ONE WORD: UNIQUE
Words Daniel George
Some places in the world can only be described in one word: unique. There can be no other comparison, as no other spot is like that one. The Bo-Kaap area above the Central Business District in Cape Town belongs to that rare category. The colourful, distinctive architecture combined with an eventful history makes this a unique area in the Mother City.
Still standing: The Auwal Mosque, built in 1794, was the first mosque in South Africa. Photo: Daniel George
'Arrogance.' 'Elegance.' Whichever word you use to portray Paris itself, it's the latter that 'Cassis, Paris' brings to us in Cape Town. Its pristine-white interior sets off beautifully crisp pastries and moist cakes, made with imported French flower. Headed by the famed Patrick Moreau, who has baked for Morocco's King Mohammed VI, Cassis is unsurprisingly 'a little bit expensive, but every once in a while, a nice treat' as customer Linda admitted with a cheeky smile. Fresh macarons with a cool, chewy centre (R6) and 'absolutely fabulous' croissants (R11) are rivalled closely by the thick, creamy cheesecake (R26), which waiter Yusuf reveals is not baked, to avoid a 'flowery taste'. Passing two hungry Frenchmen on my way out, I could safely wish them a 'bon appétit'.
'The Bo-Kaap is a part of Cape Town that has a vibrant history linked to slavery, the history of Islam and the group areas', explained Paul Tichmann, a curator in the Iziko Social History Centre. Tichmann, living in Cape Town for two years now, is responsible for the Iziko Bo-Kaap Museum. After a few minutes talking to him it is easy to recognise that his knowledge about the small residential area - less than two kilometres in length and less than half a kilometre at its widest point - is extensive. There is a lot to learn about the entire Bo-Kaap area, today home for about 300 thousand people.
The Bo-Kaap, with reference to the Malay language previously known as the Malay Quarter, basically consists of four areas: Stadzicht, Schotsche Kloof, Schoone Kloof and the Malay Quarter. Most of the houses were built in the early 19th century and are an example of Cape Dutch or Georgian architecture.Reflecting on the history
Characteristic colourful houses in the Bo-Kaap with Lion's Head in the background - a picturesque view to enjoy. Photo: Daniel George
The museum building at 71 Wale Street, also a characteristic of Cape Dutch architecture, is one of the oldest houses in the area - an adequate place to tell historical stories about the Bo-Kaap. In 1978, eight years after the building underwent restoration, the museum was established. At this time the house was already declared a national monument. Nowadays several exhibitions deal with the Islamic culture or the expansion of Cape Town and show the lifestyle of the Bo-Kaap community. 'The Museum should reflect the social history of the Bo-Kaap area', said Tichmann, 'there are various aspects of the history of Bo-Kaap and the history of Islam in the Cape is a big part of that.'First mosque in South Africa
In the 18th century the area was home to immigrant artisans and craftsmen of European origin as well as 'free black' immigrants from Asia and freed slaves. After the emancipation of the slaves in 1834, the immigrants started to leave the area and moved to suburbs. Meanwhile many of the freed slaves moved to the Bo-Kaap. The result: a mixed neighbourhood with a large number of Muslims. Slaves from the east brought the Muslim faith in and still today the majority of the population in the area is of the Muslim faith.
Places like the Tana Baru, a Muslim cemetery that was the first burial ground for Cape Muslims, or the Muslim schools (madressas) in some of the mosques are important elements of the religion. One of the most fascinating pieces of Islamic culture in the Bo-Kaap is the Auwal Mosque, which was built in 1794 and was the first mosque in South Africa. 'There are about ten mosques in the area. The Auwul Mosque is very significant. For me it brings a feeling of the struggles of the Muslim people and what they had to go through. For many years, Islam was discriminated against, but it survived and grew in spite of that', Tichmann explained, highlighting the stony road of Muslim people, who were not allowed to practice Islam in public until 1804. Afterwards they were finally able to live the Muslim way of life, creating a unique part of Cape Town with a vital and varied social life.Celebrating the Minstrel Carnival
People in the Bo-Kaap are struggling against gentrification to keep their homes and maintain the charm of this unique part of Cape Town. Photo: Daniel George
Introduced by the slaves, who originally celebrated their only day off work in the whole year on 2 January, the so-called 'Minstrel Carnival' is celebrated each year. On that day the streets are not just streets anymore, they turn into a big party place: singing and dancing everywhere, parades with carnival groups playing loud music and people wearing glittery clothes with painted faces.
'The carnival and the carnival groups played an important role in the Bo-Kaap. A lot of people still look forward it. Actually one of the exhibitions in the museum deals with the carnival', said Tichmann, but: 'There is a debate going on over the carnival today. Some people feel it is commercialised. Some people do not really see it as a part of their culture.'Against gentrification
Paul Tichmann points to an old picture of the Bo-Kaap. As a curator in the Iziko Social History Centre his knowledge about the history of the area right in the heart of the city is extensive. Photo: Daniel George
The debate over the carnival is not the only one going on in the area right in the heart of the city. For a couple of years the major issue for Bo-Kaap inhabitants is the struggle against gentrification. Some commentators within the Bo-Kaap argue that the authorities are trying to move poor people out of the city centre and a way to do that is to increase rates. Some residents complain that high rates are putting the people under pressure. Facing this financial pressure some of them were already forced to sell their properties. Furthermore, the residents, often living in the area for generations, are scared gentrification is changing the nature of the Bo-Kaap. Sadly, it seems that the struggle against gentrification will continue for a while.Tourist attraction
Regardless of the gentrification issue, the Bo-Kaap attracts a large number of tourists every day, especially to see the colourful houses, beautified by their owners. Yet not only the architecture is worth a visit. 'There are many interesting stories just waiting to be told', stated Paul Tichmann. Take your time, talk to the residents and you will discover this rare place in the world, which can only be described in one word: unique.