Everyone agrees that Cape Town has one of the most beautiful natural settings in the world, with the iconic Table Mountain as backdrop, flanked by two other mountains – Devils Peak and Lions Head. Driving around the city you see spectacular views of mist shrouded peaks, vast blue skies, azure waters, sandy beaches and a city lying, seemingly peaceably, around its natural harbour. As if this were not enough, the area is bestowed with one of the world’s richest floral kingdoms, containing more than a 1000 species of plants, many unique to the region.

Fringed by comely vineyards, with bird sanctuaries and safari parks nearby, with a world class botanical garden, the city is built to human scale, with few skyscrapers, a patchwork of relatively uncluttered streets and many pleasing, colonial style buildings. Nice looking, modern structures are also not foreign here.

Cape Town’s rich cultural landscape showcases puppetry, film and jazz festivals; a carnival and outdoor music; art galleries and museums, cafes and restaurants featuring sophisticated, affordable cuisine, convivial bars and fun dance clubs.

This is a sporty city. It recently ran an international cycling race and the World Cup is a coming soon. (A state-of-the art, 68,000 capacity stadium with a pricey tag was built for the event.) There are adventure sports that land, sea and sky can offer.

Creativity is in the air; as well as impressive scholarship and intelligent political analysis and debate; while media freedom and social change work are on display.

People are frank and friendly. The weather is mostly balmy, and the howling, South Easterly wind that sweeps through dramatically every so often only serves to brush the place with further romance.

An urban paradise? Sadly no.

Apartheid’s legacy is alive and well here, separating the city into distinct black, coloureds and white neighbourhoods. We, IHP profs, lived initially in a nice B&B in the white, upper-middle class area of Oranjezicht. (NB – most Afrikaans words are unpronounceable). Here, you are greeted by high walls, barking dogs and “armed response” signs. (No one walks save foreigners and non-white domestic workers.)

South Africa is a “middle-income” country, yet 38% of the people are classified as poor (2005 statistics). That figure for 1995 was 25 per cent. The recent financial crisis has made things worse. Twenty two per cent live in informal housing, 58% of which is in slums; 41.8 per cent live in “backyard dwellings,” which are typically shacks built behind regular houses. The government has delivered on low cost housing; and electricity, water and sewage connections, but has fallen way short of the need.

Twenty nine per cent of Cape Townians are unemployed. The city needs skilled workers for its dominant and expanding service sector, but the majority of the black population has access only to sub standard government schools. A lot of blacks also boycotted education, as a political statement, under apartheid. As much as a generation and a half is said to be affected by this.

Here’s a revealing statistic: Only 50% of the coloured and black students will finish high school; of these 20% will go to university; of these 40% will finish that degree; of these only 10% will get a technical degree.

It’s clear who has the financial clout. The political power rests with the blacks, making for increasing socio-political tensions. Corruption is rife.

Some of the results of all of the above: high crime rates, including for rape and domestic violence, and a perception that the city is very unsafe, news reports of people rioting for more service delivery, confrontation tactics and overt expression of bias between and among all the above mentioned racial groups; oppositional feelings towards Africans from other countries who come to take advantage of the economy. (Neo-liberal, the economy reflects all the typical features of a Global City.) The categories white, black, coloured and Indian, established by the apartheid state, linger on.

All this inevitably affects the ‘hapless’ visitor, particularly one who is here to teach and learn about urban issues. While her intellectual life is enviably rich, she finds her emotions ping-ponging as she is ferried from a disturbing film about apartheid to a feel-good NGO project in a township; when a lecture on biodiversity is followed by one on white supremacy; when the enjoyment of brightly painted houses in the Cape Malay neighbourhood of Bo Kaap is marred by the realization that she has lost her wallet.

From Oranjezicht to Langa, the second oldest township in the country, is also a sea change. It is a 20-minute drive from downtown – stark, dusty, flat and park less (though there are a few tall trees here and there). Small houses, and smaller shops selling the basics, dominate. Table Mountain still looms majestic in a distance. Here and there is a crèche or bakery, school or bar. The B&B where we land is managed by Neo (a former primary school teacher) and her mother, simply called Ma Neo (a former nurse).

I find that I have moved into the bosom of a joint family, with people from three generations coming and going all day long. I am happy and at home doing yoga with Neo, visiting the lively local shebeen (bar), cooking and sharing spices. I play with the children and chat with the teens. I commiserate with Ma Neo re her asthma, hear about her informal but important work with AIDS patients and attend a rousing, Baptist service at a nearby church on Sunday morning.

Strong, resonant singing and rhythmic clapping merges with tears, heads are bowed in private prayer, eyes closed in intense concentration. Recurring Hallelujahs, Thank you Jesus’, and Amen’s punctuate the discourse; passionate sermonising from pastors and members of the congregation (it’s not clear who’s who), inflates the space, while a collage of projected texts and photos unroll on a screen.

The church is a large, concrete structure with a solid-looking tin roof. The parking lot outside is full.

I ponder how the minimal of expressiveness on part of the students in class contrasts with the deeply held and moving faith so freely expressed in this church.

We have run into adverse group dynamics in Cape Town and are trying to get past them. It’s tough, but part of the teaching game that I am trying to learn.

I also visit Boulder Beach – a colony of utterly adorable jackass penguins. The trip is organized by one of the student’s and we are happy together as we ooh and aah over the singular creatures, going on to enjoy the earthly delights of the Cape of Good Hope.

I have many good wishes and hope, hope for a peaceful and productive future – for this intense, exciting, contradictory, beautiful and beastly country. And for the vibrant civil society organizations and the citizens who are trying hard to make a difference. And ditto for the final leg of our program in Vietnam.