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#KnowYourLand: Bo-Kaap's heritage is as colourful as its buildings

Published Sep 2, 2018


Cape Town - Bo-Kaap. A neighbourhood filled with rich history, culture and now, controversy, as the current residents fight against gentrification and price hikes.

The Bo-Kaap was formerly known as the Malay Quarter, as it has been the home of Cape Town’s Muslim population since the eighteenth century.

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The buildings are only one of the things that make Bo-Kaap utterly unique, with its vibrancy and colours the subject of photographs and movie sets. The houses are a melting pot of Cape Dutch and Cape Georgian architectural styles combined with an Islamic influence.

So why are the buildings so colourful? It is unclear, but it is believed that when Bo-Kaap residents bought their houses, they decorated their homes with bright colours, as an expression of individualism. After apartheid ended, they painted their houses in bright colours as a celebration of their freedom.

The first residents of Bo-Kaap arrived from Indonesia, Java Malaysia, as well as other parts of Asia. They were slaves, political exiles and convicts. But there were also skilled craftsmen, religious leaders and scholars who passed on their knowledge to future generations.

Due to its strong culture and Islamic influence, there are three kramats (Muslim Shrines) on Bo-Kaap, for Tuan Nuruman, Tuan Sayeed Alawse and Tuan Guru. These are the burial sites of three prominent early Cape Muslim Imams, known to some as the Saints of Islam. There are also two kramats on Signal Hill.

The kramats are very important to the Bo-Kaap and the Muslim community and residents often go to the shrines to pay their respects. 

Hundreds of years later, and traces of Indonesian vocabulary can still be heard in the Bo-Kaap and the Muslim population dialects such as “tramakassie” from the Indonesian word 'terima kasih' which means thank-you and “kanalah” which means please.

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Today, Bo-Kaap is on knife's edge as residents fight against gentrification, price hikes and evictions.

Video: Yasmine Jacobs/IOL

Residents have expressed concern over the gentrification and congestion caused by tour buses. Because of its prime location, there are plans to build a number of upmarket hotels, shops and residential units, which have brought residents of the historic enclave into conflict with the City of Cape Town. 

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Late last month residents failed in their court bid to stop the development of a mixed-use retail and residential property which is believed to be valued at around R1 billion. Despite more than a thousand objections lodged against it, the City approved the development in mi-2016.

In recent months, residents have been engaging in sporadic protests against these plans to develop their neighbourhood which they say will irrevocably change the character of the area.

"It's important for us to save Bo-Kaap while we still can and we need to salvage what is left of our land and our cultural heritage," said resident and Bo-Kaap Youth activist Aneeqah Solomon.

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There is also growing concern over "an inaccurate explanation of the cultural heritage given when strolling through the area".

Shakirah Dramat, the spokesperson for Bo-Kaap Rise backs Solomon's argument. 

"The people here are the culture, are the heritage, are the feeling, and that feeling is being sold out, a million rand at a time. And when that feeling has completely disappeared, will we still be left with the Bo-Kaap? Or will we just be yet another gentrified suburb?"


* This story forms part of the #HighSchoolsQuiz study material. Click  here for more #HighSchoolsQuiz stories.

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