The Bo-Kaap (Afrikaans for above the Cape) area of Cape Town is a scenic area, sandwiched on the slopes of Signal Hill, between Cape Town and Table Mountain. It formerly covered a larger area but commercial development limited it. It was called the Malay Quarter, and was home to the descendants of slaves from Malaysia, India and Sri Lanka who were brought over to South Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries by the Dutch East India Company. In 1966, it was declared a national monument.
The Dutch East India Company flourished for two hundred years (1602 – 1800), along the routes in Europe and Asia that traded spices, silk, porcelain, metals, livestock, tea, grain, rice, soybeans, and sugarcane. The successful trade of these goods went hand and hand with colonialism and slavery. The Company colonized the area of Cape Town, which was mid-point of the maritime trade route from East to West. They brought slaves, political exiles, and prisoners from India, Indonesia, Malaysia and other parts of Africa.
In 1763, a Dutch owner built huurhuisjes (rental houses) for his Malay slaves. To this day, the single story, flat roofed houses are a mix of Cape Dutch and Georgian architecture, in distinctive multi-coloured rows on steeply cobbled roads. The choice of colour is said to be attributed to the fact that while on lease, all the houses had to be white. When this rule was eventually lifted, and the slaves were allowed to buy the properties, all the houses were painted initially in pastel colours, and now days, bright colours by their owners as an expression of their freedom. They often have a stoep or porch above the road.
Unlike the District 6 area nearby, where some 60000 inhabitants were forcibly removed under Apartheid legislation, The Malay Quarter kept its space and with it, its unique heritage. Many of the families in the Bo-Kaap have been living there for generations. Today the Bo-Kaap community is a significant part of our cultural heritage.
The Bo-Kaap is best accessed by foot along Wale Street. Explore the Islamic “kramats” (shrines), mosques and food and craft markets, and discover the delicious Cape Malay cooking style.
Visit the Bo-Kaap Museum, one of the area’s oldest houses which is furnished as a house that depicts the lifestyle of a nineteenth-century Muslim family. Visit to the District 6 Museum and walk to visit Atlas Trading, Cape Town’s oldest spice store, before heading to a local spot to try Cape Malay cuisine. Cape Malay food is subtly spiced and there may be fruit in with a savoury dish as in Indonesian fare. If you have no time, do grab some corner cafe samosas to eat as you go. The cooking is spiced and aromatic and does not burn your mouth as the KwaZulu Natal versions may. There are also half-moons (crescent-shaped savoury snacks), daltjies (chilli bites), slangetjies and paaper bites (crisps), koesisters covered with coconut (sweet syrupy doughnuts) and boeber (a sweet sago and vermicelli drink).
One of the most fashionable parts of town to eat, and the venerable and authentic Biesmiellah, at 2 Wale Street, has served the community’s traditional Cape Malay cuisine for 40 years. Diners sit in a spacious, colourful cafe with huge windows looking out across Table Mountain. Cuisine is halal and no alcohol is served. The the speciality denningvleis, is a tender sweet-and-sour lamb stew, and the unforgettable bobotie, spiced minced beef is baked with egg-soaked bread and sultanas. 021 4230850.
Visit the oldest mosque in South Africa in neighbouring Dorp Street.
The Muslim faith is the most important feature of the Bo-Kaap community and the Auwal Mosque is a key historic landmark. Many of the prisoners that the Dutch East India Company brought to Cape Town were important people who resisted colonialism. One example is Tuan Guru an Indonesian prince from the Island of Tidore, who arrived in 1780 and was incarcerated on Robben Island for 13 years. While on Robben Island he copied from memory, the Koran’s texts.
Upon his release he married a free woman and agitated the authorities for a madrassa (religious school) and eventually conducted the school from a warehouse where many of the people of the area converted to Islam. Later in 1795, the British granted permission for a masjid (Arabic for mosque) and the freed slave Coridan van de Kaap, owner of the warehouse, donated it to Tuan Guru who converted it to the Auwal Mosque. He became its first Imam. It conformed to the doctrines of Indonesian Muslims, known as Shafee. To this day over 90 percent of Muslims practising in the Bo-Kaap are Shafee.