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Bo-Kaap and District 6

Bo-Kaap is one of the most beautiful neighborhoods I’ve ever visited, and is the historically Muslim area of Cape Town. It is home to the oldest mosque in South Africa, which was built at the turn of the 18th century. I spent some time this morning wandering these colorful streets, visited the Bo-Kaap Museum, and chatted with some locals about politics and religion. 

The museum and the local people informed me that Bo-Kaap used to be a center of multiculturalism, and that I really should have visited around the new year. Before 1838, slaves were permitted by law to take only one holiday per year, which was held on January 2nd. This celebration continued after slavery ended, and is still held to this day.

After slavery ended, the white economy of Cape Town depended on the labor provided by slave descendents, migrants, and immigrants. After 1838, black people held blue collar jobs while whites usually held government jobs, or owned their own businesses. As South Africa’s economy grew and more white Europeans arrived, Black people were forced out of better paying jobs. As the city grew, Black workers struggled to find decent housing. Most lived in backyards, basements, or homes owned by slumlords (who also served on City Council.) By 1930, the government forced Black residents out of townships, and by the 70’s, most were completely removed from Cape Town. 

I also visited the District 6 Museum and had a wonderful tour and chat with a man named Noor whose family was displaced during apartheid. District 6 had been a multicultural center, and was home to over 60,000 Black and colored (non Black and non white) people. In the mid 1970’s, the apartheid government displaced these people by bulldozing their homes in order to build white housing. However, no white people ever moved into this neighborhood, and tens of thousands lost their homes for nothing. The museum is a beautiful tribute to the community that once was, and many have returned to write their names on the maps and streets that once existed. 

Two main things struck me today:

The first was when I asked Noor about how schools teach about apartheid, he simply said that they do not. There are no standards or set curriculum that teach this part of South Africa’s history. Individual schools and teachers reach out to bring their students to the museum, but nothing is mandatory for students to learn. He expressed his cocern that students do not know their own history, and many are in disbelief when they learn how Blacks and people of color were treated.

The second was that both Noor and the locals both seemed to agree that the apartheid should not be blamed on the white population, but on the government that instilled these racist practices. Noor acknowledged that many minority groups, including Jews and working class whites also suffered under the government. The locals agreed that a distinction should be made between a social movement and a political party, because the two are not synonymous. As a researcher, I wanted to step back and hear more of their opinions and experiences, yet I am still curious about how the responsibility of apartheid can be compartmentalized between the government and its people who perpetuate its practices.

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