|Riverside mosque, on the banks of the Umgeni in Durban, first built by Sufi Saheb in 1895.|
TODAY we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Group Areas Act at Riverside, "The Rise, the Fall and the Resurrection of the Habibia Soofie Darbaar". The Group Areas Act was a particularly hateful aspect of apartheid legislation that displaced and divided millions of South Africans.
Riverside, on the banks of the Umgeni River outside Durban, was chosen by Hajji Shah Goolam Mohamed Soofie Siddiqui – or Sufi Saheb – in 1895 to be a spiritual oasis for a people in need of solace. From here, Sufi Saheb would bless the community with eleven mosques, 13 schools and an orphanage.
Sufi Saheb, as we all know, arrived here from Hyderabad on the inspired orders of his Shaykh, Hazrat Khwaja Habib ‘Ali [ra].
On a personal note, Riverside has always been a place of calm and consolation – especially when I stayed in Durban in 1986 after the 1985 uprisings. The legacy of Sufi Saheb is a great one, a living one – alhamdullilah – which makes me equally humbled to be in his presence, and in your presence.
In today’s talk I have decided to take a historical approach to explain in context why we are here today, and what lessons the Group Areas Act teaches us about ourselves in our challenging world. My talk is entitled the “Caravan of Love”.
AS WITH all stories, we start with ‘one upon a time’, for once upon a time – before Donald Trump – we were a mobile species migrating freely across oceans, land-bridges and continents.
We were migrating for many reasons: because of changes in climate; in search of better grazing for our herds; to avoid famine and to avoid poverty. And, naturally, we were migrating to escape oppression; and of course, being human, some of us were migrating in search of wealth and power.
Colonialism – the godfather of apartheid – was also a migration, but it was the practice of acquiring control over another territory, occupying it with foreign settlers, and then exploiting it economically at the expense of the locals. Israel is the best surviving example.
The motivating factor for the colonial expansion of Europe, which mutated into apartheid in South Africa, was the extraction of minerals and resources that Europe did not have, such as gold, oil, spices, iron-ore, diamonds and cotton.
Therefore, the exploration of the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French and the British – from the 15th century onwards – was a race for goods, raw materials and wealth. This would lead to the European Industrial Revolution, urbanisation, mass production and the French Revolution of the late 1700s.
The New World explorers, ironically often guided by Muslim navigators, saw themselves as racially, religiously and economically superior. This Orientalism can be traced back to a series of edicts issued by the Vatican from 1452 until 1508.
In 1452, the Pope authorised Portugal to attack, conquer, and to subjugate Saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ wherever they could be found. In 1508 it sanctioned the Spanish to do exactly the same.
The hard facts of history (we are not being anti-Catholic) tell us there was a determined drive into what Prince Henry the Navigator called the ‘Arab Sea’. The Pope’s keen interest was based on the Vatican wanting to retain its political grip on Europe. The Pope, the ‘supreme leader’, was being seriously challenged by Protestant breakaways and the Ottoman Empire.
What I have briefly described here provides us with the early historical context of our eventual South African experience. Southeast Asia, India, North America, South America, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, the Middle East and Africa would be all subjected to European expansionism.
To this effect, the Portuguese reached the Cape in 1488. The Portuguese met Khoi resistance and wisely stayed away, but the Dutch East India Company landed in 1652 to use the Cape as a replenishment station for its fleets.
The Dutch might have been Calvinist and anti-Catholic, but they did, however, share the same cultural chauvinism as the Catholic conquistadors. The British took over from the Dutch at the Cape in 1806.
Out of this – and I am simplifying things greatly – arose a group of discontented Dutch settlers. They spoke a form of Dutch borrowed from the streets called Afrikaans. The British presence at the Cape made the Dutch settlers feel marginalised. This would spark the Great Trek of the 1830s.
As a result, large ox-wagon trains pushed into the South African hinterland in an exodus said to have Biblical proportions. The reality was land seizure and bloody conflict with local houses such as the amaXhosa, the amaTshatshu, the amaPondo and the amaZulu. In South Africa, like Palestine, there was no land without a people for a people without a land. Nonetheless, this did not prevent the Afrikaners from establishing Boer Republics in the Free State and Transvaal.
Afrikaner as a 'chosen people'
Stephen du Toit, a founding member of the secret Afrikaner Broederbond, penned the idea in the Afrikaner Patriot of 1876 that the Afrikaner was a distinct nation – or ‘volk’. It had a fatherland, South Africa, and its own language, Afrikaans. The Afrikaner was a chosen people. The destiny of the volk, he said, was to rule South Africa.
The Boer republics lived peaceably alongside the British until 1867 and the disruptive discovery of diamonds and gold. The first Boer War was waged in the Transvaal Republic in 1880, and the second nation-wide one from 1899 to 1902. It saw the Afrikaner crushed by the ‘scorched earth’ policies of Earl Kitchener, who razed Boer properties to the ground and established ‘concentration camps’ for surviving women and children.
Some 25,000 men were exiled to St Helena island, and over 25,000 (mainly children) would perish in the South African camps. Up to 100,000 blacks would also be interned, with an equally alarming number of fatalities. Time, unfortunately, does not allow us to explore this aspect of our history further.
As evidenced, the Afrikaners suffered deeply, experiencing great poverty after the war. But the dream of the volk did not die. The atrocities of the Boer War gave Afrikaner Nationalism impetus, as did Hitler’s rule of anti-Jewish terror spur Nationalist Zionism, two neo-colonial projects that were both given life in 1948.
Barry Hertzog led the Afrikaner National Party in the 1915 and 1920 elections under the Trump-like slogan, ‘South Africa first’ – for which we have to read ‘white first’. In the 1924 elections, he defeated the South African Party led by General Jan Smuts.
In 1934, the United Party was formed by a merger of Prime Minister Hertzog’s National Party with the South African Party of General Smuts. In 1939 things came to head when Hertzog refused to commit South Africa to Britain's war effort against Nazi Germany, and resigned.
In 1948, after the Second World War, the National Party wrested power again at the ballot box. It immediately embarked on an ‘Afrikanerisation’ process of economic empowerment. It saw the birth of the Reddingsdaad Fund and the creation of SANTAM and the Volkskas Bank, now known as ABSA.
In the meantime, there had been other developments – particularly in KwaZulu Natal. For between 1860 and 1911, over 150, 000 contracted labourers from India had arrived in Natal to work in the cane fields, this after the local peoples had proved resistant to the idea.
No context given
I feel that there has been insufficient interrogation as to why these Indian labourers would be prepared to work in a distant land. It baffles me that no context has ever been given as to why Indian workers would actually agree to come to South Africa.
British economist, Angus Maddison, tells us that in the early 1700s India had been the richest country on earth, providing 27 per cent of global income (compared to Europe’s 23 per cent). After colonialism, this percentage slipped to three per cent. From being one of the richest countries, India went to being one of the poorest.
What hit India hardest during the Raj era of ‘state capture’ was a series of famines. In 1769, the Bengal famine wiped out 10 million, one-third of its population. The Chalisa famine of 1782, which affected the regions of Punjab, Delhi and Kashmir, experienced 11 million fatalities.
In 1792, the Madras, or ‘Skull’ famine, wiped out 11 million in Gujerat and Hyderabad. The Agra famine of 1837 decimated nearly a million, and the Eastern Rajputana one in 1860, two million.
What these human tragedies tell us is that by the time Indian labourers set sail for Durban, already over 33 million of their countrymen had perished – a social catastrophe bigger in scale than the current Syrian, Rohingyan, Uighur or Yemeni crises. These famines would wipe out nearly 20 per cent of the total population, with famines in India resulting in more than 60 million deaths up until the early 20th century.
So I believe the migration to South Africa by the Indian community came on the back of man-induced famine. Ironically, this was not caused by a shortage of food, but by racial arrogance and bad governance.
Florence Nightingale and Nobel Prize winner, Amartya Sen, assert that the famines in the British era were due to the undemocratic nature of the Empire, and its inability, or unwillingness, to provide infrastructure to transport food.
But things would be challenging in South Africa too. Growing white resentment at Indian presence and economic activity, something that had begun as early as 1885, resulted in the passing of the Asiatic Land Tenure Act of 1946. Indians had not been affected by the 1913 Land Act, which had restricted black South African land ownership, and destroyed its middle class.
The Asiatic Land Tenure Act denied the right to purchase property in areas controlled by whites. Furthermore, Indians were only allowed to lease land in these controlled areas for trading purposes. The act, as we all know, came to be called the ‘Ghetto Act’, a precursor to its bigger brother, the Group Areas Act.
The Group Areas Act was promulgated on 9 July 1950 and it became the geographical driver of apartheid. It divided up cities and towns into racially segregated suburbs and townships. Places such as Sophiatown, Cato Manor and District Six became icons of community memory.
It is difficult to know exactly how many South Africans were affected by forced removals. Some estimated figures are three to four million, but these numbers can never measure the amount of suffering, psychological trauma and social devastation that went with it – and still haunts us today in the violence and anger we see in poorer areas.
And of course, we cannot forget the Bantustans. They were legislated in 1951. Bantustans saw over 80% of the population confined to 13% of the land. The Group Areas Act became a writhing Medusa’s head, an ‘Afro’ of hissing legal snakes. From 1952 to 1984 the Act was changed, or amended, a staggering 18 times.
A paper delivered by GM Naicker at the Natal Indian Congress of 1956 provides us with salient details of forced removals in Durban. Indians were to be dispossessed of 4,608 acres of land and 3,873 dwellings. Nearly 58,000 Indians and 81,000 Africans would be affected in urban areas, and 7,000 outside the city.
Briardene, Prospect Hall and Riverside are also mentioned in the paper. 6,000 Indians and 5,000 blacks had to be moved off 480 acres and out of 400 dwellings.
The heart-breaking news that Riverside, like so many established communities, would have to move would have been shattering. I struggle to find words to describe it. The image of the Moghul-style gateway to Riverside lying in ruins is a hugely poignant image. To lose your home is the most devastating blow any human can suffer. I remember my first visit to Riverside being tinged with a sadness that seemed to rise up from the soil.
|The Riverside gateway. Bulldozed in 1968. Resurrected in 2010 with some of its original pieces.|
I can only imagine the hard work that must have gone into preserving the memory of Sufi Saheb during those troubled years, when we had a government that wanted to bulldoze our very souls into the ground. Our prayers are with all those who never allowed the legacy of a great man to be forgotten.
Finally, I want to take us to modern times, the era of instant material gratification, social media bigotry, Facebook racism, religious extremism, fake news, massive geo-political upheaval and widespread economic stress.
Indeed, things may look bad, but there is still a lot to look forward to. My Shaykh, the late Sayyid Muhammad ‘Alawi al-Maliki, once told us – that despite the bad things in the world – there were good things too. We are not a people of pessimism, he would always say. We are a people of hope. I know that Sufi Saheb would agree with this.
As a Muslim community in South Africa, I feel that we have a glass that is half full, as opposed to being half empty. Firstly, take a look around you. We were not in Bosnia’s killing fields during the 90s. We are not in genocidal Burma. We are not in a Uighur camp. We are not in Gaza, Syria, Yemen or Libya. Nor are we fighting terrorist stereotypes in the right-wing democracies of US and Europe.
Today we are free to have a social function here today. I am free to give a speech. The imam is free to pray. Nobody will shoot us, teargas us or ask us to disperse.
We enjoy more freedom and more recognition than any other community
I have travelled in the Muslim world, as well as to some of these democracies. I can assure you that in South Africa – as 4% of the national population – we enjoy more freedom and more constitutional recognition than any other community I know. But there is a price we have to pay. It is called active citizenship.
The late Maulana Igshan Hendricks, former head of the Cape Muslim Judicial Council, was a great believer in what he called the ‘fiqh of citizenship’, the relation of a Muslim to a non-Muslim state. Ebrahim Rasool, former US ambassador, has spoken about us living in a ‘Dar ul-Shahadah’, a place where we can practice our faith without interference.
Their views are supported by the famous Mardin Fatwa of the 13th century scholar, Ibn Taimiyya, which fully condones the principle of Muslim minorities living under friendly rulers.
However, our freedoms are granted to us on the condition that we honour them. It means we have to respect other beliefs and dignify other races. We have to keep our public leaders accountable. We have to look after the poor. We have to house the homeless. These are all things that apartheid, and the Group Areas Act, tried to take away from us: our humanity, our tolerance and our freedom to think.
In fact, the maqasid – the purposes of the Shari’ah – show us exactly how to be citizens. Shari’ah, or Sacred Law, was never instituted to punish people (which so many mistakenly believe), but rather – as Imam Jawzi and so many others have said – as a relief, or a mercy. For that reason, the maqasid are: the sanctity of life, the sanctity of faith, the sanctity of family, the sanctity of wealth, the sanctity of the intellect and the sanctity of the human character.
This is Shari’ah, this is citizenship – not the cutting of limbs, the burning of mosques, the bombing of shopping centres, or calling others kafir and demeaning other peoples because they are different to us.
What we have to understand is that in South Africa, democracy is not the end point, or the end game. It the mere starting point on a continuum of human growth, economic
empowerment and education. It is understanding our diversity as a strength. It is not being divided and ruled. It is creating a society underpinned by inclusivity. For it to succeed, South African democracy has to be a work in progress. We need to understand that.
To guarantee our freedoms, we have to move away from our ghettoised identities, for they were imposed upon us by colonial and apartheid masters – we did not choose them. We did not choose to be called Malay, Indian, Coloured, white or black. South Africa is the very place where we shouldn’t have to indulge in this crude minority or majority discourse.
What I mean by this is that we are South Africans, first and foremost – black or white, Jew, Hindu, Christian or Muslim. We are able to say that we are South Africans first because we have a Constitution that guarantees our identity. We do not share the insecurities of other communities around the globe. Therefore, we do not need our sectarian identities to define us.
I believe that Hazrat Badsha Peer – who spread faith to those in the street – and Sufi Saheb – who built institutions – would agree with us today, 50 years after the horrors of the Group Areas Act at Riverside. These were men, great Sufis, who did not see the straightness of our hair, the colour of our skin or our social position. These were men more concerned about the state of our hearts. And their love for us all was an unconditional love.
I think love is a good departure point, because it was love that apartheid tried to deny us. We are all from Adam [as], and his prophetic light has passed through the DNA of all humanity to the Prophet Muhammad [SAW], a mercy to all peoples and to all things. For as the distinguished Andalusian Sufi, Ibn al-‘Arabi, has said:
My heart is open to every form: it is a pasture for the gazelles, and
a cloister for Christian monks, a temple for idols, the Ka’bah of the
pilgrim, the tables of the Torah, and the books of the Qur’an. I practice
the religion of Love; in whatsoever direction His caravans advance, the
religion of Love shall be my religion and my faith.
|The graves of Sufi Saheb and his beloved mother.|
|Riverside today. |
All photos © Shafiq Morton 2018.