South Africa’s colonial history started in 1652 when the Dutch arrived at the Cape of Good Hope to establish a trade station for ships sailing to the Far East. If you love history, you may want to know more about the oldest towns in South Africa. In this article, we consider the towns established after the colonisation of South Africa only. We explore the oldest towns of South Africa by considering their date of establishment and a brief history of each.
Map of the oldest towns in South Africa
List of the oldest towns in South Africa
Here is an ordered list of the 15 oldest towns in South Africa with their date of establishment, starting with the oldest town.
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Now, let’s explore the 15 oldest towns in South Africa!
The oldest town in South Africa: Cape Town (1652)
While working for the Dutch East India Company (VOC), Jan van Riebeeck arrived in the Cape of Storms in 1652 to set up a halfway station for travellers from the Netherlands to the East. There was a shortage of labour resulting in the slow growth of the settlement. The Dutch imported slaves from Indonesia and Madagascar.
Van Riebeeck and his successors introduced many valuable plants to the Cape, completely changing the natural environment. These plants included grapes, ground nuts, cereals, potatoes, citrus, and apples.
The top sights in Cape Town include:
The second-oldest town in South Africa: Stellenbosch (1679)
Governor Simon van der Stel established Stellenbosh in 1679 to decentralise the administration in South Africa. He appointed a Landdrost and a drostdy established. This was followed by a local court and a local government.
Locals know Stellenbosch as the City of Oaks because of the many oak trees planted by Governor van der Stel to beautify the homesteads and streets. The residents started stock farming instead of cultivation, resulting in the rapid expansion of the colony and even further decentralisation.
During the 1690s Huguenot refugees settled in Stellenbosch and planted grapes. Soon, Stellenbosch became the midpoint of the South African wine industry, which it still is today.
Some of the best-known sights in Stellenbosch include:
- Waterford Estate
- Spier Wine Farm
- Stellenbosch University Botanical Gardens
Simon’s Town (1680)
Simonstown was established as a naval station and harbour. The town is named after Simon van der Stel, a governor of the Cape Colony. Simon’s town was established as the second harbour for Cape Town, the other being Table Bay. Many ships were wrecked when travelling to Table Bay, but the location of Simon’s Town is protected from the violent northwest gales that caused the shipwrecks.
Some of the best-known sights in Simon’s Town include:
- Boulders Beach Penguin Colony
- The Naval Museum
- Jubilee Square
The VOC had meat-trading relationships with the Khoikhoi people on the Table Bay coastline. In 1657, they searched for new trade relationships inland and found a giant glistening granite rock called “de Diamondt en de Peerlberg” (the Diamond and Pearl Mountain). This is where the name is from. Paarl means “pearl” in Dutch.
In 1687, Governor van der Stel gave the title to the first farms in the area. The following year the French Huguenots arrived and settled on farms here. Paarl’s soil and climate are perfect for farming. The settlers planted vegetable gardens, vineyards and orchards to start Paarl’s history as a wine- and fruit-producing region.
Paarl is the largest town in the Cape’s infamous Wineland region. Paarl received a lot of international media attention when Nelson Mandela, on 11 February 1990, walked out of the Drakenstein Correctional Centre in Paarl to end his 27 years of imprisonment.
This was the beginning of post-apartheid in South Africa. Mandela spent three years in the correctional centre in a private house. There is a bronze statue of Mandela outside of the prison.
The well-known sites in Paarl are:
- Nederburg Wines
- Afrikaans Language Monument
The next town in South Africa was Swellendam in October 1746. The establishment of Cape Town resulted in inland trade to where Swellendam is. Swellendam was named after Governor Hendrik Swellengrebel, the first South African-born Governor, and his wife, Helena Ten Damme.
Swellendam became the gateway to the interior of South Africa. Many well-known explorers visited the town, including François Le Vaillant (1781), Lady Anne Barnard (1798), William John Burchell (1815), and Thomas William Bowler (1860). Swellendam became the last outpost of the Dutch civilisation, and the services offered by its residents were critical.
Well-known sites and attractions in Swellendam include:
- Drostdy Museum
- NG Kerk Swellendam
- Marloth Nature Reserve
The VOC established Graaff-Reinet in 1786. The town’s name is from the then-governor of the Cape Colony, Cornelis Jacob van de Graaff, and his wife. The town’s establishment was meant to facilitate the expansion of inland trade from the Cape Colony.
Graaff-Reinet has more national monuments than any other South African city or town. You can find over 200 historic buildings and restored pre-Victorian homes in Graaff-Reinet. The town produces agricultural products, such as mohair, and has many sheep and ostrich farms.
For the best view of Graaff-Reinet, visit the Camdeboo National Park, where you can see how the town is tucked into a curve of the river.
Some of the must-sees in Graaff-Reinet include:
- The Valley of Desolation in the Camdeboo National Park
- Dutch Reformed Church, Groot Kerk
- The Reinet House
Tulbagh was established in 179 when the Dutch government gifted the area to Dutch and Huguenot settlers. The name is from Governor Ryk Tulbagh. The town still has many examples of Cape Dutch architecture and Victorian and Edwardian houses.
Some of the sites to see in Tulbagh include:
- Saronsberg Cellar
- Old Town Tulbagh
- Earthquake Museum
During the time of Governor Janssens, Captain Alberti had to select a site for a new town. He selected the Zwartkops River. They laid the town out in 1804. The town was called Uitenhage, and Captain Alberti became its first Landdrost.
Uitenhage’s name changed in 2021 to Kariega. Uitenhage is known for the Volkswagen factory located there. This factory is the largest car factory on the African continent.
Some of the best places to visit in Uitenhage include:
- Volkswagen Autopavillian
- The Railway Museum
- The Cuyler Manor Museum
The growing demand for wood and timber for transport, buildings and furniture caused George‘s establishment. The government chose George because of its access to water. The government declared George a separate district in 1811. Adrian van Kervel became the first Landdrost. The Earl of Caledon claimed the town on St George’s Day, 23 April 1811. He names the town after the reigning British monarch, King George III.
George is the second-largest city in the Western Cape after Cape Town. It is the gateway to South Africa’s Garden Route. It is the halfway point between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. The town offers many sights, such as the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe train, the Slave Tree and the King Edward VII Library.
These are the best attractions you can visit in George:
- Redberry Farm
- Outeniqua Transport Museum
- Victoria Bay
Caledon was established as a church town in 1811. It is about 113 kilometres east of Cape Town, near a mineral-rich hot spring.
The Caledon region focuses on agriculture, such as grain production. Some stock farming also takes place in Caledon.
You can visit these places in Caledon:
- The Holy Trinity Museum
- Caledon Museum
Griquatown began as a mission station in 1812. You can find the town in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. It was the first town in the country north of the Orange River.
The town is now known for its semi-precious stones, including the tiger’s eye and jasper. There are some sheep farming with dorpers, a South African breed.
Grahamstown was established as a military town in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. The town was renamed in 2018 to Makhanda in memory of the Xhosa prophet and warrior Makhanda ka Nxele.
These are some of the exciting sites to see in Grahamstown:
- Cathedral of St Michael and St George
- Kwantu Elephant Sanctuary
- 1820 Settlers Museum
Cradock was another town, initially established as a military town. The town can be found in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. The name came from John Cradock, the Governor of the Cape Colony and commander of the forces.
These are some of the best sites to see in Cradock:
- Mount Zebra National Park
- Schreiner Museum
- Cat Conservation Trust
Port Elizabeth (1820)
Port Elizabeth was started as a small trading and port centre in 1812. Its official name is Gqeberha, but locals also know it as PE, the friendly or windy city. It is the biggest city in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa.
The government of the Cape colony founded the city in 1820 when 4,000 British colonists settled in Algoa Bay to strengthen the border between the Cape Colony and the Xhosa.
The city has a warm oceanic climate and is considered one of the top cities in the world for pleasant year-round weather. The city offers several blue-flag beaches along its urban coastline.
Port Elizabeth has many offerings, including:
- Kragga Kamma Game Park
- Shamwari Private Game Reserve
- Sardinia Bay Beach
- The Addo Elephant National Park
Fort Beaufort (1822)
Fort Beaufort is another town that started for military reasons. It is located in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. The town was named after the Duke of Beaufort, father of Lord Charles Henry Somerset, the first British Governor of the Cape Colony.
These are some of the exciting sites in Fort Beaufort:
- Fort Beaufort Town Hall
- Martello Tower
- Katberg Eco Golf Resort