You can visit 17 sites that celebrate the journey and role that the muslim community played in the Western Cape, South Africa.
The Cape Muslim Route
A significant proportion of South Africa’s Muslim population lives in Cape Town. The Cape Muslim Route highlights some of the history behind this, and contextualises the modern-day heritage of Islam at the Cape.
Between 1654 and 1795 Muslim political prisoners were regularly exiled to the Cape for resistance against Dutch rule. Muslim slaves and convicts were brought to the Cape to work on VOC buildings and farms, or for private citizens.
The town’s Muslim population initially grew as more Muslim slaves and convicts (including some Chinese Muslims) were brought to the Cape. Some Muslim slaves achieved freedom through marrying settlers or purchasing their own freedom and that of others. Convicts and some exiles who had served out their punishments were also allowed to live as free people but without the rights of citizens.
The perceived success and counter-culture of the Muslim Free Blacks, and the fact that slaves were not encouraged to become Christians, attracted many blacks to convert to Islam at the Cape during the 19th century, especially after the slave trade was abolished in 1807.
Except for restrictions on property ownership and freedom of movement, and prohibitions on the open practice of Islam, local Muslims were eventually able to build a cultural life around their mosques, madaris (religious schools), traditions and cultural practices adapted from their countries of origin.
Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC)
The VOC was a chartered company that dominated the Dutch spice trade during the 17th and 18th centuries. It had its own government and colonised most of the Indonesian archipelago, establishing a capital city, Batavia (now Jakarta).
The VOC established military posts and trading stations – including the Cape - in many territories in Asia and Africa, to protect its trade in spices.
In 1743 the VOC brought convicts from the Indonesian archipelago to build a breakwater at the Table Bay harbour. Authorities named those that remained at the Cape after completing their sentences “vryeswarten” or Free Blacks. They worked as traders, craftsmen and fishermen. Despite limited social interaction some married Europeans. Free Blacks could own property, including slaves, and some became quite wealthy. Some were able to act as benefactors to others, while other Free Blacks profited from selling their slaves’ labour. They formed the nucleus of urban black society and were joined by slaves and political exiles who attained their freedom.
Muslim and ‘Malay’
During the 17th and 18th century, many of the slaves and political exiles were from the Indonesian archipelago and spoke Malayu or Malayu-Portuguese. However, very few ‘Malays’ in the 19th century were actually from the Indonesian archipelago and most of the Muslims were Cape born descendants of Muslim slaves or recent converts to Islam. There was never a homogenous ethnic Malay population in Cape Town.
Bo-Kaap and ‘Malay Quarter’
The Bo-Kaap was a community made up of many cultures, Residents included slave descendants, new immigrants from Europe and India, migrant workers from the Eastern Cape, and descendants of indigenous people of the Cape.
Perhaps half the residents in the 19th century were Muslim and almost all were born in the Cape. From the mid-19th century housing in the city was already overcrowded, many of the new houses in the Bo-Kaap were hastily built by landlords seeking to profit from the housing shortage. By the end of the century, Bo-Kaap was an overcrowded, unsanitary slum with most of the residents being Christian and Muslim descendants of Free Blacks and indigenous people.
The contentious term ‘Malay Quarter’ was invented by white travel writers and journalists in the 19th century and residents preferred the geographically distinctive ‘Bo-Kaap’ (upper Cape Town), which distinguished it from the ‘Onder-Kaap’, the area roughly between Long Street and District Six, which was also an overcrowded black slum at the end of the 19th century.
The Bo-Kaap became a predominantly Muslim residential area only after 1952, when the new government used the Group Areas Act to declare most of it a residential area for ‘Muslim Malays’ only, and forced out people of other religions and ethnicity. Today, it is thanks to this apartheid-era legacy that most of the residents are still Muslim.
Until 2016 this area was officially divided into three sections which were called Schotschekloof, Stadzicht and Schoone Kloof. In December 2016 it was officially renamed Bo-Kaap, its local name for a long time.
Today, the terms ‘Malay’ and ‘Malay Quarter’ are mostly used by tour companies and ‘Malay’ cultural organisations, and disliked by most Cape Town Muslims.
The Cape Muslim heritage is mainly reflected in the fact that Cape Town has by far the largest Muslim population in South Africa, with a well-developed social and religious infrastructure and institutions.
Halaal food, which is often difficult to find in non-Muslim countries, is readily available in the city’s restaurants, shops and supermarkets.
The local version of Malay cuisine is a mixture of Indonesian dishes and Indian cuisine, with adaptations to local ingredients. It originates with slave cooks and VOC officials who had lived in the East, and the easy access to spices in colonial Cape Town.
The Muslims of the Cape were also instrumental in the development of the Afrikaans language.
The poor historical record of slaves and political exiles has resulted in very few descendants being able to trace their heritage to the Indonesian archipelago.
Aside from the kramats and the oldest mosques, there is little in the built environment that speaks to the Cape Muslim heritage, except of course that Cape Muslims’ ancestors helped build the city’s historical buildings, including the Castle and Slave Lodge.
Most of the slaves in the Cape’s early colonial period came from Asian territories which the Portuguese and Dutch had colonised or where they had waged war and traded for some time. Slaves coming from these territories had therefore creolised both languages over time.
Thus besides Malayu-Portuguese, some words derived from Malayu, Bugies or Javanese languages survive alongside many African words in the Afrikaans language that evolved from Dutch.
By the time Tuan Guru and others were writing Afrikaans using Arabic script in the early 19th century, Afrikaans had already evolved as a distinct language and the languages of Indonesian origin were becoming extinct at the Cape.
Afrikaans words of Southeast Asian origin include amok, aspris, baljaar, sosatie, koejawel, miskien, rissie, spanspek, sjambok, bobotie, koesisters, piering, piesang, baklei, tamaai, tronk, baadjie, baie and bredie.
View Route via Map View Route via list