Bo-Kaap unites in protest to hold onto heritage

In April, Shakirah Dramat and a few others started a movement called Bo-Kaap Rise sensing a need for more organised protest. (David Harrison/M&G)

In April, Shakirah Dramat and a few others started a movement called Bo-Kaap Rise sensing a need for more organised protest. (David Harrison/M&G)

In the narrow cobbled streets of Bo-Kaap, an hour before the call to prayer echoes at sunset, young people begin to set tyres alight.

Traditionally, the Islamic holy month of Ramadan is a time of community spirit and peace in the Cape Town suburb. As the time nears for the fast to be broken at dusk, families prepare food to share with their neighbours.

But this year, young people are upholding another tradition which they inherited from their elders: a battle to protect their homes in the inner city from private developers who see the appeal of prime land in Bo-Kaap. 

For years residents of Bo-Kaap have met with city officials and heritage experts to have the area zoned off for heritage protection. Brett Herron, a mayoral committee member for urban development and transport, has promised protected heritage sites will not be demolished for big luxury developments.

Slideshow: Tradition and change in Bo-Kaap

But, the Bo-Kaap community remains sceptical. The area — Bo-Kaap residents say with pride — is where Islam was first introduced to South Africa. It is where the first mosque was built, where Muslim saints are buried and it is where slaves lived. 

The community has already taken the city to court over a 60 metre high retail and residential development in Buitengracht Street. They allege the building should never have been approved because the site should have been assessed by heritage practitioners before any development work began. Their fear is that their colourful houses will also be demolished or that the property value will increase until they are forced out by unaffordable rates.

A week ago, a group of young residents began to show the city their anger.

Tariq Heuvel* works in a private investment company. Every evening at 4.30pm, he comes home to Bo-Kaap. He along with a group of men, walks down to the busy Wale Street at the edge of the neighbourhood. Queues of cars begin to snake down the street as peak hour traffic starts.

Some young boys roll a tyre into the road. A match is struck and the black rubber is engulfed in flames.

For the past week, Bo-Kaap has been in protest. Heuvel is one of the leaders in this emerging movement of frustrated residents. His concern for the community began years ago when the area first became gentrified. Last Saturday — as he watched young boys play cricket on a stretch of tarmac outside a community creche — he decided he had enough. There is no field for the boys to play.

“When I was growing up, we had the common [in Greenpoint] and that’s where we played our school sport. That was taken away from us because it became a golf course and then an urban park,” he says.

“To see the lack of these facilities now is worrying. I always knew the way out for a lot of us was through sports. We could’ve been gangsters but we chose to play sports. If that option is taken away from these kids, then what are they going to have?”

Bo-Kaap rising

Heuvel has lived in Bo Kaap for all 42 years of his life. He mentors rugby and cricket teams in the community. The protest, he said, was a strategic move after years of being ignored. While he has become one of the leaders, most of the protesters that stand on Wale Street each evening are younger men.

The protest usually ends just before 5.45pm, so they can have enough time to head home and break their fast with their families. But every evening they have been on the street blocking traffic to get the attention they want.

“We wanted divert traffic to bring attention to the environment because Bo-Kaap is currently a thoroughfare for people who live in Greenpoint and those places. If you impact them, you will get more attention,” Heuvel says.

Thus far, it appears to be working. While some have been silently protesting for years without notice, the boys stood outside for just three evenings before the city came to them.

On Wednesday, they handed over a memorandum of demands to their ward councillor Brandon Golding. The demands include: government-owned property must be developed into affordable housing, Bo-Kaap must be zoned off for heritage protection status, tourist buses can only park or drive through demarcated areas and sports facilities must be upgraded.

The protesters the city a deadline to respond on Wednesday this week. Herron, meanwhile, has acknowledged that parts of the Bo-Kaap have already received heritage status where buildings that are 60 years or older may not be altered or demolished without consultation with Heritage Western Cape. He added that residents who can’t afford rate increases can apply for rebates.

“Resident homeowners have benefitted from the growth of our city centre through increased home values. For most of us our home is our single biggest and most important asset,” Herron said.

“Where families are unable to afford the property rates and services tariffs due to these rising values and low income they have access to the City’s extensive rebate system which is intended to support low-income or fixed-income families so that they are not taxed out of their homes. Families need only apply for this assistance,” he said.

Much of the community, including the civic association, support the protest because many of them have been ignored in the past. What they have been demanding is that the entire Bo-Kaap is zoned as a heritage site which would make it more restrictive for private developers.

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

Before the young men took to the street, Shakirah Dramat (26), was leading her own protest in the exact spot where they now stand each evening.

Dramat’s family has lived in Bo-Kaap for four generations. She is the self-proclaimed “loud mouth” in her family, never shy to rouse a little rabble if she senses an injustice is afoot.

In the three months before May, she and a small group of her neighbours stood in Wale Street where they spoke to drivers in peak hour traffic attempting to educate as many people as possible about the adverse effects of private development in Bo-Kaap: the rent prices and rates have skyrocketed, and there’s a disregard for any inconvenience to the residents. Dramat, a social media and public relations specialist, wanted to carry on the protests older members in her community had begun, but she wanted to do it differently.

“For a long time young people were not very active in the community. They only became active recently with this new awakening and this newfound revolution that’s happening in the area,” she said.

“I felt that we needed a presence that was more relevant and more current to the times. When I went on Instagram, I’d get so frustrated because when you went to search the Cape Town hashtag you’d see pictures of Bo Kaap, but there were no accounts to represent it like there are for other areas.”

In April, Dramat and a few others started a movement called Bo-Kaap Rise sensing a need for more organised protest. In the past two weeks, their members have grown in number from 4 people to 21. The group organised a mass boeka (dinner to break the fast in Ramadan) last Friday, which drew hundreds of people from across Cape Town. The aim of the community boeka was to unite the Bo-Kaap in a solidarity movement against any threat to the area’s heritage.

“Older people have been fighting this fight for a long time. We have a different approach. To a large extent, I feel like older people can sometimes have a very soft approach. But young people are very vocal and we’re not scared to stand up in a way that is going to get attention,” Dramat said.

“We definitely can respect and learn from our elders, but we’re taking a more radical approach to say: pay attention to us, because you’ve been ignoring our elders for the past 20 years.”

She is now building what she hopes will be a cohesive movement that will bring together the views of young people, the boys who protest each evening, and the older members of her community. While Dramat knows that everyone has different views and different ways of protesting, her goal is to make sure the Bo-Kaap can be as united as possible.

The protesters versus the City of Cape Town

Osman Shabodien has been trying to negotiate with City of Cape Town officials for years.

He is the chairperson of the Bo-Kaap Civic Association, and for the past 20 years he has seen his community frustrated by tariff increases, development of high rise apartment blocks and treated with disregard by tourists who visit.

“The challenge for us has been how do we get the City to understand that we must not be punished because we live in the inner city. Because of the City’s don’t give a damn attitude, they only see that there is only one class of people that can live in the city and that’s the rich,” Shabodien says.

“Bo-Kaap is not a rich area. It might be gentrified to a point now, where you find the rich moving in, but that doesn’t mean the original inhabitants of Bo-Kaap is rich.”

Over the weekend, mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith reacted to the Bo-Kaap protests, as well as others across the Cape, saying there may be a third force at play. In Bo-Kaap, Smith said, there was CCTV footage to show that “manufactured dissent” instead of sincere community concerns sparked the protests.

“We have seen CCTV footage and we held meetings with the residents. They have told us that the people behind the Bo-Kaap protests do not live in the area. On the CCTV footage, people can be seen transporting tyres to the Bo-Kaap. These are gangsters,” Smith told the Weekend Argus.

Shabodien and Heuvel have both scoffed at Smith’s assessment of the protests.

“You have JP Smith saying this is gangsterism, which we know there is no gangsterism involved in this whole process. There’s no third force involved in this whole process. This is a few guys that actually had to take a stance with regards to what is happening in the community where we live,” Heuvel says.

“We are people who work. We come back from work and then we protest. If we were gangsters we would be protesting the whole day,” he says.

Heuvel and his group of young protesters will be back at Wale Street to protest on Monday night. Their aim is to continue protesting until the City to agrees to their demands.

Heuvel can afford to live in Bo-Kaap because of his job and he has a tenant paying rent. But he has seen many of his neighbours forced out to live in relocation areas like Pelican Park, which is around 27km away from the inner city.

“What type of person do I want to be? The person that says: ‘Ag man, I’m fine because I can pay my rates and I have a nice job?’. What about an aunty that has four kids with everyone unemployed? Is that community living when you just look the other way?,” he says.

*Not his real name

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra’eesa Pather is a general news journalist with the Mail & Guardian’s online team. She cut her teeth at The Daily Vox in Cape Town before moving to Johannesburg and joining the M&G. She's written about memory, race and gender in columns and features, and has dabbled in photography. Read more from Ra'eesa Pather

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