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What is the Bo-Kaap?

Shane asks, What is the Bo-Kaap?

The Bo-Kaap is a neighborhood of Cape Town directly west of the CBD, bounded by Strand Street to the north, Buitengracht Street to the east, and Carisbrook Street to the south. The word “Bo-Kaap” means “upper Cape Town” – the neighborhood lies on the slope of Signal Hill. It’s also called Schotshekloof, and the “Malay Quarter,” and counts upper Wale St. (map) as its center.

The Bo-Kaap has a special – and controversial – place in the city’s history. In the 18th century, it was home to a large proportion of the slave population brought to the Cape from Indonesia, Suriname and Malaysia (among other places) by the Dutch East India Company; and it has remained the home of their descendants for generations since. The Bo-Kaap has the most mosques of any neighborhood in South Africa (thirteen), and its Ouwal Mosque, established in 1798, is the country’s oldest.

During apartheid, while other “non-white” neighborhoods in cities across the country were being razed (a consequence of the notorious Group Areas Act), the Bo-Kaap was left fairly intact. The contrast of its survival with the destruction of a similar neighborhood, District Six, on the other side of Cape Town, could not be more stark. Some historians ascribe its success in avoiding the wrath of the racist state to its implicit compliance with apartheid notions of racial and cultural homogeneity. District Six was a mixed place, where different religions and people mingled on a daily basis. The Bo-Kaap, on the other hand, was a sealed pocket, inclined to keep to itself, with a single, “Cape Malay” culture. While parts of the Bo-Kaap were destroyed (especially in the De Waterkant area, immediately north of Strand Street), its heart was left intact.

Today, the Bo-Kaap’s distinctiveness is under threat from gentrification. The land on which it rests, being so close to the CBD, is very valuable, and many families have sold their homes to developers. But gentrification has been slower than some had feared, and for the time being the neighborhood remains a unique, wonderfully colorful place to visit.