Insight: Heritage

Bo-Kaap losing its spice

Many residents fear that gentrification of the historic neighbourhood is destroying their heritage and have embarked on protests to save their sanctuary

01 July 2018 - 00:00 By JONATHAN ANCER

You can smell Abdul Wahab Ahmed from a block away. He smells of turmeric, cumin, chilli and maybe a pinch of red gold - also known as saffron.
Ahmed, 69, is a third-generation South African and director of Atlas Trading, known to anyone in the Cape who knows their spices.
Ahmed's grandfather, Cassiem, a merchant from India, settled in the Bo-Kaap in 1890.
The Bo-Kaap dates from the 1700s when houses were built and leased to slaves from Malaysia and Indonesia. Three hundred years on, developers have been building high-rises, office blocks and hotels in the community at the foot of Signal Hill, on the edge of Cape Town's CBD.
Wealthy outsiders have also muscled their way in, driving out locals by buying up the brightly coloured homes that line the cobbled streets, and increasing property rates and taxes so that families who have been there for generations can't afford to live there.Ahmed grew up in the 1950s and spent his childhood playing dominoes, kerm (mini-pool on a square table), kennetjie (flipping, hitting and catching pieces of wood), and bok-bok (leapfrog with a twist). "We played with all types," he says in his office at Atlas.
"There were whites, blacks, Christians and Muslims until the apartheid government enforced the Group Areas Act and started relocating people. The area was declared for the Malays. Although we are Muslim, we are from India, and the authorities told us we were illegal, but my father said we won't move and they left us."
STARTED IMPORTING
In 1972 his father and uncle bought Atlas Trading.
"There was no spice in the Bo-Kaap so we started importing from India. We had spices and groceries, but we couldn't compete with the supermarkets so we concentrated on spice."
Their most popular item is the medium-strength leaf masala - a blend of 12 different spices - but he also does a roaring trade in "mother-in-law masala", which is exceedingly hot.
"We were a very close community; we still are. We all help out - we respect each other and live together peacefully. That is the beauty. The Bo-Kaap is my lifeblood. We'd sit outside and talk until the early hours of the morning."
He says the houses had to be white but when the slaves, who were mostly artisans, could buy the properties, they painted them bright colours as a symbol of their freedom.It was a colourful up-yours to the authorities; a vibrant symbol of defiance.
Ahmed's house is painted white, which, he says, now stands out from his neighbours' olive-green, canary-yellow and perky-pink homes.
"My house is over 100 years old; it's a heritage home. I moved in 47 years ago and recently some foreigner offered me millions for it. I said: 'No thank you.' I can't imagine ever living anywhere else."
He doesn't have a problem with development but worries the area will become overcrowded and the small roads won't be able to cope with the traffic.
"There are already people who have moved in and started to complain about the call to prayer, saying it should be quieter. But that's our heritage."
Ahmed lives on Church Street but says there isn't a church in the area - instead there are nine mosques, which isn't surprising because the Bo-Kaap is considered the birthplace of Islam in South Africa. During Ramadan, members of the community often gather in the street for iftar, the breaking of the fast at sunset.Outside Atlas Trading, which is painted in chilli yellow, masala red and turmeric orange, the fragrant scent of Ahmed's spices mixes with the aroma of roasting coffee beans. The coffee comes from the spice shop's neighbour, Deluxe, one of Cape Town's best caffeine joints, and a sign of hipster creep making its way from trendy Long and Bree streets.
BLOODSHED AND PAIN
Inside Deluxe, 60-year-old Nasser Essop comes for his afternoon espresso "fix". Essop, who restores classic cars, says the Bo-Kaap is revolutionary because it was born from bloodshed and pain.
"Our forefathers came as slaves from all over the world into this political soup - they were a displaced people who had to create a culture and practise a religion that was banned," says Essop, who lived on the Cape Flats until he decided to move to the Bo-Kaap, which he describes as his cultural home, 29 years ago.
"When I sit on my stoep every child that walks by greets me with a 'Salaam alaikum, uncle'. We have an open-door policy and no one goes hungry. During apartheid, the Bo-Kaap was an oasis; this is what our country could have been like if there hadn't been apartheid."
This, he explains, is why gentrification is so painful.
"Residents are being coerced into vacating that cultural space. This is why there is anger."
Three months ago, 26-year-old Shakirah Dramat's rage, which had been simmering for two years, reached boiling point. She took to Facebook to let off some steam."I have been getting angrier and angrier and I cannot keep quiet any more," the fourth-generation Bo-Kaap resident vented in a video.
"The community continues to suffer. People are angry. People are so f**king angry. People like me can't afford to live here because it's too expensive. It's only for people who have euros."
Dramat also expressed outrage at the selfie-taking tourists. "They come in their hundreds. In. Their. Hundreds," she fumed.
"They disrespect our privacy, they walk onto our stoeps," she said, and then addressed the tourists directly. "You go to all of two roads and think you understand Malay history. I'm sorry but you understand nothing. You understand nothing of what it means to be Cape Malay, you understand nothing of Islam, you understand nothing of our food. You come here with your euro-trash tour guides, who talk the world of k*k ... and the community of Bo-Kaap doesn't benefit at all."
For Dramat, the houses in vibrant colours, once a mark of freedom, had become a symbol of exploitation.
"Colourful houses! Colourful houses! That's all people are interested in," she seethed.
PROTECTING HER HERITAGE
Three months later, Dramat has channelled her passion for the community into Bo-Kaap Rise - a social movement working to protect the community's heritage. She's in her hot-pink home where she lives with her family in an area she describes as the "colonised Bo-Kaap".
"A Frenchman has bought four houses nearby and turned them into B&Bs, and just because it's legal doesn't make it right," says the entrepreneur, whose Facebook rage went viral.
"Yes, I'm the famous Bo-Kaap video chick. I've been making videos for so long and no one notices, but the one where I happen to swear ...," she laughs.Inspired by the Humans of New York profile series, she is creating an online platform to document the stories of the Bo-Kaap's elders. "No one is capturing their memories and their stories. It's not only the houses that are colourful, the people and the history are colourful too."
What makes Bo-Kaap extraordinary, says Dramat, is the community's togetherness.
"Growing up here was special because there was a Bo-Kaap feeling in the air. That Bo-Kaap feeling," she says, "is greeting our elders; it's them looking after the kids as if we were their own; it's sharing food, information and love; it's walking down the road and five aunties telling me their cousin played with my mommy when she was five."
Dramat is determined to make sure that if she has children, they too can experience the "Bo-Kaap feeling".
"But," she warns, "if the gentrification continues, the soul of the community will die and the culture will be forgotten."
It's 4.30pm and a few hundred metres from Dramat's home, protesters have set up a blockade outside Atlas Trading and Deluxe in Wale Street. The aromatic mix of spices and coffee has been replaced with the sharp stench of burning rubber. More tyres burn down the road, outside the Hilton Hotel.Police and protesters play a tense game of cat and mouse. There's an uneasy truce as each group waits for the other to make a move.
Diagonally opposite Atlas Trading is another rock of Bo-Kaap's business community - Rocksole Shoe & Luggage Store, which was established in 1904, and has become every Bo-Kaap resident's go-to cobbler.
The store is run by Roshan Jaga and his wife, Sunita. Roshan's great-grandfather came from Surat, India, and set up a shoe-repair business, going door to door, collecting broken shoes, fixing and returning them.
The business was called "Rocksole" because repairs were rock solid, explains Sunita, who moved to the Bo-Kaap from Port Elizabeth 11 years ago when she and Roshan got married. She says she was welcomed into the community.
Even though 54-year-old Roshan has lived his whole life here, he's still in awe of the sounds of the Bo-Kaap - the call to prayer, the noon gun, the Klopse on Tweede Nuwejaar, and the horn of the van to announce the arrival of fresh snoek straight from the harbour.
THE PROTESTERS RETREAT
Another sound reverberating through the Bo-Kaap recently is the weekday chanting of protesters - and police sirens.
There's action outside Rocksole as police have broken the impasse by giving the protesters 10 minutes to disperse. The protesters retreat.
Among the group of about 50 protesters is Osman Shaboodien, chairman of the Bo-Kaap Civic Association, which supports the youth-led protests. "The youth are the physical side of the action; we're behind the scenes," he says. "The community has been protesting for years, but no one has been listening. These are not new issues; there's a lack of land and sports facilities, and unemployment. We've called on the city not to sell municipal land to developers. We need the city to come to the party."The protests are the city's invitation, but Shafwaan Laubscher, spokesman for Bo-Kaap Youth, says they are still waiting to get tangible feedback about their concerns over gentrification and the call for the Bo-Kaap to be made a living heritage site.
The protests, which have been led by the elders, have been going on for years, but about a month ago the BKY decided to "up the ante", he says.
"We burnt one tyre and it got attention. This protest isn't about destruction; it's about building a community. We are peaceful and although there are many different groups, we are united. We are all fighting for the same cause."
A fire truck pulls up and it takes firefighters a minute or two to douse the burning tyre and remove the melted rubber.
The BKY's slogan is "The Fire Within", and the determined look in Laubscher's eye makes it clear that their fire won't be extinguished that easily.

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