Some thoughts on the question of race in South Africa and Surah al-Hujurat, verse 13
و من آياته إختلاف ألوانكم و ألسنتكم إن في ذالك لآيات للعالمين (سورة روم)
يأيها الناس إنا خلقناكم من ذكر و أنثى و جعلناكم شعوبا و قبائل لتعارفوا … (سورة الحجرات)
Alle dank en prys kom toe na A…., baas en skepper van die wereld; segening en geluk op onse opperste nabī, sy famile en gekiesde vriende (maatskapers). I recited the praises of A…., salutations and salawat on our Nabi, his family and chosen companions in Afrikaans because of its relevance to today’s khuṭbah. How? What is the connection between language a sign among the signs of God according to the Qur’an and race a construct?
I hope I can demonstrate the link by briefly sharing with you, if you will kindly allow me, a part of my life as a Black South African. I come from Riverlea, born and bred, a so-called Coloured township in Johannesburg, the part of Riverlea a struggle activist called Zombie because of its socio-economic state that rendered it unfit for even zombies, according to that activist. The Muslim community of Riverlea is Malay; their ancestors came from the Cape since the end of the 19th century throughout the first half of the 20th century. They settled in Fietas and Albertsville until these areas were declared White and the Muslims moved to different so-called Coloured townships such as Riverlea, Bosmont, Western township, Newclare, Eldorado park, etc., depending on a family’s class and income. Nevertheless, in Riverlea, I received my Islamic education and Malay Muslim cultural practices: haddad, ratieb, tamat, Ashraqal, and used words such as jamang, triemma Kassie, which many people in Cape Town no longer use.
The manner in which I began the praises of A…. is how our local Imam Ismail Reid (ra) began every jumu’ah khuṭbah and other speeches. Afrikaans was the lingua franca of the Muslim Malay (slams) community of Riverlea. Afrikaans is my mother tongue. In 1983, when I was 13, my father took us to Home Affairs to have us classified Cape Malay. It appears to me, in terms of the Population Registration Act number 30 of 1950, Malay as race/racial category of Apartheid South Africa is a later development. I am still fed up with my dad because he did it during the September holidays when I needed to be at the public swimming pool (baats Joburg slang) with my friends, hmm to talk to girls.
Yet, I have no Malay “ancestry” at all, i.e. no ancestry from the Cape. Interestingly, according to al-marhum Ahmad Davids, the majority of Muslims who arrived at the Cape in the 17th century were of Indian origin or rather they were not Malay. And even today, many Muslims in Cape Town and its surrounding world who are “classified” Malay, have so-called Indian “roots”. This speaks to Malay in South Africa as a construct.
My father hails from an area in the North West Province and my mother from Botswana. Both my grandmothers are Tswana speaking women, from the Baralong and Baphiring (the hyena/wolf) clans. My maternal grandfather is from Gujurat in Hindustan and my paternal grandfather reportedly from Egypt. There are numerous people like me throughout South Africa. So much for me being Coloured and Malay.
With my story, I am problematizing race, notwithstanding that it is a construct, i.e. it has no basis in reality/existence is so dangerous. Western Modernity especially, more than any other discourse, presented race as scientific with an external reality. Yet, constructs and myths (narratives) are potent: they create worlds and discourses, false human identities, they destroy, re-invent, and reinforce. Race is a product of some human beings, their vulgar will to power in order to subjugate other human beings even if it means annihilating them. The other title of Darwin’s “The origins of the species by means of natural selection”is “The preservation of the favourite races in the struggle for life”.
We, respected sisters and brothers, I submit, have regrettably come to accept and even celebrate, i.e. to normalize, a spill over from the Apartheid era into the democratic South Africa. We assume that as long as we are not racist or link race to racism then all is fine. Yet there cannot be racial identities and racism without race. We underestimate, the social work race and racial ideas perform, i.e. make us to perform. The abstractness of race that makes it so effective, because it is not easily susceptible to empirical disproof and it can coexist with social relations that belie the premises of different racial arguments.
To be sure, I am not oblivious of the realities of constructed categories such as Coloured, African, Indian, etc. As Frantz Fanon (rahmatullah alayhi) reminds us:
In the colonial context, it is evident that what parcels out the world is to begin with the fact of belonging to or not belonging to a given race. In the colonies, the economic substructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich. This is why Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem.
For this reason, I want to be cautious with labelling the group in Cape Town “Gatvol” as racist. Their discourse is a dangerous one and wrong especially in their alliance with the racist Afriforum. We must begin with “what is”. Let me say too, with deep respect and with the risk of earning the ire of some, why so-called White Muslims, in South Africa, at this moment in time are not Black, unlike Muslims who are so-called Coloured, so-called Malay, and so-called Indian. So-called White Muslims come with the baggage and burden of whiteness, although it is often taken for granted that they do not. I will come back to what I mean with Black as a category.
Yet taking into account the lived reality, the “what is” and being aware of it does not mean we have to embrace race or be complacent about it. Notwithstanding his reading of the colonial context, using race as a category, Fanon was not essentializing race. We human beings who love all human beings and all beings (creation), i.e. reject race, have a huge task to undo this construct.
Unfortunately, we have, it appears safe to say, failed to engage race. We appear not even to regard it as a problem. Worse, we have reinforced and in fact, invented Apartheid’s racial categories. With this last sentence, I do not mean that we are racist; no, not at all. However, we do unwittingly play into a reality that serves racism.
Let me demonstrate this through two recent events that show how the construct of race eludes us in South Africa. In the Mail & Guardian of 25 May 2018, there is an opinion piece by Nompumelelo Manzini and Zinhle Mncube entitled, “identity by race does matter”. The piece discusses Mpho Tshivase obtaining her PhD in philosophy. According to the piece Dr Mpho is the first black woman in South Africa to obtain a PhD in philosophy. Interestingly, the piece states that Mala Singh, of so-called Indian origin and Gillian Gardner, so-called Coloured received their PhDs in philosophy before Dr Mpho. It says the former two are only black if we accept black as a blanket term that includes all people of colour in South Africa. It is quite clear that our two authors do not think that black should be a blanket term. My concern with raising this matter is not to make a case for Drs Mala and Gillian as number one and number two; that will be reactionary and frankly counter revolutionary.
My concern comes down to two observations. One, the distortion of the category of Black, i.e. a category of the struggle into a parochial racial category. In the struggle, especially with Black Consciousness thinking, Black was adopted as a political category, never meant to be a racial category. The distortion of this category of the struggle into a racial category not only reinforces Apartheid racist categories, it also reinvents and adds to them. It is instructive that the Population Registration Act number 30 of 1950 (Apartheid’s fundamental legislation; its framework) never had a category “Black”. It had native and African. What is frightening to me at least is the complacency with which we appear to have accepted this discourse under the hegemonic Liberal ideology.
The second event involves the EFF and Yunus Carriem on the question of Ismail Momoniat, a Deputy Director of the Treasury. In his response to the EFF, Yunus Carriem accepts that Momoniat and all South Africans of Indian origin are not African because they are Indian. The EFF (Floyd Shivambu and Dali Mpofu) appear to be ok with this. What is ironic or rather a conundrum is that both are Marxist-Leninist.
However being a Marxist-Leninist does not guarantee that one will not succumb to parochial racial notions. Marx himself was a victim/perpetrator of Eurocentrism. In his piece, “British rule in India”, Marx spews a litany of a ahistorical essentialized views of Hindustan.[A] world of voluptuousness and of a world of woes, is anticipated in the ancient traditions of the religion of Hindostan. That religion is at once a religion of sensualist exuberance, and a religion of self-torturing asceticism. A religion of the lingam and of the juggernaut (jagannath, a title of Krishna) … England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.
The bigger question is what is Africa? Only then, we can say who is an African. In other words, we cannot say who an African is without defining Africa. There can be adjective without a clear knowledge of the noun. But defining Africa is not easy, it is elusive. There are at least seven meanings given to the toponym Africa.
Africa was a European imperial construct whose cartographic application was both gradual and contradictory in that as the name was embraced, the rest of the continent increasingly came to be divorced from its original North African coding. It became increasingly confined to the regions referred to in Eurocentric and sometimes Afrocentric conceptual mapping as “sub-Saharan Africa,” seen as the pristine locus of the real Africa.
However, more tellingly, Africa as the name for the entire continent is a Western colonial imposition. Those who lived in “Africa” prior to the arrival of European rule never called it Africa or any other one name. Africa (Ifriqiyyah) was originally applied to Carthage, a city situated in present day Tunisia. Other names given to certain regions are Sudan, Takrur, Libya, all of foreign derivation. If even 150 years ago, you went to a town or village in Africa and told the inhabitants you are from Africa, they would not have known what you talking about. This is true for India, Iran, and many other places. So who is an Indian?
I am not suggesting that we now abandon names such as Africa. One of the beautiful features of human beings is that we appropriate things, events, tools, etc. even meant to harm us and negate our existence. We imbue something originally given an ugly/harmful meaning and usage with beauty and inclusivity. Hence we can say that insan, in addition to being a rational animal, is an appropriating animal (hayawanun mustalib). The Arabic word istilab is interesting.
Second Khutbah: some suggestions to address the problem of race
- That we ponder deeply over the ayah in Surah Rum on ikhtilaf alwanikum (pigmentations, skin colour) and alsinatikum (diverse languages). In the Qur’anic worldview the diversity of “colours” and languages is a sign among the signs of A…., i.e. beauty and a gift. In the Judaic-Christian worldview, according to the Narrative of the Tower of Babel, Genesis 11, diversity of language was God’s way to confound human beings, a weapon to disperse and weaken them because God feared them encroaching on His power. So diversity of language according to this worldview was a curse. Surah al-Hujurat shows that we are diverse in our essential unity as human beings and creation in general. Therefore contrary to the view of unity in diversity, we based on this ayah, “… created you from a
male and female …” and “min nafsin wahidah” are diverse in our unity and not united in our diversity.
- Black Consciousness – a means not an end; the aim is to overcome race. But Black Consciousness is needed again today. Is it idealistic to eradicate race? Maybe. However, the imperative is that we not be entrapped in race.
- Language: let us learn languages; begin with the vernacular. Let our children learn Zulu, etc. and all languages. Unfortunately in South African universities languages departments are closing down. It is a tragedy.
- Despise nationalism, a form of shirk; and be wary even of patriotism; the nation state should never contain us and define our identity.
- We must study History, for history is the great humaniser as a witness to all our beauty, bad, and ugly.
- Let us not speak of the Other, but of my self external to me as a physical being