Shifting Neighborhoods: Gentrification In Cape Town

How redevelopment has affected the heart of South Africa’s capital.

Although South Africa faces key challenges such as poverty and low levels of education and employment, investors still find hope in the port city of Cape Town, as the residential and commercial industry continues to grow.

Known for its incredible mountainous terrain and stunning ocean views, the country’s legislative capital has become a hotspot for tourists and wealthy investors. This apparent calm, however, is misleading. Since 2018, there have been demonstrations and marches in fear that gentrification is destroying the community.

Cape Town is booming despite South Africa’s economic troubles. Attracted to this location, tourists and wealthy foreigners have inevitably increased the demand for property and new businesses, raising prices to an all-time high. Inflation in the cost of living has forced many locals to sell to outsiders.

This, however, is not much a discussion about the future as it is about the past.

Sunset Cape Town City Center, South Africa
Sunset Cape Town City Center, South Africa. Photo by Zoë Reeve on Unsplash

The historic area of Bo-Kaap, overlooking Cape Town’s city center, is filled with picturesque pastel-colored houses and rich cultural heritage. Although this small town has always been a favorite stop for tourists, it was home to other residents’ decades before.

Dating back to the 1760s, Bo-Kaap was originally known as the Malay Quarter as it was first inhabited by slaves sent to the Cape by the Dutch from India, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. By the mid-twentieth century, the Apartheid government, under the Group Areas Act of 1950, declared Bo-Kaap a Muslims-only area, forcing people of other religions and ethnicities to leave. The racist, oppressive government that took power in 1948 enforced the division of cities like Bo-Kaap across the nation into ethnically distinct areas. The effect on Cape Town, specifically, was particularly dramatic.

Today, a different force is propelling socio-economic and racial segregation in the largely Muslim and mixed-raced neighborhood. Gentrification, which is the process of changing the make-up of a neighborhood through the influx of new residents and businesses, has become the new enemy for so many residents.

Many of the families in the neighborhood of Bo-Kaap have been living there for generations, but things are changing now, as the Bo-Kaap property market has become appealing to foreigners, investors, and builders. Bo-Kaap is a place of historical importance, and for so many families, it represents an identity and destiny for people of their society. The people who lived through this history, however, can no longer afford to live there anymore.

Gentrification in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town
Gentrification in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town. Image by Hans Bruckmann from Pixabay

Gentrification is also affecting Woodstock. Located in the Western Cape, Woodstock is an evolving neighborhood that was once filled with worn cottages and mom-and-pop shops, but now features luxury apartments and upscale stores. Being the oldest suburb in Cape Town, Woodstock was largely untouched by the Group Areas Act, so members of different races and ethnicities could live together. In the 1980s, residents who were evicted from District Six – a neighborhood bulldozed by the Apartheid government – relocated to Woodstock. Now those same residents face eviction once again, but this time in Woodstock.

A significant turning point for Woodstock came in 2007, when the Cape Town council designated the area as a priority urban development zone. These “urban upgrades” included significant tax breaks, which, to wealthy local and foreign developers and investors, was a no-brainer for purchasing properties for redevelopment.

Reclaim the City, a social movement of tenants and workers campaigning to stop displacement and secure access to decent and affordable housing, believe in land for the people, not for profit. Reclaim the City has transformed hospitals into housing for residents and has made big strides through its actions throughout Cape Town.

Land For People, Tafelberg Gentrification
Land For People, Tafelberg Gentrification. PHOTO Facebook

Bo-Kaap Rise! – a movement initiated by the area’s youth – has spearheaded many protests that have brought into focus the grievances of residents with the need to maintain the area’s rich cultural history.

Hostility between developers and residents has been festering for years and this issue of gentrification in Cape Town touches on a broader socio-political issue too, the disproportionate wealth of the white minority in South Africa. In Cape Town, the legacy of apartheid and town structure is very apparent, as it is reflected in who is moving out and who is moving in.

Lily Adami

Content Editor Associate

Having a silly and hard-working personality, Lily loves getting to know people and is passionate about human rights around the world. She is enthusiastic about other cultures, history, and international affairs. Lily has a deep appreciation for traveling, her favorite places include: Amsterdam, Amalfi Coast, and South Africa.

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