CAPE TOWN, South Africa — In the small, colorful community of Bo-Kaap, people with cameras snap photos in every street. It’s an Instagram favorite. Curious tourists amble between the narrow roads, posing against the brightly painted homes. Occasionally, some of the 10 mosques in the area will echo the sound of the call to prayer.
But as the streets bustle outside, residents inside the homes of this intimate community have found themselves caught in the tension between holding on to a history they treasure and welcoming the developments that knock on their doors.
Bo-Kaap is an old community that faces a modern conundrum. As youngsters protest against the tourism and the subsequent burgeoning gentrification that has ripped through the community, some of their mothers or grandmothers will be in the kitchen cooking meals for the tourists or potential foreign investors who will pay for a bite of a local curry.
Tourism and foreign investment have taken their toll here. Hotels, Airbnbs and apartment blocks are beginning to spread through the area, which is conveniently located on the higher slopes of in the inner city and boasts a panoramic view of the cityscape below it. As more wealth comes into Bo-Kaap, the property taxes are increasing, and anxious residents are fearful that they will lose their homes because they can no longer afford to live in the area.
Faldela Tolker, 52, has found a way to use the increased business in Bo-Kaap to her advantage — and it has enabled her to afford to stay in the home she loves.
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Tolker has seen this community change in the 28 years she has lived here. The good old days were 10 years ago when her property levies cost 300 rand ($20) per month, she said. Now she is paying upwards of 2,000 rand ($135). Many of Tolker’s neighbours around the community have had to sell their homes.
As the only breadwinner in her family, Tolker carefully dresses a long table in her modest living room with some of her best plates. During most days of the week, tourists from around the world can join her in her kitchen as she cooks a meal. She was one of the first in Bo-Kaap to do cooking demonstrations, and her business, Cooking With Love, has even been featured on local television.
“We will always support the community around us. Even though I can make the koeksisters [a local syrupy donut], I will support the lady that sells the koeksisters. I will go to Atlas shop down the road for spices, or go to Rose Corner for potatoes and green pepper,” she said.
This is Tolker’s resistance, and her determination to remain in Bo-Kaap is to protect the heritage she believes lives on in each resident of her community.
Bo-Kaap wasn’t always such a tourist attraction. In the 1800s, slaves from Indonesia, Malaysia and other parts of Asia lived in the area. Some slaves were Muslim, and they spread the word of the Qu’ran across Bo-Kaap.
The first mosque in South Africa was built in Bo-Kaap. While the mosque remains, the properties around it have changed. A building opposite offers a “design-led, high quality work space” in a sleek grey structure with tinted windows. It’s a sign of the gentrification that has crept into a neighborhood where gossip spreads fast and neighbors fight like siblings.
Rashida Emeran, 57, remembers choosing to paint her house a bright yellow, with green overtones, in 1997. The Emerans believe that they were the first in their road to paint their house a bright color. But with the success of the colorful house in the area, almost every resident in Bo-Kaap has tried to claim the idea as their own. Emeran laughingly acknowledges it.
“I chose that color because it was fashionable at the time. You know, every year there’s a color that’s in fashion, and people want that color clothing. I saw the color on a paint swatch and I wanted it,” she remembers.
The Emerans were surprised by the boom that hit Bo-Kaap when the houses appeared on postcards, in movies, music videos, advertisements or even on Facebook.
But with the fame has come a burden. The Emerans and Tolker sometimes peek out the window before they leave their homes, fearful a tourist will snap them unawares.
“Some of the tourists can be very arrogant, unfortunately. They will come stand on your stoep [porch] without your permission and they will take a photo of you without asking,” Tolker said.
In May this year, youngsters under the banner of Bo-Kaap Youth burned tires to barricade the street just a few blocks from Tolker’s house during rush hour traffic. Their demand was that Bo-Kaap be zoned by local government as a heritage protected area and that regulations be established to stop tour busses from blocking traffic in the narrow streets.
Aneeqah Solomon, a spokeswoman for Bo-Kaap Youth, has said that the movement is trying to assist the community, but at times the community has also fought against itself.
“With the [latest] developments going up around us and some people getting new jobs, the community isn’t the way it used to be. There are those who feel like they made it in life, who are neglecting the community. They are still living in the community, but they are distancing themselves from others who live in the area,” she said.
Many residents in Bo-Kaap face a choice to stay in the area or to sell up, take the money and leave.
Achmad Taylor, who inherited his home from his parents, had to make this decision in December 2017. A German couple offered him 3.5 million rand ($235,000) for his house, which may have only been expected to cost 250,000 rand ($17,360) 10 years ago. Taylor said no.
Tolker had a similar offer, from a Spanish couple who wanted to write a cheque for more than what was offered to Taylor. An envelope had been left under her front door.
“This guy said to me I can buy a big house with a swimming pool. I told him: ‘Why don’t you go buy that? I must sell my culture, my traditions and my community to you people? Are you crazy?’” she said of the offer.
But there are families who have sold their homes in Bo-Kaap, because the money is tempting. There are others, too, who simply could not afford to live in the area, and found themselves drowning in bills, suffocating under the pressure to survive in a rapidly developing community.
Mercy Brown-Luthango, a senior researcher at the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities, said that in recent years, communities across Cape Town — such as in Woodstock and Maitland — have experienced gentrification as developers and businesses move in.
“Gentrification has started as a process of urban renewal and trying to upgrade these areas as a way of making it more attractive to people. It also works as a way for local government to boost revenue through property taxes. So, it’s trying to improve areas, but this isn’t the problem — it’s rather the fact that it leads to this displacement and exclusion of certain people which is a problem,” she said.
Brown-Luthango said that in order to mitigate the consequences of gentrification, the government needs to drive policies that protect communities from being “displaced.”
Local government in Cape Town said that parts of the area, including homes, have been given heritage status and are protected. The City of Cape Town has also already committed to a number of affordable housing projects in at least three areas around the inner city.
“The city is committed to mitigating the displacement impacts of gentrification, and the provision of social housing in well-located areas is a key focus of the restructured housing approach in the city,” said Brett Herron, the City of Cape Town’s representative for urban development.
But trust in the government is low. Tolker, and many residents in the area, feel that gentrification is the government’s method to force locals out and make way for big money developers and investment. Residents, like Tolker — who was forcefully removed from the historic close-knit community of District Six during apartheid — liken the impact of gentrification to the forced removals of apartheid.
“Because they can’t do to us what they did in District Six, now they put our rates and taxes and everything up to push us out so we cannot afford to live here, and we have to sell and just move,” she said.
Tolker believes that Bo-Kaap is built on the people who live in it. Without the families who have lived there for generations, she said, the community would lose its heritage.
“This is the cradle of Islam. It is where I raised my family. It is where I put my head down at night. Money is not everything. When a person dies, everything they own stays behind. It’s about what you believe in and I believe that a person should fight for their rights even if they stand alone,” she said.
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