Cape Town, South Africa – Noor Osman looks out from the Bo Kaap neighbourhood of Cape Town and counts the mosques dotted throughout the nearby city centre.

Wherever you can see a mosque, he says, there were Muslim people living around there.

Over the years, the demographics and boundaries of central Cape Town have changed.

During apartheid, Bo Kaap was declared a Muslim-only area with a number of now-residents uprooted and forced to move there from other parts of the city. Many recall tales of forced evictions and houses being seized with little compensation.

But while the era of racial segregation ended in the 1990s, Osman now fears “another type of apartheid” is beginning to menace the traditionally working-class community – gentrification.

“The issue of economic apartheid is actually being perpetrated right now,” Osman says, stressing the urgency of the situation. 

Bo Kaap has become the scene of a bitter battle between residents and property developers in recent months.

The colourful low-rises of Bo Kaap [Erica Jenkin/Al Jazeera]

The area is known for its coloured houses and distinct history. 

It is home to the oldest mosque in South Africa and once housed slaves, political exiles and convicts sent from countries including Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia as far back as the 17th century.

Yet with new developments, including luxury flats, and wealthy outside buyers investing in Bo Kaap homes as Cape Town property prices soared, the neighbourhood’s heritage is under threat.

In South Africa, the lingering effects of apartheid add an extra layer of complexity to the gentrification debate.

Bo Kaap residents protest in the streets [Erica Jenkin/Al Jazeera]

Much of Cape Town’s non-white population was moved out of central areas to the Cape Flats on the extreme outskirts of the city during apartheid.

Bo Kaap managed to avoid that fate due to the vagaries of apartheid planning.

Today, its predominantly Muslim population is unsure about what the future holds.

Residents of Bo Kaap, many of whom refer to their neighbourhood as the “cradle of Islam” in South Africa, increasingly fear being priced out.

A new development rises above Bo Kaap [Erica Jenkin/Al Jazeera]

Fowzia Achmat, vice chair of the Bo Kaap Civic and Ratepayers Association, says that people whose families have owned properties in the neighbourhood for generations simply cannot afford to live in the area, where house prices are rocketing, and are faced with the dilemma of selling up or struggling on.

Others have been forced to club together to be able to remain in the area. Mishka Samie, a member of the Bo Kaap Collective activist group, says there are some situations where 15 to 20 people are living in a two bedroom flat.

“There’s a definite housing problem,” she adds.

‘Gin bars and coffee shops’

While central Cape Town’s natural geography, squeezed between Table Mountain and the Atlantic Sea, creates a spectacular setting, it also means space is limited. 

Bo Kaap is centrally located, within walking distance to the city centre and the redeveloped waterfront area. This has seen it become an attractive location for buyers and developers.

Tanja Winkler, associate professor of architecture, planning and geomatics at the University of Cape Town, says Bo Kaap is following a similar trajectory to nearby working-class areas like Woodstock and Salt River, which have become home to gin bars and coffee shops in recent years.

Residents of Bo Kaap attend a busy community meeting to discuss the development of their area [Erica Jenkin/Al Jazeera]

While some external buyers have moved into Bo Kaap and engaged with the community, which locals mostly welcome, others look to buy properties for investment purposes or to rent on sites like Airbnb, she says.

New developments, meanwhile, tower over existing buildings and are aimed at wealthy buyers and those looking for holiday homes, Winkler adds. 

Tensions around the situation have come to the fore in recent weeks.

When Al Jazeera visited in late November, residents old and young blocked roads to prevent trucks and building materials coming in.

Residents protest in Bo Kaap, where house prices are rising [Erica Jenkin/Al Jazeera]

In the days before, police tried to forcibly remove those blocking the arrival of a crane. Footage posted on social media appeared to show stun grenades being thrown and protesters, including elderly women, being manhandled. 

At a packed community meeting soon after, around 600 residents lamented that peaceful protesters had been met with violence and reiterated their resolve to preserve their homes and heritage. 

Protecting ‘living history’

Al Jazeera spoke to several residents critical of the Democratic Alliance-led (DA) city council for not listening to their concerns. 

Others slammed developers for not consulting with the local community.

Yet while sympathising with residents, DA councillor for Bo Kaap, Brandon Golding, says the city is limited in what it can do. 

The council cannot prevent the sale of private properties between individuals, he says.

A new development in Bo Kaap rises above one of the neighbourhood’s colourful traditional homes [Erica Jenkin/Al Jazeera] 

Existing zoning rules also appear to provide developers with a wide remit in terms of how they build on land or redevelop properties legally acquired.

Golding says that he and the council have sought to listen to residents’ concerns and are looking for solutions. He adds that some financial assistance is available for pensioners and low-earners who may be struggling.

Residents believe more affordable housing should be a key priority, something Golding says is difficult as the local government doesn’t own much land in Bo Kaap. 

Many also hold out hope that securing heritage status for Bo Kaap will at least rein in new developments. 

Placards are tied to a railing at a protest in Bo Kaap [Erica Jenkin/Al Jazeera]

As things stand, any property over 60 years old is protected by heritage rules in Cape Town. Bo Kaap residents want their entire area to receive heritage status for its built and “living history”.

The community applied for a form of heritage protection with local authorities as far back as 2013 that would have forced developers to convince the city any new buildings would maintain and be sensitive to Bo Kaap’s heritage. But the application remained in limbo, unapproved by the council before being halted in 2016.  

In early December, the city’s mayoral committee said it would again try to secure heritage status. 

Yet many residents remain sceptical, given past delays which have allowed developments to progress. They have also begun to look to the national government for help.

A brightly painted mosque is pictured in the neighbourhood of Bo Kaap [Erica Jenkin/Al Jazeera]

Osman says the community is engaging with the South African Heritage Research Association (SAHRA) to look to protect the entirety of Bo Kaap, and is hopeful that process will progress soon. 

Until that happens, however, Bo Kaap residents have vowed to continue their protests and challenge existing developments in the courts.

“We have to show resistance,” says Osman. “We can’t just let these guys come in and do what they want.”

The Bo Kaap neighbourhood sits under the spectacular Table Mountain [Erica Jenkin/Al Jazeera]

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