The Bo-Kaap's battle to keep its heritage

The Bo-Kaap: Quaint! Colourful! Picturesque! Historic! Experience city living at its finest! The CBD just on your doorstep! Majestic mountain views! Majestic harbour views! Location, location, location! An investor's dream!

While all conceivable property jargon applies to the Bo-Kaap, for the close-knit community of more than 6 000 people, whose familes have called the slopes of Signal Hill home for roughly the last three centuries, it is much more. It is their heritage.

Many in the community have not taken kindly to a new development under constuction by company Blok.

The tensions came to a head this past week as protesters clashed with police in Buitengracht Street amid the rising tide of gentrification.

Residents, many of them elderly, tried to prevent a mobile crane from entering the neighbourhood on Tuesday, headed to a development called FORTY ON L, located at 40 Lion Street.

As the crane rolled up Bloem Street flanked by private security guards armed with Airsoft guns, some residents laid on the street, blocking the crane's way.

After a standoff which led to the closure of busy Buitengracht Street, stun grenades were fired to disperse the small crowd and five people were arrested for contravening the National Road Traffic Act and a court interdict.

The charges were later dropped; a small victory, in a larger battle.

Bo-Kaap residents protest against high-rise buildi
Bo-Kaap residents protest against high-rise buildings (Christina Pitt, News24)

Following earlier protests in May, Blok obtained an interdict against the Bo-Kaap Neighbourhood Watch and the community – as well as all other persons causing obstructions or unlawfully conducting themselves.

This interdict restricted residents from obstructing the route or interfering with the transportation of the mobile crane to and from the construction site at 40 Lion Street.

They are also prohibited from entering the construction site and from vandalising, sabotaging or committing arson to any of Blok's property – including construction vehicles.

On Wednesday, Bo-Kaap residents cheered and waved as the crane left the neighbourhood after a handful of elderly people waited peacefully for hours for its removal – a far cry from Tuesday's violence.

"Allah has granted us a short victory. Our fight is going to continue," Bo-Kaap Collective leader Shafwaan Loubscher said, News24 reported.

An online petition has been created, calling for the recognition and conservation of the Bo-Kaap as a unique historical urban landscape with a vibrant, living culture and way of life,among other things.

At the heart of this dispute is the Bo-Kaap's lack of status as a heritage site.

Bo-Kaap residents protest against high-rise buildi
Bo-Kaap residents protest against high-rise buildings (Christina Pitt, News24)

The Bo-Kaap's cultural and historical import is indisputable. Pictures of its multi-coloured semi-detached houses are often used to attract tourists or illustrate the Mother City's incarnation of the "Rainbow Nation".

In a bitter twist of irony, Blok makes much of the Bo-Kaap's cultural significance in promotional material for FORTY ON L.

GroundUp reported that in 2013, sub-council 16 called for the Bo-Kaap to be declared a Heritage Protection Overlay Zone (HPOZ). In 2015, proposals from the Bo-Kaap Civic Association together with the City's environmental resource management department followed, saying an HPOZ would "assist with the preservation of the cultural heritage of the Bo-Kaap".

So why isn't the Bo-Kaap an HPOZ?

According to a forensic report by law firm Bowmans, which was adopted by the City council at a dramatic council meeting last month, former Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille allegedly blocked it.

In their report, in a section dealing with heritage management and protection, Bowmans stated that it was informed that the City had a statutory obligation to give protection to identified and graded heritage places.

It received a submission from employees within the Environmental and Heritage Management Branch: Metro Office (EHMB), which alleged that the Environmental Management Department was unable to perform this mandate.

"There is interference and obstruction through instructions from the Mayor P de Lille in the department's management and administration of local heritage resources. Protection of identified heritage resources is a duty and mandate, as approved by full council...(sic)," the submission stated.

According to the submission, applications were not being treated with the legally required local heritage protection because formal protection is not yet in place, the Bowmans report reads.

The submission lists Bo-Kaap and Pinelands as examples of where this occurred. De Lille's private residence is in Pinelands.

De Lille has since taken the Bowmans report on judicial review, claiming many aspects of its conclusions to be factually flawed.

According to Bowmans, the legitimacy of De Lille's instruction not to proceed with the heritage work was questionable due to: 

  • council already having approved the district plans and the authority to commence consultation being in place; and
  • De Lille's instruction was an obstruction of the delegated officials' authority to commence with participation and consultation for heritage areas.

Bowmans recommended that the matter be investigated further.

De Lille told Netwerk24 that she stopped the public participation process, which was due to proceed over December because it was the City's policy that public participation processes not be over December when people are away on holiday.

On Friday, News24 sent questions relating to the Bo-Kaap's heritage status to the City. Once these answers are received, it will be reported.

Earlier this year, Blok claimed a fire was set to the construction site and the containers were petrol bombed. Armed people also entered the site and their employees were intimidated.

Muddying the water is a group called the Bo-Kaap Youth Movement, which seems to support the development.

Blok claims that the Bo-Kaap Youth Movement reached out to them "in order to de-escalate the ongoing and ever escalating violence and the opportunity was seized."

Bo-Kaap Civic Association secretariat Jacky Poking told News24 last week: "It's not legal and we don't recognise it'."

The Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) said in a statement "years of pleas to declare Bo-Kaap a heritage site have fallen on deaf ears. It is for this reason that the residents have decided to peacefully protest - a right enshrined in the Bill of Rights - against gentrification in the area". 

"The way the police and a private security company manhandled our elderly mothers and fathers in the community is appalling," said MJC secretary general, Shaykh Isgaak Taliep.

Through its lawyers, Blok said in a statement "a small self-interested group has unlawfully interfered with previous deliveries and there is currently an interdict in place to prevent any further interference by this group, not the entire community as alleged". 

"As per the court order, law enforcement was informed of the delivery and after their security assessment, made the necessary arrangements to prevent the kind of violent interference experienced during previous delivery attempts and to ensure the safety of the hundreds of staff working on the construction site," reads the statement.

"We are disappointed and concerned by [Tuesday's] violence and appreciate the cooperation of our neighbours as well as other stakeholders within the community to date who we will continue to communicate and engage with."

A grouping of civic movements called #UniteBehind said in a statement the Bo-Kaap community have resisted several of these developments in recent years.

"The struggle in Bo-Kaap is part of a wider struggle to undo the legacy of spatial apartheid. To undo such injustice, there must be well-located affordable housing in Cape Town and the inner city. The inner city cannot become an oasis for the rich and wealthy and we echo the call of 'Land for people not profit!'"

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