History

Sussex royals celebrate Cape Town’s colourful cultural bastion

After a decades-long fight for preservation, the multicultural Bo-Kaap neighbourhood welcomes its new status as a South African heritage site.Friday, 27 September 2019

By Nina Strochlic
<p>On South Africa’s annual Heritage Day Tuesday residents of the Bo-Kaap celebrated the district’s new status as an official South African Heritage site. Residents hope the distinction it received in May 2019 will help preserve the 300-year-old neighborhood.</p>

In a bright pink house in the Bo-Kaap, a colourful Cape Town neighbourhood famous for its blend of Indonesian, African, and Indian roots, Shaamiela Samodien spent Tuesday morning carefully filling cream puffs, baking apple tarts, and setting the table for tea. In the middle, she placed a traditional local delicacy: cinnamon- and cardamom-infused koeksisters doughnuts. That afternoon, her guests—the Duke and Duchess of Sussex—would arrive, sit around a table packed with Samodien’s friends and relatives from the neighborhood, and split one of her famous doughnuts.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex had tea and pastries with Bo-Kaap residents in the home of Shaamiela Samodien. Osman Shaboodien, (left) is the chairperson of the Bo-Kaap Civic and Ratepayers Association and one of the most vocal advocates for the neighborhood’s preservation.

Typically on September 24, South Africa celebrates Heritage Day. This year was different in the Bo-Kaap: in May, the neighbourhood became an official South African heritage site, which means the historic area is protected and new construction must reflect the style and aesthetic of the neighbourhood. But the commitment to preservation is juxtaposed with a rapidly gentrifying region as new shops, tall buildings, rising property taxes and increases in the cost of living invade the central business district. Residents have held tightly to their low-slung homes and heritage even as the city around them transforms with skyscrapers and high-rise apartment buildings.

To explore the Bo-Kaap’s uniquely diverse history, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle strolled past 18th century buildings, toured Auwal Mosque, South Africa’s oldest mosque, and had tea with Shaamiela Samodien. The visit—by the first multicultural British royals, no less—was rare recognition for the Bo-Kaap, which until now was an underdog in a decades-long fight for preservation. But even as the streets jammed with celebrations, community members saw a battle that’s far from won. 

The Bo-Kaap is the oldest residential neighbourhood in Cape Town. Its famous one-and two-story homes painted in crisp greens, pinks, and blues gracefully climb the hillside. It was settled in the 1700s and quickly became a hub of immigrants, poor workers, and freed slaves from places like Indonesia, Malaysia, Madagascar, and Mozambique. As the racially-divided system of apartheid whitewashed Cape Town, it stood alone as the only non-white neighbourhood in the city centre. In the years since, the neighborhood of exiles provides some of Cape Town’s hottest real estate.

The Bo-Kaap is the oldest residential neighborhood in Cape Town. The center of Muslim life, it survived apartheid as one of Cape Town’s only multicultural neighborhoods. Residents are pushing to preserve the region’s history but its close proximity to the commercial center have made it a development hub.

Years ago, when Osman Shaboodien wanted to discuss his favorite topic, neighbourhood preservation, he’d post a lookout at the window. Under apartheid, these gatherings could have landed the participants in jail. Now, he sips a latte in a cafe and talks freely about the fight to save the neighbourhood his family has called home since the 1800s. As the chairman of the Bo-Kaap Civic and Ratepayers Association, he’s spent a lifetime advocating for preservation.

That the Bo-Kaap survived apartheid at all is remarkable. Next door, a diverse, bustling neighbourhood did not fare as well. A law called the Group Areas Act required races to live separately and, in 1966, District Six was declared whites-only. Its residents were trucked to empty land on the city’s outskirts while their homes and buildings were bulldozed. Soon, the multicultural origins of Cape Town were visible only in the Bo-Kaap, which was designated Muslims-only.

Residents watched as the city funded restoration projects in other neighbourhoods but ignored the multicultural hotspot. “We always felt like Cinderella,” says Shaboodien. Without help, the historic buildings were carefully restored by residents using a system of “kanala,” a Malay word for favours, in which everyone pitched in. Residents were allowed to purchase the buildings in the 1980s and they drenched them in colour.

When apartheid officially fell, in 1994, a half century of race-based laws were overturned. South Africa’s new, free chapter meant the Bo-Kaap, just a few blocks from the commercial centre, was open for business. Its residents soon faced another battle as developers arrived with blueprints for glass and metal high rises: gentrification. 

“In 1994 if you asked how I’d see the Bo-Kaap in 10 years I’d say it would be gone,” Shaboodien says. Before the official protection that comes with being named a heritage site, the Bo-Kaap survived through the stubborn persistence of its residents. Plans to open a neighbourhood bar in 2013 were shut down after daily protests. Last year, elderly residents tussled with police to block a crane working on a high-rise project from entering the neighbourhood.

Not all the fights were won. A Hilton now greets visitors from the corner of the Bo-Kaap’s main street and foreign-owned businesses have moved in. Now, thanks to its newly won heritage status, the neighbourhood has strict guidelines on design and aesthetic. But the proximity to the centre of the city continues to make the Bo-Kaap into a magnet for development money.

“There have been lots of battles,” Shaboodien says. Still, 25 years after apartheid, the old families continue to outnumber newcomers. He compares it to Chinatown in New York—a piece of living history. “You don’t need to gentrify something to make people live in it, you need to restore it.” This requires constant vigilance.

“I love tourists but not at the expense of our community,” says Rafiq Jacobs, stepping out into the main street. Rafiq was born in District Six, but has lived in the neighbourhood for a decade. He’s part of the tourism industry—as a guide and Airbnb host—but sees the danger of becoming a quick stop on the tourist circuit. We navigate past four large groups milling up the main street and staging Instagram shots against the bright walls. “People come here and see beautiful houses but they don’t know that if it wasn’t for enslaved people there wouldn’t be the buildings you see here,” he said.

The history is not engraved on walls or written in bronze plaques. A small, four-room museum housed in a building from the 1760s tells an abridged story of the area. The neighbourhood has only a couple of older restaurants serving curries and other specialties of Cape Malay, the culture of the people who came as slaves from the east. Newer additions in the district include a few bed and breakfasts, hip cafes, and an ice cream shop.

As students spill out of the Auwal Mosque’s Sunday classes and greet Rafiq with a series of salam alaikums, we enter the 225-year-old mosque and remove our shoes. In a glass case on the wall is South Africa’s oldest Quran.

Then President of African National Congress Nelson Mandela (middle) visits to the predominantly Muslim area of Bo Kaap in Cape Town in 1992. He is met by the late author and historian Achmat Davids (left) and the late Sjeg Nazeem Mohammed (second from right) then president of the Muslim Judicial Council. Standing behind and left of Nelson Mandela is Alan Boesak, a South African Dutch Reformed Church leader who opposed apartheid. Mandela later became South Africa’s first democratically-elected president.

The Bo-Kaap’s history as a Muslim hub began in 1780, when a prince from Indonesia arrived in South Africa as a political prisoner. During the next 13 years Abdullah ibn Qadi Abdus Salam was held on Robben Island. He hand wrote this Quran while there and later founded the mosque. It is the same location where nearly 200 years later Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid leader who later became South Africa’s first democratically-elected president, would be held. For hundreds of years the neighbourhood has clung to this history.

Inside a pink arch covered in murals, lanky Tauriq Essop is packing up his food stand. Every week, he cooks a large pot of akni, a dish of lamb and basmati rice topped with yogurt and tangy pickled vegetables. He wants visitors to taste authentic Cape Town food, something a family would share for days. “It’s peasant food but my goal is to take it to the next level,” Essop says.

A woman with curly hair and a black beret walks up and fills a takeout out box. She quickly dives into the debate over new heritage protections with Rafiq. Her name is Jacky Pocking and she’s the secretary of the Civic Association. A local resident is planning to add five stories of high-end apartments to his single-story home, she says, and while the architectural design ascribes to the new protections, the building’s height will put his neighbours in a shadow, hike their taxes, and set the stage for more additions. The plans were recently approved by the South African Heritage Resource Agency. “When you say yes to this there will be another,” she says. “This is the first one to test the strength of the [heritage] declaration and so far we’re losing.”

Even with the fight for national protection behind them, there are many battles to come. Residents are tempted to sell their homes for many times more than they paid. Shaboodien says he was offered half a million dollars for his home. The Civic Association will soon petition for a building height limit of three stories, a tax deduction for residents whose rates have gone up as property values have risen, and for desperately needed low-income housing.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex listened to tales of the Bo-Kaap’s history from Shaamiela Samodien and her friends. One of the women gave Meghan a coffee table book she’d made of Cape Malay recipes and stories of the area. They met with multi-faith leaders in the mosque, signalling an embrace of the diversity for which the district is known.

That residents can protest, petition, and debate issues is so different from decades ago, when they would huddle in private homes to host meetings, and wouldn’t dare write a letter to the government. “We were part of the fight for South Africa. That’s why we’re so proud,” says Shaboodien. “The struggle continues—the struggle for a good life.”

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