Cape Malays

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Cape Malays
Kaapse Maleiers (Afrikaans)
Cape Muslims
The National Archives UK - CO 1069-214-85.jpg
Malay bride and bridesmaids in South Africa.
Total population
325,000 [1]
Regions with significant populations
 South Africa
Western Cape, Gauteng
Afrikaans, South African English
Historically Malay, Makassarese, Dutch, Arabic Afrikaans[2][3]
Sunni Islam
Related ethnic groups
Javanese, Malays, Indians, Khoekhoe, Malagasy, Cape Dutch, Dutch, Cape Coloureds, Bugis

Cape Malays (Afrikaans: Kaapse Maleiers, کاپز ملیس in Arabies script) also known as Cape Muslims[4] or Malays, are a Muslim[5] community or ethnic group in South Africa. They are the descendants of enslaved and free Muslims from different parts of the world who lived at the Cape during Dutch and British rule.[6][5][7][8]

Although the initial members of the community were from the Dutch colonies of South East Asia, by the 1800s the term Malay encompassed all practicing Muslims at the Cape, regardless of origin. They initially used Malay as a lingua franca and language of religious instruction,[9] and this was one of the likely reasons that the community were referred to as Malays.[6]

Malays are concentrated in the Cape Town area. Cape Malay cuisine forms a significant part of South African cuisine, and the community played an important part in the history of Islam in South Africa. The community played a part in developing Afrikaans as a written language, initially using an Arabic script.[9]

"Malay" was legally a subcategory of the Coloured race group during Apartheid,[10][11] however the delineation of Malays and the remaining defined Coloured subgroups by government officials was often imprecise and subjective.[12]


The Dutch East India Company (VOC) founded and established a colony at the Cape of Good Hope, as a resupply station for ships travelling between Europe and Asia, which developed into the city of Cape Town. The Dutch had also colonised the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia),[7] which formed a part of the Dutch Empire for several centuries, and Dutch Malacca,[13] which the Dutch held from 1641 to 1824.[14]

Key figures in the arrival of Islam were Muslim leaders who resisted the Company's rule in Southeast Asia who, like Sheikh Yusuf, a Muslim scholar from Sulawesi were exiled to South Africa by the company. They were followed by slaves from other parts of Asia and Africa. Although it is not possible to accurately reconstruct the origins of slaves in the Cape, it has been estimated[9] that roughly equal proportions of Malagasies, Indians, Insulindians (Southeast Asians) and continental Africans were imported to the Cape, with other estimates showing that the majority of slaves originated in Madagascar.[9]

Although the majority of slaves from South East Asia were already Muslims, along with many Indians, those from Madagascar and elsewhere in Africa were not.[9] There were also skilled Muslim labourers called Mardijkers from Southeast Asia who settled in the Bo-Kaap area of Cape Town.[15] The slaves from Asia tended to work in semi-skilled and domestic roles, and they made up a disproportionate share of 18th century manumissions, who subsequently settled in Bo-Kaap, while those from elsewhere in Africa and Madagascar tended to work as farm-hands, and were not freed at the same rate.[9] In the latter part of the 18th century, conversions to Islam of the rural non-Asian slaves increased due to a Dutch colonial law that encouraged owners to educate their slaves in Christianity, and following their baptism, to allow them to buy their freedom; this consequently resulted in slaveowners, fearful of losing their slaves, not enforcing Christianity amongst them. This, in turn, allowed Islamic proselytisers to convert the slaves.[9]

After the British took the Cape, and began phasing out slavery in the first half of the 19th century, the newly-freed non-Asian Muslim rural slaves moved to Cape Town, the only centre of Islamic faith in the region. The South and Southeast Asians constituted the Muslim establishment in the colony, and the newly freed slaves subsequently adopted the Malay language used by the Asians.[9] Thus, Malay was the initial lingua franca of Muslims, though they came from East Africa, Madagascar, and India, as well as Indonesia and established the moniker "Malay" for all Muslims at the Cape irrespective of their geographic origins,[6] and by the 19th century, the term was used to describe anyone at the Cape who was a practicing Muslim,[5] despite Afrikaans having overtaken Malay as the group's lingua franca.

The community adopted Afrikaans as a lingua franca to ease communication with between the Asian and non-Asian Muslims (who had adopted the Dutch used by their masters), and because the utility of Malay and the Malayo-Portuguese language were diminished due to the British ban on slave imports in 1808, reducing the need to communicate with newcomers.[9] The non-Asian and Asian Muslims interacted socially despite the initial linguistic differences, and gradually blended into a single community.[9]


Cape Malay samoosas, a Cape Malay traditional dish that witnessed a South Asian influence. The Indian influence in the Cape Malay culture is essential due to generations of widespread intermarriage and union between the two communities.

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. The Muslim community in Cape Town remains large and vibrant. It has expanded greatly beyond those exiles who started the first mosques in South Africa.[16][17]

Malay Choir Competition.

People in the Cape Malay community predominantly speak Afrikaans, but frequently also English. They no longer speak the languages which their ancestors used, such as Malay although various Malay words and phrases are still employed in daily usage.

Adaptations of traditional foods such as bredie, bobotie, sosaties and koeksisters are staples in many South African homes. Faldela Williams wrote three cookbooks, including The Cape Malay Cookbook, which became instrumental in preserving the cultural traditions of Cape Malay cuisine.[18][19]

This cultural group developed a characteristic 'Cape Malay' music. An interesting[editorializing] 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.[citation needed]

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

Cultural identity[edit]

The Cape Malay identity can be considered the product of a set of histories and communities as much as it is a definition of an ethnic group. Since many Cape Malay people have found their Muslim identity to be more salient than their "Malay" ancestry, in some contexts they have been described as "Cape Malay", or "Malays" and others as Cape Muslim by people both inside and outside of the community.[4] Cape Malay ancestry includes people from South[6] and Southeast Asia, Madagascar, and Khoekhoe. Later, Muslim male "Passenger Indian" migrants to the Cape married into the Cape Malay community, with their children being classified as Cape Malay.[20]


Bo-Kaap, Cape Town's Malay Quarter.

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 they, among many other South African people of diverse ethnicity, were forcefully removed from their homes by the apartheid government and redistributed into townships on the Cape Flats.

International relationship[edit]

Connections between Malaysians and South Africans improved when South Africa rejoined the international community. The latter's re-entry was welcomed by the Malaysian government and many others in the Southeast Asian region. Non-governmental organisations, such as the Federation of Malaysia Writers' Associations, have since set on linking up with the diasporic Cape Malay community.[8] There is also an increase in the interest of the food, culture and heritage of Cape Malay descendants around the world.[21]


  1. ^ "Malay, Cape in South Africa". Retrieved 21 March 2022.
  2. ^ Stell, Gerald (2007). "From Kitaab-Hollandsch to Kitaab-Afrikaans: The evolution of a non-white literary variety at the Cape (1856-1940)". Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics (PDF). Stellenbosch University. 37. doi:10.5774/37-0-16.
  3. ^ "The Indonesian anti-colonial roots of Islam in South Africa". 25 August 2016. Retrieved 11 April 2022.
  4. ^ a b "Cape Malay | South African History Online". Archived from the original on 4 October 2011. Retrieved 12 May 2013.
  5. ^ a b c Pettman, Charles (1913). Africanderisms; a glossary of South African colloquial words and phrases and of place and other names. Longmans, Green and Co. p. 51.
  6. ^ a b c d "Indian slaves in South Africa". Archived from the original on 20 March 2008. Retrieved 24 November 2011.
  7. ^ a b Vahed, Goolam (13 April 2016). "The Cape Malay:The Quest for 'Malay' Identity in Apartheid South Africa". South African History Online. Retrieved 29 November 2016.
  8. ^ a b Haron, Muhammed (2005). "Gapena and the Cape Malays: Initiating Connections, Constructing Images" (PDF). SARI: Jurnal Alam Dan Tamadun Melayu. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. 23: 47–66. Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 November 2016. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Stell, Gerald; Luffin, Xavier; Rakiep, Muttaqin (2008). "Religious and secular Cape Malay Afrikaans: Literary varieties used by Shaykh Hanif Edwards (1906-1958)". Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia. 163 (2–3): 289–325. doi:10.1163/22134379-90003687. ISSN 0006-2294.
  10. ^ "Race Classification Board: An appalling 'science'". 2007. Archived from the original on 23 April 2012. Retrieved 12 May 2013.
  11. ^ Leach, Graham (1987). South Africa: no easy path to peace. Methuen paperback. p. 73. ISBN 978-0-413-15330-2.
  12. ^[bare URL PDF]
  13. ^ Winstedt, Sir Richard Olof (1951). "Ch. VI : The Dutch at Malacca". Malaya and Its History. London: Hutchinson University Library. p. 47.
  14. ^ Wan Hashim Wan Teh (24 November 2009). "Melayu Minoriti dan Diaspora; Penghijrahan dan Jati Diri" [Malay Minorities and Diaspora; Migration and Self Identity] (in Malay). Malay Civilization Seminar 1. Archived from the original on 22 July 2011.
  15. ^ Davis, Rebecca. "Bo-Kaap's complicated history and its many myths".
  16. ^ tinashe (13 January 2012). "History of Muslims in South Africa: 1652 - 1699 by Ebrahim Mahomed Mahida". South African History Online. Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  17. ^ "History of Muslims in South Africa". Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  18. ^ "Cape Malay - Bo-Kaap".
  19. ^ Lewis, Esther (27 May 2014). "Faldela Williams lives on in cookbook". Johannesburg, South Africa: IOL. Archived from the original on 13 November 2016. Retrieved 13 November 2016.
  20. ^ "The Beginnings of Protest, 1860–1923 | South African History Online". 6 October 2011. Retrieved 6 November 2011.
  21. ^ "Cape Malay Samosas with Mint-Cilantro Dipping Sauce". MeyerFoodBlog. Retrieved 2 March 2017.

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