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Here In Africa: Cape Town’s Malay Quarter – Part Two

Barbara Durlacher presents the second part of a vivid word-portrait of Cape Town’s vividly colourful Malay Quarter.

Picture sun-dappled, grapevine shaded courtyards, rich smells of spicy curries and bredies (stews) cooked with dried apricots and raisins and served with “geelrys” (steamed rice flavoured with turmeric) presented by smiling doek-swathed ‘tannies’ and you approach the charm of Cape Town’s Malay Quarter. Perched on the lower slopes of Signal Hill, the steep cobbled streets of flat-roofed houses boast simple frontages painted in candy colours of pink, mint green, yellow and blue that sparkle in the Cape sunshine. Occasional games of street-cricket take-place during the weekends when traffic is sparse, but during the week, street stalls sell appetizing grilled snacks on sticks which waft their savoury smells across the narrow lots.

Rose Street boasts the sophisticated grey frontage and high narrow stoop of Haas, (hare) an artist’s collective where one can enjoy a superlative cup of coffee, and the sounds of the muezzin call the faithful to prayer from the minarets of a nearby mosque. An errant gust of the Cape Doctor flexes its muscles by blowing a paper down the slope towards Buitengracht Street, where the clamour of the city reaches a peak as the noon-day gun sounds from Signal Hill.

An afternoon of fierce south-easterly gales causes the ships in the harbour to buck and strain at their moorings as the rising waves surge across the bay, and across the City Bowl the bent silhouettes of contorted Norfolk pines twitch as the probing fingers of the wind touches them. The faint sound of ambulance sirens echoes from the stately white buildings of the Groote Schuur Hospital famous for the first heart transplant, and a collective sigh exhales with the realisation that the wind presages a day or two of high seas and stormy conditions for Cape Town.

The Malay Quarter, or Bo-Kaap, is a picturesque 300-year old slice of early Cape Town and represents a part of Cape history redolent of Batavian slaves, many of them political detainees exiled from their country and brought to an unknown land to serve their new masters of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC. These masters spoke the strange Dutch tongue and exercised a tough and brutal discipline on these gentle people who learnt to fear them greatly.

As the years passed, the skills and creativeness of the Malays came to be appreciated by the burghers and merchant class of Cape Town and today it is possible, if one knows where to look amongst the clamour of traffic, to find a quiet courtyard tucked away at the back of Greenmarket Square. Here a tiny wall-fountain tinkles into a mossy basin set amidst the glossy green of an ivy covered wall, the sculpture and the serene courtyard a product of the skilled artisans who created it several hundred years ago.

An inner court in a house in the Malay Quarter is shaded by an ancient vine on a wooden trellis, while in the dusty gloom of Adderley Street’s Groote Kerk the grandeur of the carved pulpit may have awed the Sunday congregation into instant religious observance. The grace of the high-ceilinged rooms and the low wide sash-windows of the Koopman’s De Wet Huis in Strand Street is a relic of earlier days when folk lived with elegance and style. Museum collections of fine silverware and shining copper pans and the examples outlined above, are all examples of the skilled metalworkers who created them.

Made by the Malay craftsmen of earlier days their artistic creativity is repeated in the architecture of the Bo-Kaap. Here the coloured houses with their elegantly simple Georgian house-fronts, some topped with undulating roof cornices are a piquant reminder of a different and original culture.

Visit the area to get a glimpse of bygone days; you’ll not regret it!


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