Date :Wednesday, April 29th, 2015 | Time : 15:12 |ID: 6439 | Print

The history of Apartheid and the Muslim community

SHAFAQNA – Prior to the introduction of the law of racial segregation in South Africa, there was relative peace between the people. Before Apartheid became law, it came into existence slowly, because of some white’s notion of their own supremacy, and their desire to control those people they considered inferior to themselves.

The whites, who came to South Africa in 1652, colonized the country, becoming its ruling elite. Even after South Africa ‘s independence in 1961, whites continued to hold the reins of power, dominating all levels of government.

The colored people are divided into two groups: the Muslim Cape Malays and the Christian indigenes who intermarried with the whites. The Cape Malays came from Indonesia in 1656, during the Dutch occupation of their country.

An Indonesian prince came to the Cape colony in South Africa as an exiled prisoner because he had led resistance against the Dutch in Indonesia. With him were practicing Muslims, Islamic scholars, and fifty or so other people, and they taught the black slaves Islam. They intermarried, and from them came the Cape Malays.

Beginnings of SegregationThe first move towards Apartheid was the white government taking away the blacks’ right to vote. Later, the voting rights of the coloreds and Asians (Indians) were also revoked. The next step was the introduction of pass laws to control the movement of the blacks.

A person would have to go to a police station to get a permission slip to move from one area to another. All other race groups were usually allowed to move between each other’s areas, but not to go into the black townships.

Next, the old areas and cities were declared unfit for human habitation, and under that pretext the white government moved everyone out to the smaller townships.

Then the area that had been evacuated would be rebuilt for whites only, and the original inhabitants would have to stay in the townships, with no right of return, nor compensation for the houses they had been forced to leave.

Additionally, blacks were not allowed to own houses; they could only hold 99-year leases. Other race groups, however, could buy houses in the townships and found a measure of stability.

Certain universities were for whites only. A university for coloreds and blacks was built in the western cape in the 1970s to cater for coloreds and blacks; before that there had been none in the area, forcing them to go to the Transval or Natal.

When it came to employment, a graduate of a white university would get the job over a graduate from a colored university, regardless of their results. Many jobs were reserved for whites only; pilots, military officers, and the chiefs of the police force (even in black areas) had to be white.

Black, Asian, and colored people could only aspire to becoming laborers or tradesmen.

There were exceptions; they were the ones who were either wealthy or excellent at school. But while a non-white person who got extremely high marks at school would be admitted to the medical faculty, he would never receive the same pay once qualified.

Uprooting Muslims

The Muslims were affected by the same things that affected all the other racial groups.

However, when the Christian community applied to build a church, permission would be granted, whereas for the Muslims, the process of application was difficult and time consuming, and in many cases permission would be denied.

So in one township, you might find ten churches, but only one mosque.

And while in many cases, the Christians’ building projects were subsidized by the government, the Muslim community had to pay for everything itself. The colored Christian community would often have a sister church in the white community that would assist in their application for building a church; Muslims had no such support.

The same applied to the schools: It was easy for the Catholic coloreds to open a Catholic school because of the support system in place, but it was very difficult for Muslims to open an Islamic school.

For Muslims who made it in white society, actually graduating from university and getting a job, maintaining their Islamic identity in such a context was difficult.

To maintain their status in such society, which was largely seen as the way to prosperity and success, Muslims felt obliged to drink, socialize in mixed gatherings, not wear hijab, and to not let it be known that they pray.

Some of these changes were felt much more acutely that others by the South African Muslim community. In the areas that the white government condemned  for demolition, there were many mosques that were legally public trusts, and hence, could not be demolished, and even today, you can still see mosques standing in white areas.

So the Muslims moved to the townships would find only one mosque in an area of, say, ten kilometers, whereas in the areas they had lived before being moved there would have been many more, allowing Muslims to frequent them.

It took the communities a long time to raise enough money to start building mosques in the townships. This is significant: If Muslims do not have a mosque, they have no place for community gatherings and lose contact with each other, the men cannot perform the daily congregational prayers or the Friday prayer, and it is difficult for the community to perform the `Eid prayers.

Additionally, the children who used to attend afternoon madrasahs in the mosques to learn Arabic and Qur`an could no longer do so.

Crisis of Identity

While the government built schools in the new townships, they were institutions made to perpetuate and support the white regime’s religion and governing principles of racism.

Muslim schools lost a lot of their pupils when the Muslims were moved into the townships, and the government would not pay the teachers’ salaries without sufficient pupils, so the schools eventually closed down.

The majority of Muslims thus had no choice but to send their children to government schools and subject them to brain washing.

Even if there was a Madrasah in the area, there generally wasn’t enough time to attend it alongside the government’s education, and so many Muslim youth would drop out of the madrasah, because secular education was seen as their hope for the future.

Muslim children, now isolated from other communities, without mosques and their related education and social work, were now herded into the white government’s schools. There, they were taught that they should fear the blacks, and consider themselves second class citizens.

They were taught that they had no roots; they were not really a part of South Africa, they were just there. They were made to believe that the whites were superior, and that non-whites should be grateful to them. All white text books declared Islam to be a religion of the sword, and inferior to Christianity, which was supposed to be based on love and equality.

Muslims were made to feel embarrassed and apologetic identifying themselves as Muslim, even in their own communities. This was because of the influence of the school curriculum and the absence of a strong communal Muslim identity, coupled with a lack of knowledge. It was the outcome of years of being told they were not good enough, yet would have to continue to live and hope for a future in which they felt they had no part.

The perception of Muslims varied according to race groups. The whites considered themselves ultimately superior to everyone, but in the colored community, Muslims were respected, particularly the elders. This was especially because of their moral behavior. For example, if there was a situation where a witness had to give testimony, the word of a Muslim would be taken over the word of anyone else.

After the second World War, the older generation of Muslims still had access to mosques and freedom of movement, and their Muslim identity was stronger and more stable. The children of that generation, however, were born during the time when the whites started moving people to the townships, and the Muslims were losing their mosques, and as such a significant part of their Muslim identity was lost.

Their children in turn would attend the afternoon madrasahs, but would only learn about prayer and fasting, and perhaps memorize some Qur`an, but would not be taught the place of Islam in everyday life. Because of the government’s school curricula, they often learned more about Christianity than about Islam.

Neither Muslim children nor men were given time off from school or work to attend Friday prayers; if they did, they were punished. Some school boys would run away from school to attend the prayer and take the punishment.

Especially in government jobs, you were not allowed to take `Eid off, unless it fell on a weekend, whereas traditional Christian holidays were public holidays for everyone. Thus, Muslim children grew up being made to feel inferior because of their Muslim identity.



Eventually, when the movement of resistance became stronger and the human spirit was rekindled, hope appeared on the horizon, and the Imams became more political, and through this the reawakening of Islam begun.

People began to pray for freedom, to work towards it, and this brought them closer to Allah and closer to each other, as Muslims striving for the same cause.

Before that, Imams taught the people to be patient and well mannered. But after that they started to urge the people to support the ANC. Muslims started to feel proud because the principles of Islam called for freedom, and so they worked easily with the ANC.

At that time the principles of Islam took on a practical everyday significance. More Muslims came back to the mosques to hear the latest news of the resistance, and they would pray together, strengthening Muslim solidarity again.

There was another movement called the United Democratic Front (UDF), which was initiated by an affiliation of priests and Islamic scholars who united to join the resistance. The ANC was still banned, so the UDF became a front for the ANC.

Because the organization was religious in nature, it was tolerated, and the Muslims operated under its umbrella. They organized community gatherings and kept the people informed of who the government was locking up and what it was doing.

There was no other way to get this information, as the real local news never made it into the mainstream media. Emergency laws were in effect at the time, so the gatherings organized were peaceful, though UDF members were unofficially very much involved in protests.

The resistance to Apartheid was supported by South Africa’s Muslims, and many ministers in the first Democratic government after the fall of Apartheid were colored Muslims; while the percentage of Muslims in the country is only about 1 or 2 percent, about 25 percent of government ministers are Muslims.

The colored community did not suffer as much as the black community, but whatever challenges it faced were slowly but surely overcome.







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