Cape Town’s BoKaap Quarter is the traditional home to the city’s ‘Brown people’ and one of the most enduring cultural heritage sites in the country. But plans to gentrify the area have unleashed a storm between developers and residents. Mushtak Parker reports.
Residents of BoKaap, are the forgotten people, many of whom feel left behind by the post-apartheid dispensation in South Africa. They are the country’s six million ‘Brown people’, the so-called Coloured (mixed race), Cape Malay and Indian communities – who account for 11% of the 58.1m population.
In the historical BoKaap Quarter in the Western Cape, home to generations of Cape Malays, mainly Muslim Indians and Coloureds – a place dominated by its colourful terraced houses and Islamic cultural heritage – an ugly ‘class and heritage war’, which has been festering for four years, has erupted into open hostilities.
It involves sit-down street protests; court interdicts prohibiting residents from ‘causing obstructions’ or ‘entering or trespassing sites’ and fraud and corruption allegations against the City of Cape Town in granting planning permission to a major developer in contravention of existing legislation.
An ugly ‘class and heritage war’, which has been festering for four years, has erupted into open hostilities.
In the one corner are the local residents and civic organisations, who claim to be marginalised and ignored by the Western Cape government and Cape Town City Council (CTCC), both run by the Opposition Democratic Alliance (DA). They are protesting against the gentrification of the BoKaap and demanding the preservation of their heritage.
In the other corner are the rapacious property developers, often with European connections, with their “expensive lawyers and greedy investors” (as one civic leader puts it), eyeing one of the ‘ jewels’ of the Western Cape – the BoKaap.
It straddles Signal Hill, with its proximity to the city centre and its panoramic view of Table Bay. The breathtaking coastline stretches from the Waterfront to Sea Point against the backdrop of Table Mountain, and in the distance, there is Robben Island.
What has brought things to a head is a proposed luxury high-rise condominium smack in the middle of a working-class area in Lion Street, developed by Blok Urban Developers (BUD), with plans to build 56 residential units.
BoKaap residents have long complained that they are being squeezed out by the ‘shenanigans’ (rightly or wrongly) of the CTCC through increases in rates, transport costs and utility prices.
This has forced some to sell to developers out of desperation and fears of falling into a debt trap, exacerbated by further increases and fines.
They also berate the Council for failing to consult them prior to giving BUD planning permissions, which they stress is a wanton disregard of the preservation of the religious and cultural heritage of the area, which boasts seven of Cape Town’s historic mosques – including the
Auwal Mosque in Dorp Street, which is the oldest in the country, having been built in 1798 during the first British occupation of the Cape of Good Hope.
Enter the ANC government’s Arts & Culture Minister, Nathi Mthethwa. In May, he declared 19 BoKaap sites as National Heritage Sites (NHSs) after a visit to the Quarter. “Some people had to leave BoKaap because they could not afford the life in this place.
People have lived here for hundreds of years, and because it is a working class area, somebody out there has put a burden on these people through gentrification,” declared the minister.
The South African Heritage Resources Agency subsequently recorded the new NHSs in the Government Gazette under Section 27 of the National Heritage Resources Act 1999.
Journey down memory lane
“The community and spirit of BoKaap in many historical studies has been carried through the last two centuries by generations of families living in the area. The protection of the religious, cultural and architectural heritage of the area is at the fore of community concerns. BoKaap contains the largest concentration of pre-1850 architecture in the country and is the oldest surviving residential neighbourhood in Cape Town,” explained the Agency.
The NHSs include six mosques, including the Auwal Mosque, three quarries, Tana Baru Burial Ground, the Stables Site, Spolander House, three schools including St Paul’s Primary School, Buitengracht Street Wall, two homesteads and the BoKaap Museum.
These sites are a journey down memory lane for me. I was moved when I saw the primary school I attended for seven years, St Paul’s in Bryant Street, a stone’s throw away from the ‘offending’ Lion Street development.
The BoKaap is where I grew up in the 60s in a vibrant multicultural society – warts and all – before the ravages of institutionalised Apartheid set in in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre in 1968.
While organisations such as the Bo-Kaap Ratepayers & Residents Association (BRRA), and residents, see the NHS protection as a moral victory, they fear that the battle against the developers has just begun. BUD has over 20 such developments in prime locations in the Mother City.
“The BoKaap is where I grew up in the 60s in a vibrant multicultural society – warts and all.”
Urban developers such as BUD and Prime Properties are amassing billions of rands in property portfolios. BUD is unabashed about what it stands for: “We are an advocate of urban living and the opportunities it presents.”
The Western Cape, with its stunning natural beauty, is a magnet for developers, partly driven by demand from investors in Germany, UK, France, Ireland and the Gulf states, armed with strong currencies against a beleaguered South African rand.
This contributes to property inflation of the UK type, where local residents are being squeezed out by foreigners prepared to pay higher prices in rand terms.
Social media coverage has polarised the gentrification issue too, ranging from some European investors gloating about their bargain property investments to the opprobrium of BoKaap residents. “This is what they did during Apartheid on loudhailers. This city doesn’t work for the poor. We will not be silenced by a system aimed at breaking us down! We shall not be moved,” trended a recent tweet with the handle @bokaaprise.
Gentrification and the inequality gap are universal phenomena. When the two impact communities and their heritage in an alleged collusion between big business and local government to promote ‘class apartheid’ then, in a potentially volatile political situation like that in South Africa, it could unleash an unwitting morass comprising race, religion, big business and the poor. Some fear that gentrification is also giving rise to latent Islamophobia.
During Ramadan in May, a group of new European migrant residents of District Six on the outskirts of the city centre lodged multiple complaints with CTCC against the azaan (Muslim call to prayer), which has been heard for centuries from the historical Muir Street Mosque.
District Six was the epitome of racial tolerance for generations until it fell prey to the Apartheid Group Areas Act, which declared it a ‘Whites Only Area’ and resulted in the forced expulsion of the nonWhite residents.
How expedient of BUD to sell the Lion Street development to another developer, Prime Point Properties, for R51m after Minister Mthethwa’s declaration. The new owners unsuccessfully sought a continuation of the court interdict given to BUD, preventing the community from interfering with construction.
Then there is the political dimension of the Western Cape, which has the only state assembly run by the DA, albeit the ANC, under Premier Ebrahim Rasool, did rule for a term from 2004. Some critics question the motives of the Ramaphosa government, given that the BoKaap gentrification issue has been brewing for four years.
Why have the BoKaap and its 19 locations only been declared heritage sites now, they ask?