The business of the Bo-Kaap: What gentrification does to family businesses


Haji Mohamed Dawjee and Rebecca Davis are the writers and producers of the three part podcast series, The Story Of Bo-Kaap, available on Apple podcasts and where ever you get your podcasts . Follow Haji and Rebecca on Twitter.

It was an overcast day when I popped into Rocksole Shoe and Luggage store in Bo-Kaap. The day before, I called to make an appointment with Mr Jaga, the owner, and was told that he only comes in at 1pm. I made sure I was on time. As someone who has a host of family members in the business of attire, I know punctuality is key and had I been late, the first impression I gave would have been highly negative. As it turns out, Murphy's Law found me at the counter instead - Mr Jaga was running late.

I was invited by his son to sit inside. The old school foot-stool looked comfy and the thought of resting my feet and lounging in the store while admiring the American shoes in the display cabinets did cross my mind. But I decided against it. The awkward silences between us that would definitely transpire trumped my anticipated lounging session, so I ran across the road to the Rose Street Corner Café to get a Coke instead - in a glass bottle.

There’s something nostalgic about a Coke in glass bottle from an old legacy café in a historically rich area like Bo-Kaap. Every sip seems a reminder of the inhabitants from decades past who stood on that same corner smoking their loosies, chatting to neighbours about their own businesses, the youth possibly getting up to no good, and everyone dressed to the nines in stove pipe pants and Dobson hats, probably purchased from Mr Jaga himself.




I walked back across the road and found myself on the pavement contemplating the idea that the sounds of Bo-Kaap had probably changed little over the decades.

Two men rolled a trolley down a cobbled road with folded up cardboard boxes for recycling. The sound of those wheels on the stones was no different from those of the carts that were pulled up and down those very streets more than 200 years ago: streets laid by slaves who used the leftover hardware and supplies from the Dutch ships.

Schoolchildren hung off the balconies of the houses on the side of the road, still in their uniforms, with their laces undone and shirts untucked, taking turns to run to the café for lollipops, Spoekies chips and Jive cool drinks.

But aside from the colourful flat-roofed houses, the early 19th century building behind me, Rocksole and the Rose Street Café, a lot of my surroundings seemed to hustle toward almost unrecognisable change.

With that thought, and a thirst for the past that couldn’t be quenched by my nostalgic Coke bottle, I walked back into the store to meet Mr Jaga.

Mr Jaga introduces himself formally. He’s a quiet man, precise in communication.

“My name is Badra Jaga, but everyone calls me Mr B,” he says.

“It used to be Rocksole Shoe Repairs & Shoe Store but then we separated the business.” Jaga speaks in slow, careful sentences. “Half of the business went to my brother who does the shoe repairs and I’ve taken over this side as Rocksole Shoe Store & Luggage”.

His brother’s portion of the business next door seems to garner more clientele. For that little time I sat outside I witnessed at least four to five customers walk in and out, either for a drop off or a collection.

Mr Jaga’s son is standing behind the counter. Shuffling about. He’s busy with admin. The walls and desks are filled with paper work. The phone rings now and then. I can’t make out any of the conversation but on first impression, it seems like shoe sales are few and far between. No one enters the building; in fact, it’s so quiet inside that we’re able to conduct the interview right there on the shop floor.

Things weren’t always this quiet. In fact, business used to be so good, and workers so desperately required work that many artisans and skilled labourers came to Cape Town just for steady employment, which is exactly how the Jaga family found themselves on Wale Street all those years ago.

As Mr Jaga tells me the story, he points to a faded black and white picture on the wall: “My dada, which is my grandfather, came here in 1895. They never knew the language and yet they made a go of life. Friends of his called him here to Cape Town and said to him: you come here and let’s work together”.

Mr Jaga’s grandfather was initially employed as a shoe delivery-man. He collected shoes for repairs and delivered them again. His friends told him: “You can make a success of life and you can also support your family.”

Mr Jaga’s ancestors hail from India. His grandfather grew up in a small village called Bodali, close to Surat. The little village borders the Purna river, which feeds the Arabian sea. Bodali still remains tiny, with the latest census reporting that it has a population of 2 435 with only 625 houses. Fun fact: it’s the women in Bodali who have acquired a higher literacy rate, but in the 1800s men remained the ones privileged enough to travel, get an education and seek opportunities, just like Mr Jaga’s grandfather who arrived alone before his wife and children were sent for.

Rocksole was initially situated two doors away from where it currently stands, and Mr Jaga credits his grandfather for his business’s ongoing existence.

“If it wasn’t for grandpa, we wouldn’t be here today,” he says, with a proud but short-lived chuckle.

The store existed in a time before shopping malls and store accounts, where people could walk into one place and buy everything they needed and pay it off monthly. It’s for this reason, among many other businesses there, of course, that Rocksole provided a much needed service in the community. Mr Jaga also offered lay-byes to those who couldn’t afford upfront payments.

He tells me how the business ran four decades ago: “Right up to about 40, 45 years ago we used to have a very, very thriving business selling shoes to the community. People used to want to buy it on tick, and we used to give them on a weekly basis and of course some of them got so used to us that they said, ‘Will you come and collect the money on a Friday and Saturday’, and we used to do that as well.” When Mr Jaga refers to "tick" he means people bought things on account.

It’s clear that the business operated on a trust system. I can’t imagine walking into a Woolworths for a pair of sliders and asking them to write my name down, without a telephone number, in a foolscap book alongside the total amount I owe them, and have them trust that I will be back week after week with a bit more money to add to my pot.

Furthermore, I can’t imagine calling Woolworths and saying: “I’ll be home Friday after mosque, can you come and get your R2 then”, and getting a warm response. It was a different time indeed, and even though it is quieter at Rocksole today, the same basic spirit of trust applies. Mr. Jaga still has the odd old customer who travels into town from Athlone or Rylands to purchase a pair of Bass loafers. The reason these buyers are not in the Bo-Kaap anymore is because of what Mr Jaga refers to as the Group Areas Exodus.

“You know, a lot of my customers also left due to Group Areas, and unfortunately they were then pushed to places like Athlone, Hanover Park, Heideveld… and as time went by they were shifted to Mitchells Plain.”

There’s a huge misconception that the Bo-Kaap was not affected by the forced removals of apartheid. A story I heard a lot over the years is that Bo-Kaap inhabitants were allowed to stay because its people offered services to the whites of the city. They were skilled craftsmen, tailors and skilled labourers and so they were permitted to stay in the inner city, unlike District Six.

And while this isn’t altogether untrue, the narrative that Bo-Kaap remained completely untouched by the Group Areas act is a myth. A more appropriate way to describe it would be to say that Bo-Kaap underwent a cultural cleansing during the Group Areas Act, with only those classified as Cape Malay allowed to remain, and all other inhabitants sent elsewhere.

“They wanted to move out the African people, there used to be white people in the area as well, and they manage to get them out of the area. There wasn’t a very big population of Indians but they tried to get us out from here,” Mr Jaga explains.

I mentioned before that Mr Jaga and his family is Indian, but somehow they managed to stay in the Bo-Kaap even after its classification as a Cape Malay/Muslims-only area.

He shares his secret with me: “We, together with other businesses in the area, managed to secure ourselves in this respect. We went to the department and told them: ‘Look, this is our livelihood, you can’t uproot us as far as our livelihood is concerned’. “

Mr. Jaga was told that he and the other businesses could stay on if they had a permit. So they managed to renew the permit every second year in order to maintain their trades. But the granting of permits came at an additional price.

“The chaps at the department would say, ‘Oh, you got a very nice business, my family needs shoes’, then we used to have no alternative but to also give them something in return, and, you know, it was something that we were forced to do.”

This story screams of The Godfather or any other off-the-rack mob movie you might have seen. The mafia going around to businesses and asking for free goods or a portion of profits because they’re being allowed to operate in a certain area. Without it, would permits be retracted as punishment? Mr Jaga never took the chance. His livelihood depended on the store, but his personal living situation in the Bo-Kaap became impossible.

Mr Jaga gestures around the shop to explain the architecture of their living arrangements in the past.

“We used to have a property here, right next door to the shop. We used to stay there. But our original house used to be in Rose Street… and then when my mother came from India, my dad managed to secure a room which is next to the building”.

Little did they know that while their business would remain in Bo-Kaap, they would be forced to leave their room next to the store and move to a designated Indian area – Rylands, next to other Cape Flats areas like Gatesville and Athlone.

Even though they moved, Mr. Jaga and his family remained an engaged part of the Bo-Kaap community. At the time, the schools in the area had successful rugby teams who often needed sponsorship to travel and play away games.

“When there used to be functions we used to acknowledge their functions, when there were funerals we acknowledged their funerals and sent cards and sympathised, and that is the sort of relationship we had with our customers,” he says.

In the early 90s, the Bo-Kaap underwent yet another metamorphosis. The end of apartheid signalled a new wave of tourism and the face of business changed yet again. The shifting economy changed things for Mr Jaga too. He says that the people of Bo-Kaap started shopping at inner city malls and that now, the majority of his customers are white tourists.

“We’ve got hotels around here, people have come to know of the type of business we have and the type of shoes we sell.”

Eight years before the tourism boom, Mr Jaga made a deal with a Cape Malay friend in the Bo-Kaap area who served as his nominee and moved back to his “home-town”.

He didn’t enjoy living in the Cape Flats area of the southern suburbs, and his ultimate goal was always to move back closer to town so that he didn’t have to sit in traffic and he could be closer to his shop.

“I managed to secure a piece of ground in the Bo-Kaap during Group Areas time and I managed to build a residence for me and my family,” he tells me. “The nominee had a 51% share in the property and I had a 49% share. It was a risk.”

Many property owners in the city took the same risk. Yogi’s barber shop, also a legacy business that still stands today, was also purchased by an Indian man and his family under the name of a white Jewish nominee and these businesses still thrive today.

But not all have been so lucky. Today, history seems to be repeating itself.

Those who rented in business or private capacities, who once enjoyed in the shared culture and close-knit community of the Bo-Kaap, have become victims of gentrification. Buildings are being purchased by deep-pocketed developers, rates are rising, old families are being moved out and the rich upper-classes are moving in. Many retailers have washed clean the slate of the Cape Malay culture.

Palmo Meat Market is one such example. The butchery served the community for almost 60 years and continued to have a thriving business until its very last day on 31 December 2008. Mr Jaga tells me they have now moved to Woodstock.

Unfortunately the owners of the building where Palmo once stood decided to sell, much to the disappointment of the community. An ice cream store has taken occupancy in the same building, where tourists can purchase vegan sorbet for double the price locals pay for a Gattis lolly at the café. A sign inside the ice cream store claims: "There's nothing newer than old-fashioned food."

Next to Nice-Cream, you will find a “local design cooperative”. The cooperative claims to highlight "local" talent – but the talent on display is largely the work of established hip brands with few items with Bo-Kaap roots. The closest you’ll get is a limited edition architectural illustration of the Bo-Kaap museum, for sale at R350.

At the Harvest Cafe and Deli on Rose Street you will find yourself immersed in another parody of gentrification. Aside from not being halaal, the smoothies, buckwheat salads and quinoa are a far cry from Malay food. You can also do yoga on the roof. Bo-Kaap has long been a dry community and an area populated with more mosques for its size than anywhere else in SA, but now at the deli, you can also bring your own alcohol for a corkage fee.

Worth mentioning is the Mandela-washing of the Bo-Kaap, which cleanses the area of its slave history past. At BoKaap Bazaar, there is a single book about the history of the Bo-Kaap but a vast range of Mandela-related merchandise for sale. A painting called "Mandela Celebrating the Rainbow Children" goes for a cool R15 000.

I’m keen to hear what Mr Jaga has to say on the issue of gentrification. He says, with his now customary restraint, that it’s a sad situation.

“When the new projects come up, the rates go up and each and everyone falls into that category. It makes no difference whether you can afford it or you can’t. I must agree that the [Cape Town City] Council should do something in that direction and some sort of a relief should be given to those who can’t afford it, especially to the ones who have been staying in the area for a long, long time.”

Mr Jaga tells me about his neighbour who recently sold his property, and explains the difficult position the man was in.

“He managed to sell his property for reasonably a good price and he said: 'I have been pestered to move out and my wife is no more and I’m alone. It’s a difficult situation. I would rather move out of the area, I am getting a good price and I can assist my daughter as well where she stays in the Athlone area.”

But Mr Jaga warns that once you leave the area, if you don’t have transport it means you have to sacrifice a lot of time to see your friends and keep in touch with your old contacts.

As far as the Jaga building goes, he says he would never let it go. It doesn’t make sense in the long term.

“If this is where your bread and butter is, you have to give it a very good thought. You can’t just sell for the money’s sake.”

Mr Jaga has only ever had one offer on the building. A Chinese man once asked to purchase it and he responded: “I’m sorry, my friend, it’s not for sale”.

Another legacy business in the area whose owners are adamant that they will never move is Atlas Spices. It's one of the businesses previously mentioned that applied for permits to continue operating in the area during apartheid.

You will find Atlas Trading Company on 104 Wale Street, Bo-Kaap, where it’s been located since 1946, and is famous for its potent “mother-in-law” spice.

I chatted to the director, 70-year-old Abdul Wahab Ahmed, who explained that the business was started by his father and uncle.

“The atmosphere in the Bo-Kaap at the time was indescribable,” he says.

“As a child we used to play dominoes, kerrim board - also known as mini pool on the square table - kennetjie, and bok-bok, which is leap frog with a twist. My favourite memory of the time is as a youngster: we played during the night, there was no crime, everybody ran into everybody’s houses and everybody knew everybody, that was the beauty of the time”.

Mr Ahmed speaks with nostalgia in his voice. He talks about the sense of community, how it took a village to raise a child. He tells me how, if he was naughty, because everyone knew him, he was disciplined by an elder and his father was reported back to.

“The childhood we had was fantastic,” he says. Mr Ahmed admits that things have changed, but is quick to mention that in his opinion the new white-owned businesses in the Bo-Kaap do respect the culture of the area.

“From my conversation with them they appreciate we have kept our culture the way it is. But it is changing,” he acknowledges.

But for Mr Ahmed, it seems, the more things change, the more they stay the same: “For me, moving out of the Bo-Kaap? That will never happen!”