18/06/2018 14:16 SAST | Updated 18/06/2018 14:16 SAST

The Battle For Bo-Kaap: Gentrification Causes Uproar In The Historic Neighbourhood

'We must address the sense of alienation that many people feel, as historical neighbourhoods like the Bo-Kaap face gentrification,' said Ramaphosa.

The Bo-Kaap in Cape Town.
Corbis via Getty Images
The Bo-Kaap in Cape Town.

Wasielah Soeker grew up playing in the cobblestoned streets of Bo-Kaap, born and raised at the foot of Signal Hill just like her mother and great-grandmother.

Originally considered a township where the houses were rented to slaves, the suburb situated — as the translation of its name suggests — above the city bowl is now considered prime property.

But for three generations of Soeker's family, Bo-Kaap is simply home.

The grandmother stands firmly behind a local movement which in recent weeks staged protests against gentrification, a process described by the Oxford dictionary as "renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste".

"Gentrification is too beautiful a word of what is happening here," Soeker, 60, says from her Chiappini Street home.

"This thing is called apartheid. It's a way to get rid of people who have been living here since forever by making life so expensive and difficult that we have no other choice but to get out."

Gentrification is a difficult word to define — to the urban elite it is viewed as the rejuvenation of deteriorated urban neighbourhoods, but to the poor working class, it is viewed as the loss of generational homes and community-family ties, Rabia Parker, spokesperson for Bo-Kaap Rise, explains.

"People are moved to the outskirts of the city when their incomes can no longer cover the exponential increase of rates in their community. The cultural allure is slowly fading away, as more high-rise developments are erected with little space for the families it has displaced," she says.

"We are no longer comfortable in our roads because we have to constantly be fighting the next big development willing to destroy our sacred places. We have seen how gentrification is affecting communities all around us — Woodstock, Salt River and De Waterkant.

"It becomes more and more difficult for the working class to share in the wealth of this city, because they are always sidelined and exploited in new ways by the wealthy elite, foreign investors and a democracy that should be protecting them."

Bo-Kaap Rise was recently established to fight for the sustainability of their community and the protection of its heritage, Parker says.

"Our parents have fought this for years and so have our grandparents. We do not want to have our children fighting this exact same fight in years to come," she says.

"This fight against gentrification and [for] the protection of our heritage has been happening for decades, unbeknownst to those from outside the community. As the younger generation, we knew our activism needed to change so people would start listening.

"The Bo-Kaap community has garnered support from all over the province, and this has made the city of Cape Town come to the table to discuss the demands related to the exponential increase in private developments, high rates, affordable housing deficit and the lack of linkages into the community from tourism."

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who recently accepted an invitation to an iftaar [the communal breaking the Ramadan fast] in Rylands by the Muslim Judicial Council, also acknowledged the issue.

"We must address the sense of alienation that many people feel, as historical neighbourhoods like the Bo-Kaap face gentrification," he said during his address.

Soeker says Bo-Kaap culture, like minstrels walking the streets into the early hours of the morning, has slowly started dying out.

"Now the [city of Cape Town] gives them specific times between which they are allowed to perform. How can they do that? They are a part of this place," she insists.

Soeker opens her front door and points to a high-rise development currently under construction a road away.

"Look at this. They are literally taking my sunshine away."

Bo-Kaap is more than a suburb situated on prime property, she says.

"In the morning, I stand on my stoep and wave to greet my neighbours. We borrow things like bread from each other. We share our stories. This is a community."

Parker says what makes Bo-Kaap unique is that it is situated in the middle of "an already gentrified city".

"The colourful houses and cobbled roads attract a large number of people daily. It's a tourist hub, a bloggers paradise and a filmmaker's dream. This makes it difficult to hide the violent side of gentrification, the necessary side — the one that breaks down homes, displaces families and ransacks the land."

"When I think of this community, I do not only think of the colourful walls on the houses. Bo-Kaap is Bo-Kaap because of the families who live there, the relationships they have forged with each other, and the memories they will try to never forget.

"I can see the excitement of children playing in the road, taste the koeksisters of the aunties down the road and hear a mu'adhins call to prayer. I can actually feel the colours of the people who live here. When we call for Bo-Kaap as a heritage site, that includes its people."

There is a big difference between rejuvenation and gentrification, chairperson of the Forum of Cape Flats Civics Lester September points out.

"Gentrification is a change of character of a historically working-class area, by an influx of middle-class residents, that results in the displacement of the working class and poor residents of the affected area," he explains.

Rejuvenation, on the other hand, is a process of upgrading and is carefully managed so that the result is inclusive.

September believes that the Bo-Kaap should be declared an affordable housing zone, which is reserved for historically disadvantaged Capetonians at affordable and fair rentals, considering its history.

"We simply must have mixed-income and use developments."