the township of Langa, where some of the citizens patiently waited on benches for their noisy HIV-positive infants to be treated.  It's estimated that anywhere from 10% to 25% of South Africans are HIV-positive.  But even dinosaur anti-HIV drugs like AZT are beyond the economic reach of most township folk, many of whom earn as little as $100 a month. Meanwhile, approximately 700 people throughout Africa die of AIDS complications every day--one of the world's great tragedies.  Check out the Web site for South Africa Treatment Action Campaign, to learn more and make contributions.