Why Colour Still Matters in Cape Town: Visiting Bo Kaap

By Abi King | South Africa

May 22


View from Table Mountain Cape Town looking down at Bo Kaap

Bo Kaap Cape Town

When it comes to colour in South Africa, perhaps there’s no better place to start than Bo Kaap.

Along the cobbled slopes that tiptoe up towards Table Mountain, houses blaze in hues of lilac, canary yellow, cobalt blue and eye watering green as children play football around the nation’s oldest mosque.

Today, there’s peace. Cardamom pods change hands in the scented gloom of the local spice shop, golden-haired tots pose for photos with balloons and tourists stroll one after the other, mouths open, cameras ready.

But, as with almost everything in Cape Town, it wasn’t always this way.


Bo Kaap Cape Town

Legacy of Apartheid in Bo Kaap Cape Town

150 years ago, Bo Kaap’s population more or less told the story of the city in its racial and cultural diversity: European settlers and freed Asian and African slaves. Islam flourished, attracting many who rejected the Christianity of their former slave owners as well as those whose beliefs arrived with them from Indonesia and beyond.

Over time came the strangling legislation of Apartheid. In particular, the relocation laws.

Bo Kaap became part of the Malay Quarter and having a cup of tea with someone in a different racial category an imprisonable offence.  (Categories were Black, White, Indian and Coloured, with further sub-categories within each group. Racial profiling involved such highbrow methods as running a pencil through someone’s hair and seeing how easily or quickly it fell out. Families were torn apart, education restricted, and whole communities relocated out of town.)

Fandela in Bo Kaap Cape Town

Meeting Like This Would Be Illegal

Fandela, a woman who calls Bo Kaap her home, muses on it all.

“Twenty five years ago,” she says, “This would be illegal.”

She’s talking about the samosa I’m holding in my hand. The one she’s been teaching me how to make within the front room of her house.

It’s not my folding technique she means, nor the trail of flour dust I’ve created. Nor even, my propensity to leave hot oil on high heat indefinitely (in my defence, that wasn’t me, that was Jayne.)

Street life in Bo Kaap Cape Town

Learning About History Through Bo Kaap Food

No, she means my existence. My being here. My veins that show through my skin and the pencil that would, no doubt, fall through my hair.

Abi and Fandela in Bo KaapMy imagination hears police footsteps at the door and the part of me that gets nervous under pressure wants to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. At the painful sum of wasted life thrown away in so many conflicts on the basis of such utter nonsense.

Still, that was years ago. The flour, the colour, the samosa. That’s now.

2014 was a big year for Cape Town. Not only did it become World Design Capital, but the whole nation marked the 20th anniversary of democracy and Nelson Mandela’s election into office.

The “born free” generation are coming of age – and enthusiasm pulses through South Africa.

Cooking samosas in Bo Kaap Cape Town

Why Colour Still Matters in Bo Kaap Cape Town

But there’s also disenchantment.

“Under Apartheid, the running order went White, Coloured, Black,” says Fandela. “While these days, it’s Black, White, Coloured.”

I fold another samosa and notice that one of the corners tears.

Bo Kaap itself is changing. The Rainbow Nation has introduced young professionals of all colours into the paintbox palette streets.

Old animosities die. And new controversies flare as residents fight against drinking hole proposals in this predominantly Muslim area.

In the meantime, I move from samosas to roti, give thanks for my meal and sit down to eat with my hands in the beautiful streets of Bo Kaap.

It’s protected now, on account of that architectural beauty. Residents are free to change whatever they like on the inside but the outside must remain the same.

Except for the colour.

Residents can change that as much as they like. It’s the law.

Colours of Bo Kaap Cape Town


I’ve travelled to Cape Town several times. This time, I was a guest of GoToSouthAfrica. As ever, as always, I am free to write what I like. Read more about that here.

Fancy trying out the cooking class yourself? Head here.

Bo Kaap Cape Town is one of the most colourful and vibrant neighbourhoods in South Africa. Exploring Bo Kaap food and Bo Kaap photography through a cooking lesson is one of my favourite activities in Cape Town. #southafrica #capetown #foodie #lovesouthafrica

About the Author

Abigail King is an award-winning writer and author who swapped a successful career as a hospital doctor for a life on the road. With over 60 countries under her belt, she's worked for Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic Traveller and more. She is passionate about sustainable tourism and was invited to speak on the subject at the EU-China High Level summit at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.Here she writes about food, travel and history and she invites you to pull up a chair and relax. Let's travel more and think more. Welcome!

  • SAM says:

    Excellent, highly informative post.It
    served to pique my interest enough that I may consider a visit during Cape Town’s upcoming year of honours and celebrations.
    Thanks for bringing this to the attention of your readers.


  • Darlene says:

    A very colourful post. I have always wanted to visit South Africa. Perahps one day I will visit this colourful city.

  • Alvina says:

    Poignant message and interesting story. Another time we should never forget

  • […] A lot has changed since South Africa officially abolished Apartheid, but as the country prepares to celebrate the 20th anniversary of democracy and Nelson Mandela’s election to office, a visit to the Bo Kaap neighborhood makes clear “why color still matters in Cape Town.” @insidetravellab […]

  • Frank says:

    so what you said in summary?

  • Don Enright says:

    Beautifully composed images, captivating storytelling. Thanks so much.

  • Sorin says:

    Bo Kaap is for me, an unique place in CT. It turns a sad day into a bright one!

  • Ross says:

    Very informative, brilliantly written. A personal insight into how things change, or don’t as the case may be.

  • Just visited there today. What a feast for the eyes!

  • Vibrant colors to represent a colorful history!

  • >
    %d bloggers like this: