Aidan Africa’s research - Sense of Place: Gentrification experiences of Bo-Kaap’s long-term residents - focused on the unique Bo-Kaap Cape Muslim community who remained in the area despite apartheid forced removals. He delved into gentrification and asked: “How, in a world where places are increasingly more alike, do we preserve the authenticity that makes places meaningful and unique?”
Africa said, while there is great focus on gentrification in general, very little is known about the residents who have managed to stay put. Although it was not easy for some of the working class residents of Bo-Kaap to open up to Africa, those that did expressed just how gentrification had affected their heritage and cultures.
“The study showed that while issues of housing, safety, and crime were undoubtedly very significant issues affecting residents, more attention should be paid to how the histories, heritages, cultures and memories of those Bo-Kaap residents - who have for generations lived in the area - are being eroded under forces of neocolonialism and neoliberalism,” said Africa.
“A thorn in the side of many residents and an example of how the culture and heritage have been impacted are the many complaints by newer, often white local or international residents about the Islamic call to prayer which sounds five times per day and which has been part of the cultural fabric in Bo-Kaap for generations. Resistance to the annual “Kaapse Klopse” (“Tweede Nuwe Jaar”) celebrations which have important historical significance, is another such example.”
In addition, gentrification has led to physical changes to old Bo-Kaap homes. This modernisation of the old Bo-Kaap housing stock has left some residents feeling estranged.
“And while modernising is not intrinsically bad, it happens at the expense of local heritage through the removal of that which makes the Bo-Kaap unique, such as its colourful Cape Dutch/Georgian-styled homes,” said Africa.
Illustrating this, one resident explained that the area is considered “sacred land” - that its value cannot be quantified. Africa explained that gentrification could destroy this “incredibly profound” attachment long-standing residents have to the Bo-Kaap.
“The challenge facing Bo-Kaap and indeed the entire post-apartheid city is how to develop inclusively. I know development is inevitable and even necessary, but how do we develop in a way that does not erode the history, heritage, culture and memory of the descendants of those slaves and artisans who literally built the city? In other words, how do we develop in a way that allows for healing? ” As scholars Sandercock and Lyssiotis remind us: “If we need to destroy, as part of our city-building, we also need to heal”.
“I hope my research highlighted how in the process of developing through gentrification, we risk worsening existing unequal socio-spatial patterns, thereby compromising the healing project. The exact opposite is needed: the challenge is to develop in a way that destroys apartheid spatial planning, protects vulnerable population groups, and preserves the cultures, heritage and memories of all the city’s residents, but especially those who are descendants of the city’s First Nations people.
“Bo-Kaap residents must be commended for the action they took and continue to take in slowing down the gentrification of the area. Their brave acts of protest, where elderly residents literally put their bodies on the line to prevent construction cranes from entering the area, helped slow down what was a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood. It is within this spirit of resilience that a key research finding emerged: that residents have displayed a resilient sense of place, said Africa.
Apart from his research being a winning entrant, he hopes it will be noticed and applied by authorities along with the host of other gentrification research conducted on the Bo-Kaap. He said: “I am pleased that this prize acknowledges and rewards academic excellence in the discipline of geography. As a human geographer, I believe that geographers are incredibly important actors in the development of knowledge that can change our world in a very real way.”