Bo-Kaap residents fight for heritage preservation
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
Bo-Kaap residents are taking action against the negative effects of neglect from local authorities and gentrification, which they claim have placed their communal heritage at risk.
Sadiq Toffa, an architecture lecturer at the University of Cape Town, was born and raised in Bo-Kaap and is among residents leading this campaign. He has even taken their cause to the New York-based World Monuments Fund (WMF).
WMF this month listed Bo-Kaap among places where “cultural heritage (is) threatened by the forces of nature or the impact of social, political, and economic change”.
Its spokesperson Daniela Stigh said this recognition aims to “provide an opportunity to raise public awareness, foster local participation in preservation, leverage resources for conservation”.
Within days of the WMF announcement, City of Cape Town officials publicly advertised a plan to engage Bo-Kaap residents to “proactively look towards the enhanced protection” of the historical area that dates back to the Dutch colonial period.
Toffa and other residents said city officials needed to act swiftly though to ensure Bo-Kaap’s heritage was not further eroded.
Post-apartheid gentrification, when race laws fell and the area was open to property buyers from outside, is part of the problem, say locals. They say this has pushed up rates and levies as property prices continue climbing.
Irresponsible tourism, which does not engage or benefit locals, has also led to disenchantment as locals are expected to maintain a façade of picturesque colourful houses but with no support.
“In Bo-Kaap, there’s a legitimate sense of feeling marginalised by authorities. We need authorities to include the community in new legislation that offers formal (heritage) protection,” said Toffa.
Toffa said there were two forms of heritage being lost in Bo-Kaap as a result of a lack of protection: “heritage of things and also ordinary lives and experiences”.
“We see the rezoning of houses to commercial buildings, which erodes the community fabric. We see pedestrian streets becoming overloaded with traffic.
“We see hotels coming up and poorly maintained buildings losing their architectural value. We see an eclecticism of historical styles eroded.”
Toffa said Bo-Kaap as a coloured area has been “historically marginalised” during apartheid, claiming this remains unchanged.
“Bo-Kaap lacks libraries, public squares and social infrastructure. Heritage has an opportunity to address this marginalisation and reinvigorate this community,” said Toffa.
Bilqees Baker, a tour guide who lives in Bo-Kaap, said city officials could do a better job at helping locals preserve the area’s heritage.
“I walk around the area on a daily basis and see homes that are becoming dilapidated. And these homes get broken down eventually,” said Baker.
“Beautiful old wooden shutters are being replaced with aluminum shutters. That’s because to replace a custom-made wooden shutter in an old Bo-Kaap home costs a lot of money.”
Baker said the house she lives in dated back to 1890. Other homes are likely older and to preserve this heritage was a challenge for locals, she said.
“We are situated on Signal Hill. Little streams of water used to run down the hill. The houses had blocked this water and the water now finds its way through the walls,” said Baker.
“Our home had major damp problems. You have to paint your house regularly. The damp will get worse. But some people can’t afford this. They need help.”
Baker said tourism authorities “use Bo-Kaap for advertising but they don’t do anything more than that”.
“We pay our rates and taxes, but if you walk through Bo-Kaap on any given day the streets are dirty. I’m embarrassed to take tourists around,” she said.
“This is Bo-Kaap, which looks so pretty in the pictures but people might be turned off when they walk in a dirty street.
“We have cobbled roads that are part of the heritage of the area. The roads are in a bad condition. They are over 200 years old. The city needs to fix the roads, but maintain the heritage.”
Mishkah Bassadien, another resident who has studied the effect of gentrification and “responsible cultural tourism development” in Bo-Kaap, said the local government needed to step up to help residents.
“The city could help protect the neighbourhood against gentrification. I know a family that had to sell their house because they couldn’t afford to pay the rates anymore,” said Bassadien.
“We also see modern offices going up in Bo-Kaap, that have been built against heritage guidelines. This has a negative physical impact on the area.”
Bassadien said the cultural impact of foreigners moving in meant prayer gatherings were sometimes disturbed when new neighbours “would come and drink and party opposite the mosque”.
Responsible tourism was needed to involve residents in taking visitors around and sharing their stories, said Bassadien.
“Bo-Kaap attracts tourists. The negative impact is we have big buses coming into the area and tourists walking around without taking any interest in locals. They are in their own world,” said Bassadien.
“There’s no real interest in the culture, but just the colourful buildings. Responsible tourism means that you have tourists who are interested in the local products.
“A local industry can develop when you have locals doing tours. Guides who are not from the area fabricate and sensationalise stories about Bo-Kaap too. Locals are not able to tell their own history of growing up in the area.”
Toffa’s plan is to document Bo-Kaap’s heritage while working with locals and authorities to ensure it is preserved.
“I want to document and record the forgotten and neglected aspects of Bo-Kaap’s social, political, intellectual history. This is going to be done through an audio-visual project, an oral histories project as well as a permanent exhibition,” he said.
“There is a lack of understanding of what Bo-Kaap’s heritage resources are. We see all kinds of inappropriate preservation based on flawed and distorted narratives.”
Councillor Johan van der Merwe, the city’s mayoral committee member for energy, environmental and spatial planning, said their plan includes implementing a Heritage Protection Overlay (HPO) zone in Bo-Kaap.
Van der Merwe said the HPO would “require any proposed alteration to an existing site or any new structure to have city heritage consent”.
“It will help ensure that new buildings are appropriate and do not compromise the heritage significance of the Bo-Kaap. It is the first time that a place is designated as an HPO since the city’s new zoning schemes came into being,” he said.
Van der Merwe said the city would also begin working on a conservation management plan to “provide a shared common vision for the future management of the heritage of the Bo-Kaap”.
Van der Merwe said the city’s “efforts to enhance the heritage and social fabric of the area are contrary” to accusations that it does not do enough to curb the negative impact of gentrification and tourism in Bo-Kaap.
“As with the other historic areas in the central city area which are affected by the normal urban pressures experienced by a big city, the city does its best to ensure that sustainable urban development takes place,” he said.
“Investment potential is unlocked while recognising the important social and historical value of these areas.”