The impact of Bo-Kaap gentrification: an interview with Aidan Africa

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What is unfortunately missed are those intangible heritages … evident in practices such as greeting each other by name, wishing neighbours well before going on Hajj, assisting neighbours in times of need such as for Janazah’s and other traditions such as sharing food with neighbours during Ramadaan or when children go from neighbour to neighbour during Ramadaan to share “barakatjies” with each other. – Aidan Africa

Menán van Heerden chats to UCT masters student Aidan Africa about his honours research, “Sense of place: Gentrification experiences of Bo-Kaap’s long-term residents”.

Congratulations on your Society of South African Geographers’ Outstanding Honours Research Award for 2022, Aidan!

Your honours research focuses on the unique Bo-Kaap Cape Muslim community who remained in the area despite gentrification.

In 2019 one would walk through the Bo-Kaap with signs on the walls of homes, stating: “Protect Bo-Kaap heritage status now!”; “Save our heritage! #bokaapmatters”.

“Protect Bo-Kaap heritage status now!” (Photo: Menán van Heerden, 2019)

“Save our heritage! #bokaapmatters” (Photo: Menán van Heerden, 2019)

In 2019 eNCA reported that Bo-Kaap residents had finally managed to secure municipal heritage protection.

[Read more on LitNet:]

Has this heritage protection led to tangible change?

This rather interesting question was touched on by one of the participants when I was collecting my data in Bo-Kaap last year. What I gathered from this conversation is that the heritage protection order, in the form of demarcating the Bo-Kaap as a Heritage Protection overlay Zone (HPOZ), does little to protect the heritage of the area. It is, then, also important to distinguish between the tangible (eg the physical structures) and intangible (eg the “life” of the neighbourhood) heritage of the Bo-Kaap.

From what participants have told me, notwithstanding the area’s having been declared an HPOZ, the city has altered its by-laws, making it permissible to build without consulting one’s neighbours or without a public participation process as long as you are within your zoning rights. Essentially, the city made it easier to now develop in the area and in some ways bypass the protections afforded by the heritage protection laws like the HPOZ.

Photo: Menán van Heerden (2019)

Given this, it does not seem that the heritage protection laws have done much to preserve the Bo-Kaap’s tangible heritage. But even with these heritage protection laws, often what is protected is the tangible heritage of the area ie the design of the Bo-Kaap’s old buildings. What is unfortunately missed are those intangible heritages, that is, the way of life or code of conduct that many in the neighbourhood live by, such as the neighbourliness and strong sense of community that has come to characterise the neighbourhood, evident in practices such as greeting each other by name, wishing neighbours well before going on Hajj (Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca), assisting neighbours in times of need, such as for Janazahs (Muslim funerals), and other traditions such as sharing food with neighbours during Ramadaan or when children go from neighbour to neighbour during Ramadaan to share “barakatjies” (usually edible gifts such as biscuits/food for guests to take home after a Muslim event/gathering) with one another.

Photo: Menán van Heerdn, 2016

Therefore, heritage protection can at best protect the symptom of gentrification (eg by preserving the unique design of the Bo-Kaap’s homes), but it is much less able to protect the very life of the neighbourhood: the strong community and the people and practices that comprise that community and make the Bo-Kaap feel like home.

Can gentrification in Bo-Kaap, Woodstock and Salt River be compared?

Should it be compared?

This is another great question. Indeed, gentrification has been occurring in Woodstock and Salt River in addition to the Bo-Kaap. There are, however, different factors at play affecting how the gentrification unfolds in each area, at what pace it occurs and what form it takes. Nevertheless, the gentrification processes unfolding in these three neighbourhoods can be compared. There is great value in the methodology of comparison that transcends the identification of differences and similarities.

If we compare the gentrification in these three areas, we will find out interesting things about the nature of both the gentrification process and the neighbourhood in which it is unfolding, as well as the relationship between the two. But care must also be taken when we compare. The expectation should not be to use one case as the yardstick. Rather, we should view similarities, but especially differences, as generative of new knowledge on gentrification and how it unfolds in and impacts a particular neighbourhood. So, not only can we compare, we should.

Gentrification is a worldwide phenomenon; how can it be countered?

Depending on who you speak to, some may ask why we would wish to counter a process aimed at bringing about development. After all, gentrification is often the consequence of poorly conceived development policies. And so some see the benefits as weighing more than the negatives, hence they may ask why gentrification needs to be countered. I mention this point because there is a positive aspect of gentrification (eg its ability to rejuvenate the urban space and stimulate it economically). We cannot deny this. But, and this is a big but, the gentrification and its associated positives do not reach those poorer vulnerable residents; they benefit only the rich.

Therefore the question is for whom and at whose expense this gentrification is occurring. This is where my gripe with gentrification and the city’s development path in general lies: Our neighbourhoods, especially the inner-city neighbourhoods, are developing at the expense of those who have lived there for generations. Because of this, gentrification in places like the Bo-Kaap, Salt River and Woodstock should be strongly countered/resisted.

It is inconceivable that in post-apartheid South Africa we can have neoliberal development policies that mimic the destructive nature of apartheid. For that reason, gentrification as it manifests in Cape Town and other South African cities should be strongly resisted for it risks deepening the inequalities and injustices that we should be trying hard to correct.

How should it be countered? It needs to be countered first and foremost on a household, street and community level. Especially in South Africa, where decision-makers realise their errors only after the fact, those within the community must express their dissatisfaction with what is happening in their neighbourhood, as has happened in the Bo-Kaap. But this is also an important level or scale from which to resist, for it is often an effective level from which to resist, for example, by physically preventing construction vehicles from entering the area to build developments synonymous with gentrification.

In a country with a government characterised by ineptitude and selective hearing of the concerns of the people, different forms of community-level mobilisation are particularly important and useful ways of countering processes like gentrification. This is not to romanticise these struggles, many of which are dangerous. But it is to say that these struggles matter and have political power. Of course, protest is one form of resistance, but by no means the only form, as was evident in the Bo-Kaap. But I think it remains up to the community and community leaders to decide on the exact form of resistance they wish to take.

Moreover, it is also crucial that gentrification be countered at the level of government since this is, after all, where very important, life-changing decisions are made. Decision-makers in government need to let go of their egos and admit that their development policies have allowed for a process like gentrification to occur and they must take responsibility for this. Once they do this and accept the error, they need to change their policies accordingly so that the community, culture and heritage-destroying process of gentrification does not occur.

Ideally you want the benefits of gentrification to be extracted so that it can be enjoyed by all residents, both in and outside of the area. A careful balancing act is, therefore, needed. This is by no means easy, but it is necessary if we are to develop inclusively and sustainably and if we are to take seriously the healing that comes with the nation-building project.

Your research focuses on the residents who have managed to remain there.

Who is the oldest family (in terms of a family who have remained in Bo-Kaap for a few generations) you spoke to?

What is the most interesting thing you learned?

Great question! During my time in the Bo-Kaap I spoke to a few residents who have lived in the area for most of their lives. One person said that he had already been living in the Bo-Kaap for 60 years, spending only five years of his life outside the neighbourhood. Another mentioned that they had been living in the area for 50 years. Generally, however, most of the participants I spoke to had been living in the Bo-Kaap for over 20 years. These are big numbers!

I don’t think we know many people who have managed to live in one place for so many decades. But can you just imagine, then, the connection these residents have to the Bo-Kaap, having 60 years’ worth of memories and life experiences rooted in this place? So, many long-standing residents have a profound attachment to and love for the Bo-Kaap, which is what my research found. Notwithstanding this, gentrification poses a threat to this love and positive attachment to place.

However, in my research I found that there is a resilience evident in long-standing residents’ sense of place and that the gentrification unfolding there is not weakening and eroding this as easily as expected. This means that many of the participants, in the face of a rapidly changing socio-cultural fabric, have still expressed a strong love for and positive attachment to the Bo-Kaap. This did not just happen. It is the result of the hard efforts of many long-standing Bo-Kaap residents’ having bravely taken to the streets to protest the gentrification of the area, many of whom went so far as to put their bodies on the line to prevent construction cranes from entering the area. These acts of bravery helped slow down what was a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood, and residents should be commended for their efforts. This was very interesting.

Another interesting point is the role of memory in resisting gentrification and allowing residents to cling to a positive and affective sense of place. I found that when the going got tough (owing to the rapidly changing nature of the neighbourhood in terms of culture and heritage and the exodus of older residents and the impact this had on social ties) the practice of remembering became an important tool utilised by residents to cling to the fond memories they have of the area; to go back to a time when Boeta Gamat still lived next door, when Palmo Butchery was still a place for residents to shop and interact, when everyone knew everyone, when the Adhan could sound loudly without fear of being silenced, and when children could play in the street without neighbours complaining. I found the importance of memory to be very interesting, and it is something I hope to explore in greater detail in my master’s thesis this year.

In the UWC article you give examples of complaints of new residents with regard to, for example, the Islamic call to prayer, as well as physical changes to old Bo-Kaap homes.

What was the most surprising / saddest story with regard to affected histories, heritages, cultures and memories?

(You mention that it was, understandably, not easy for residents to open up.)

For me the saddest story is from a family who has been living in the Bo-Kaap for a total of 36 years notwithstanding a period of 10 years when they lived outside of the Bo-Kaap before returning. Nevertheless, this family was most directly affected by the gentrification of the area. They live in your conventional quaint Bo-Kaap house. However, a few years ago a developer approached them informing them of his/her intention to develop the vacant land next to their property.

Fast forward a few years, a monstrous three-storey building that looks nothing like the Bo-Kaap’s original buildings stands uncomfortably tall and close to this family home. The building not only removed an open field and lane that this family considered part of their property but also left at most a 10 cm gap between the two properties. What is worse is that this building now covers their room windows, which faced Table Mountain, leaving the rooms on that side of the house dark, cold and gloomy. Their back door, which is also an emergency exit, can open only slightly before it knocks against the wall of this new building.

Imagine that: Today you wake up in a sunny and warm room to the view of Table Mountain, only to wake up tomorrow in a cold, dark room to the view of a brick wall. I found this story most sad, for it not only affects the quality of life and safety of this family, but it also negatively affects their experience of the place they call home.

In addition, the way the developers of this building treated them was as if they were invisible, and their concerns were ignored by both the developers and the City Council. Fond memories of a family home once enjoyed have been made sour by the intrusion of this symbol of gentrification into the lives of these family members. I found this story particularly shocking and sad.

Another story is that of Palmo Butchery, which had served the Bo-Kaap community for almost six decades before closing its doors in December of 2008. One participant still recalls how the owner of the butchery cried when the shop closed on the last day. But this was not any old butcher. This butcher captured the intangible heritage of the Bo-Kaap. It was not only a place for locals to buy affordable meat. It was also a place where local shoppers could interact with one another while shopping. Palmo was as much a butchery as it was a meeting place for residents. The significance of these places is sometimes lost on us who take them for granted.

Think for a moment about your local corner shop where you buy your R10 packet of potatoes and a 500 ml coke. These are not only places to buy goods from. They are also places where people from the community “bump into” each other and interact, and they are places that sell goods that cater to the local culture and the people’s pockets (eg halaal foods at affordable prices).

These are places of meaning and memory-making and an important part of the heritage and even the culture of neighbourhoods. This was certainly true for longstanding residents in the Bo-Kaap who could buy halaal meat at affordable prices while also making social connections that constitute the strong community character of the area and which constitutes the “feel” or intangible heritage of the Bo-Kaap.

Therefore the loss of Palmo is also a partial loss of the memories, culture and heritage that it harboured. I bet you that if the walls of that butchery could speak, it would tell a million stories! Nevertheless, the butchery was initially replaced by an ice cream shop selling over-priced vegan ice creams which were obviously catering for the tourists and not the locals. Since the closure of the butchery, residents, many of whom are elderly, have had to travel further to buy meat, whereas before they could just run across the road. It is these changes that leave longstanding residents feeling like they do not belong; like they are not being cared for and catered for, and it is very sad!

Photo: Menán van Heerden (2019)

Photo: Menán van Heerden (2013)

What are the happiest stories that were told, with regard to, for example, “the history, heritage, culture and memory of the descendants of those slaves and artisans who literally built the city”?

For example, what tangible and intangible heritages did survive within families who remained there?

I recall one participant describing to me the first time she moved into the Bo-Kaap 27 years ago. This story for me is one of the most beautiful, because it captures the intangible heritage and culture of help and support that is characteristic of the Bo-Kaap.

She recalls a particular day, not too long after having moved into the area, when she noticed a lot of people visiting the house of her neighbour. Out of curiosity she enquired about why so many people had been visiting, and found out that her neighbours are going on Hajj the next day and that it is customary to visit the house of the person leaving for the Holy Land on pilgrimage. As part of this, people usually meet early in the morning on the day of departure for breakfast. And so, this participant shared how she absolutely fell in love with this tradition and woke up early the next day, baby in tow, and went to the neighbours next door to participate in this tradition and to wish them well for their visit to the Holy Land. She says that this and other traditions like it still exist in the neighbourhood today.

As briefly mentioned above, another of these cultural practices and acts of heritage that still exist today is that where children during Ramadaan go from door to door to share “barakatjies” with both Muslim and Christian neighbours in the area.

Some other cultural and heritage practices that persist in the Bo-Kaap today are Gadats (a Muslim form of worship where the Quran is recited, usually held for special occasions) and Kifayats (a Muslim funeral, also known as a Janazah). So it is not to say that the Bo-Kaap has lost these cultural practices and intangible heritages, because it has not. Rather, what my research has found is that some of these practices are being negatively impacted by gentrification and, as such, are slowly becoming less widely practised because of the changing demographics and, in some cases, reduced tolerance in the neighbourhood.

“As a human geographer,” you write, “I believe that geographers are incredibly important actors in the development of knowledge that can change our world in a very real way.”

How did you apply this research to the field of human geography?

My research paper, titled “Sense of place: Gentrification experiences of Bo-Kaap’s long-term residents”, contributes directly to the discipline of geography and specifically human geography.

Three core concepts lie at the heart of any geographical inquiry, be it physical or human. These concepts are space, place, and people. My research dealt directly with the concepts of people and place by exploring how gentrification impacts the place experiences and sense of place of Bo-Kaap’s long-standing residents.

As such, this research takes a somewhat different approach to the gentrification issue by not focusing on those residents who have already been physically displaced owing to gentrification, but instead focusing on those residents who manage to resist physical displacement and remain in their neighbourhood but who are nonetheless experiencing a different type of displacement: displacement and a loss of place.

And so I foreground place and people in this research. Moreover, I explore this topic through a phenomenological lens with specific use of the concept of sense of place to better understand longstanding residents’ (changing) place experiences.

To elaborate, geographers are primarily interested in space and places on the earth’s surface. Depending on the nature of the research, a different understanding of these concepts may be adopted.

For example, physical geographers examining the impact of human activities on the integrity and functioning of wetland ecosystems still use the concept of place, although they may be less concerned with human experiences, emotions and memories and more concerned with soil pH, water turbidity, and species health.

However, human geographers, like me, tend to work with a phenomenological understanding of place that focuses on people’s experiences, memories and life worlds. This will, of course, vary depending on the specific approach (be it postmodern or post-structural etc) utilised. Nevertheless, human geographers use this specific understanding of place to better understand the world we live in.

My research accordingly foregrounds this concept to illustrate how locations/spaces on the earth’s surface hold deep meanings and significance for many people. To illustrate this we need not look further than our homes: For some of us, our homes evoke feelings of safety, comfort, relaxation, and happiness – a positive sense of place.

“Save our heritage! (Photo: Menán van Heerden, 2019)

Yet so often do we take the place we call home for granted. We may call the physical building home, or we may, as in the case of many longstanding Bo-Kaap residents, call the entire neighbourhood home. It is this relationship that people have with their physical surroundings and the people in those surroundings that makes us feel we belong in that house, neighbourhood, town, city, or country. To feel estranged and excluded is to say that the person has a negative sense of place.

Therefore, places may be experienced either positively or negatively, or even ambivalently. While I could go on about this for ages, what I hope I managed to illustrate through my research is the profoundly significant relationships people have with a particular location on the earth’s surface. That is to say that this is my home, not that; home is here, not there; home is the Bo-Kaap, not Tamboerskloof or Goodwood. Knowing this means that when we seek to develop or “renew” a neighbourhood we need to understand how such changes will affect the experiences and attachments people have within and to that particular location.

Lees meer oor die Bo-Kaap op Voertaal en LitNet: 

Inwoners wil Bo-Kaap red

Die Bo-Kaap: my erfenis

Wat gat nou an, Bo-Kaap?

Baai baai, Bo-Kaap

Die Bo-Kaap en Afrikaans

Bo-Kaap: bewaarde erfenis

Onderhoud: Waar het die spoor van Afrikaans as onderrigtaal begin?

Die Afrikaans van die Kaapse Moslems (Achmat Davids): Bekendstellingstoespraak

Fotoblad: Die Afrikaans van die Kaapse Moslems-bekendstelling

Ervaar Kaap-Maleise kookkuns in die Bo-Kaap

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