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Cape Malays

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Cape Malays
Kaapse Maleiers (Afrikaans)
Cape Muslims
Malay bride and bridesmaids in South Africa.
Total population
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, Malagasy, Cape Dutch, Dutch, Cape Coloureds, Bugis
Bo-Kaap, Cape Town's Malay Quarter

Cape Malays (Afrikaans: Kaapse Maleiers, کاپز ملیس in Arabic script) also known as Cape Muslims or Malays, are a Muslim community or ethnic group in South Africa. They are the descendants of enslaved and free Muslims from different parts of the world, specifically Indonesia (at that time known as the Dutch East Indies) and other Asian countries, who lived at the Cape during Dutch and British rule.

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

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.

"Malay" was legally a subcategory of the Coloured racial group during the apartheid era.


The Dutch East India Company (VOC) founded and established a colony at the Cape of Good Hope (the Dutch Cape Colony), 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),[4] which formed a part of the Dutch Empire for several centuries, and Dutch Malacca,[5] which the Dutch held from 1641 to 1824.[6]

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 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.[7]

Many "Indiaanen" and "Mohammedaanen" Muslim political prisoners brought from Southeast Asia were imprisoned on Robben Island. Among these were Tuan Guru, first chief imam in South Africa. Sheikh Madura was exiled in the 1740s and died on Robben Island; his kramat (shrine) is still there today.[8]

Although the majority of slaves from Southeast Asia were already Muslims, along with many Indians, those from Madagascar and elsewhere in Africa were not. 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.[7] 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 slave-owners, fearful of losing their slaves, not enforcing Christianity amongst them. This, in turn, allowed Islamic proselytisers to convert the slaves.[7]

There were also skilled Muslim labourers called Mardijkers from Southeast Asia who settled in the Bo-Kaap area of Cape Town.[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.[7] 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,[10] and by the 19th century, the term was used to describe anyone at the Cape who was a practising Muslim,[11] 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. The non-Asian and Asian Muslims interacted socially despite the initial linguistic differences, and gradually blended into a single community.[7] In 1836 the British colonial authorities estimated that the Cape Malay population at the time was around 5,000 out of a total population for the Cape of 130,486.[12]

"Malay" was legally a subcategory of the Coloured race group during Apartheid,[13][14] though the delineation of Malays and the remaining defined Coloured subgroups by government officials was often imprecise and subjective.[15]

Cultural identity[edit]

Cape Malay flower-seller

The Cape Malays (Afrikaans: Kaapse Maleiers, کاپز ملیس in Arabies script) also known as Cape Muslims[16] or simply Malays, are a Muslim community or ethnic group in South Africa.[11]

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.[16] Cape Malay ancestry includes people from South[10] 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.[17]

Muslim men in the Cape started wearing the Turkish fez after the arrival of Abu Bakr Effendi, an imam sent from the Ottoman Empire[18] at the request of the British Empire[19] to teach Islam in the Cape Colony. At a time when most imams in the Cape were teaching the Shafi`i school of Islamic jurisprudence, Effendi was the first teacher of Hanafi school, and established madrassas (Islamic schools) in Cape Town. Effendi, in common with many Turkish Muslims, wore a distinctive red fez[18][20] Many Cape Malay men continued to wear the distinctive red fez[21] (in particular the Malay Malay choirs[22]), although black was also common and more recently other colours had become popular. The last fez-maker in Cape Town finally shut up shop in March 2022; 76-year-old Gosain Samsodien had been making fezzes in his home-factory in Kensington for 25 years.[23]


It is estimated that there are[when?] 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.[citation needed]

Many Cape Malay people also lived in District Six before they, among many other South African people of diverse ethnicity, mainly Cape Coloureds, were forcefully removed from their homes by the apartheid government and redistributed into townships on the Cape Flats.[citation needed]


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.[24][25]

Strong Indian influences are present in Cape Malay culture due to generations of widespread intermarriage and union between the two communities.[citation needed]


A dialect of Malay emerged among the enslaved community even spread into colonial European populations of Cape Town from the 1780s as late as the 1930s, a particular dialect throughout this period had been formed from a substrate of Betawi spoken in Batavia (present day Jakarta) where all major Dutch East India Company shipments take place with contact with Tamil, Hindustani and Arabic based on lexical comparisons; a significant number of this vocabulary has survived in the Afrikaans sociolect spoken by generations after.[26]

Original Malay Cape equivalent with attested Dutch ortography meaning
berguru <banghoeroe> to study with someone
pergi <piki> to go
gunung <goeni> mountain
cambuk <sambok> horsewhip
jamban <djammang> toilet
ikan tongkol <katonkel> skipjack tuna
puasa <kewassa> to fast
kemparan <kaparrang> farm or work boots
tempat ludah <tamploera> spittoon
ubur-ubur <oeroer> jellyfish
penawar <panaar> antidote
minta maaf <tamaaf> sorry


Cape Malay samoosas, adapted from South Asia

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.[27][28] The Indian influence in the Cape Malay culture is essential due to generations of widespread intermarriage and union between the two communities.


A Malay choir performs at a competition in the Good Hope Centre, Cape Town (2001)
A Malay Choir performs at an ANC-sponsored ceremony in District Six, Cape Town (2001)

This cultural group developed a characteristic Cape Malay music. Cape Malay music has been of great interest to academics, historians, musicologists, writers and even politicians.[citation needed]

A secular folk song type of Dutch origin, is known as the nederlandslied. The language and musical style of this genre reflects the history of South African slavery, and the words and music often reflect sadness and other emotions related to the effect of enslavement. The nederlandslied shows the influence of the Arabesque style of singing, and is unique in South Africa, Africa and probably in the world.[29]

The Silver Fez is the "Holy Grail" of the musical subculture. The contest involves thousands of musicians and a wide variety of tunes,[30][31] with all-male choirs from the Malay community competing for the prize. A 2009 documentary film directed by Lloyd Ross (founder of Shifty Records[31]) called The Silver Fez focuses on an underdog competing for the award.[29]

The well-known annual Cape Town Minstrel Carnival (formerly known as the Coon Carnival) is a deep-rooted Cape Malay cultural event; it incorporates the Cape Malay comic song or moppie (often also referred to as ghoema songs), as well as the nederlandslied.[32] The barrel-shaped drum, called the ghoema (also spelt ghomma and also known as dhol), is also closely associated with Cape Malay music, along with other percussion instruments the rebanna (rebana) and tamarien (tambourine). Stringed instruments include the ra'king, gom-gom, and besem (also known as skiffelbas).[33] The ghomma has been traditionally used mostly for marching or rhythmic songs known as the "ghommaliedjie", while the guitar is used for lyrical songs.[34]

International relationships[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.[35]

There is[when?] also an increase in the interest of the food, culture and heritage of Cape Malay descendants around the world.[36]


  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). 37. Stellenbosch University. 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. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Winstedt, Sir Richard Olof (1951). "Ch. VI : The Dutch at Malacca". Malaya and Its History. London: Hutchinson University Library. p. 47.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ a b c d e 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.
  8. ^ "Kramat". Robben Island Museum. 27 July 2003. Archived from the original on 9 September 2005. Retrieved 25 February 2023.
  9. ^ Davis, Rebecca. "Bo-Kaap's complicated history and its many myths". ewn.co.za.
  10. ^ a b "Indian slaves in South Africa". Archived from the original on 20 March 2008. Retrieved 24 November 2011.
  11. ^ a b 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.
  12. ^ Martin, Robert Montgomery (1836). The British Colonial Library: In 12 volumes. Mortimer. p. 125.
  13. ^ "Race Classification Board: An appalling 'science'". Heritage.thetimes.co.za. 2007. Archived from the original on 23 April 2012. Retrieved 12 May 2013.
  14. ^ Leach, Graham (1987). South Africa: no easy path to peace. Methuen paperback. p. 73. ISBN 978-0-413-15330-2.
  15. ^ Vashna Jagarnath, June 2005The Population Registration Act and Popular Understandings of Race: A case study of Sydenham, p.9.
  16. ^ a b "Cape Malay | South African History Online". V1.sahistory.org.za. Archived from the original on 4 October 2011. Retrieved 12 May 2013.
  17. ^ "The Beginnings of Protest, 1860–1923 | South African History Online". Sahistory.org.za. 6 October 2011. Retrieved 6 November 2011.
  18. ^ a b Worden, N.; Van Heyningen, E.; Bickford-Smith, V. (2004). Cape Town: The Making of a City : an Illustrated Social History. David Philip. ISBN 978-0-86486-656-1. Retrieved 23 February 2023.
  19. ^ "Ottoman descendants in South Africa get Turkish citizenship". Daily Sabah. 17 September 2020. Retrieved 26 February 2023.
  20. ^ Argun, Selim (2000). "Life and Contribution of Osmanli Scholar, Abu bakr Effendi, towards Islamic thought and Culture in South Africa" (PDF). pp. 7–8. Archived from the original (PDF) on 31 August 2011.
  21. ^ "Man demonstrates how a fez is made, Cape Town". UCT Libraries Digital Collections. University of Cape Town. 22 July 1970. Retrieved 26 February 2023.
  22. ^ Landsberg, Ian (17 March 2022). [/lifestyle-entertainment/lifestyle/watch-the-capes-last-fez-maker-closes-shop-da5fb2ef-9687-4857-89de-f6cfaa57ea6e "WATCH: The Cape's last fez maker closes shop"]. The Daily Voice. Retrieved 26 February 2023. {{cite web}}: Check |url= value (help)
  23. ^ Landsberg, Ian (14 March 2022). "Last of his kind: Traditional fez maker in Kensington hangs up his hat". IOL. Retrieved 26 February 2023.
  24. ^ Mahida, Ebrahim Mahomed (13 January 2012). "1699 by Ebrahim Mahomed Mahida - South African History Online". History of Muslims in South Africa: 1652. Retrieved 19 February 2023 – via South African History Online.
  25. ^ "History of Muslims in South Africa". Maraisburg. Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  26. ^ Hoogervorst, Tom (2021). ""Kanala, tamaaf, tramkassie, en stuur krieslam"; Lexical and phonological echoes of Malay in Cape Town". Wacana, Journal of the Humanities of Indonesia. 22 (1): 22–57. doi:10.17510/wacana.v22i1.953.
  27. ^ "Bo-Kaap: o bairro colorido de Cape Town". Viin (in Portuguese). 15 September 2021. Retrieved 19 February 2023.
  28. ^ 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.
  29. ^ a b De Waal, Shaun (16 September 2009). "The Song remains the same". The Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 25 February 2023.
  30. ^ "The Silver Fez" (text and video). Al Jazeera. Witness. 15 June 2009. Retrieved 23 March 2012.
  31. ^ a b 7ª Edición (PDF) (in French, Spanish, and English). Festival de Cine Africano de Tarifa / Tarifa African Film Festival (FCAT). May 2010. pp. 86–87. Available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. (See talk page)
  32. ^ Desai, Desmond (24 February 2007). "Home". DMD EDU. Archived from the original on 24 February 2007. Retrieved 25 February 2023.
  33. ^ Desai, Desmond (11 August 2006). "Some unique Cape musical instruments". DMD EDU. Archived from the original on 11 August 2006. Retrieved 25 February 2023.
  34. ^ Kirby, Percival R. (December 1939). "Musical instruments of the Cape Malays". South African Journal of Science. XXXVI: 477–488. Read 4 July, 1939
  35. ^ Haron, Muhammed (2005). "Gapena and the Cape Malays: Initiating Connections, Constructing Images" (PDF). SARI: Jurnal Alam Dan Tamadun Melayu. 23. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia: 47–66. Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 November 2016. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  36. ^ "Cape Malay Samosas with Mint-Cilantro Dipping Sauce". MeyerFoodBlog. Retrieved 2 March 2017.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]