Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Cape Town to get Human Rights Centre and Palestinian Museum


© Shafiq Morton
Dreams can be born in interesting places. For Dr Anwah Nagia, anti-apartheid activist, businessman and philanthropist, it all started in a Trafalgar High School classroom in central Cape Town in 1976.

For young, disenfranchised South Africans 1976 was the heady year of Soweto, an iconic moment that sparked a new chapter in South African history. Hendrik Verwoed, apartheid’s chief architect, never saw the Soweto uprising – he’d been stabbed to death in 1966 by Loius Tsafendas, a deranged parliamentary messenger.

Balthazar Johannes Vorster, a bellicose party hack with a Nazi background, had been appointed Prime Minister in Verwoed’s place. Having overseen the Rivonia Trial as Justice Minister which convicted Nelson Mandela, Vorster had slammed the constitutional door on any semblance of non-white parliamentary representation by 1968.

It was on his watch that the notorious Terrorism Act was given life. It was on his watch that leaders such as Steve Biko of the Black Consciousness Movement, and activists such as Ahmed Timol and Imam Abdullah Haroon, were murdered by his security police henchmen.

It was on Vorster’s watch too, and that of Community Affairs Minister PW Botha, that bulldozers had moved in to destroy the cosmopolitan heart of Cape Town. Called District Six, it had been decreed a “white area” under a draconian law called the Group Areas Act.

This meant that under the Act its inhabitants were to be summarily removed, forcibly if need be, and re-located to the Cape Flats in racially demarcated ghettoes more than 20 kilometres from the city centre.

Nagia remembers those days well, and says that the saddest – and most defining – moments of his life were witnessing the stress of his classmates being called home because their houses were being demolished.

“Seeing the effects of forced removals on my friends disturbed me,” he says. “We saw District Six disappearing before our eyes. We saw it going from being a colourful inner city neighbourhood to bare earth.”

As a member of the New Unity Movement, Nagia says that his political education was informed by the dictum that the South African struggle was fundamentally an anti-colonialist narrative.

“It’s sad that people thought the South African story was just an anti-apartheid one when in reality, a class struggle was its core. In 1994 we got rid of apartheid, but 18 years later we still face a class struggle.”

So why then build a human rights centre, the Al-Kaaf Human Rights Centre, in Cape Town with a Palestinian museum at its heart?  

 Nagia explains:

 “In 1948 the Afrikaner Nationalists, the apartheid masters, were voted into power by the minority white electorate. This is also the same year that the state of Israel was born. The issue of forced removals enjoys resonance in Palestine and here in South Africa, where we have an institutional memory of it.

“Furthermore, in the past six decades most peoples have managed to achieve some post-colonial autonomy, except for Palestine, which remains the world’s last major apartheid project.”

Nagia said that a focus on Palestine would not mean the Human Rights Centre would ignore other issues. After all, the aspiration for social justice was universal. The centre would always remind the public of other unresolved struggles.

“We have to speak everywhere to the contradictions of race and class dispossession and a ‘common enemy’ – once communism and now Islam – and how this has been spun into a valid-seeming construct by countries like Israel and the US.”

Nagia explained that in the past two years his dream of a human rights centre had taken firm root because of what he saw happening around him.

“South Africa has come out of a protracted struggle. We have a constitution that still hasn’t reached out to the majority…we don’t see practical delivery at the frontiers of poverty and ignorance. So I thought whilst doing something for Palestine, why not use this centre to focus on local and international issues affecting South Africans too?

“What was important was that we built a physical institution, and not something transitional. We needed to give permanent resonance through structure and space.”

Nagia revealed that establishing the centre had not been without challenge.  Finding a suitable venue was the first, but eventually after much searching, he’d been able to purchase an old warehouse on the edge of District Six.

“I’m not saying the events were related, but it burnt down on the weekend of the Russell Tribunal in Cape Town. That set me back months. The structure of the old building had been undermined by the blaze.”

Showing the plans of the 2,000 square metre multi-story centre, Nagia said that it would use specially imported Jerusalem limestone. On the roof there would be an inter-faith prayer room overlooking a garden of remembrance. The Palestinian museum would be on one of its floors.

The Centre would be a fusion of Palestinian and South African styles with Ramallah architect, Zuhair Ali, and Cape Town’s Roger Joshua responsible for its final design. The Palestine Museum director Dr Anis Daraghma, a qualified engineer, had been the central figure in its structural blueprint. Nagia said that the Al-Kaaf Human Rights Centre had several unique characteristics.

“There is no Palestinian museum anywhere in the world, there is no human rights centre of this kind in South Africa, and we’ll have the first local public-access private library stocked with over 100, 000 volumes, including Ottoman records of Palestine from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

In addition, we’ll have a free medical clinic for senior citizens, a free legal advice clinic and literary programmes for Maths and English.”

Nagia explained that the Al Kaaf Human Rights Centre would be an interactive space with a small lecture theatre, a hall holding about 200 people, public reading rooms, a coffee shop and a book store. On a quarterly basis the Centre would host lectures by major figures on topical and challenging questions.

He said that he hoped the Al-Kaaf Human Rights Centre would be catalyst for fighting the discourse of inhumanity through understanding and education.

“Today we face either socialism or barbarism. The struggle for justice is universal and we can’t afford to not confront the truths around us,” he said.