Cape Town: A Divided City

whose heritage is it?

Apartheid may have ended 23 years ago, but years of forced segregation seems to have boxed our people permanently. Who’s to blame for the persistent slumber?

In Brief

  • What happens when communities in historically segregated urban areas reject opportunities for growth and inclusiveness?

  • In Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap, some self-appointed defenders of the community’s history and heritage recklessly reject new investments into the area without adequate consideration.

  • uSpiked’s editor, Mark Thomas, looked into Bo-Kaap and found surprising reasons for the obstructionists’ forked tongues.

  • It is not socially viable sticking to the old inhumane systems that entrenched poverty among the populace.

On 8 May 1996, former President Thabo Mbeki delivered the famous ‘I Am an African’ speech. It was a momentous occasion for the people of South Africa and the whole continent - the South African parliament was adopting the new Constitution.

'South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity', declares the Constitution in its preamble. And many people dared to believe they were finally going to be the owners and rightful profiteers of this land so many had fought and died for.

A lot has happened since that May day 21 years ago. The truth is that the legacy of apartheid has lived on.

Today, it would be suicidal for one to publicly express support for apartheid. People and organisations that propped up the regime have reinvented themselves as protectors of democracy and good governance. In his book, Apartheid Guns and Money: A tale of Profit, Hennie Van Vuuren of Open Secrets exposes the funders of apartheid and their new positions.

The reality is different. There are people and entities that would prefer things remained as they were created by the tormentors of yore. They are trying too hard to protect and preserve the history of apartheid and colonialism.

In his speech, President Mbeki looked back to define his Africanness:

"I owe my being to the Khoi and the San, whose desolate souls haunt the great expanses of the beautiful Cape – they who fell victim to the most merciless genocide our native land has ever seen, they who were the first to lose their lives in the struggle to defend our freedom and dependence and they who, as a people, perished in the result.”

Good or bad, history is important and should be preserved and celebrated whenever appropriate. But, how should we treat the cruel history of apartheid and colonialism?

Recent public discourse has prompted many people to ask; “whose history and heritage need to be hailed?” From #RhodesMustFall to Helen Zille's infamous colonial tweet, the answers to the above question are a mixed bag.

Chumani Maxwele, the University of Cape Town student who threw faeces on the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, felt affronted by its existence. Maxwele's action sucked in and exposed the deep divisions in the country. Those who opposed the removal of the statue argued that Rhodes’ contributions to the academic development of the University needed to be acknowledged and rewarded.

When learners at Pretoria Girls’ and Sans Souci Girls’ schools protested hair and language policies, our true colours showed once again. Some people condemned the inconvenient noise about 'non-issues'. Others applauded the courage of the girls.

We have unwittingly accepted some remnants of apartheid and colonialism. Call it the Stockholm Syndrome if you like.

Whose history and heritage are we concerned about when we clamour for their preservation?

Is it the history of the Khoi and the San "whose desolate souls haunt the great expanses of the beautiful Cape"? Or the ‘discoverers’ of the “the great flat-top mountain and the Lion’s Head'', who renowned travel writer AA Gill described in Vanity Fair in 2004? Or the property owners who desire unobstructed views of pretty scenery?

Who owns the City of Cape Town?

The mother city is part of the Republic of South Africa. Thus, according to the Constitution, it belongs to all who live therein.

Unfortunately, some groups think they have the sole veto power on important matters pertaining to the city. These groups have apportioned themselves so much power that even the elected leaders can’t easily make decisions affecting the city’s residents and visitors. They claim ownership of specific areas and seek to exclude all who don't look, speak, pray or work like them. This is unconstitutional and inhumane.

In a recent judgment, the High Court found that no single religion is superior in a schooling environment. Shouldn’t the same apply to residential areas? Currently, it is not so, despite the Rental Housing Act forbidding all forms of discrimination.

Some property owners have applied underhand tactics of keeping certain groups of people from living in specific areas. The schemes include high rentals and in some instances outright rejection of prospective tenants who don't fit certain secret profiles. That is a classic example of modern-day segregation, or plainly, an attempt to rewrite history to suit personal needs.

The rewriting of history is common with humanity. Last year a Hout Bay resident, Vanessa Hartley, called for a petition to keep black people whom she likened to “stupid animals” out of ‘her beloved Hout Bay’.

The likes of Hartley decide what is sentimental and historical based on their convenience. This goes against the country’s constitution and efforts to build a just and equitable society.

Gentrification - the way to hell?

The signs of gentrification taking root have become more visible over the past few years. The narrative is being pinned on the perception that gentrifying areas surrounding the cities are intended to displace the poor. In December 2014, Cape Talk’s Kieno Kammies explored the issue with Bulelwa Ngewana, the CEO of Cape Town Partnership. It emerged the main issue is balancing gentrification with economic and social inclusion.

Some communities have their cunning and 'politically correct' ways of excluding ‘outsiders’. Take for instance the Bo-Kaap Civic and Ratepayers Association (BKCRA). The association routinely opposes entrances of new property owners and developers in the area and its outskirts by evoking heritage status.

BKCRA unsuccessfully objected to a R1 billon development bordering the area claiming it would water down the heritage status of ‘their Bo-Kaap’.

In another recent case, the City of Cape Town sold a vacant property in Bo-Kaap area through an open online auction for R1.4 million. The successful bidder later offered the property for sale at R3 million, causing an uproar from certain individuals and organisations who claimed the City had sold the property for a song. The confusion became evident when two officials of BKCRA blamed the City on conflicting grounds. If BKCRA leadership believed the City had undervalued the property, why didn’t they bid for it during the open auction?

Dilapidated asbestos roofed property that is now being claimed to have been used as a safe house by Anti-Apartheid comrades.

Besides these much publicised proposed developments, there have been several other cases where investors’ funds have been tied by endless objections and disputes.

BKCRA's latest objection concerns a property at the top of the Longmarket Street. This property was bought under a ‘willing-seller-willing-buyer transaction’. The property, which was owned by the same family since the 1940s, had been altered and improved without objections. Yet, the BKCRA is now quick to raise the heritage flag after learning that the new owners may not look like the rest of the community members.

Late last year, BKCRA filed an objection to the planned demolition with Heritage Western Cape. Through its secretary, Jacqueline Poking, the association wrote; “The Noon Gun is just above this proposed development and as we are all aware the Noon Gun is sounded every day except Sundays. The sonic waves generated by the Noon Gun will have an effect on the development just beneath it. Our concern is not only the negative affect these sonic waves will have on the development, but it might have the adverse effect that our Noon Gun might be asked to stop. (Noise pollution, etc.)”

Heritage Western Cape found BKCRA's argument wanting. Without providing any scientific evidence, the association appeared concerned that the sonic waves would negatively affect the new development.

The filed objection failed to distinguish between the property and the Noon Day Gun. By evoking ‘our Noon Gun’, Poking and her group are signifying some questionable sentimental values.

Whose heritage is the Noon Day Gun anyway? Certainly not the Khoi's and the San's because they didn't need to fire cannons to tell time. Besides, there are no records in the City’s Building Planning Department that indicate the new owners want the tradition stopped.

The Noon Day Gun is clearly significant and has become part of Cape Town’s fabric. The former owners of this property even named their unregistered home-based restaurant, ‘The Noon Gun Tea Room’, in 1995.

I visited the area recently and saw the adjustments made to the property by the former owner. Some of the adjustments were evidently in contravention of the land use laws and other municipal by-laws. These included encroaching on public spaces. There are no records at the planning department to show that the departures and encroachments were permitted by the City. Did the BKCRA keep mum about the contraventions because the owner(s) was one of their own?

Poking's new offices and home that lost its heritage status in 2007.

Ironically, other properties along this road (right from Carl Street to the middle of Signal Hill where 273 is located) have had various improvements and do not resemble the multi-colour properties at the former slum that became Bo-Kaap.

A few weeks ago, the BKCRA turned to social media to seek support; “We turned to Facebook, not to communicate with locals, but to seek support from outside the community,” said Poking.

She confessed that the association does not have direct access to Bo-Kaap residents. “There is no register for members, but all residents of Bo-Kaap become members of BKCRA by default.”

That would be contrary to various laws, and mainly the Republic’s Constitution. The freedom of association provided for in the constitution doesn’t talk of forced (default) recruitment of members.

And without known and subscribed membership, how does the association obtain respective mandates to act on behalf of the residents of Bo-Kaap? Should the leadership of this grouping be surprised when individual property owners decide to sell their constitutionally recognised properties without consulting them? And why should they be consulted?

The current public discourse spearheaded by the BKCRA, as already stated, doesn’t seem to distinguish between the Noon Day Gun and the old eatery, Noon Gun Tea Room. The restaurant stopped operating in February 2013, but even when it did, there was little reflection of Bo-Kaap in its operations.

In its own Facebook page, the Noon Gun Tea Room promoted itself as a ‘Middle Eastern Restaurant in Cape Town’. The people who were ‘boxed’ in the slum that was Bo-Kaap by the colonial and apartheid regimes were identified as Cape Malays. Historians would confirm that the Middle Easterners were actually the main slave traders who were indeed responsible for the existence of Cape Malays.

In a recent interview with Cape Argus, Poking urged residents of Bo-Kaap not to sell their properties to ‘outsiders’.

One media report on this objection claimed it was a ‘safe house’ for anti-apartheid fighters. That claim is far-fetched, according to a Cape Town advocate who asked for anonymity.

“Comrades were careful to pick safe houses that had easy escape routes. At 273 Longmarket Street, there's only one exit route; through the military land up the hills. That would not have been an ideal safe house.”

“Comrades were careful to pick safe houses that had easy escape routes. At 273 Longmarket Street, there's only one exit route; through the military land up the hills. That would not have been an ideal safe house. Furthermore, if the house belonged to one family since before the Second World War, it would mean they weren’t affected by the Group Area Act. Would you expect such a family to risk the wrath of the security police by housing and hiding those who were deemed enemies of the apartheid regime?"

Poking told me that she arrived in Bo-Kaap in 2010 from Johannesburg. But, according to publicly available records, she lived in Athlone, Benbow Road, (Belgravia Estate), from 2008.

She also didn’t say that the building where she currently resides (77 Upper Leeuwen Street in Bo-Kaap) got degraded to a non-heritage status in 2007. That was when the registered owner, Mehmet Kalay Siddik, applied to the City of Cape Town’s Building Planning Department for alterations and improvements. Poking runs her business (Bailey Travel & Tours cc, registered in 2011) from the same property, yet it is zoned as a single residential dwelling.

Poking seems entrenched in the revamped Bo-Kaap Civic and Ratepayers Association. In October 2014, she registered the domain, and provided her address as 18341 Grant Central Park, Jamaica Estate, New York, 11432, phone number +1-7189300835.

Do as I say and not as I do. "The drugs' den must be pulled down," the secret voices from the King.

She is not the only member of the Association who isn’t practising what they preach. The chairman, Osman Omar Shaboodien, is a fierce protector of the Bo-Kaap's heritage and history.

Records from the City and the Deeds Office show that he owns two properties on Upper Buitengracht Road, which according to him and other community members, is part of Bo-Kaap, despite not being part of the original slum that Bo-Kaap was. He also owns two other properties outside Bo-Kaap area.

Shaboodien is hard to get. Since March, he repeatedly cancelled several scheduled interviews with me, and for feeble reasons.

I wanted to ask him the following questions about his crusade to keep ‘outsiders’ off Bo-Kaap.

  • How and when did you become the chairman of the association, considering it doesn’t have registered members?
  • Without direct access to Bo-Kaap residents, especially the poor and the jobless, how do you obtain their mandate to speak for them?
  • Aren't your exclusion actions against the constitution, which grants South Africans the right to live anywhere within the Republic?
  • Crime and unemployment are real issues for the country, including the Bo-Kaap community. What has your Association done to uplift the socio-economic status of the residents of Bo-Kaap since you became the chairman? Would you rather see the youth, women and the elderly of Bo-Kaap turn to crime to survive?
  • Do you think the Bo-Kaap community wants to remain a tourist attraction associated with a dark history?
  • Have you considered the health implications to the community of the old asbestos-roofed buildings?
  • Are the residents of Bo-Kaap aware that you have titles to at least two properties in the vicinity (erf 4152 and erf 4151) both with a combined value of R6m? And that you’ve demanded of your immediate neighbour at the dilapidated erf 4150 to demolish and replace it?
  • There are no records of you paying any amounts for the two properties near Bo-Kaap. How did you get to own them?
  • You own erf 12445 in Woodstock and erf 2956 in Summer Greens, with a total value of about R2.72m. How would you feel if the communities in these two locations called you an outsider?
  • You are resisting new investments by those you deem outsiders, wouldn’t you agree that it’s the Bo-Kaap poor that will continue to suffer and not your likes with multi-million rand assets spread all over the city?

This saga, whether it is about gentrification or not, is far from over. One thing is clear, we cannot have our cake and eat it. Luckily for the City’s poor, a new crop of industrious councillors has descended at City Hall. In the next instalment, we shall amplify the visions and missions of first-time councillor, Brandon Golding. Golding’s Ward covers areas including Bo-Kaap, Gardens and part of Woodstock.