Bo-Kaap: A lens into the “Rainbow Nation”

Bo-Kaap, a neighborhood in Cape Town, South Africa, is one of the historic centers of Cape Malay culture. Under the cloudless, peacock-blue sky, the brilliant shades of the neighborhood’s houses form a magical scene—one that would not seem out of place in the pages of a fairy tale. Yet this kaleidoscope of colors masks a far more complicated history.

The neighborhood traces its origins back to the 16th to 17th centuries, when Dutch traders transported people from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Africa as slaves to the Cape of Good Hope. Their descendants, known as “Cape Malays,” have resided in the area ever since. Although Bo-Kaap’s bright colors had cultural significance for many of the enclave’s original inhabitants, it was not until apartheid ended in 1994 that the residents were allowed to buy their own houses and personalize them. In the late 1990s, many chose to paint their homes the bright greens, blues, and pinks we see today, both as a symbol of their new-found freedom and as a nod to their new roles in the “Rainbow Nation.”

Nowadays, Bo-Kaap is a small residential area with a population of around 6,000—more than 90 percent of whom are Muslim, and many consider the multi-colored houses to be a celebration of Ramadan and Eid. Although Bo-Kaap is the most significant Muslim community in Cape Town, gentrification and tourism increasingly test the neighborhood’s working-class, multi-ethnic identity. Bars, cafés, and new residents have streamed into Bo-Kaap, raising property values and taxes.

Beneath the fantasy-like façade, Bo-Kaap faces serious challenges. Yet for now, children continue to chase around along the street, and the cheerful hues reflect their exuberant play.

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Wa Liu ’17 is a double major in Art and Anthropology in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at