Real Estate News - A country that's got a lot of bottle

South Africa's future is looking brighter, says Max Davidson

Wine-tasting? Bird-watching? A round of golf? A chukka of polo? A ride in a gondola? You name it, South Africa has it. Was it really only twenty years ago that this was a pariah state?

Things are happening so quickly that it can be hard to keep up.

Reminders of the old South Africa are not hard to find. From the waterfront cafes in Cape Town one can still see Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was a prisoner for 27 years.
This is still, manifestly, a country where there is a yawning gulf between the Haves and Have-Nots. Apartheid may be history, but poverty afflicts black people disproportionately. You only have to look at the shanty towns next to Cape Town airport - "informal dwellings", as they are coyly referred to - to see how many social and economic challenges remain.

Crime is a running sore in some areas. But there is also an optimism in the air, a faith in sustainable economic growth, that you can almost smell.

Buy in the right area at the right time and you are laughing. An ex-city planner, 49-year-old Japie Hugo, is typical. The threebedroom house he bought for 775,000 rand (just under £60,000) in 1997, in the supertrendy Camps Bay suburb of Cape Town is now worth nearly nine million (just under £700,000). But perhaps the most intriguing thing about 21stcentury Cape Town is the renaissance of the central business district (CBD).

Areas that once used to be regarded as no-go areas at night are being coaxed back into life. There are well-lit pedestrian precincts, police patrols, teams of graffitti-busters, as a great city tries to put its house in order.

"We want to make the centre of the city the heartbeat of the whole region," says Andrew Boraine, CEO of the Cape Town Partnership, a joint publicprivate venture. "There need to be people living here, not just working here." And he is getting his wish. Some 3,000 new inner- city apartments have come on the market in the last six months, at an average price of 800,000 rand (about £60,000).

One of the most impressive properties, right in the heart of the city, is Mandela Rhodes Place, a sparkling one-billionrand (£76 million) development, incorporating everything from stylish high-rise apartments, with spectacular views of Table Mountain, to an inner-city winery.

"Property prices in the CBD are about to rise stratospherically," predicts Frank Gormley, CEO of Eurocape, the developer of Mandela Rhodes Place. Gormley is Irish and, like many of his compatriots, sees parallels between the Cape Town of today and the Dublin of twenty years ago. "This city is in the infancy of its renaissance. By the time of the 2010 Football World Cup, there will be no stopping it."

Just a developer's blarney or sound economic sense? Time will tell. But there are plenty of other developers in the Western Cape putting their money where their mouth is.

Half an hour to the west of Cape Town is the seriously overthe- top Century City, a new development which is trying to be all things to all people and, in places, making a good job of it.

As I wander through the vast shopping mall, then take a motorised gondola ride to an outsize apartment block called Knightsbridge, next to some pseudo-Italian waterside villas, I could be on the Strip at Las Vegas. But there are grace-notes amid the kitsch.

There is a large wetlands area, heaven for bird-watchers, and a well-designed purpose-built retirement village called Oasis, where units start at 470,000 rand (just over £35,000).

Another 25 miles to the west is Stellenbosch, an old university town and one of the prettiest parts of South Africa, with mile upon mile of vineyards surrounded by mountains. It is as tranquil as Century City is boisterous and there are some pukka new developments, none more pukka than Val de Vie, a winelands estate near the picture-postcard village of Franschhoek.

This is prime South African real estate. You can buy a 1,000 square metre plot for about £100,000, which is reasonable considering the calibre of the property.

The Val de Vie estate is owned by an old Huguenot family, and you can see French touches everywhere.

It is a lovely restful spot and only an hour from Cape Town. Deliciously unexpected are two full-size polo fields. Cowdray Park in the veldt, with a bottle or two of local wine at the end of the last chukka? It is a mouth-watering prospect - and it's symptomatic of a country where, after the lost years of apartheid, developers are daring to believe in a better future.

What's the score?

Why buy

  • The South African economy recorded a five per cent growth last year
  • Residential land prices rose by 14.4 per cent last year
  • The perfectly opposite seasons (South Africa enjoys its summer while we in the Northern Hemisphere are shivering in our winter) and the minimal time difference make South Africa a popular tourist, second home and retirement destination
  • There are 7.39 million foreign tourists to a country with a population of 47 million

Why not

  • Some investors feel the best profits have already been made
  • Concerns remain over the political situation in neighbouring Zimbabwe
  • Caution has spread across the property market this summer following the hike in interest rates and possible further increases before the end of the year. As a result, investors are looking to the development market with a long-term view
  • Fair trade? The daily earnings of a vineyardworker in the Western Cape is about £7.50

Invest? 8/10

Make mine a wine

Stellenbosch was settled in 1679 by the Dutch, who found the region's cool climate and fertile soil ideal for wine-making.

Although South Africa is well behind the major producers such as France and Spain it is winning a reputation for sound, solid wines.

Decanter magazine described one year's vintage as including 'big, burly reds'.

The Stellenbosch Wine Route gives the weary house hunter the chance to unwind with a tour of 44 cellars which produce a wide variety of red and white wines.

Most of the cellars offer cellar tours as well as lunches in their shaded gardens with a bottle of wine.

The route takes you along several winding country roads through vine-covered hills and valleys, dotted with white-washed homesteads.

  • Wine appellations to look out for: Constantia, Darling, Helderberg, Paar and Walker Bay
  • Top producers: Thelema, Devon Hill, Jordan, and De Trafford

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