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We were on the slopes of Signal Hill, a stone’s throw from Long Street, the bustling heart of Cape Town. The Table Mountain rose up above the buildings and we were surrounded by lots of brightly coloured houses. This was Bo‑Kaap, the former slave quarter and home to the city’s Cape Malay population.
Bo-Kaap district of Cape Town

The view from a Bo-Kaap balcony

The Unique Cape Malay Culture of Bo‑Kaap

We were on a walking tour organised by City Sightseeing Cape Town, and our guide was Stian, an enthusiastic Namibian. “This tour is very special to me,” he said, explaining that Cape Town has two major tourist destinations (Table Mountain and the V&A; Waterfront) but that Bo‑Kaap is very different. It has no big shops and no fast food restaurants; instead it has a unique and unspoilt culture. Because of this, said Stian, it was important for people to learn about the area and to help to preserve it.

As we walked around he described some of the culture to us. In the 18th century the growing colony of South Africa needed skilled overseas workers and a number of Malays (from across South East Asia and not just Malaysia) were brought to Cape Town as slaves. They lived in the houses of Bo‑Kaap (literally “Upper Cape”) and, despite the harsh working conditions, they soon created a vibrant community. Music, and in particular a new style known as Cape Jazz, was central to their culture. Slaves were only allowed one day off a year – 2 January – and they would celebrate this day with a big festival. The tradition is still observed today: we passed a tree decorated with ribbons, left over from this year’s festival.

Decorated trees

Trees are decorated with ribbons during the annual festival in January

The Houses of Bo‑Kaap

Bo‑Kaap is famous for its houses, all similar in design but each painted a different colour. Stian explained that the houses were built as utilitarian accommodation but that they were given to the slaves after emancipation. They celebrated by painting the outsides with bright colours and it became the tradition to repaint them each year at Eid (a major Muslim festival). Today the houses are protected; people can change the colour but no other alteration to the outside is permitted.
Brightly decorated houses

The brightly decorated houses of Bo-Kaap

Stian gave us snippets of history as we walked around, giving insights into a community that is rapidly changing. He said that at one time each house became associated with a particular trade that was passed on through the generations, so that a building would become known as, for instance, “the cobbler’s house”. But the old crafts were gradually dying out and outsiders were moving into the area, pushing up the price of the properties. He showed us a house whose passageway had been covered with murals in an attempt to capture a vanishing way of life.

Murals depict the traditional way of life in Bo-Kaap

Mosques and Restaurants

This is a predominantly Muslim area, and we stopped to look at the Auwal Mosque, the oldest mosque in South Africa, dating back to 1794. Apparently Auwal’s founder provided the mosque with several copies of the Koran that he had written out from memory!
Auwal Mosque, Cape Town

Auwal Mosque, the oldest in South Africa

There are restaurants in the Bo‑Kaap, too, serving classic Cape Malay food, and Stian pointed out a shop selling a whole array of traditional spices. Unfortunately for us, it was a Sunday, and the shops and restaurants were all closed. We would have to try Cape Malay cuisine another time


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