How the Bo Kaap survived Apartheid

“Painted” against the slopes of Signal Hill, the Bo Kaap has become part of the Cape Town tourism milieu as much as Table Mountain and the Company’s Garden. The brightly-coloured houses fascinate tourists and photographers, while sporadic news flashes of unrest in the area remind locals of the existence of the Bo Kaap. But neither the purple or shade of blue of a house or the front-page newspaper story always explain the rich history that can be found as you cross the busy Buitengracht Street and step onto the cobbled roads of the Bo Kaap.

Few people are aware that the Bo Kaap area was one of the bastions against the Apartheid regime. It was the only area in the city centre that was not declared a whites-only area by the then government. Under the Group Areas Act of 1950, several attempts by the Apartheid government to “claim” the land for whites only were prevented by the community and the mosques. There is a total of 10 mosques in this area roughly between Rose, Chiappini, Shortmarket and Wale Streets. The city council attempted to build a bridge cutting through the Bo Kaap to connect De Waal Drive and Sea Point, that would have then divided the area into an upper part for white residents and a lower part for businesses. Because the government was afraid to interfere or demolish religious buildings, the 10 mosques in the Bo Kaap thwarted the government’s plans. The area was then declared a Cape Malay-only area and the incomplete bridge can today be seen at the entrance to the Waterfront.

This is the area where the first freed slaves in Cape Town came to live and make a home. It’s where Islam started in South Africa and where the first mosque was built. It’s also here where some of the great Muslim leaders in South Africa are buried.

These are just some of the facts about this area that makes for interesting reading and observation. The Bo Kaap is much more than just colourful houses and great photo opportunities (the latter is a bonus). It’s worth it to take a walk through the district, see the beauty (it also has excellent views of Table Mountain), and learn the story of the people that originally settled on this piece of prime earth.

About the bright houses, the reality may not be as colourful as some of the urban myths, it’s an eye-opener to learn how this Muslim community is fighting to keep their heritage safe. When you walk through the district, allow the brightly painted houses of the Bo Kaap to “tell” you their story. Smell the spices and taste the food, that also reveal their cultural heritage. Allow the people’s history to show who they are and what they’ve achieved.

Bo Kaap walking tours take place at 2pm and 4:20pm daily – rain or shine. For more info: www.freewalkingtourscapetown.co.za/bo-kaap-walking-tour/

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