Religious Diversity: A South African Treasure

By Valerie Reich

We have been in South Africa for a week now, and I continuously find one of the most fascinating attributes of this country to be its diverse and eclectic populations. One of the most interesting sub-cultures within South Africa is the Cape Malay population. We spent the day with touring Bo-Kaap, a local Muslim community with a unique background. As people who would be deemed “coloured” under apartheid classification, the Cape Malay people have a controversial history yet maintain their cultural identity fiercely with pride and are fueled by a deep religious devotion to Islam. On January 10th, 2016 our program met up with a local Imam (an Islamic religious leader) and he toured us around his community of Bo-Kaap.

To describe this area is almost indescribable and solicits much less emotion without being able to see its beauty. This is not a rich area of Cape Town, but it is not poor either. The houses that line the streets are painted in a variety of rich colors from pink to green to red and throughout the rest of the rainbow. At first glance, one might find this to be a suggestion of gentrification and the hiding of structural poverty. Yet as our guide pointed out, the colors of the buildings are actually descriptive of the business or person who once lived there. As apartheid designated “coloured” area for the Cape Malay people, many of the local residents couldn’t read or write. The color of the buildings was a tool to identify the inhabitants that was universally accepted. Beyond the pleasing ascetics, San Francisco like hilly roads, and the beautiful views of some of Cape Town’s beaches, what was even more unique and heart-filling was the warmth of the people who compose the local inhabitants. As we walked around the area, countless people smiled to us and waved. Stores had their doors open and the sounds of light chatter could be heard from indoors. As a breeze swept through the streets and the sounds of laughing children could be heard in the distance, it felt as if anyone could find a bit of home, or at least culture, in this area of Bo-Kaap.

Yet it is the people, who in their own right are individually interesting, are the lifeblood of Bo-Kaap. But what is makes Cape Malay individual Cape Malay? Cape Malay is a sub-culture within Africa whom claim their heritage from slaves taken from Malaysia by the VOC, or otherwise known as the Dutch East India Trading Company. This history is fraught with controversy though, as historians and museum experts relayed to us throughout our tours of apartheid museums that the Cape Malays are actually descendants of African slaves. By their accounts, the VOC would have never brought slaves from Malaysia to Cape Town, South Africa. Regardless of the actual origination of the Cape Malays, it is undeniable that they have a continued and strict set of cultural rules and procedures heavily influenced by Islam. On our tour with the Imam, we visited an Islamic burial ground, a Mosque, and a Halal restaurant owned by a local family. This area is so culturally religious, that the restraint pretty much closed during the time for Islamic afternoon prayer. Yet as religious as this area is, the Islam of the Cape Malay’s is a vastly different Islam in practice than of the images we see on modern television.

Yes, in Bo-Kaap there are some women who cover themselves in hijabs and wear longer pants and shirts. But our Imam told us that even his daughters will never cover their hair. The Cape Malay community values art, dance, and music contrary to the beliefs of many of the Muslims we see on television today. Even our guide said that some other branches of Islam do not accept the lifestyle choices of the Cape Malays but that even without their approval, the Cape Malay community believes in the goodness of itself and that they are serving God to the best of their ability and with a full heart. The religious diversity here is highlighted as a “minority” section of the larger South African community is strategically protected from outside influence. Our guide reiterated to us a story about a man who wanted to put in a bar next to a local smaller mosque. The Bo-Kaap community, unwilling to have a bar next to their holy site, petitioned the city to stop the furthering of construction. The case got up to a high ranking judge who ruled in favor of the Bo-Kaap Cape Malays’ deeming them too important of an entity to have the antithesis of their religion plastered next to a holy site. This judge also sited that it would leave the community open to backlash and limited parking for actual mosque attendees.

Yet, as open as this community is, it is more shocking to hear about their interaction with the local Jewish community. Cape Malay’s do not comprise the only community of Muslims in South Africa. We see large pockets of Islam across the townships and cities, with one notable story coming from within the former settlement of District Six. District Six was a low income housing area during the apartheid era which was knocked down to move “coloured” people farther away from Cape Town. People lost their homes, dignity, their livelihood, and everything they’ve ever known. Some people even died. We met a man from here, Noor, who told us his story when we visited the District Six museum. Noor, a man well into his seventies, told us he could recite the name of all of his 400 cousins, and detailed the life he once lived in District Six. The area he described was rich in culture and diversity. Noor noted that they all celebrated all of the holidays, with Jews attending Mosque during Ramadan, and Muslims attending Temple during Purim. There was an intertwining of the two religions that would be considered shocking to many during this age and time.

The Jews of South Africa were instrumental in the ending of Apartheid, as we have learned throughout our stay. The feelings of isolation and separation were felt by the “coloured” and “black” communities, was reciprocated by the Jewish community as well, although the treatment was quite clearly different. There was a bond between the Jewish Community and the non-white community that led to great strides for the issues of racial equality and freedom. There were Jewish men locked up on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and there were Jewish women lobbying the Parliament to adopt equal and fair laws for the “coloured” and “black” communities. As seen in our reading, South African Jews and Apartheid,” by Franklin Huge Adler we find a quote from Nelson Mandela saying, “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on the issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been the victims of prejudice.” (Adler, 185) Nothing could be truer of this statement as highlighted between religious and political discussions and debates that take place between the South African religious leaders of Judaism, Catholicism, and Islam. Cape Town is a brilliantly diverse area and each small section of the city has it’s own history. Yet, even though it is drastically different from each place one might stand, a single human truth exists here. It is the truth that all people deserve dignity, a left-over sentiment from the new South Africa which ousted the apartheid government in favor of a government that favors the equality of all people.

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