Catch of the day! Cape Town's Malay Quarter, Bo-Kaap

Gentrification, long thought to be a positive solution to urban decay, is putting Cape Town's Malay Quarter under threat, writes Karin Schimke. Garth Stead took the pictures

Biesmiellah restaurant in upper Wale Street is full of Afrikaans tannies on this chilly Thursday morning. They're completely out of place. The whites that hang around the Bo-Kaap are usually young, often European and always magazine-trendy. They know that Biesmiellah makes the best rotis in Cape Town. Unlike the tannies - on some sort of group outing - they wouldn't know how good the koeksusters are.

But the tannies are probably just as oblivious to shifting trends. As we leave, Osmon Shaboodien wonders aloud whether they've noticed how the Cape Malay Quarter has changed in the past five years. Or whether in fact they'd ever been here before.

In the two years preceding December 2003, Shaboodien says, 42 of the 1 000 houses in the Bo-Kaap were sold. He's lived here all his life and the rapid turn-over of property was so unprecedented, so worrying, it bulleted him back into community politics, which he gave up when democracy came along.

He stamps some tobacco into his pipe, sucking and puffing it into life.

"We're not going to stop the changes," says Shaboodien, who chairs the Bo-Kaap Civic Association, "but I think we've already slowed things down."

He and others are on a mission to save this icon ic suburb, where South African Islam was first planted more than 350 years ago, and where travellers now huff up the steep roads daily in awe of that rarest of tourist finds: a living history.

This, the Bo-Kaap, was a textbook example of the Afrikaner intellectuals' understanding of group areas and separate development. It had sunk its painted claws into the rock of Signal Hill in Cape Town hundreds of years before white and less-white were forcibly divided into manageable suburban chunks. And it has refused to budge.

While across the city District Six was being torn down, Bo-Kaap clung on. And with it, its kramats, its mosques, its bhilals calling the devout to prayer five times a day. Fish vendors on donkey carts still blow their little brass bugles when a catch comes in, elders in flowing white garb cry "Salaam Haleikum" to matriarchs leaning on half doors, and children only move their games off the street when a car rumbles along the narrow cobbles.

In 1994, the one or two whites living in the area had received special permission from the apartheid government to do so. Now, says estate agent Somaya Salie, she guesses there is about one white for every three Muslim or coloured Bo-Kaap residents.

She's lived and worked here all her life and she is gobsmacked by what's happening.

"There's been a 100% increase in property prices since June last year. Two-bedroom apartments are fetching over a million rand, and earlier this year a record price of R2.8-million for a Bo-Kaap property was achieved. We'll soon cross the R3-million threshold."

Not for mansions, mind you: for small Georgians, crumbly Victorians and poky council houses, none of which have garages.

Shaboodien is not surprised at the sudden demand for homes in the Bo-Kaap. There's a psychotic scrambling for property in Cape Town, where locals are fighting a losing battle with bully-boy money from up-country and overseas. What amazes Shaboodien is that no one in the council or the government has taken steps to halt the bargain basement handing off of a heritage.

"Imagine if someone proposed selling off Robben Island to developers, or Table Mountain. There'd be a riot."

If Shaboodien sounds like a Koran-thumping "my way or the high way" traditionalist, he's not. He is a thoroughly modern man with a view to this suburb's grim future if nothing happens to stop the onslaught.

Bo-Kaap is a funny, fantastic little spot. It lies just south of the busy Cape Town port and forms a lining on the heart of the city's economic district. Its secret lanes and pretty stoep-fronts are not a ruse, not a Disneyfied quaint sub-culture show for tourists. Step over the border from Buitengracht Street and it feels like you've stepped into a freeze-frame. It's alluring, unstyled; romantic even.

Muslim slaves, brought in from the Indonesian archipelago, prayed here secretly for over a century before they were granted the freedom to practice openly. The surrounding brush of Signal Hill, which now hides hundreds of slave graves, once hid escaped slaves.

Through what Shaboodien calls an historic accident, the suburb escaped the apartheid axe. And though it seems to have stood still, things here started changing slowly in the latter part of the last century.

In the 1980s, children left to fight the struggle. Some of the council houses, owned by an arrogant and uncaring landlord, were sold to families who'd occupied them for generations, and so became family trust.

Drugs came. Crime came. The neighbourhood watch came, but then retreated again when, in other parts of the Peninsula, the fight against gangsters and drugs became a whole new crime wave of its own. So the buttonheads came out to play again, spitting and puking their Mandrax hallucinations into ancient service alleys.

There's the odd break-in, but on the whole the neighbourhood feels safe to its residents. Even the white ones.

But no change has so fundamentally jeopardised the fabric of this community as the clanging capitalist bell of gentrification. So Shaboodien and his committee, with the help of the Anti-Gentrification Forum, are using every public meeting, every gathering, every social contact - even mosque times - to spread the word: Don't sell.

Here's where it gets tricky. The right of association and property are entrenched in the Constitution. Families have a right to sell their dilapidated townhouses with no off-street parking to whoever will pay whatever they can for it. They have a right - and an understandable desire - to use their pure profit to pay for a house in the suburbs with a garden and a garage, maybe even their kids' education.

"What help is it to Aunty Fatima," asks Salie, "if she sits on an expensive property, but she can't even afford to get her geyser fixed? It's a seller's market."

But each time a house is sold at leap-frog prices, it pushes other prices up, and debt-free pensioners suddenly find themselves saddled with outrageous rates bills.

This working class area is being yuppified like De Waterkant across High Level Road. Yet not even young, white South Africans, who quietly started buying here five years ago because it was the only affordable place left close to the city, can afford what can only be described, in some instances, as hovels. Many of the newly bought properties are owned by foreigners.

Anwah Nagia, chairperson of the Anti-Gentrification Forum, says: "Gentrification is not a new thing in the world. By stealth, the rich create a playground for themselves, like they're doing here in Cape Town, but they're not reliable. They chase the sun, they find new places, they move on. And the people who have lived here all their lives sit with the fall-out."

Almost every time a house is sold - and architectural changes are wrought and high perimeter walls are built on the street - the unique Bo-Kaap flavour is dissipated. Its jewel-like attraction as a living monument is duller. Its mostly Muslim community is watered down.

New residents complain, for instance, about the noise of the athaan, the call to prayer which has ululated across the little township more than seven million times in 350 years.

"Imagine," says Shereen Habib, Bo-Kaap resident, activist and tour group leader, "one of us moving to Stellenbosch and complaining about the noise of the church bells on a Sunday morning!"

Morning sun is warming us as we sit on the floor around the low table on her reception room floor. We gaze at Cape Town, unfurled in ripples immediately outside her big windows, and straightened out where the Cape Flats begin.

She lived there once, she says in a far-off voice as she nibbles on a sprig of coriander that was served with the samosas and morning tea. "It wasn't like here. Nothing's like here."

Before this starts to sound like a mad woman ranting against all white people who live in the Bo-Kaap, let's get one thing straight: They're mostly welcome. The ones who moved in with their young families, prettied up their properties without ostentation; the ones who provide Halaal snacks for their children's friends and pay their respects when someone has died: they belong. Their quiet, middle-class sense of industry, their unassuming community involvement and their respectful attitudes have earned them mutual consideration from their neighbours.

"If there's a perception that anti-gentrification means anti-white, it's wrong," says Nagia. He is not just saying this. We spend about 10 minutes trying to dissect exactly what it is, if not whites.

It's the developers, the thoughtless profiteers, the European sun-seekers - who'll tan topless on their balconies if the mood takes them - the residents feel indignant about.

Sue Hudson has lived here with her husband and son for five years. "What needs to happen is for the council to wake up and help protect everything here: the buildings, the aesthetics, the skills of the people, the cobbled streets, the parks, the mosques and the property prices.

"If gentrification means people buying, fixing and reselling; if it means people not living in the houses they've renovated and leaving them standing empty for half the year, then it needs to be stopped by some greater force than just community outrage."

The high walls and the new "gaudy European" architecture which is reaching up in ever more desperate attempts to exploit the Bo-Kaap views are bad news, says Nagia. He steers his thoughts through the rapids created by his words, but he doesn't prattle in clichés and slogans. He knows too much about gentrification, about new money, about justice, about land, to have to revert to a political stereotype.

"They're about individualism and isolationism. They defy the body language of this community." But he's confident the quiet bulldozing of the Bo-Kaap will be slowed, if not stopped.

"The Anti-Gentrification Forum is winning in other suburbs already where there are older residents who are also saying: 'This must stop, the rates are killing us'. Incidentally, many of those people are white.

"We just need to keep planting the seeds for people to understand the threats of gentrification so that they link their understanding of themselves back to land and tenure, which create the sense of permanence needed for a stable community.

"Gentrification is a worldwide phenomenon, but we can't view it in the South African context with amnesia. We have to be very careful of re-polarising our society, of buggering up the majority to please the minority."

If Nagia's name sounds familiar, it should. It is probably mostly thanks to his tenacity and vision that properties in District Six are now being given back to the people who were wrenched from there in the 1960s.

With Shaboodien, his old comrade-in-arms, the fight for the Bo-Kaap to remain a people's place is not likely to fizzle.

Article by: Karin Schimke - Garth Stead (pictures) - www.sundaytimes.co.za