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Ramadan in Bo Kaap: A dying tradition?

In Cape Town, Bo-Kaap is a place of historical importance. But, thanks to gentrification, it is also a place with a heritage that is quietly disappearing. ASHRAF HENDRICKS documented the traditions of the community during Ramadaan, a month of fasting and prayer in the Muslim community.

Famous for its colourful houses & cobblestoned streets, Bo-Kaap is home to a community with a complex history and a unique flavor of food, made up largely of so-called Cape Malays, the descendants of people who first arrived as slaves and political exiles from what is now Indonesia and surrounds, in the early 18th century. Over the next 300 years Bo-Kaap would become a predominantly Muslim community, a tight knit group brought close together by the hardship of oppression and apartheid.

Many of the first Bo-Kaap residents were skilled artisans and were living in poverty, and over time a system of helping each other evolved. This system was known as the kanala system (kanala meaning “please” in Malay). From the building of houses to the sewing of wedding dresses and school uniforms, the people relied on each other. This created an atmosphere where everyone knew everyone and was willing to help out their neighbours in any way they could.

This type of community culture is amplified even more during the month of Ramadan, the Islamic month when the Quran was first revealed. During Ramadan you’ll find children sharing and exchanging cake with their neighbours, families breaking their fast together and the public banding together to donate food to the needy.

“Because of poverty, the thing that people owned most was the community. But as people gained more material value, the community falls by the wayside,” says Naseem Gasant, a former Bo-Kaap resident.

Today, things in Bo-Kaap are changing. Increasing rental costs, gentrification and unemployment are forcing many to sell their homes and move out of the area. Some residents feel that aspects of their identity and history could be lost if they were to relocate. In years to come, Bo-Kaap could be a very different place.


The famous brightly coloured houses found in Bo-Kaap. Cars are always parked in the area as fuel has become incredibly expensive. Now many residents use public transport if needed.

02_Bo-Kaap_Ramadan During Ramadan, children visit their neighbours and exchange cake before iftar. This tradition is slowly disappearing as some people feel that baking for so many people can be a waste and costs a lot of money.


A table laid out with traditional Cape Malay food before boeka time or iftar, when the fast is broken.


Bo-Kaap has a magnificent view of Table Mountain. This is one of the reasons for the area’s increase in popularity and gentrification.



The roads in Bo-Kaap grow quiet as sunset approaches, and people head home to break their fast.


A group of triplets delivers cake to the neighbours.


The Auwal Mosque, in Dorp Street, is the oldest mosque in South Africa and was built in 1798.


A man drying himself after performing his ablutions in preparation for prayers. During Ramadan, you’re not allowed to eat or drink anything between sunrise and sunset.


A young boy enjoys a plate of biryani. An assortment of cakes, dates and food are laid out on the floor of the mosque for visitors to break their fast with.


Every year during Ramadan the Boorhaanol institute gives out food to the needy. Bo-Kaap is built on a slope and is incredibly steep. Needy families often send their children to collect food instead of going themselves as they are too old to walk up the steep hills.


It’s customary for Muslims to read the entire Quran during the month of Ramadan.

18_Bo-Kaap_RamadanLengthy extra prayers, known as tarawih, are performed in the evenings during Ramadan. Tired children sometimes end up falling asleep on the mats.


Ashraf Hendricks profile picAshraf Hendricks is a photographer based in Cape Town. You can see more of his work on his website. Follow him on Twitter.




  1. Beautiful photographs by Ashraf- growing up in Lotus River even as a non-Muslim family we also received the boeka treats, rejoiced when it was “boeber” night as we got a pot, and kept a bowl of money for the children who came around on Eid. On Eid we would be very happy with full stomachs receiving gifts of food from our neighbours – such generosity and community you take for granted, thinking that is just the way – it will always be like this.

  2. I happen to reside in Bo-Kaap and have done so for almost 40 years. Ramadaan in Bo-Kaap will never die. We still have the same traditions and follow the same protocol with a few enhancements. We still send “koekies” every night (18 houses) to be exact and the kids still get their little sweets or R5 from many of the anties. We still attend taraweeg at the Auwal Mosque every evening and with the resident Sheikh at the mosque having so many different activities with the youth going how can we question whether our tradition is dying? Our kids still walk from house to house on “ou Labarang aand” chanting he Takbir amongst others. My neighbours know each and every name of each and every kid and as per our parents have the authority to reprimand any of them if they are out of line. We still ask for “kanallah” jobbies. In fact we go and help our neighbours whenever it is needed. Calling across the road to boeta Dicky to fix a light or Uncle Salie to put a little cement in a hole I found or Boy the plumber when I see his van parked out to check my zinc as its leaking and I have to empty the bakkie everyday. Because our area is so central we find many people of other nationalities and religion also flocking to our area. In fact my neighbours on all sides are non-muslim but we all live in peace and even help them moving their furniture or whatever they need assistance with. It is our own people, many of them the ones now complaining whilst having sold their properties in the first place, who are to blame. Yes living costs increases as the years go on but many of our people sell their properties at high prices. Sometimes out of pure desperation and many of the times greed as they know any property in Bo-Kaap is highly sought after. The residents still fight to keep their traditions alive….we remain proud of our heritage, culture and traditions. Noted: comments from people who are “previously” from Bo Kaap.

  3. @Faa-iekah

    Sister, i would like to applaud you on you positive outlook, but the stark reality that gentrification is very much happening in bokaap..

    You don’t just wake up one day and then the culture of the place has changed overnight… it happens slowly. And before you know it, you have people sitting on the stoep drinking beers in the holy month… I have seen this happen personally.

    I have lived in bokaap most of my life. When i got married I moved to surrey estate, and then goodwood, then my family home became available and by grace of Allah I was again able to move back to bokaap. Before this mircale, I have personally wrote over 500 email to government, met with dozens of MP’s , gov departments, and have even have gone as to find myself sitting in parliament to beg for a piece of land in bokaap… it took me about 6 yrs until my family home became available again, and i hated every moment of it…. if not for the miracle, it would have never happened.

    So i’m not one of those greedy individuals that sold my heritage… i was outbid by foreigners looking for an investment. Just last night i was watching Checkpoint on ETV, and they covered the topic of gentrification. They focused on woodstock, and here one can see gentrification on an escalated rate. Gympie street people now hopelessly lost in blikkiesdorp.

    City of CT planning depart (i think her name was Adelman or something) said they could not mess with willing seller , willing buyer market forces. Sure you can’t force people to not sell their home… but you can make it unattractive to foreigners investing… like having them pay higher rates to subsidise autie tima that lived there all her live , and now cannot afford the rates and forced the sell.

    Bottom line… during my mission to find a patch of land in bokaap, i was personally told to my face by someone at city council planning dept, and dept of public works, that it is the bottom line that talks… but i cannot prove these statements as they will never admit this publicly.

    I live in Church Street, and we still try to hold onto the very traditions… sending cakes to 13 houses too etc…. but it’s a battle . I’m in the process of renovating my family home, which is over 100 yrs old… and when i’m done, my rates will prob quadriple, and then what… will i be able to afford to live in a house which has been in my family for three generations ??? And will i want to in future… the investors want value for their money so they rent it out to 10 foreigners living in a two bedroom house, and suddenly you living in a slump…

    I have experienced the ugly side of gentrification (there is upside too that the area’s i will admit as the area becomes safer for one in certain cases)… but the fact is gentrification is like a cancer… it gets attracted to the quaint humble lifestyle of the people in areas like bokaap and woodstock and salt river, it then removes the very people who gives these areas their character , and you end up with a bunch of top billing houses ( look at very top of longmarket street), which only house their owners once a year. Then the traditions die… the mosques become deserted, and then muslim community want to be up in arms when it get sold…

    Enjoy bokaap while you can… spyt kom altyd the laat…. sell your house in bokaap, for that cool R2m… by another house for R1.5m in athlone, and within a year you sitting with you head in your hands at having to wake up at 5am every morning to beat the morning traffic.

    I just hope bokaap can remain as it is and fight this cancer. So that my ‘investment’ into my family home will not be in vain and my children can still take cakes to those same 13 houses as we do today

    • For sure Bokaap has been sold out to “the haves”. Do not be fooled by the millions you are offered. Sell it to your own people for less rather. If people continue to sell their homes to foreigners eventually Muslims will not have the culture and the Islamic values that they once held dear. Money comes and goes very quickly. Do not be fooled by the millions you get for selling your homes. Hold onto that which money cannot buy.

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