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Bo-Kaap and gentrification: a call to save a living heritage

Bo-Kaap and gentrification: a call to save a living heritage
February 11, 2019
February 11, 2019 February 11, 2019

SHAFIQ MORTON

IN the 18th century, it is recorded that free Blacks, Southeast Asian exiles and former slaves were amongst the first inhabitants of Bo-Kaap, a residential area situated on the lower slopes of Signal Hill, overlooking the Mother City.

Bo-Kaap is now prime real estate, but in those days it was where the working-class of the city lived.

By the 19th century they had also moved into Long Street, Loop Street, parts of Green Point and across the city centre, while others had gone to the newly-built District Six, near Devil’s Peak.

Indeed, the detail is often neglected that District Six was once an organic extension of Bo-Kaap, an inner-city belt of multi-racial working-class people that used to stretch from Signal Hill to Woodstock, which was a fishing village until its expansive beach was destroyed by the city council.

By the mid-19th century, areas such as Observatory and Salt River came into play as the CBD expanded eastwards.

Several outlying villages such as Constantia, Diep River, Mowbray, Rondebosch, Newlands, Claremont, Simonstown, Bishopscourt and Kalk Bay all had historical multi-racial populations, too.

With the Group Areas Act of the 1960s, District Six and the multi-racial neighbourhoods were obliterated but historical ‘grey’ pockets of Salt River, Woodstock and Bo-Kaap remained.

These communities survived until the gentrification push of the 2000s, I think, simply because white capital had no interest in them.

They became bubbles of quasi-normality in a society artificially divided by apartheid. They were little time-warp bubbles that gave us reassuring reminders of our socio-ecological heritage.

In other words, until 1994, these areas were all that was left standing of Cape Town’s urban working-class history. To say that their value should be priceless, in terms of tradition, architecture and urban ecology – as these people built our city – is an understatement.

To be sure, the burning issue at hand is ‘gentrification’, a process where depressed neighbourhoods supposedly get ‘uplifted’ by middle-class development.

Granted, gentrification is a phenomenon not just confined to South Africa, and that if holistically and sympathetically applied with existing communities in mind, there can be overall good.

However, in Cape Town, gentrification has become a phenomenon that merely creates opportunities for a select few or, as District Six activist Anwah Nagia describes it, ‘the maintenance of the status quo largely based on the apartheid past’.

This recalibration of apartheid’s spatial geography in Woodstock and Salt River has totally devastated existing grey communities, unable to afford the now extortionate municipal rates or the skyrocketing rents.

Woodstock, gentrified chiefly by four young, white men, has seen the people of Gympie Street and Bromwell Street, for example, cruelly evicted and confined to the corrugated iron, crime-ridden slums of Blikkiesdorp and Wolwerivier.

The key point here is that the Cape Town City Council, embracing market-force neo-liberalism – which only looks at bottom-line profit – has totally forgotten about the value of human investment.

The poor and elderly of Woodstock, for example, should not have been forced out of their homes of decades – they should have accrued benefits from the developments, which should have been more integrated in meeting the real needs of the city – as opposed to catering only for moneyed elites.

Indeed, the gentrification process, reinventing ‘separate development’ economically, is as heartless as the Group Areas Act. In simple English, it is forced removal, a violation of human rights – and not ‘market forces’ or ‘progress’, as some of the developers have so glibly suggested.

Bo-Kaap, however, is slightly different in that, according to the South African Heritage Resource Agency (Sahra), it has been declared a provincial heritage site.

In other words, the buildings within the area are protected but its fringes and people are not. And therein lies the rub.

Apart from crippling rates (indigent rebates only apply to dwellings below R1 million), Bo-Kaap residents that survive have not only had to face hordes of tourists with no community benefits but also foreign buyers insensitive to their culture and city authorities tone deaf to their needs.

For the Bo-Kaap, gentrification is like a bulldozer, reducing to historical rubble three-hundred years of culture.

It begs the question: why has the City Council not considered special rebates for long-standing, multi-generational residents in Bo-Kaap, Salt River and Woodstock – or must the god of neo-liberalism rape the goose?

Shaikh Dawood Terblanche, an imam and educator, believes that Bo-Kaap should be declared a ‘living heritage’ site, with the heritage extending to the equally historical overlay, which is the surrounding area.

This is the critical point.

The fringe, encroaching on the centre like a mediaeval siege, is being blighted by environmentally unsympathetic, white capital developments that the community does not want.

Since 1994, the city authorities have done little to take Bo-Kaap seriously other than to patronise it as a quaint historical relic and punish it with unpayable rates.

Indeed, they have been grossly disrespectful to the heritage of the area, which still flows through the veins of its sons and daughters.

Dorp Street, for instance, is where Coridon of Ceylon bought his house that became our first mosque.

It is where our first school was founded by Tuan Guru, a school that had more pupils and graduates than the nascent University of Cape Town.

Then there is the pool, built by Paay Schaapie, still observable on the Tana Baru, where Tuan Guru, Tuan Sayyid Alawi, Shaikh Abu Bakr Effendi and Saartjie van de Kaap, lie buried.

In fact, we could go on for thousands of words mentioning the varied historical characters, features, faiths and buildings of Bo-Kaap.

Bo-Kaap represents a human history, and its heritage, as Shaikh Dawood points out, is a living one.

From these humble houses, emerged those who would invent Cape Dutch architecture; those who with their bare hands would chip, chisel and, brick by brick, build Cape Town, while oiling its machinery, sewing its garments and serving its madams and masters.

We simply cannot forget these souls who rose above slavery, exile, racial discrimination and poverty to become South Africa’s oldest urban working-class community.

It is from their sweat that we have doctors, dentists, scholars, judges, sportspersons, ambassadors, businesspeople, artists, activists and cabinet ministers in our midst today.

If we allow the authorities to forget our ancestors, we will ultimately forget who we are.

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