Why Colour Still Matters in Cape Town The Legacy of Apartheid

By Abi King | South Africa

Nov 08

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

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 Streets


Legacy of Apartheid

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.)

Bo Kaap Streets04

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.)

Bo Kaap streets

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.

Next year is a big one for Cape Town. Not only is it poised to become World Design Capital, but the whole nation will mark 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 right now.

On the streets of Bo Kaap

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.

Bo Kaap Streets02


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.


South African Airways offers return flights to Johannesburg from London Heathrow from £839.85. Price includes tax, surcharges and APD. For more information visit www.flysaa.com or call 0844 375 9680.

Fancy trying out the cooking class yourself? Head here. Or making a mean samosa in your own living room? Well, stay tuned. The recipes are on their way…

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