The brightly painted Bo-Kaap can be found along the lower slopes of Signal Hill. The name Bo-Kaap is loosely translated from Afrikaans- to above Cape in English. It is a major tourist attraction since the homes are beautiful and this makes it a perfect photo spot for locals and tourists. A quick search for #bokaap returned 126k posts on Instagram. But, just because it’s a popular place doesn’t mean people know about the community’s history, resilience, and challenges.
So let’s delve briefly into the history. Construction began as early as the 1760s and the area was a slave community. Among the slaves brought over to South Africa were craftsmen, religious leaders, scholars, convicts, and political exiles. People from royal families were also shipped to South Africa. One of the first Muslims to arrive in the country was Iman Abdullah Ibn Kadi Abdus Salaam also known as Tuan Guru (an Indonesian prince and scholar). He was a “state prisoner at the time. People from The Philippines, Indonesia, West Africa, and other countries were brought to the Cape. This diverse group of people and cultures set the foundation of what today is known as the Cape Malay community. Today the Bo-Kaap is predominantly home to Cape Malay people who have faced religious and political persecution. They were not allowed to speak their language or practice Islam.
” Muslim slaves at the Cape Colony were prevented from practicing their faith in public . This was prohibited by Dutch colonial law until 1795. The Muslims were, however, permitted to practice their faith at home. The practice of home-bound religion consolidated the strength of families as well as the Muslim community”Source: Jaco Beyers, from:http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222016000100004
To be close to their places of employment, freed slaves, skilled laborers, and other working-class people relocated to the Bo-Kaap. People from West Africa, China, the Philippines, Italy, and Portugal coexisted there, making it a multicultural area.
The Group Areas Act changed the racial diversity of the Bo-Kaap. It was an apartheid law created to separate communities along racial lines. There were Ghanaians, Italians, and Chinese people living there and that was a threat to the Apartheid state. The Bo-Kaap was made a Muslim-only area under the Group Areas Act of 1950, which also ordered residents of other faiths and racial groups to leave the area. In 1957 the force removals started.
“The most shocking finding was that Bo-Kaap wasn’t just Cape Malay Muslim people which is what we know it as, before then it was racially diverse”
Haji Mohamed Dawjee, AuthorSource: https://www.capetalk.co.za/articles/361627/why-was-bo-kaap-allowed-to-remain-despite-apartheid-group-areas-act
I have often wondered why the Bo-Kaap was not demolished like District six was. Some say it’s because of all the religious sites. The Apartheid government didn’t demolish places of worship. In fact, the church of District six still stands even though the homes were destroyed. Others say the Bo-Kaap was used as a smoke screen to display to the world that the regime was kind, given that they allowed Coloured people to live in an area that was considered prime property. There are also claims that an Apartheid official named Du Plessis helped maintain the Bo-Kaap. Du Plessis thought himself to be an ethnographer of “Malay culture,” and starting in the 1930s, he started publishing his “research” on Malay culture. He used community leaders as his informants. The state at the time was defending Islam and those who practice it, according to these imams. According to historian Shamil Jeppie, Du Plessis’ work with some Cape Muslims had an effect on Islam at the Cape and in South Africa by highlighting its roots in Indonesia at the expense of Africa.
There has never been a land restitution claim by anyone who was forcefully removed from the area. Black Muslim people were also forced out as Coloured were seen as a separate race group under Apartheid. The strong Muslim culture, Islamic practices, and the abundance of Mosques in the area make many people think that the area was only ever home to Cape Malay Muslims when actually the multiculturalism of the Bo-Kaap was erased by Apartheid.
The roofs of the Bo-Kaap houses were thatch roofs. However, these roofs are prone to burning if a fire occurs and were eventually replaced. The Cape Dutch and Cape Georgian architectural styles, which have a lot of similarities in character, predominate in the area. The windows, fanlights, doorways, and parapets serve as the building’s unifying features. They had a Cape Dutch design and proportions, and later, during British rule, the Georgian style and Adam proportions appeared. Many houses retain these features today. The Georgian era also saw the usage of the Cape Dutch style, and these two styles eventually blended to create their distinctive appearance. Read more here: https://www.theheritageportal.co.za/article/history-and-style-bo-kaap#:~:text=The%20housing%20is%20made%20up,stoep%2Dseats%20at%20each%20end.
Why are the houses painted the way they are? There really is no explanation. There are lots of stories. Some claim the houses were painted vibrantly after slavery ended in celebration. Then there are other claims that drunk residents painted it this way. Which is a silly lie since drinking is taboo amongst Cape Malay people. Then others say it was painted to celebrate the release of Nelson Mandela whilst it sounds great, it’s also not true. The painting of the homes only started relatively recently and it seems to be something the residents just enjoy doing. There’s no particular reason why.
Gentrification is threatening the way of life of local residents who have lived in the Bo-Kaap for generations. Homes are being bought by real estate developers and are turned into B&Bs, hotels, ice-cream shops, etc. This has driven up the bond (mortgage) and rates payments which leads to residents having to sell and leave their homes. The most distinctive feature of all the new businesses is that they don’t have any aspects of their businesses that highlight or celebrate Cape Malay culture. And they do not give back to the community in any way either. Community action and protests have occurred in response to gentrification. I’m unhappy about the gentrification but, it is heartening to see a community come together and cooperate to protect long-lasting traditions.
I understand that areas need to be developed but the manner in which it is being done in the Bo-Kaap doesn’t sit well with me. Residents are often not consulted by construction companies. Massive hotels and office buildings that would take away from the overall aesthetic of the area have been proposed. There’s tension over the sale of alcohol in the area since most residents are mostly Muslims and liquor consumption is strictly prohibited in Islam. Read more here: https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/lifestyle/2011-06-26-bo-kaap-says-no-thanks-to-booze/ The Bo-Kaap also has narrow streets and honestly there just isn’t enough parking spots to sustain the influx of traffic which will be caused by huge buildings being erected.
In March 2019, after four years of fighting, the Bo-Kaap was finally granted heritage status. This grants it protection from overzealous developers. Some of the goals of the heritage status include:
- to conserve the Bo-Kaap by encouraging owners to retain and rehabilitate existing residential buildings;
- to protect streetscapes;
- to ensure that new developments and alterations to existing buildings complement the historic urban landscape; and
- to promote the social and cultural traditions and practices where people live outwardly, on the stoeps and sidewalks.
Although the heritage status has been awarded developers who were granted building permits before the status was granted are still allowed to build there.
The Bo-Kaap museum
If you ever get a chance to visit The Bokaap please don’t miss the Bo-Kaap museum.
It provides insight into the lives of people living in the Bo-Kaap. The museum itself used to be a house. Its construction can be traced to the mid-18th century. It is also the oldest house in the area still in its original form.
Address: 71 Wale Street, Bo-Kaap
Check out the historic sites
There are ten Mosques in the area, that’s a lot. The Auwal Mosque is the oldest in Cape Town. You can check it out at 43 Dorp Street. It is also home to a handwritten copy of the Quran written from memory alone by Tuan Guru. You are allowed to enter the Mosque just remember to be respectful and dress modestly. It’s a place of worship after all. To learn more about the Mosques in the vibrant Bo-Kaap follow this link: https://mosqpedia.org/ar/mosque/312
If you want to know even more about the history take yourself on an audio tour. Download the audio tour. It has a small download fee and you can listen to it here: voicemap.me/tour/cape-town/bo-kaap-walking-tour
Free Walking Tours In Cape Town is a company that provides tours twice a day departing from Church Square on Parliament Street. Starts at 14:00 and 16:20, Read more: https://freewalkingtourscapetown.co.za/
You can also download the GPSmyCity which is a free tour app https://www.gpsmycity.com/tours/bo-kaap-quarter-walking-tour-3062.html
Try the food
You should have a Cape Malay-style koesister or two while in the Bo-Kaap which you can buy at many of the tuckshops, (corner store-like shops) with red signs on them. There’s a place opposite the Bo-Kaap museum where you can buy freshly made koesisters. It’s called Rose Cafe’ and it is located on Rose Street. Get there before 1pm they tend to be sold out super fast.
If you are still hungry go have a tasty meal at the Bo-Kaap Kombuis. The restaurant serves traditional Malay food. It also boasts brilliant views of the majestic Table Mountain the penultimate symbol of Cape Town. To find out more click here:http://www.bokaapkombuis.co.za/
Biesmiellah Restaurant is another locally owned restaurant that is on the same street as the Bo-Kaap museum. Find them at 2 Wale St & Pentz St Bo-Kaap, Schotsche Kloof, and their website link is: http://www.biesmiellah.co.za
Learn more :
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Wishing you many happy travels!
Please note all the images were shot by me unless stated otherwise in the caption section. If you wish to use them for non-commercial purposes feel free to do so.
2 Comments Add yours
Those houses are beautifully painted. It looks like a really lovely area. It’s unfortunate that more money coming into an impoverished area often means the most vulnerable residents end up suffering, rather than benefiting.
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That’s true luckily the local residents are continuing to protest.