The bar that caused all the trouble in historic Bo-Kaap

It was a bone-chillingly cold Wednesday night in late August and the main hall of the Bo-Kaap Civic Centre was packed. Women in headscarves and long skirts and men in robes and taqiyahs – traditional Muslim caps – sat in red chairs or stood along the sides and at the back of the high-ceilinged, yellowing room.

They had come to discuss what should be done in response to Abantu Bar, Time and Place Restaurant, the recent opening of which had sparked an outcry from the historically Muslim community because of the establishment's plans to serve alcohol within metres of one of the neighbourhood's oldest mosques. A new bylaw, put in place after Abantu's liquor licence was granted, prohibits licences to be given within 100m of a place of worship. Although at the time of the meeting Abantu had not yet opened its doors because of its noncompliance with fire safety regulations, its mere existence was enough to prompt handfuls of Bo-Kaap residents to protest daily.

Osman Shaboodien, the chairperson of the Bo-Kaap Civic Association, brought the meeting to order.

"The challenge we have tonight is a big challenge," Shaboodien said. "We have to stand up and be counted. We have to push this evil out from our community."

Slideshow: Tradition and change in Bo-Kaap

He claimed that the bar's owner and the provincial and city governments, which had been responsible for granting the liquor licence, were "anti-Islamic". He demanded that all of the Bo-Kaap be proclaimed a dry area and that Harley's Liquor and the Hilton Hotel, both within sight of the Nurul Islam Mosque – the one near Abantu – be closed. He even attacked bars on Cape Town's famous Long Street, home to the historic Palm Street Mosque.

"This is not something that we must look at as only a bar issue," Shaboodien said, his voice rising. "We must see this as a regeneration of [the younger] generation and a regeneration of ourselves. We must not be silent any more! This has ­everything to do with the moral degeneration of a society that is slowly penetrating here."

Caving in after months of signs being waved daily in front of the restaurant-bar and legal threats, Abantu's owner, Samuel Wekwete, announced in early October that he would no longer be opening the establishment's doors. Shaboodien and the civic association responded by further promoting their campaign for the entire Bo-Kaap to be proclaimed a dry area. For them, this was just a small victory in a long, drawn-out war. These months-long protests, meetings and community chats had not really been about Abantu, after all. Instead, this mobilisation represented a community on the defensive against outside influence that threatens to change the face of the Bo-Kaap.

Prime real estate
Famously known as a Malay neighbourhood (it is sometimes referred to as "the Malay quarter"), the Bo-Kaap has always been racially and culturally diverse, first housing Europeans and some Asians in the 18th century. After slavery was abolished in 1834, many freed slaves made the area their home. Islam was brought to the Western Cape in the 17th century and the Bo-Kaap soon became a hotbed for its teachings. The religion was attractive to former slaves, who rejected the Christianity of the British and the Dutch. South Africa's oldest mosque is in the Bo-Kaap.

Although it is predominantly Muslim, historically up to 40% of the neighbourhood was Christian. The area remained racially and culturally diverse until it was designated a Malay area under the Group Areas Act. It remained one of the only sections of the central business district (CBD) that housed nonwhites throughout apartheid.

But the Bo-Kaap is changing. Booming demand for prime real estate in the CBD has made the neighbourhood increasingly appealing to outsiders. Its famous cobbled streets, coloured houses and homey atmosphere, coupled with relatively low house prices compared with other parts of the CBD, make it especially attractive to young creative types who want to get off the beaten track but still stay close to the city hub. In some parts of the Bo-Kaap, you are now as likely to meet a young, blonde German-born filmmaker, a skinny-jeans-wearing, soya-cappucino-drinking fashion editor or a Jo'burg business executive as you are an imam or artisan at one of the neighbourhood's many corner shops.

"Things have changed so much here in the last few decades," said Sumayya Johaar, a young mother who grew up in the Bo-Kaap and who still lives there with her husband and two children. "People didn't really want to live here 20 years ago because it was still considered a slum area. Now people are moving in."

Somaya Salie, whose family runs Legacy Estates, a property company specialising in the Bo-Kaap, said that the suburb's prime location near the city and the mountains, coupled with its friendly neighbourhood vibe, had boosted popularity. "We see lots of people who come here for short-term stays and want to come back."

This flood of interest has resulted in booming property values. Twenty years ago, Bo-Kaap properties sold for anywhere from tens of thousands of rand to the mid-hundred thousands. Today, an average property goes for between R1-million and R2-million. Salie said rental rates alone had increased by 50% in the past five years.

As property values increase, so too do property rates: the neighbourhood is now second only to Camps Bay, a historically white area known for its spectacular beaches, mansions and bowling greens.

This rise means people are leaving the Bo-Kaap because of pull factors (they can sell at a much greater value than they could years ago) or push factors (they cannot afford their rates).

"I bought this house for peanuts for my family – for R16 000 … 45 years ago," said Toha Samson, who lives in the Bo-Kaap's second-oldest house. "I could have sold this house last year for R2-million."

He said that demographic changes were eroding traditional Bo-Kaap culture. "We were like family here before. If she hasn't got, I give … You could go into any house, they'd accept you; they'd ask 'How are you?'. If there's a funeral or a wedding, we'd all come together. But now it's changed. The community isn't as tight."

Alwie Hendricks, who married into a Bo-Kaap family in 2006 and subsequently ran, unsuccessfully, for a council position to represent Bo-Kaap's ward, said the city's rezoning of the neighbourhood from a residential to a commercial area "is destroying history … We've really got to … lay down a lasting legacy for people, otherwise we're going by the wayside and that will be very sad."

But some residents and business owners say higher property values and new businesses could help the Bo-Kaap.

"Visitors and friends of mine had never come up to the Bo-Kaap," said Francois Irvine, the owner of a new trendy coffee shop called Haas, situated on the edge of the neighbourhood. "Since they've come here they've ventured up to Signal Hill, where they'd never gone before."

Moving on up
But the civic association's Shaboodien said traditional Bo-Kaap residents were not benefiting from increased interest in the area.

"We had to fight against apartheid and buy our council houses back and we had to maintain [these houses] that [are] so old and keep them in such a pristine state … But then all of a sudden we find ourselves being punished for what we have done over the years. The better your house is, the higher the value and the higher the rates. We don't benefit from increased tourism, because there's no tourist infrastructure in the Bo-Kaap. People come in on buses, go to the museum and get on buses again and leave.

"They want to push us to the Cape Flats," he said. "There aren't services here – why? Because there is no incentive for the politicians to take care of us. We don't vote DA."

According to councillor Dave Bryant, who is responsible for ward 77 in which the Bo-Kaap falls, the neighbourhood receives the same services as any other residential area and no incentives are provided to new businesses. He said support for the Democratic Alliance in the Bo-Kaap was actually rising.

"We had a 58% win in the Bo-Kaap ward [in the last election], which is the best that we've ever done … I think that's a sign that people are confident in what the party leadership is doing and the services that they're receiving."

Not everyone agrees that traditional residents are being pushed out. For Salie, this notion disregards individual wants and needs in a fast-changing neighbourhood and a fast-changing South Africa.

"Nobody is forced to sell their property; nobody is forced to buy your property … A seller doesn't wake up one morning and say: 'I'm going to sell my property to a white guy who's going to give me two million more than a Muslim person.' People do their homework; they know the prices."

Salie said younger residents were often more willing to sell than their older counterparts. As such, deceased estates may provide the biggest change for the neighbourhood. "You find now that the younger generation has better opportunities. They can go and work in different countries or in Johannesburg. They see a life outside the Bo-Kaap, so their interest … has diminished."

As a case in point, Mustafa Salie, who is in his 70s and has lived in the Bo-Kaap his whole life, "wouldn't dream of buying something elsewhere in town. I'm so sentimental about the house – my grandfather built the house in 1924. Nobody ever lived [there] except my family … To sell it would be a crime."

But whereas young mother Johaar has grown up in the suburb, is highly critical of gentrification and can claim a rich family heritage in the neighbourhood, she is one of many young people who would consider leaving the Bo-Kaap.

"I'd like to pass on the legacy of living in a place that I thought was magical, but in reality I'm almost certain that [my kids] won't grow up here … I can't afford to buy here … I want to have grounds and a garden and a pool and that's not easy to find in the Bo-Kaap."

Johaar said the younger generation's mobility reflected changes in post-apartheid South Africa.

"Our people were never exposed to a lot of money, so they didn't have the option of going to buy somewhere else. My generation – we're the biggest gentrifiers. We say: 'We're all educated; we've got degrees; we can live somewhere else.' We look at older generations where the whole family would live in one room and say: 'How could you do that?'"

The great divide
Although she is willing to leave, Johaar is concerned about a de-gradation in the Islamic tradition of the neighbourhood as old residents move out and new people move in. "It's more of an Islamic cultural objection that I have to gentrification, rather than 'there's a white person living next to me'," she said. If the community's culture and heritage were protected, she added, it did not matter who moved into the area.

He singled out the Abantu Bar as an example of an unwanted newcomer. "It has nothing to contribute; it's something that takes away from the Bo-Kaap …That's blatant disregard for a community that has stayed here for 300 years."

But the protection of Islamic culture is a rare point of consensus among an increasingly diverse and often divided community. The civic association, the Mosque Association of the Bo-Kaap and the soon-to-be-formed Schotschekloof Ratepayers' Association all represent overlapping – and sometimes colliding – interests and constituencies.

The annual disagreements over the neighbourhood's famous minstrel parade indicate such a divide. The civic association, citing cultural heritage and economic development, has argued strongly for the parade to be reinstated to its original route through the Bo-Kaap. The Mosque Association, concerned about safety and noise, has asked the city council to reject such requests. The council granted permission for the parade in January and is likely to do so again.

The neighbourhood's boundaries are another point of contention. Whereas some residents regard Long Street as part of the Bo-Kaap, the city council considers Buitengracht Street to be the primary boundary. Harley's Liquors and the Hilton Hotel, both housed on Buitengracht, are regarded as on the "edge" of the Bo-Kaap and therefore their liquor licences were less contested – although still opposed by some – than the licence for Abantu.

Wekwete claimed he was unfairly targeted because he is not Muslim, saying the community's concern over his bar's fire safety regulations "was not done properly".

Rainbow nation
"There are the people who are Muslim and who have not done things, but I'm being jeopardised because I'm a different person. If [residents] say this [neighbourhood] is only for some people, then it's not a democratic South Africa. This is the rainbow nation; I'm entitled to be here."

Bryant said the city tried to balance the concerns of the traditional residents with those of new residents, business owners and the rest of the city. "One has to be reasonable when you look at the boundaries. You have to be sensitive to the community, but not unreasonable to the CBD."

Residents of all different backgrounds and viewpoints fear that the Bo-Kaap will be left behind if the community does not have forceful collective representation. Shaboodien claimed there was no proper consultation with the community on Abantu's  and that without broad-based action changes in the Bo-Kaap would continue at a rapid rate, leaving traditional residents behind.

"This is about public participation, community participation, demo-cracy. This is about us in the Bo-Kaap – this is not an individual effort. But we must have a strategy."

Booming house prices a double-edged sword

In the past decade South Africa's housing prices have risen dramatically with about 20% annual growth from 2000 to 2006. Despite the global economic downturn, prices are still steadily on the rise and expected to increase by between 2% and 3% in 2012, according to Absa Bank.

Cape Town's most recent property valuation analysis, released in 2010, showed property values increasing by 10% to 12% within a three-year period. Given that property values set property rates – the higher a home's value, the higher the rates – rising values also mean that booming neighbourhoods must pay more. The premise is that homeowners with more substantial assets should foot a larger part of the rates bill than their low-income counterparts. Rates account for about 24% of the city's income.

Cape Town uses a "computer-assisted mass appraisal" modelling system, which considers average property sales for a set area over a specific period of time.

Osman Shaboodien of the Bo-Kaap Civic Association said that mass appraisal unfairly targeted low-income Bo-Kaap residents.

"If I live next to a house that is worth R2million, then I pay the same rates as that homeowner because the value of the whole neighbourhood goes up, even if my house is worth less or I make less. When people sell for a lot of money, they're pushing up the rates."

The Municipal Property Rates Act does not require the government to conduct individual appraisals and according to Francois Venter of Jawitz Properties, estimated valuations can be inflated by up to 20%.  

Venter said increased rates without a matched increase in real property values would hit low- and middle-income communities the hardest. "They might decide: 'If that's the rate I have to pay, we can't afford it and we have to sell.'"

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Mara Kardas-Nelson
Mara Kardas-Nelson is a journalist with the Mail & Guardian's Centre for Health Journalism, where she focuses on access to medicine, health policy, financing, and planning. She has been contributing to the Mail & Guardian since 2009, writing on a wide variety of topics ranging from the environment to development to local culture. In 2010 she shared a Mondi Shanduka Newspaper award with photographer Sam Reinders for their work on acid mine drainage in Gauteng and Mpumalanga. Her work has appeared in publications across Africa, North America, and Europe.

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