Bo-Kaap battle could inflame Muslim-Jewish tensions
With its colourful houses, cobbled streets and proximity to the city centre, the Bo-Kaap has drawn tourists, young professionals and property developers to the area. This has led to families living there for decades no longer being able to afford the skyrocketing property prices.
Over the past year, protests from this Muslim community have become extreme. In the last week of Ramadan, tyres were burnt, traffic was blocked and visibly angry youth made their presence felt. Bo-Kaap activists have likened the struggle to retain the area’s heritage to the Palestinian struggle.
The late president Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Mandla Mandela, addressed Bo-Kaap Youth group of protesters on 8 June, saying: “The Bo-Kaap Youth can make us proud by making this area a no-go zone for all Apartheid Israel products… let us fly a Palestinian flag on every street of Bo-Kaap, if not on every home. When the world comes here to see the historic Slave Quarter, let us make them aware and tell them that our Palestinian brothers and sisters are still being subjected to occupation, brutality and genocide by Apartheid Israel.
Tensions came to a head a few weeks ago when Judge Robert Henney granted an interdict prohibiting anyone from going near the Blok development site. The property development company is owned by Marco, Jacques and Lior van Embden, a Cape Town-based Jewish family. Marco is a community leader and a donor to many meaningful causes.
The interdict cited violent acts committed by civic organisations, including a petrol bomb at the construction site, as part of the reason for the interdict. Bo-Kaap Civic Association chairperson Osman Shaboodien insisted that Blok was infringing on their human rights.
Bo-Kaap resident Ebrahim Christian, who was specified in the interdict, said: “The community is angry. It’s not touching one person but the entire community… It’s not going to work; it’s an old apartheid tactic.”
After the interdict was granted, the Bo-Kaap Youth, who are leading the protests, wrote on their Facebook page that they are “declaring war” on the Blok company: “The entire Bo-Kaap community has been interdicted by Blok property developers from preventing their cranes from coming into the area. They have employed an Israeli security company to secure their sites,” wrote Bo-Kaap Youth, whose slogan is: “The fire within – to exist is to resist.”
“This same security company has members who’ve served in the Israeli Defence Force and brought untold pain and hardship on the Palestinian people. Bo-Kaap is our Aqsa. We call on our Ulema (body of Muslim or religious scholars), our freedom fighters and each and every one who values the area, as well as its contribution to the history of Cape Town and South Africa,” the post continued.
“We take the defence of Bo-Kaap as our Jihaad and call upon people with conscience to join us. Join us as we occupy the developments currently taking place in Bo-Kaap. We dare Blok to unleash the Israeli occupying security firm PPA on us. Show Blok and their security teams that we the people of this beautiful South Africa know resistance. Amandla!!! #defendbokaap #joinusforbokaap #occupybokaap.”
In a post on the Bo-Kaap Youth Facebook page, a woman said: “An example to the people of Woodstock who have being forced out of their homes for years by these rich bullies… guess who is behind it, the Jews.”
It is this anti-Semitic perception that could lead to increased tension between the Muslim and Jewish communities in Cape Town. The woman is referring to a previous incident, when Blok sought the evictions of residents in Woodstock. In addition, the Jewish community was pulled into the battle over the Tafelberg site, which was sold by the City to the Phyllis Jowell Jewish Day School.
Activists want it to rather be used for affordable housing, and currently the sale has been stopped by a court order. In addition, Lior van Embden was condemned for evicting a family from a block of flats that her family owns in Sea Point.
With this history, the danger in the Bo-Kaap situation is that Jews are being perceived as “enforcers of apartheid” and “destroying a way of life”, even though this is not the reality.
But the perception may already be there. Rabia Parker, a member of Bo-Kaap Rise (a different organisation to Bo-Kaap Youth) who grew up in the area, wrote in the Daily Maverick on 8 July: “They break us down while trying to act as though they are building us up. We have called Bo-Kaap our home and we will resist the forced removals as a result of these developers.”
Blok chairman Marco van Embden says that from his perspective, “there have so far been no attacks on our person or Jewishness”. However, he added: “We are sadly the victim of attacks against the City and the DA – we are fodder. There are three other developers being tackled. The big issues are actually with the City. We are in the middle.”
The Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies chose not to comment.