How did Cape Town become the Silicon Cape of Africa?

How did Cape Town become the Silicon Cape of Africa?


Written by:

Andrea Pollio

First Published:

14 Jan 2020, 1:25 am


How did Cape Town become the Silicon Cape of Africa?



When I started my fieldwork in Cape Town in 2015 —as a PhD student with little research experience— it hadn’t been long since leaving the startup I was involved in as a spin-off of my graduate diploma. I had decided to make the technology-based urban economies that I had worked in for almost two years the object of my doctorate.


Cape Town had seemed the right city to ask questions about technology, urbanism and development. I assumed that a postcolonial vantage point would help me shed light on the blind spots that I perceived in the otherwise fascinating works on smart urbanism coming from Europe and North America. My PhD dissertation eventually examined the ways in which social entrepreneurship had become a powerful political technology of millennial development, producing anti-poverty experiments in a city wounded by its racist past and its enduring inequalities, yet a city of rising global ambitions and the highest concentration of venture capital on the whole continent.


Immersed in my field, my previous experience in the development of a software-based business was crucial. I owned the vocabulary and the experience (and the LinkedIn profile) which granted me access to venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, economic consultants, marketing specialists and so forth. I was deemed to be an expert by the experts I wanted to study – a privilege that few research settings grant. However, only after finishing my doctorate I realised that the very reason why I had chosen Cape Town as my field deserved attention. And that I had, among the many notes and interview recordings from my 8 intense, friendship-laden months spent in the mother city, some empirical insights into the question that titles this blog post.


How had Cape Town built its reputation as Africa’s prime destination for technology startups? Certainly, the fact that Chris Pinkham, the manager behind Amazon’s elastic cloud technology, had developed the latter in the city, must have been a reason. Or that in 1999 Verisign had bought the Cape-Town-based Thawte, the world’s second largest provider of digital certification. Or that in the early 2000s Cape Town was poised to become one of the global call-centre offshoring capitals. Or that South Africa’s first fast internet connection depended on an undersea cable landing in the city, not far from where the first Portuguese and Dutch missions had first shored European colonists in the XVI century. These were some of the tales that circulated among my informants.


My paper in this journal shows that these tales of regional advantage were never really just descriptions of what had happened. They also contributed, as the theorists of economic performativity have shown, to the making of the startup economies that they purportedly described with reports, maps, policy documents, lists and surveys. The histories of the silicon cape of Africa were thus speech acts – performative genealogies for Africa’s silicon cape.


My contribution in the paper aims at showing the ways in which both genealogical tales and economic theories of startup clustering were inextricably enmeshed in the very making of one of Africa’s largest technology clusters. And that in a city such as Cape Town, bearing the scars of colonialism and apartheid, these technology-based economies also beckon diverse rationalities that deserve attention, because not all silicon locales are, in any simple way, silicon valleys.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst: Making the silicon cape of Africa: Tales, theories and the narration of startup urbanism