Long Read | Picking sides where there are none

In Cape Town Islam is often racially fraught. On occasion it has even been misused as an alibi for racism.

This is an edited version of a longer piece that was originally written for the book project Racial Formations in Africa and the Middle East: A Transregional Approach for The Project on Middle East Political Science.  

In South African racial politics, Islam is rarely seen by its practitioners or by outsiders as an “African” religion. It is seen as coloured and Indian and foreign. This is particularly the case in Cape Town, where Islam is most visible as a religion.

Though Muslims only constitute less than 2% of South Africa’s population and between 5% and 10% of the population in Cape Town, they are a visible minority. 

Nearly 80% of Muslims in South Africa are considered coloured. Indian and African Muslims make up the balance of South African Muslims. Indian Muslims, who started arriving in the mid-19th century, are largely concentrated in the provinces of Gauteng and Kwazulu-Natal. Smaller numbers of Muslims are Black South Africans (ie. Zulu, Xhosa, etc speakers) or newer migrants from the rest of Africa (especially West Africa and the Horn) and parts of South Asia.  

One effect of seeing Islam as coloured and Indian is that Black Muslims in South Africa are usually seen as converts only. But the view that Islam is not Black is at odds with Islam’s origins in South Africa. Islam arrived in South Africa with slavery. For the next 180 years or so, slavery became the dominant economic and social system in the Cape Colony. In its initial form, Islam was a creole identity, attracting many converts from among the enslaved people, who were quite diverse.

12 April 2021: The Crescent Observers Society and Muslim clergy gather at Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town for the annual sighting of the moon that marks the month of Ramadan. (Photograph by Brenton Geach/ Getty Images)

Slavery in South Africa does not fit the neatly racialised assumptions about the relationship between blackness and slavery predominant in other contexts. Between 1652, when the Dutch first established a colony at the Cape, and 1808, approximately 63 000 slaves were imported to the Cape. Over time, the majority of slaves (26.4%) were imported from other parts of Africa, particularly southeast Africa (mostly from what is now Mozambique); another 25.1% of slaves were brought from Madagascar, 26.1% came from India and 22.7% came from the Indonesian archipelago. The slaves from Madagascar and Africans were often described together as Black, mostly in negative terms.

In contrast to the popular belief that Black Muslims are “converts”, many of the African slaves arrived as Muslims. Historian Nigel Worden has argued that “both the South Asian and African components of Cape slave history have been obliterated in public memory and in heritage representations”, though it could be argued that the African components of slave history have suffered more from this amnesia.

A key feature of Islam that may have attracted many slaves during the 18th and 19th centuries was the fact that, in contrast to Christianity – which discriminated against its Black converts – Islam “welcomed slaves into the fold, treated them with kindness and offered them the dignity of a proper funeral”. Islam also offered literacy. “The madrasas accepted slaves and ‘free Blacks’ alike and offered one of the only educational options available to children from these communities,” writes historian Saarah Jappie. Basically, under extreme conditions, Islam attempted to treat all believers as equal.

Entrenched identities

While the Dutch were not tolerant of other religions, Islam flourished under the British, who took over the colony in the early 19th century and abolished slavery. The first mosques were built under British rule. But the British, like the Dutch before them, vigorously policed racial boundaries, thus further entrenching these identities.

By the 19th century, the collective noun “Cape Malays” was used to describe all Muslim slaves. As literary scholar Gabeba Baderoon points out: “Cape Malay” meant both “Muslim” and “slave.” Even Khoi converts to Islam were considered Malay. Everyone, including European visitors to the colony, noticed this. Gavin Lewis, in his book-length study of coloured identity and politics, Between the Wire and the Wall: A History of South African ‘Coloured’ Politics, noted that as late as 1976 a Christian missionary in Cape Town noted that “all Muslims, even those of English or Scottish blood, are indiscriminately called Malays”. 

This is an important distinction from how the term Malay came to be used later. Over time, Malay began to be associated only with some “coloureds”, the new category for people of “mixed race” that would become codified first under colonialism and then under white “self-rule” (between 1910 and 1948), and which became law under apartheid after 1948. In fact, among the many sub-categories of “coloured” codified by apartheid (Griqua, Cape Coloured, Other Coloured, etc), one of these was “Malay”.

Even if coloured Muslims were involved in identity-making of their own or displayed racist attitudes, they did so within the bounds of state-enforced racial categories and segregation. 

The best way to illustrate this is to look at the role of ID du Plessis. He was a white journalist, academic and later, an adviser for coloured affairs to the government. He was also a member of the Broederbond, the secret organisation that advanced Afrikaner nationalism through the state, universities, business and churches. Du Plessis thought of himself as an ethnographer of “Malay culture” and from the 1930s onwards, he began to publish his “studies” on the culture and cultural contributions of Malays. Du Plessis was particularly interested in promoting Muslims who lived in the Bo-Kaap or Malay Quarter, a part of Cape Town’s inner city. Du Plessis worked with local imams who acted as his informants. For these imams, the state was protecting Islam and its worshippers. The effect of Du Plessis’ work with some Cape Muslims was to orientalise Islam at the Cape and in South Africa, by emphasising its roots in Indonesia at the expense of Africa, as historian Shamil Jeppie has argued. 

Palestinian scarves and white fezzes

After the Nationalists took power in 1948 and implemented apartheid, they worked hard to “divide and rule” Black communities. One of these was to convince Muslims that they could only thrive as a minority group because of special government protection. Not surprisingly, despite the activism of some radical Muslims, Cape Muslims weren’t particularly radical about South Africa’s colonial and apartheid politics.  So much so that a notable Muslim cleric and scholar, Faried Esack, would later write: “Although there were prominent and widely respected Muslim personalities involved in politics, Islam did not play a direct role in their thinking, nor did they appeal to their community to work for a just society on the basis of Islam.”

As a result, post-World War II, white public and official opinion developed a view of Islam as “law-abiding”. The Muslim religious authority in Cape Town, the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), established in 1945, was accused of being quiescent and avoiding a direct confrontation with apartheid. When some Muslims organised under the Call of Islam in the early 1960s to oppose forced removals, white members of Parliament were shocked by the protests as they had a stereotype of Muslims as apolitical. Muslim clerics, like Iman Abdullah Haron who sought a more explicit association with Black resistance (like the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) of Robert Sobukwe) was isolated by the MJC before his murder by apartheid police in Cape Town in 1969. (Haron’s funeral caught both the state and the MJC by surprise; 40 000 people, including a large number of Muslims, turned up to mourn him.)

Opposition to apartheid gained new impetus from the mid to late 1970s. This is the period that saw the development of movements propagating Black Consciousness (and in the process reimagined Black resistance to apartheid as not based on ethnic blocs as coloured, Indians or Africans). In the 1980s, the United Democratic Front (UDF) would revive the leftism associated with the ANC and the SACP. A fair number of Muslims served in the leadership of these organisations. However, young Muslims who joined these movements were mainly radicalised by external events: the Iranian Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (a few young South African Muslims went to fight with the mujahideen) as well as the Palestinian struggle: by the mid-1980s, argues Esack, “among the Muslim community in the Cape, Palestinian scarves and white fezzes have become symbols in the anti-apartheid struggle”.

15 April 2017: A mural painting in Cape Town representing Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Cissie Gool and Muslim cleric and activist Iman Abdullah Haron. It is the work of artist Faith47. (Photograph by Frédéric Soltan/ Getty Images)

These developments were of course not unusual for political Islam at the time. Esack – who in the 1980s openly sided with the UDF, that revived the mass protest politics of the 1950s – identified three main tendencies among Muslim resisters of apartheid in the 1980s: One, the Muslim Youth Movement (centrist and more focused on proselytisation, with links to visiting Pakistani and Indian clerics); two, Qibla (which while linked to the local PAC repeated slogans, often in Persian, of the Iranian Revolution, like “One solution, Islamic Revolution”); and, three, the Call of Islam. Of the three, only the smaller Call of Islam directly engaged with the largest mass movements of Black people like the UDF, trade union movement Cosatu, or civic associations that operated in coloured and Black neighbourhoods. Basically, Islamic identity became ordinary Muslims’ way of entering the anti-apartheid movement. However, emphasising Muslims’ duty to oppose injustice meant de-emphasising South African Muslims’ stake in the anti-apartheid struggle as workers and Black people.

This seemed especially incongruous with Muslims’ daily experiences. Esack was moved to explain in an article in academic journal Third World Quarterly in 1988: “Muslims have always been subjected, in varying degrees, to the same oppression and exploitation faced by their ‘racial’ compatriots. ‘Coloured’ Muslims have experienced the same hardships as their ‘Coloured’ brothers and sisters under the Group Areas Act. The harsh labour conditions in the textile factories of the Western Cape and the trauma of not having a clearly defined position in a society where apartheid demands that all groups have an identifiable role, has been a formative feature of the Coloured Muslim experience.”

The end of apartheid predictably led to a reconfiguration of Muslim identities as it did other South African identities. On the one end, like Islam elsewhere, South African Islam became more in line with the Global Ummah. Historically, coloured Islam was locally specific in some of its cultural practices and rituals (often incorporating rituals like “ratiep”), but it increasingly deferred to South Asian or Saudi theology. Political Islam was also featured via the anti-crime group, Pagad, in the mid to late 1990s,  though it faded quickly. At the same time, there was a move to connect coloured or Malay Muslims with Indonesia. This took the form of some official and unofficial efforts from Indonesia on the one hand and on the other hand, work by local historians and cultural entrepreneurs to promote those linkages above all else and to excavate that part of slave history only. It is unclear how much of this was in opposition to Islam as an “African religion” or was a reflection of racial attitudes towards blackness in the Muslim community, but it did have some effects to not see Islam as an African religion. It may also explain why many Black Muslim migrants from other parts of Africa or other Black South African Muslims haven’t fully found a home in South African Islam.

The Cape’s rich cultural milieu 

I want to end with a story about a friend that I think illustrates some of the contemporary dynamics about Islam and race in Cape Town very well.

Kholofelo (Kholo) Molewa is a Black Muslim South African. A businessman and philanthropist, he is originally from Johannesburg but made Cape Town his home after moving to the city for university studies. In May 2018, during Ramadan, he gave a talk on “racism in Islam” at the Claremont Main Road Mosque. 

The Claremont mosque is in a white suburb of the same name to the south of the city in the shadow of Table Mountain. It was built in 1851. Most of the worshippers have deep roots in the area and older ones had direct experiences of forced removals when Claremont was declared a white group area in the 1950s. They were, however, allowed to still worship at the mosque. In the 1980s, the mosque became associated with the Call of Islam, which was allied to the UDF and the ANC. The mosque’s imam, Rashied Omar, is an academic and well-known for his progressive approach to faith. Molewa’s invitation to speak was not unusual at the Claremont mosque and speaks to debate and inquiry within the community and how – at least for some – there are public spaces to question and critically probe racial identities and tropes. (On a separate occasion at the mosque, Molewa gave a talk about Black Lives Matter and its South African application.)

2 May 2018: A woman stands out among the roofs of homes in the Siqalo shack settlement in Cape Town. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ Netwerk24/ Jaco Marais)

Molewa’s talk was in response to violent clashes a few weeks earlier between residents of two working-class neighbourhoods in the city, Mitchells Plain and Siqalo, over land and housing. Mitchells Plain happens to be Cape Town’s largest coloured township. Siqalo, which is situated on the edge of Mitchells Plain, is a shack dweller community that is mainly Xhosa speaking.

As Molewa reminded his audience, the clashes had dominated the news and one media outlet referred to it as “race war”. Worse, rumours and “fake news” about the violence abounded on social media. Alarmingly, voice notes containing racist messages circulated over WhatsApp in which coloureds denounced Black Siqalo residents as criminals and opportunists. In one voice note, a male voice urged coloured Mitchells Plain residents to fight back against “the Black people”, “crush” and “trample” them and encouraged others to spread this message to “every mosque, every church and every neighbour”.

Mitchells Plain residents weren’t shy to talk to local media. Molewa was especially taken by one clip that made the rounds on social media. In this, a Black reporter from local network eNCA interviews a group of coloured women, whose heads are covered (“in doeks”). The women are joined by an older man from Mitchells Plain. The group is “visibly” angry. The man speaks over the women and describes how his fellow Siqalo neighbours fear hard work and how “these people”, whom he identified as being from the neighbouring Eastern Cape province, were “land invaders.” In this, he was merely repeating an offensive talking point by local, white-led opposition party the DA, which refers to Black residents of the city as “refugees” and “immigrants”.

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What struck Molewa, however, was that the old coloured man – “who incidentally looks like my father’s uncle” – framed his contempt for his Black neighbours “within the language of Islam”. To the old man, Siqalo residents “don’t know how to lift themselves up by their bootstraps because they lack sabr [patience]” while he “because of his Islam … managed to [work] his way out of poverty”. Even worse, the coloured women agreed with the man, by intermittently saying “Allahu Akbar!”.

This led to a revelation for Molewa: “Two main things struck me as the elderly gentleman spoke. One, a personal musing, the other more an oblique political wondering. Firstly I wondered where this man – with whom I share a faith – would locate me [Molewa’s emphasis] within his overall world view. Would my Islam exempt me from an indictment that references not only my character but also indeed my spiritual worth? Or would my blackness automatically discount my belonging to the Ummah? And therefore putting me out of reach of its benefits?”

Which was how Molewa ends on a personal note: “I have a young son, whose very identity is located within all the strands of ‘blackness’ and ‘colouredness’ and ‘malayness’ – that define and ill-define the Cape’s rich cultural milieu. But sometimes in a fit of South African fatalism, I often wonder when he’ll be called the K-word for the first time (and not necessarily by an Afriforum type [a white right-wing social movement] but by a member of his community) … And when those moments come, my hope is that perhaps by then we would have completely reimagined this notion [of] the other – as especially it relates to determining the borders of blackness – whereby an older Harun [his son’s name] does not have to live in a world perennially plagued by angst and fatigue when it comes to race, being asked to pick ‘sides’ where there are essentially none.”

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