Cape Town – Been There

Battling to save a Cape Town community

The view from Waal Straat, Bo-Kaap, the “Cape Malay” Quarter of Cape Town. Although from many different countries, the use of Malay as a common language gave these descendants of 17th and 18th century arrivals from Asia their name – although most now speak Afrikaans as a first language.

Photo by Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Cape Town – Been There

Battling to save a Cape Town community

Bo-Kaap is a community of brightly-painted houses on the lower slopes of Cape Town’s Signal Hill. A stiff but very short climb from Cape Town’s popular backpacker haunt of Long Street, it is a popular part of any tourist itinerary.

Ian Gill
Ian Gill Writer

Bo-Kaap has some of the oldest houses in South Africa, dating back to between 1750 and 1850 and it has been home to the Cape Malay community since 1790. The colorful houses are a mix of colonial architectural features, from British Georgian windows to ornate Dutch gables. Women sit on the “skinner bankie”, or gossip bench, built into the raised patios that front most houses, greeting passing neighbors or keeping an eye on children playing in the street.

At a small café, I enjoy an afternoon snack of coffee and koeksisters, sugary doughnut twists that are a Cape Malay gift to South African cuisine. From the window, I watch a white wedding couple having their portraits taken against the rich background colors. “The houses reflect the colorful personalities of the people,” says local restauranteur Yusuf Larney. “The people are vibrant, musical, sport crazy, and they love singing.”

Bo-Kaap’s obvious appeal is also a problem. Attracted by its charm, awesome view of Table Mountain and nearness to the city center, outsiders are buying up property. As white South African and foreign buyers move in, the rates bill is soaring in line with property values and some Cape Malays are struggling to pay. While millionaires on paper, most here are remain working people. The alternative is to cash in and move to bigger, cheaper homes elsewhere.

Ikraam September, here to visit with his sister, captures both the lure of Bo-Kaap and the dilemma facing many of the new generation. Born in Bo-Kaap, he moved as an infant to his mother’s home town of Port Elizabeth where he now lives and works. “I’d come back to Bo-Kaap in a heartbeat,” he says. “If only I could find a job.”

The houses of Bo-Kaap are repainted to celebrate major events such as weddings and christenings....

The houses of Bo-Kaap are repainted to celebrate major events such as weddings and christenings. Any changes are discussed with the neighbors so that no two nearby houses end up with the same color. Photo by Nicholas Pitt / Alamy

Nicholas Pitt

Nicholas Pitt

Agency
Alamy

The houses of Bo-Kaap are repainted to celebrate major events such as weddings and christenings. Any changes are discussed with the neighbors so that no two nearby houses end up with the same color.