You could smell the flavors of BO. The heat was either the emotional intensity or the sheer number of bodies in the room. Crammed next to a Neighborhood Watch patrol woman and a local activist, I was watching, waiting for a response. The judge began his proceedings, and demanded some fancy document of written authority from the community spokespeople. Is he one of those?
It seemed as if all of the Bo-Kaap region had come out to have their voices heard. For the last month, this predominantly Muslim community has been protesting the sale of their property and the commercialization of their neighborhood. This is gentrification, the plague that has slowly swept through every major city in the word. The city transferred a plot of land to a commercial developer: met with burning tires, loud protests, and petrol bombs from outraged members of the community. In response, the developer issued an urgent interdict against the protesters demanding that “all community members” be prevented from halting construction efforts.
We were gathered to hear the judge’s proceedings about this interdict. Choosing to go to court without a lawyer, the leaders wanted to emphasize the strength but simultaneous vulnerability of Bo-Kaap. The judge took everyone by surprise: his initial formalities melted away into what seemed to be a town hall meeting. He called on various individuals: the imam, a member of the Bo-Kaap civic association, concerned citizens. By listening to their frustrations and allowing them to diverge into their overarching qualms about gentrification, he validated them. I had never seen a judge pay such close attention to the way the court room felt. He knew that the issue mattered more than a simple legal formality. But did he do anything?
The judgement was not radical. The interdict was ordered, a few words were changed, and property rights for wealthy developers were preserved. No matter how inclusive he seemed, the judge didn’t change anything. Maybe to throw the community a bone, he issued a round table conversation between the developer, the imam, and neighborhood spokespeople. What seemed, to me at first, as an attempt to bring people together may have actually just been a cop out. The developers continue to build, the protesters continue to be upset, and bit by bit, Bo-Kaap’s wounds grow deeper. Maybe law really only is to help the rich.
There was a rare sense of community I felt in that court room — unity, activism, fire. But if Bo-Kaap is really going to continue to be put on postcards, paraded through on walking tours, called a “cultural capital,” it, too, is being lost to capitalism. Its rage is turned against it, its vibrancy sold like souvenirs, its people slowly losing faith. There really is nothing left to be done. History repeats itself once more in favor of the white man.