/ 25 March 2020

Bo-Kaap locks itself down early

Graphic Bo Kaap Twitter
For more than a week before President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the nationwide lockdown on Monday, the Bo-Kaap had been off-limits for non-residents. (John McCann/M&G)

Nestled on the slopes of Signal Hill, the Bo-Kaap is as iconic to Cape Town as Table Mountain. 

Its colourful houses, rich Cape-Malay culture, and ever-gentrifying businesses, which have been turned into coffee shops and boutique stores, attract tourists by the busload.

It is also one of the oldest sites of the Islamic religion in South Africa, with the country’s oldest mosque — the Auwal Masjid — still announcing the call to prayer five times a day. 

But for more than a week before President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the nationwide lockdown on Monday, the Bo-Kaap had been off-limits for non-residents. Tourists and people who were not known to the community had been turned away from the main thoroughfares leading into the close-knit enclave of several thousand people. 

“We didn’t want to discriminate against certain affected countries so we decided we were just going to close it down for all tourists,” said Osman Shabodien, who chairs the Bo-Kaap Civic Association. “We had some opposition, even from our premier [Alan Winde] saying we had no right to close the area.” 

Osman said their approach was friendly but firm. Volunteers and civic association members wearing identifiable clothing would approach tourists and people wandering the streets and ask about their business in the area. If they were tourists, or not from the neighbourhood they would politely be shown to the nearest road leading out of the area. 

There was no real opposition for their requests for people to leave, Shabodien said. 

“We know more or less who lives in Bo-Kaap. So whoever we saw walking around and taking photos, we turned them around. We’ve had notices up, just to make people aware that what we were doing was serious.”

Osman said the decision to lock down Bo-Kaap and now the countrywide restriction of movement won’t be easy for businesses and communities — but it is for the greater good of all South Africans. 

“It wasn’t an easy decision. There are businesses in the area who depend on tourism. There are tour guides, people who cook food for visitors. The industry has grown and it was never an easy decision. But when the president announced the national state of disaster, some of our rights went down the drain,” he said. “It’s now more to do with the communal rights than the individual’s rights. And this was an instance where we had to look after the vulnerable in the community rather than look after a few rands and cents.

While opposing the blocking of roads and infringing upon freedom of movement, Western Cape Premier Alan Winde said he supported decisions by the community to safeguard themselves. 

“Private businesses have the right to take decisions in their best interests. In the Bo-Kaap, a large number of tourism businesses are people who take visitors into their own homes. If they feel that this is no longer a safe option, they can take the decision to close their own businesses or their homes as this is their private property,” he said. But, he added, “as a constitutional democracy, we must always uphold the rule of law, and we shouldn’t do anything illegal such as blocking public roads”.

The Western Cape and Cape Town economies are poised to be hard hit by the Covid-19 outbreak and the subsequent national shutdown. Hotels are closed and most if not all tourists have returned to their home countries, many facing similar crises as in South Africa. 

But the government and tourism authorities said the tourism sector would rebuild once businesses and tourist destinations have been given the all-clear to resume trade. 

“We have a dedicated economy workstream which is working hard to address this impact, and we will soon be announcing our economic response package, Winde said. “Together with Wesgro, the City of Cape Town and industry partners, we have activated the official Covid-19 Content Centre for Business, a virtual centre consisting of sector specialists and communications experts, set up to develop reliable content to assist industry and manage daily queries and business concerns.” 

The Bo-Kaap community has a long history of choosing its own path. Located in the Cape Town city bowl area, The community was spared the full brunt of the Apartheid Group Areas Act. It thrived as a centre Cape Malay culture and its struggle to retain its distinct and independent-minded identity continued into South Africa’s democracy.

In the early 2000s, the community started resisting gentrification and efforts by property developers to buy up buildings from long-time residents — many of whom could not resist the handsome monetary offers. In 2018 community members clashed with police as they prevented a crane from entering the community on its way to a construction site. 

A Cape Town-based property developer later sold the plot it had invested in following fierce resistance to the planned commercial buildings. In May 2019, the national government declared the Bo-Kaap a heritage site, which placed a moratorium on certain property developments in the area.