The character of a historic quarter in South Africa’s city of Cape Town is under threat by gentrification.
The historic area of Bo-Kaap with its picture postcard pastel-coloured houses, rich cultural heritage and beautiful location overlooking Cape Town’s city centre has always been a favourite stop for tourists.
But over the past few months, the area, which adorns many of the city’s tourism brochures, has been the centre of attention following continued public protests against gentrification, characterised by a growing number of high-rise buildings and steeply rising property rates that many long-standing residents can no longer afford.
Protests have included a mass breaking of the Ramadan fast on one of the area’s main streets.
Spearheaded by Bo-Kaap Rise! – a movement initiated by the area’s youth – the protests have brought into sharp focus the residents’ grievances together with the need to maintain the historic area’s rich cultural heritage.
Dating back to the 1760s, Bo-Kaap was originally known as the Malay Quarter because it was first inhabited by slaves from Asia, as well as some from the rest of Africa, Historically, it is a Muslim area and home to South Africa’s oldest mosque, built in 1794.
The houses, a mix of Cape Dutch and Georgian architecture, run alongside steep cobbled roads.
The choice of bright pastel colours is believed to stem from an expression of freedom when the owners were allowed to buy the properties, a move that lifted the previous restriction imposed by the colonial authorities that demanded the houses be painted white.
Many of the families in the neighbourhood have been living there for generations, but despite its prime location, which offers sweeping views of Table Mountain above and the harbour area below, Bo-Kaap has never been a rich area.
But things began to change after the apartheid-era Group Areas Act, which restricted areas to a particular racial group, was abolished in 1991. The Bo-Kaap property market then opened up to rich foreigners, as well as to well-heeled South Africans from other communities.
‘Turn down prayer call volume’
Over the past two decades some of the area’s residents, unable to resist the tempting offers, have sold their properties and moved out.
Bo-Kaap Rise! spokesperson Shakirah Dramat says while she understands that people have the right to move, she believes they also have a duty to preserve their heritage.
“We need to educate people about the heritage of the area. This is why it’s important for us to keep the little bit of Bo-Kaap we have left because the reality is that over the last few decades our area has shrunk,” says Ms Dramat.
“Bo-Kaap is one of the most important parts of the heritage of South Africa. The slaves in the 1700s and 1800s are the people who built the city.
“There’s no problem with outsiders moving into our area as long as they respect the culture, this is obviously a largely Muslim area.
“There is a problem when people start calling for the volume of the call to prayer from the mosques to be turned down, when they open restaurants that serve alcohol and pork – that’s blatantly disrespectful,” she adds.
Osman Shabodien, chairman of the Bo-Kaap Ratepayers Association, is also quick to dismiss suggestions that protests are trying to maintain a sense of cultural exclusivity.
“For decades Bo-Kaap has been multi-cultural and we haven’t had any problems,” he says.
“Many of us attended the St Paul’s Parish school, the St Monica’s Maternity Hospital was donated by the church – there’s been Muslim, Christian and Hindus staying in the area for all the years.
“Gentrification doesn’t have colour, it has money and attitude that doesn’t tolerate other people’s cultures.”
CREDIT: All images used in this report, except otherwise indicated above, including the cover photo was taken and own by Getty Images.
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