Described by some as 'apartheid's dumping ground', from the 1950s the area became home to people the apartheid government designated as 'non-White.' Race-based legislation such as the Group Areas Act and pass laws either forced non-white people out of more central urban areas designated for 'white' people and into government-built townships in the Flats, or made living in the area illegal, forcing many people designated as 'Black' into informal settlements elsewhere in the Flats. The Flats have since then been home to much of the population of Greater Cape Town.
Most of the sand is unconsolidated; however, in some places near the False Bay coast the oldest sand dunes have been cemented into a soft sandstone. These formations contain important fossils of animals such as the extinct Cape lion and also provide evidence that stone-age people hunted here tens of thousands of years ago.
The area has a Mediterranean climate, with warm dry summers and cool, damp winters. It is generally exposed to the wind, both from the NW (winter) and SE (summer). Flooding can be a problem, especially in July and August. Cold wet spells, especially in August and September, can make life very difficult for those living in sub-standard housing.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, the area was completely overrun by alien vegetation, mainly of Australian origin (Stirton, 1978). The plants included hakeas and especially wattles (genus Acacia). The principal reason for this infestation lay in decisions made by the colonial authorities. It was an era before the advent of modern technological methods for the construction of permanent roads and in those days the Cape Flats was a massive sea of unstabilized sand dunes that moved at will before the winds. This made travel between Cape Town and the interior very difficult, particularly for the large ox-drawn wagons of the time. The authorities decided to try to stabilize the sand with plants native to the British colonies of New South Wales and Western Australia.
The earliest importation of wattles was in 1827. Massive plantings were established in the 1840s and 1850s and the work continued until well after 1875.
At the time, the plan worked well enough: the march of the dunes was arrested. The price paid, in ecological terms, was that the Cape Flats was carpeted by invasive species. Serious efforts have in recent years been made to roll back this alien scourge.
The Cape Flats has undergone revolutionary change in the past half a century. In 1950 the area was practically uninhabited. There was a single, narrow road across the Flats from Cape Town to The Strand that ran between walls of alien rooikrans bushes and one could travel for miles without seeing any sign of habitation other that a few fences and a handful of farmhouses. Native antelope roamed at will between the dense thickets of wattles. The army used the area for military exercises and the few farmers who inhabited the Flats eked out a living by growing vegetables in pockets of relatively poor soil between the barren dunes. Modern amenities were unknown; there were no telephones, drinking water was collected in tanks from roofs and at night the rooms were lit by oil lamps.
The era of sand and antelopes vanished completely in little more than a generation. Vegetable farming persisted but to a much lesser extent, because urbanization enveloped vast tracts of land in short order. During the apartheid era large housing projects were built here, mostly as part of the Nationalist government's larger effort to force the so-called Coloured community out of the central and western areas of Cape Town, which the political theorists of the day had designated as whites-only areas. This meant that only whites could reside there permanently. People of colour could work in the city but could not live there. Additionally, other large townships of black people (e.g., Khayelitsha and Gugulethu) grew up on the flats as a product of both informal settlement and forced government relocations. Since many Xhosa people of the region--including people born and raised in the Cape Town area--were designated under apartheid as residents of Bantustans, many were obliged to live in the area illegally, further contributing to the growth of informal settlements. These consisted in the main of shacks made of 'tin' (in reality corrugated iron), cardboard and wood.
Since the end of apartheid, these communities are no longer legally bound by racial restrictions but history, language, economics and ethnic politics still contribute to homogeneity of local areas. So, for example, most residents of Mitchell's Plain likely still speak a locally-inflected version of Afrikaans, along with English and either they or their parents were designated as Coloured by apartheid; most residents of Khayelitsha still speak Xhosa and English and either they or their parents were designated as Black by apartheid. Nonetheless, some areas of the Cape Flats have an increasing diversity of residents, with Xhosa-speaking people an increasingly noticeable presence in some previously mainly Afrikaans-speaking areas.
The Cape Flats is home to a remarkable cultural history.
Its music spans from the serious-minded jazz of Abdullah Ibrahim and Basil Coetzee and their anthem 'Mannenberg' (named after a Cape Flats township), to the bubbly pop hits of Brenda Fassie; and continues in a new hip-hop movement (e.g., , ).
Its religious communities include (to name only a few), Afrikaans-speaking congregations of the Dutch Reformed Church, Rastafarian communities, people who engage only in traditional Xhosa practices, syncretic Xhosa Christian churches, evangelical Christian churches, and southern Africa's largest Muslim community (drawing its oldest roots from the historic Cape Muslim community, which dates back to the 1600s).
Its political history is complex and sometimes baffling even to insiders: for instance, the politics of the Coloured communities of the Cape Flats have included Trotskyist activism in earlier years, and mobilization for the United Democratic Front in the 80s; and then, widespread support for the historically white National Party (which had presided over apartheid) in the early post-apartheid elections. More recently, the area has seen an expansion of African National Congress strength from its base in the black townships and into historically Coloured areas, as well as a particularly strong local growth of left-wing social movements like the Treatment Action Campaign which offer a critique of government policies. Sometimes violent Islamist movements have emerged from Cape Flats communities , along with other notable figures within the Muslim community who embody an ecumenical strain of religious progressivism.
Almost all of the communities of the Cape Flats remain, to one degree or another, poverty stricken. Serious social problems include a high rate of unemployment and disturbing levels of gang activity. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was significant armed conflict between various gangs and PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs), a vigilante organization.
A wide range of community empowerment organizations work non-violently to combat poverty, crime and health problems and the role of civil society in many parts of the area is relatively strong.