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.
Recommended reading: 27 Ways Food and Travel Go Together (Not just for “Foodies”)
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, 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.)
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.
My 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.
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.
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.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
Please log in again. The login page will open in a new tab. After logging in you can close it and return to this page.