The current legal battle between the Muslim residents of the Bo-Kaap and the developers of an 18-storey apartment block is just one of many that have been fought in this historic low-rise Cape Town neighbourhood. South Africa’s largest concentration of early 1800s architecture sits on prime land on the slopes of Signal Hill, just minutes from the city centre.
“Bo-Kaap” means “above the Cape” and due to its elevated position, some of the best views of the city can be enjoyed from the area. These distinctive flat-roofed, single-storey homes were mainly built for and by liberated slaves and political exiles from the former Dutch colonies of the East. Their descendants now own these houses.
The Bo-Kaap has a unique story. In 1950, the apartheid government passed the Group Areas Act enforcing segregation of different races. Under this brutal policy, overcrowded stretches of lively but lowly turf, such as District Six and Sophiatown, were bulldozed and their residents moved to land well outside the cities. In an ironic turn of events, however, an Afrikaner – ID du Plessis, Secretary for Coloured Affairs in the apartheid government – spearheaded a successful campaign to preserve what would become known as the Malay Quarter, a name recently changed to Bo-Kaap.
A writer, poet and head of the then Institute of Malay Studies at the University of Cape Town, Du Pleases argued in his 1944 book The Cape Malays (Maskew Miller) that this was an unusual and special community. He pointed out that these people had inhabited the area for nearly 200 years and should be allowed to remain there, keeping their cultural, religious and social practices intact, chatting on their stoeps and watching their children play in the street. Because of the “charm that time bestowed”, restoring the crumbling houses would attract tourists.
How right he proved to be, especially when residents began painting these lovely, mainly Georgian-style homes in rainbow colours. The end of apartheid meant that houses in the area became available to all races, and the threat of gentrification emerged. More affluent residents upgraded the properties, increasing their value and leading to higher rates and taxes. The rich began to replace the poor. The proliferation of heritage-insensitive commercial construction projects became an added and growing menace.
Osman Shaboodien, the feisty and indomitable head of the Bo-Kaap Civic & Ratepayers Association, says that instead of acting as protectors of the Bo-Kaap’s irreplaceable legacy, the City Council persists in green lighting the development of grossly over-scaled monoliths that tower over these small houses in their narrow cobbled streets.
“A recently passed municipal bylaw gives developers a free hand to build wherever they want. When we go to court, facing their large teams of lawyers and experts, the odds are stacked against us. Still, I believe the mere fact of us saying ‘no’ to these developments shows at least that the community is not taking this sitting down,” says Shaboodien. It’s an ongoing struggle, says Bilqees Baker, one of the local walking-tour guides: “We fight a lonely battle year after year against huge heritage-insensitive developments that get the go-ahead just because they have ‘legal rights to do so’. I find it very scary to think that the precedents set with buildings like these will eventually cause the loss of this historic cultural enclave.”
Like many Bo-Kaap residents, Baker is involved in tourism that’s sustainable, generates employment and has a low impact on the local environment and culture.
It provides a vital source of much-needed income. “The colourful homes that are a part of every tourism brochure are the initial attraction. But behind the colourful walls are families struggling to find employment,” she says. Many are garment manufacturers who lost their jobs when the hard reality of cheaper imports began shutting down local factories. Now they host Cape Malay cooking classes in their homes, serve meals there and even host tourists for overnight stays. Baker says it’s a pity that tour-operated buses stop for such a short time. “These tourists miss out on what Bo-Kaap is really about. Tourists on walking tours experience its sights, smells and tastes.”
Mishkah Bassadien is a Bo-Kaap resident who recently did her Master’s degree on the effects of gentrification and sustainable tourism on the Bo-Kaap. She believes sustainable cultural tourism development needs to be spearheaded by community leaders. “They should own, manage and protect cultural resources on behalf of their community. We cannot prevent gentrification from happening, but we can manage it as a community, working together and mobilising key stakeholders in the city and the Bo-Kaap.
“Bo-Kaap has evolved into an iconic cultural destination in South Africa. It contributes to a large percentage of Cape Town’s tourism GDP. These are the most photographed residential streets in Cape Town. Tourists try to capture the magnetic appeal of the Bo-Kaap – something that depends on authenticity. Development harms the delicate social fabric of any community. The enigma of the Bo-Kaap could disappear through tourism mismanagement.” With her non-profit company, The Bo-Kaap Helpers, she has launched projects that include a community garden initiative, and she’s planning more youth ventures “that uplift the culinary and physical heritage of the community without the harmful effects of foreign development of communal spaces”, says Bassadien.
Not that foreign investment here is always detrimental. In Rose Street, on the edge of the Bo-Kaap, Frenchman Yoann Nicolas and his Durban-born wife Adhere Bodasing have operated La Rose Bed & Breakfast for 10 years. Its colourful spaces perfectly capture the feel of the area. “Development is not a problem if it’s in keeping with the area’s unique historical character,” says Nicolas.
“But it’s the city’s job to look after that heritage, especially when we see how they sell the Bo-Kaap to tourists. We must control change by embracing it and having the community drive it.” Another resident, restaurateur Yusuf Larney, has a philosophical viewpoint. Unfazed by the block of flats going up next to his Bo-Kaap Kombuis, he says: “In Islam we believe in destiny. Whatever is due to you, nobody can take from you. When I bought this building I knew someone would build next door. You can’t stop development.”
Text by Prendini Toffoli
Photography by Hetty Zantman