Residents of Bo Kaap feel they are being pushed out – and blame the DA-led City Council who are pandering to aggressive white developers, writes Shafiq Morton.
In the late 1790s, Imam ‘Abdullah ibn Qadi ‘Abd al-Salam decided to lead the congregational Friday Jumu’ah prayers in a quarry at the top of Chiappini Street in Cape Town. The imam, of course, was Tuan Guru.
There had been uprisings in 1712 at Constantia and in 1751 on Robben Island, which had been brutally put down. But what made Tuan Guru’s resistance different was that it was the first time the nascent Bo Kaap community had collectively acted against its marginalisation without censure.
The VOC had been ousted in 1795, and the new English overlords, more concerned with establishing power in a geo-politically nervous part of their empire, were not that interested in the Muslim community.
In 1800, Tuan Guru (via Frans van Bengalen) had applied for and received permission to build a mosque from English governor, Sir George Yonge, but his approval had been vetoed in the Burgher Senate.
When the Dutch came back in 1803, General Jan Willem Janssens gave the go-ahead for a mosque in Dorp Street. However, the Batavian administrators needed the assistance of the Muslim community to defend the Cape against the British. The mosque site was granted on this condition – that the Muslims enlist.
The Bo Kaap developed into a working-class urban space where free blacks, former slaves and exiles coalesced into a community with a Southeast Asian (and not ‘Malaysian’) flavour – this due to the influence of the Indonesian political exiles.
The Bo Kaap, which grew into a single community from its varied origins, was bypassed by the Group Areas Act of the 1960s, which made it a silo, and a living reminder of our past. If one wanted to know what Cape Town would have been like sans Verwoed, the Bo Kaap – and pockets of Salt River and Woodstock – were reminders of what apartheid stole from us.
And now, over 220 years since Tuan Guru held his first jumu’ah in the quarry and 24 years after democracy, the Bo Kaap community and its diverse culture faces extinction. This will happen if the high-rise developments, the unaffordable rates, the lack of amenities, the insensitive invasions of tourists and the paucity of housing for Bo Kaap people, are not seen to.
After objections to surrounding schemes creating an unwelcome shadow over the Bo Kaap, blocking views and eroding existing living space, the youth of the Bo Kaap – tired of their elders being ignored – took to the streets this Ramadan, burning tyres and blocking off Wale Street, the entrance to the Bo Kaap.
Earlier this year, young people had started a movement called Bo-Kaap Rise, realising a need for more focused dissent. “Older people have been fighting this (gentrification) for a long time. We have a different approach…we are very vocal and we’re not scared to stand up in a way that is going to get attention,” said Shakirah Dramat, one of its founders, in a radio interview.
Comedian Yaseen Barnes, who has family in the Bo Kaap, told the media that while the City of Cape Town loved “putting the Bo-Kaap on postcards”, it was not supportive of attempts to preserve the community at all.
Shaykh Dawood Terreblanche, a scholar from the Bo Kaap, told President Ramaphosa at his recent meeting with the Cape Muslim community, that the Bo Kaap should be declared a living heritage. The president agreed.
At issue for the people of the Bo Kaap, and other inner city communities, has been the DA-led City Council’s pandering to aggressive white developers, and its insensitivity to the real needs of those, mostly non-white, who have lived close to the city for generations.
Its neo-liberal, market-force at all costs policy, has devastated communities who can no longer afford the rates and costs foisted upon them by the Council, whose much-trumpeted indigent policies simply don’t apply to many of those in the CBD.
For chairperson of the Bo-Kaap Civic Association, Osman Shabodien, the past 20 years has seen the community getting increasingly angry at being ignored. Whilst welcoming the efforts of ward councillor, Brandon Golding, to address some of the issues raised after the recent protests, Shabodien said their demand was that the developments had to stop.
To raise awareness after the protests, the people of the Bo Kaap decided to hold a mass iftaar in Wale Street by blocking off the road and bedecking it with white sheets. This taking over the street was a moment as historical as Tuan Guru’s utilising the Chiappini Street quarry for jumu’ah in the 1790s.
The first iftar, held on a Friday evening was such a success, it was held a second time, attracting a large crowd, despite the cold weather. And like with Tuan Guru, the city authorities did not intervene.
“The City needs to understand that we cannot be punished because we live in the Bo Kaap. Because of Council’s don’t give a damn attitude, they only see one class of people living here, and that’s the rich,” said Shabodien at one of the mass iftars arranged by the community in Wale Street, where support was given by the Claremont Main Road mosque and the Palestine Human Rights Centre.