Racism, Social Justice and Reconciliation Twenty Years On
On Tuesday 16 December 2014 South Africans will celebrate Reconciliation Day for the twentieth time. In this khutbah I would like to briefly reflect on an Islamic concept of reconciliation and use it as yardstick with which to evaluate how far we have come at this time when we are celebrating twenty years of democracy. I conclude with some modest proposals that may enhance the reconciliation journey that lies ahead.
It might be expedient to begin by briefly defining reconciliation from an Islamic perspective.
The Islamic Concept of Sulh as Reconciliation
The Islamic equivalent of reconciliation is the Arabic word sulh. In the Qur’an there are two types of reconciliation or sulh: personal sulh and social sulh. From the Islamic perspective, personal reconciliation is the foundation for cultivating sustainable social reconciliation, and social reconciliation entails both the personal processes of forgiveness and healing, as well as the systemic changes aimed at achieving social justice. Moreover, social reconciliation known as sulh ijtima`i is a process rather than an event. While it may be symbolized as a celebratory day, it is an arduous process which needs to be nurtured over a long period of time in order for it to procure the fruits of justice and peace. This Islamic understanding of social reconciliation is powerfully illustrated in the Glorious Qur’an in surah al-Hujurat, Chapter 49, verse 9, where God the Sublime commands the believers to make peace and reconciliation (sulh) between two conflicting parties with justice and equity:
وَإِنْ طَائِفَتَانِ مِنَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ اقْتَتَلُوا فَأَصْلِحُوا بَيْنَهُمَا فَإِنْ بَغَتْ إِحْدَاهُمَا عَلَى الْأُخْرَى فَقَاتِلُوا الَّتِي تَبْغِي حَتَّى تَفِيءَ إِلَى أَمْرِ اللَّهِ فَإِنْ فَاءَتْ فَأَصْلِحُوا بَيْنَهُمَا بِالْعَدْلِ وَأَقْسِطُوا إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُقْسِطِينَ
“If two parties among the believers fall into a conflict, make reconciliation and peace between them; but if one of them transgressors beyond all bounds against the other, then fight you all against the transgressor until it complies with the command of God; but if it complies then make peace and reconciliation between them with justice and equity; for God loves those who are just and equitable”
It is instructive to note that the Qur’anic exhortation to promote peace and reconciliation in the above verse is in the imperative form. Furthermore, the Qur’anic concept of social reconciliation does not merely aspire to a cessation of hostility, violence and warfare. Rather, it seeks to build long-term sustainable relationships and social reconciliation based on justice, known in the Qur’an as ‘adl and qist.
From an Islamic perspective then, social reconciliation is more than just personal forgiveness. It is a strong concept of reconciliation that requires the transformation of the social inequalities and injustices that caused the conflict in the first place. In sum, reconciliation in Islam demands both structural and institutional changes as well as personal processes of forgiveness and healing. If social reconciliation does not result in fairness and justice for all groups in the conflict, then the reconciliation process is flawed.
If we apply this Islamic concept of reconciliation to the current South African context we find that while we can celebrate many social, political and economic gains we have made since 1994, we also sadly have to acknowledge that after 20 years of democratic rule, our society remains deeply divided. A significant proportion of our population remains poverty stricken; their job prospects remain limited; their employers continue to exploit them; they endure poor quality health and education services; they are often dependent on hazardous public transport systems and their communities are ravaged by drugs and gang violence.
If this assessment of social reconciliation in South Africa is too abstract and far removed from your own reality, allow me to bring it home more closely. During the past year that was supposed to be a celebration of twenty years of democracy, we have been crudely reminded of the brazen attitudes of violent racism that still stubbornly persists in our society. Right here in Claremont we have seen four widely publicized incidents of blatant racism. On Friday, January 24 2014, a white UCT student urinated on a Khayelitsha taxi driver’s head while standing on the balcony of a Main Road nightclub. On 2 October 2014 a Kenilworth swimming school owner and well-known cyclist assaulted domestic worker Cynthia Joni because she was black and he assumed that because she is a black woman in a predominantly white area, she must be a sex worker. On 17 October 2014, Delia Adonis, a 52-year-old mother of six from Manenberg was beaten and racially abused in the parking lot of Stadium on Main Shopping Centre by three white youth. On Sunday 9 November 2014 Muhammad Makungwa from Malawi, was nearly knocked down in Palmyra Road and then beaten with a sjambok after being mistaken for a robber, simply because he is black. These are only a few blatant incidents of persistent racism in only one of Cape Town’s suburbs that have been reported. God alone knows how many racially motivated incidents go unreported in the rest of Cape Town and the rest of the country.
This bleak state of what I would like to describe as South Africa’s weak and thin reconciliation process was powerfully captured by Pastor Xola Skosana during last Friday’s pre-khutbah address when he argued that “Black people are poor because they are black, class and race are two sides of the same coin in South Africa. Pastor Skosana’s main argument is that individual acts of racism stems from structural and systemic conditions of racism, particularly race-based poverty. In eradicating racism we therefore need to go beyond merely reacting to individual acts of racism. We need to strengthen our capacity to address the systemic and structural conditions that breeds and drives this racism.
In the final part of my khutbah I would like to propose at least three ways in which we can make modest contributions to build a strong process of reconciliation that can transform structural and systemic racism and class discrimination. First, we could strengthen the leverage of civil society for reconciliation based on social justice by becoming active members of community based organisations. Currently there is a vibrant social movement that seeks greater socio-economic justice and dignity for all South Africans and I encourage you to become an active participant in this movement. In this regard I call on those who have not yet taken up membership of CMRM to join us in in building on the great legacy of this masjid’s socially responsive vision of Islam.
Second, we could actively support campaigns for economic justice in solidarity with marginalised and exploited workers. While we are celebrating Reconciliation Day and twenty years of democracy in South Africa, we are witnessing the significant re-alignment of power and ideological debates in the Trade Union movement which could have positive implications for the struggle towards reconciliation grounded in social justice. This weekend the National Union of Metal Workers Union (NUMSA) is convening a National Preparatory Assembly in Gauteng to discuss the launch of a United Front of organizations who are against all forms of neo-liberal policies that have placed an onerous burden on the poor and the working class. I urge you to follow the deliberations and resolutions of this weekend’s National Preparatory Assembly closely.
Last but not least, there are also modest individual acts of compassion and benevolence that each one of us can engage in, to collectively contribute to social transformation and socio-economic justice in our country. By beginning with small acts of charity we can gradually transform them into acts of solidarity in pursuit of socio-economic justice for all marginalised and impoverished communities. The Claremont Main Road Masjid’s Jihad against Poverty campaign provides us with such an opportunity for enhancing social reconciliation. I would like to invite you to join us on Sunday 21 December 2014 on our annual Christmas Solidarity Visit to the Leewenkuil Farm in Agter Paarl. We will be setting up a bookshelf to launch the start of a community library, planting the first seeds in the community food garden and distributing food hampers. If you are unable to join us you are welcome to make donations especially of books. We will depart from the masjid on Sunday morning at 9:30am and be back around 3:30pm.
I place these proposals before you for your reflection on the eve of Reconciliation Day and invite you to make your modest contributions in the process of transforming our country’s weak reconciliation into a strong and durable one based on socio-economic justice and dignity for all people.
In conclusion, the Islamic concept of reconciliation rooted in justice and equity is urgently needed at this critical juncture in the history of our beloved country. The commitment to such an endeavour is what I am calling for in this khutbah.
O God, we praise and thank You
for the blessings of life in South Africa,
We ask You to open our eyes and our minds
to the complex and subtle ways that our apartheid past has damaged
our social fabric in ways we have barely begun to redress.
We ask You to open our ears and hearts to the voices of the marginalized, and to respond – even when the truth challenges us. We beseech You to guide us towards truly commit ourselves to support reconciliation processes that seek to promote social justice and the dignity of all in our beloved country. We implore this in all of your beautiful and sacred names.