Bo-Kaap's complicated history and its many myths


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.

Most people in Cape Town probably think they have at least a vague idea of the history of Bo-Kaap – particularly in light of the area's current contestation around gentrification and identity. It's a predominantly Muslim area above Buitengracht Street, originally home to slaves, famed for its unique brightly-painted houses and cobbled streets. Right?

Sort of. In reality, though, the Bo-Kaap’s history is more complex than is generally realised. Myths about the area’s past have tended to swirl around it, and, in some cases, been lovingly maintained. As with most things South African, there’s more nuance to the real picture than we see at first glance.

To get to grips with the area’s past, I decided to start at the same place as thousands of tourists to Cape Town every year: by taking one of the many walking tours led by guides in the CBD. I wanted to hear for myself what version of the Bo-Kaap’s past was being fed to tourists – and given that these tours are free, and not led by esteemed professors of local history, I was sceptical in advance.

We gathered on St George’s Mall, a pedestrian area in the city centre, on a recent Friday afternoon: about eight of us, the majority of whom were young German couples. Up Wale Street we trotted, accompanied by a brief biography of the man who gave his name to the street: Jan de Waal, the Dutch East India company official who built a number of the first residences in the Bo-Kaap as huurhuisjes – rental homes – for Cape Town workers.

Our guide pointed out that the Bo-Kaap used to be much bigger than it is today, stretching from the slopes of Signal Hill down to what is now De Waterkant – one of the most expensive suburbs in Cape Town after falling prey to gentrification to a degree that the Bo-Kaap continues to resist.

Though the Bo-Kaap today stretches just two kilometres in length and less than half a kilometre in width, it has maintained a significance disproportionate to its size. Our guide took a stab at explaining why.

“What makes it such a unique area is that there are 6 000 residents, of which about 95% are Muslim,” she said.

“South Africa’s got a population of 54 million people, of which ... only 1.5% are Muslim. So that’s what makes the Bokaap such a unique area.”


Some of those figures are slightly dubious, but the tour guide was here reflecting a widespread belief about the Bo-Kaap: that much of its unique character stems from the fact that it has been an Islamic enclave since its establishment over 200 years ago.

This was a claim I found all over, including in well-respected academic journals.

One such paper from 1975 states: “The Malay Quarter, known by some as ‘Bo-Kaap’ and built largely by and for the artisans of Cape Town between 1790 and 1825, was subsequently occupied by people of the Moslem [sic] faith.”

This is partly true, but it’s not the whole truth.

The man who is regarded by many as the foremost historian of the Bo-Kaap, Dr Achmat Davids – who died in 2012 – did more than anybody to piece together the real history of the area, including using archival street records which reflected the inhabitants of the Bo-Kaap in time gone by.

Davids’ conclusion? That Bo-Kaap was never home to any one homogenous ethnic or religious group before apartheid.

This is borne out by the information carried by the Bo-Kaap Museum, which today is housed in what was once the home of Jan de Waal on Wale Street.

When De Waal built the first houses for rent in the Bo-Kaap in the 1780s, they were initially occupied by both white immigrants who worked in town and by the Mardijkers - free Muslims brought to the Cape for their skills, who were never enslaved.

When slaves in Cape Town were emancipated by the British in 1834, many of them moved above Buitengracht Street to join this growing community. Many were Muslim – but by the late nineteenth century, Bo-Kaap was vibrant and diverse; home to musicians, tailors, labourers, and the artisans who effectively built Cape Town.

Davids concluded that the area was racially mixed until well into the 20th century: home not just to the former inhabitants of countries like Java and Indonesia, but also to Filipinos, Africans, Portuguese and Italian immigrants. There are some traces of these groups left – the Italian influence, for instance, explains the name of Chiappini Street – but their presence has in other regards disappeared.

Bo-Kaap’s former diversity, in fact, was not totally dissimilar to a nearby area that has become a byword for vibrant integration destroyed by apartheid: District Six. There are numerous accounts bearing witness to the fact that there was a constant and fluid migration between District Six and Bo-Kaap, although Bo-Kaap lacked the same degree of revelry in District Six due to the religious character that would progressively stamp the area.


We walked with our tour guide up Dorp Street to the oldest mosque in South Africa, the Auwal Mosque, founded by religious teacher Tuan Guru in 1784.

Though the guide didn’t provide much information about him, Tuan Guru was a remarkable individual. A member of royalty in his native Indonesia, he was banished to the Cape by the Dutch in 1780 and incarcerated on Robben Island. Upon his release in 1793, Tuan Guru established a madrassa (Islamic school), which operated from a warehouse on the corner of Dorp Street.

In 1794, the British briefly took over the Cape and the new governor gave permission to Tuan Guru to erect a mosque. He promptly converted the warehouse into South Africa’s first mosque, which he declared would exist “for as long as the world stands”.

The story goes that when Tuan Guru gave the call for prayers from an open window at the mosque, his voice could be heard in Simonstown.

Nine further mosques would be built in the area between 1794 and 1958, an unprecedented cluster for such a small space. (It’s worth noting, though, that Dr Achmat Davids concluded that the high number of mosques in the Bo-Kaap was as much a result of factionalism and in-fighting within the local Muslim population as it was a reflection of the fervour of the growing Muslim population.)

But the fact that the area is home to 10 mosques and five Muslim burial grounds – one of which, Tanu Bara, holds the final resting place of Tuan Guru – is part of what has given the Bo-Kaap its aura of a special and sacred place.

Back on the walking tour, our guide stopped at a vantage point above popular local restaurant Biesmiellah to explain the religious density of the area – and then launched into one of the most popular narratives surrounding the Bo-Kaap.

“Now, even during the District Six [forced] removals and the bulldozing, the apartheid government for some reason never, never touched houses of religion,” she told the group. “They did not bulldoze the mosques, synagogues or churches. So in a sense, maybe the 10 mosques in this area completely threw their plans out.”

The perception that the Bo-Kaap appears to have survived the brutal forced removals carried out by the apartheid government in order to implement the Group Areas Act, which segregated South African cities by race, is one of the most intriguing aspects of Bo-Kaap history.

Just down the hill, District Six was razed to the ground, its residents wrenched from the centre of town and banished to the desolate Cape Flats. Why did the Bo-Kaap not suffer the same fate?

This question has prompted a number of pervasive Bo-Kaap myths. One is that the devotion of Bo-Kaap Muslims, and the sanctity of the mosques and burial grounds, effectively shielded the Bo-Kaap from destruction.

A Bo-Kaap blogger described this phenomenon in a 2010 post: “Some non-Muslims, who came to Bo-Kaap to exploit it, soon found themselves visited by unseen misfortune… It often seems to have been the general spiritual protection Bo-Kaap Muslims enjoyed”.

It’s easy to see how this theory could have arisen, given the seemingly mysterious sanctuary the Bo-Kaap offered to people of colour during the height of Apartheid.

The grain of truth within it – also expressed by the tour guide – is that apartheid officials, as devout Christian nationalists themselves, do seem to have had some respect for other religious institutions.

But the problem is that the premise of these kinds of explanations is flawed. The Bo-Kaap was not spared the effects of the Group Areas Act.


From 1957 onwards, forced removals did take place from Bo-Kaap – of everyone who was not designated a “Malay”, the apartheid classification for Cape Muslims. The Group Areas Act made the Bo-Kaap a Muslim-only area for the first time in its history.

The reason why this happened owes little to divine intervention, and a lot to a white apartheid administrator called ID du Plessis.

Du Plessis had pushed from the 1930s onwards for the preservation of the Malay Quarter – as it was then known – against the objections of the City Council, who wanted the area razed as a slum.

The battles currently being fought by Bo-Kaap activists against the City and developers have echoes from almost 90 years ago. From the 1930s onwards, the City of Cape Town was looking to replace the Bo-Kaap’s terrace housing with apartment blocks, and in 1941 adopted a new zoning scheme that designated the Bo-Kaap for commercial development and apartments.

What saved the Bo-Kaap from this fate at that time was largely the efforts of Du Plessis, who together with Bo-Kaap community leaders succeeded in persuading the government to preserve the Bo-Kaap as an important Malay heritage site.

But Du Plessis was not some non-racial altruist hiding in plain sight in the middle of a crazily bigoted government. His reasons for helping the Cape Muslims in this respect were, in fact, deeply racist.

From his writings we know that Du Plessis had an exotic, almost fetishistic view of the group he called “Malays”, whom he viewed as a quaint, spiritual, colourful, docile people who were a cut above all the other people of colour in the Cape.

If the Bo-Kaap had social problems, he blamed them on the influence of Africans and non-Muslim coloured people in the area, writing in 1947: “Shebeens have sprung up in clusters, wine is brought in from Monday to Saturday…dagga smokers make the Malay Quarter unsafe, and an influx of natives has added to the housing problems of the Malays.”

The noble Malays needed to be spared these dangerous external influences, he argued, and the best way to accomplish this was to ethnically cleanse the area of all non-Muslims.

To make his case, it was important for Du Plessis to argue that preserving the Bo-Kaap as a Muslim enclave was restoring it to its original identity – even though, as we’ve seen, that was by no means the case.

Du Plessis had his way. In 1957 the Bo-Kaap was declared a Malay-only area under the Group Areas Act – and a story rarely told is how African and non-Muslim coloured people were duly forcibly removed. The apartheid government told the City of Cape Town it had to “provide lists of the racial designations of Bo-Kaap inhabitants, and to inform the department of its plans to resettle those other than Malays elsewhere”.

There are stories of some coloured people converting to Islam in order to apply for Bo-Kaap resident permits – but in general, the removal of the non-Muslim population was “an unrelenting, ongoing process”, to quote one academic.

Du Plessis wasn’t done. He had the ear of the apartheid Community Development Minister in the mid-60s, one PW Botha, who intervened to ensure a conservation programme was implemented to carry out restoration work on the Bo-Kaap.

These apartheid restoration projects actually changed the landscape and architecture of the Bo-Kaap – which brings us to another Bo-Kaap myth.

When we think of Bo-Kaap houses today, we picture the single-storey, flat-roofed houses made famous by a million postcards. Some of the original Bo-Kaap dwellings did look like that, but others were entirely typical of the architecture of the 18th and 19th century. Cape Dutch and Georgian buildings were common – like the structure that currently houses the Bo-Kaap Museum. To quote the museum’s website: “The façade, with its curvilinear Baroque parapet, is characteristic of early Cape Dutch architecture”.

The earliest houses in the area were even built with thatched roofs – not a feature we associate with the Bo-Kaap at all today.

Architecture academics Fabio Todeschini and Derek Japha wrote in a 2003 paper: “The conservation programme that was implemented as a result of Botha’s intervention had two aspects: replacing the existing community with one designated ‘Malay’; and reconstructing the environment to represent this ‘Malay’ community with a supposedly typical ‘Malay’ architectural setting”.

The restoration – and in some cases, rebuilding – projects carried out, wrote the academics, “subtly changed the landscape of Bo-Kaap by privileging the flat-roofed house, with its supposedly Eastern character, to capture an idealized image of Malay exoticism”.

There’s another aspect of Bo-Kaap architecture which has also proved rife for myth-making: the bright colours of the houses, particularly those just above Buitengracht Street.

Here follows just a few of the myths in circulation.

Freed slaves painted their houses bright colours to celebrate their emancipation: impossible, because Dulux technology wasn’t available in the nineteenth-century.

Bo-Kaap residents painted their houses to distinguish them from each other when they stumbled home drunk after partying in town: offensive nonsense, given the Islamic character of the modern Bo-Kaap.

Nelson Mandela visited the Bo-Kaap after his release from prison in the early 1990s and residents were so captivated by the possibilities of his Rainbow Nation vision that they painted their houses to match: sweet idea, but there’s no evidence to support that.

A more plausible theory is that residents began painting their houses bright colours to celebrate the end of Ramadaan, but again there’s little firm evidence for that.

In fact, nobody seems quite sure when exactly the Bo-Kaap’s bright colours appeared, and what exactly triggered the custom, but it’s pretty certain that this was a development relatively late in the 20th century.

One thing is also now definite: with the recent approval of the Bo-Kaap as a heritage zone, residents of the brightly-coloured houses will be expected to smartly maintain those bright colours. The new regulations from the City of Cape Town stipulate that: “Going forward, property owners in the Bo-Kaap are expected to conserve the area’s historical character by doing alterations that are in keeping with the character and style of the building by retaining as many of the original and heritage characteristics as possible when altering or adding to a historical building”.

The City of Cape Town makes it sound simple there – though, as we’ve seen, ideas of “historical character” and “original and heritage characteristics” are actually anything but straightforward when it comes to the Bo-Kaap.

The final stop on our Bo-Kaap walking tour was the intersection between Wale Street and Rose Street, where our guide pointed out the legacy businesses that have been in operation for over half a century: Atlas Trading, Rocksole Shoe & Luggage Store, the Rose Street Café.

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

But neighbouring these classic old stores are now a number of ultra-modern joints, where visitors can eat vegan ice cream or take a rooftop yoga class. At the Bo-Kaap Bazaar, a shop assistant tried to sell me a doll called “Missdela” – that’s the female equivalent of “Mandela”, apparently – which emitted the “songs of freedom” when he pressed a button. It cost R950.

These businesses offer services and products that appear to reflect almost nothing about the culture or needs of most Bo-Kaap locals. In this sense, they are the physical embodiment of gentrification: the oft-mentioned G-word against which activists have been railing ever more vocally over the last decade.

Yet this fight has been the Bo-Kaap’s for longer than is often recognised. The tussle over rezoning and commercialisation of the area that began in the 1930s continued throughout the 20th century. In the mid-1980s, the Cape Town City Council renovated buildings and put them on the open market at prices unaffordable to many Bo-Kaap locals. Though the buyers of these houses were still coloured – the Group Areas Act was officially scrapped only in 1991 – that was effectively the beginning of the gentrification to which the end of apartheid opened the floodgates.

In 1991, a report reflected a sentiment that would still hold true for many Bo-Kaap locals almost three decades later: “The Muslim residents of the Bo-Kaap do not mind others moving in. What they do object to is that much of the urban renewal has been conducted without any meaningful consultation with them, with the result that much of what has been done has not been acceptable to the residents.”

And while the scenes of burning tyres and vocal protest that characterised news reports about the Bo-Kaap in 2018 came as a shock to some Capetonians, one concrete fact about Bo-Kaap history is that its community has a long-history of standing together on the principles that matter.

In January 1886, Cape authorities refused permission to the Muslim community to bury their dead in the Tanu Baru cemetery on the land above Bo-Kaap. Records show that on Sunday, 17 January 1886, about 3 000 Cape Muslims began to march in the centre of town in protest action that lasted three days and shook the city to its core.

Bo-Kaap’s history may be more complicated than is generally acknowledged. But the resilience and fighting spirit of its residents has never been in question.