Cape Malays

Cape Malays

infobox ethnic group
group = flagicon|South Africa Cape Malay

poptime = 200,000
popplace = Western Cape, Gauteng
langs = Afrikaans, South African English
rels = Islam
related-c = Malays (ethnic group), Malay race

The Cape Malay community is an ethnic group or community in South Africa, taking its name from what is now known as the Western Cape of South Africa and the people originally from the Malay archipelago, mostly Javanese from Indonesia and Malays from Malaysia, who started this community in South Africa. The Malays were outcast by the British Government, which were then rulers of Malaysia. The community's earliest members were slaves brought by the Dutch East India Company, followed shortly thereafter by political dissidents and Muslim religious leaders who opposed the Dutch presence in what is now Indonesia. Starting in 1654, these resistors were imprisoned or exiled in South Africa by the Dutch East India Company, which founded and used what is now Cape Town as a resupply station for ships traveling between Europe and Asia. They are the group that first introduced Islam to South Africa.


Because ethnicity is a politically loaded and historically painful topic in South Africa, it can be useful to consider the Cape Malay identity as the product of a set of histories and communities at least as much as it is a real definition of an ethnic group. Further, since many Cape Malay people find their Muslim identity to be more salient than their "Malay" ancestry, there have also been many instances in which people in one situation were described as "Cape Malay", and were in another situation described as "Cape Muslim" by people both inside and outside of the community. From the early 1970s to the present, some members of this community – particularly those with a political allegiance to broader liberation movements in South Africa – may refer to themselves as "black" in the terms of the Black Consciousness Movement. The "Cape Malay" identity was also a subcategory of the so-called "Coloured" category in the terms of the apartheid-era government's classifications of ethnicity. Like many South Africans, people described in some situations as "Cape Malay" are often the descendants of people from many continents and religions.

But if there are those who shy from the label, there are also others who use the phrase "Cape Malay" as a proud marker of their own history and cultural identification.


The founders of this community were the first to bring Islam to South Africa. The community's culture and traditions have also left an impact that is felt to this day. Adaptations of traditional foods such as bredie, bobotie, sosaties and koeksisters are staples in many South African homes. The Muslim community in Cape Town remains large and vibrant to this day, now much expanded beyond those exiles who started the first mosques in South Africa.

People in the Cape Malay community generally speak mostly Afrikaans but also English or local dialects of the two. The Malay languages and other languages that their ancestors brought are no longer spoken, though various Malay words and phrases are still employed in daily usage.

'Cape Malay' music also became closely associated with this cultural group. An interesting secular folk song type, of Dutch origin, is termed the 'nederlandslied'. The language and musical style of this genre reflects the history of South African slavery; it is often described and perceived as 'sad' and 'emotional' in content and context. The nederlandslied shows the influence of the Arabesque (ornamented) style of singing. This style is unique in South Africa, Africa and probably in the world. Cape Malay music has been of great interest to academics, historians, musicologists, writers and even politicians. The well-known annual Cape Town Minstrel or Carnival street festival is a deep-rooted Cape Malay cultural event; it incorporates the Cape Malay comic song or 'moppie' (often also referred to as 'ghoema' songs). The barrel-shaped drum, called the 'ghoema', is also closely associated with Cape Malay music.

Population and location

It is estimated that there are about 166,000 people in Cape Town who could be described as Cape Malay, and about 10,000 in Johannesburg. The picturesque Malay Quarter of Cape Town is found on Signal Hill, and is called the Bo-Kaap. Many Cape Malay people also lived in District Six before it was demolished; after its demolition, they moved to so-called Coloured townships on the Cape Flats. The Claremont Road Mosque, frequented by many Cape Muslims, was an important center of anti-apartheid activity. Islamic scholar Farid Esack is from this community.

External links

* [ HTML "Multiple communities: Muslims in post-apartheid South Africa] Scholarly essay includes history of "Cape Malay" identity.
* [ Kramat] An early religious leader's legacy remains on Robben Island.
* [ Official South African history site] Early context for "Cape Malay" community.
* [ The Bo-Kaap Museum]
* [ The Cape Malay Choir Board] An umbrella organization for Cape Malay singing ensembles.
* [ "Cape Malay" references] A descriptive bibliographic paper examining the contested identity of "Cape Malay."
* [ Sparse website with some information about Cape Malay musical instruments] [ and music.]

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