We have reached the beginning of the new Gregorian Year 2020. The past year 2019 was a difficult and challenging one most especially for our Cape Flats communities. There has been a low intensity war raging on the Cape Flats for a long time and 2019 dispensed a renewed spike of gang violence and crime that claimed the lives of over 2500 innocent souls. This led to the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) being deployed in 10 hotspot communities on the Cape Flats in the second half of 2019.
In the face of this challenging situation, the past year also witnessed renewed civil society action to rid our communities from the scourge of gangsterism, crime and gender-based violence. The Claremont Main Road Masjid (CMRM) was privileged to participate in one such programme of action which led to the adoption of the Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration at a mass interfaith prayer service for peace at the Joseph Stone Auditorium on 25 August 2019. The Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration initiative has provided much needed comfort and pastoral support to grieving and traumatised communities on the Cape Flats. In addition the interfaith solidarity movement has also sought to strengthen civil society’s efforts to address the socio-economic roots of violence and crime, to hold our local and national governments accountable for their constitutional responsibility to provide safety and security to all of its citizens, and to change the Cape Flats narrative by highlighting its many positive stories.
In my khutbah today I would like to focus on these positive stories in order to acknowledge that most people who reside on the Cape Flats strive to live purposeful lives against the odds. My purpose is twofold: first, to remind us about the resilience of the Cape Flats communities and to stress that gangsters and criminals do not define these communities, and second, to call on all of us to help sustain the organic and creative civil protest movement against the scourge of gangsterism, crime and gender-based violence into the New Gregorian Year 2020.
A Moment of Truth and Opportunity
It might be expedient to begin with some brief reflections on a couple of instructive verses from the Glorious Qur’an. In Surah al-Inshirah, chapter 94, verses 5-6, Allah, the Lord of Compassionate Justice proclaims:
فَإِنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا
إِنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا
Indeed! Hardship is accompanied by ease;
Indeed! Hardship is accompanied by ease
According to a contemporary, Indian scholar, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, the above verses have been widely misinterpreted by exegetes to mean that ease or relief comes only after an experience of hardship. He notes that the verses actually speaks of ease occurring at the same time as hardship, this is explicitly indicated by the Arabic word ‘ma`a’ which literally means “with”. We may thus understand the above verses to mean that adverse circumstances might themselves point to new openings and the fact that this verse is repeated twice in succession seems to indicate that Allah, the Lord of Wisdom, is reminding us that this viewpoint is counterintuitive.
This Qur’anic wisdom resonates well with the Old Testament concept of Kairos i.e. a moment of crisis but also a moment of opportunity. I see the current charged atmosphere on the Cape Flats as a kairos moment—a moment of truth and of opportunity. It is a moment of truth which compels us to reflect more deeply on the root causes of the scourge of gang and gender-based violence and crime which has caused untold suffering to the lives of people on the Cape Flats. But it is also a great moment of opportunity which could serve as a powerful impetus for many more people to emerge from their lethargy and complacency and be encouraged to become active citizens in contributing to ameliorating the root causes of gang violence and crime on the Cape Flats.
By becoming active citizens we hold our elected government accountable for the political and moral mandate and we help to transform our City and our beloved country to becoming a more vibrant democracy, and a more just and caring society. But most of all, by becoming active citizens we can help to sustain the Cape Flats protest movements against gang and gender-based violence, against spatial apartheid, and broader social inequalities. In doing so, we would be grasping a great Kairos moment and using it as a real opportunity for transformation and building a more egalitarian society in which the dignity of women, children and all marginalized people are restored and protected. To that end we need to channel our legitimate outrage and protest energies into a longer term and sustainable movement.
Thankfully, this is already happening. The vast majority of people living on the Cape Flats are not gangsters or criminals or drunkards but ordinary people seeking dignified lives in the face of a precarious environment to which they were forcibly displaced under the notorious Apartheid Group Areas Act. It was the implementation of the Group Areas Act in the 1950s and 1960s that led to the creation of Cape Flats townships to which all people of colour were forced to relocate to. This is the legacy of urban Apartheid in which we continue to live today. Thriving integrated communities in Cape Town were decimated by the Group Areas Act. People of colour living near the inner city and in areas that today we consider ‘prime property’, areas like District Six, Sea Point, Observatory, Claremont, Newlands, Harfield, Kenilworth, Constantia, Muizenberg, Kalk Bay, Simonstown, were all forced to move to newly created Cape Flats townships. Most people living on the Cape Flats today can trace parents, grandparents or great-grandparents that lived in these areas that today some of them have never even ventured into. The devastating effects of this grand Apartheid scheme is what we are reaping today and no ‘right of return’ or just restitution was ever afforded to those affected. Most people of colour today remain economically excluded from these ‘prime property’ areas.
In the ensuing years of Apartheid, the Cape Flats townships were left to rot and decay and become urban ghettoes. The social and economic conditions in these townships were ripe to be captured by gang lords and drug cartels that could prey on fractured communities and youth living with little hope of social or economic prosperity. During the past 25 years of the post-apartheid era, these conditions have only worsened. Despite this persistence of systemic and structural inequality, most people who reside on the Cape Flats continue to strive to live purposeful lives against the odds.
They travel long distances to work, often at the mercy of unreliable and treacherous public transport, but they persevere; they strive to give their children a good education; they struggle to pay school fees or buy books and stationery, but they plug away and press on; they eke out a living on their salaries and make their homes comfort zones for their families as best as they can; they strive to build and sustain sports and recreation clubs with minimal resources; they seek to provide comfort, safety and security within their families, churches and masajid. Schools in the Cape Flats townships have been the most resilient institutions in resisting the grand apartheid design of confining people of colour to laagers of ignorance, limiting them to menial jobs and the lowest echelons of the economic strata. Here we must acknowledge and pay tribute to the many teachers who continue to teach in under-resourced Cape Flats public schools, who strive to provide a quality education to often under-nourished learners, traumatised learners who are often victims or witnesses of domestic or gang violence, learners with limited adult care or support in the home. And yet, every year, Cape Flats schools still get students through matric with grades good enough to give them hope of furthering their education and seeking economic opportunities to end cycles of poverty and violence in which they may find themselves. We must not underestimate the efforts of teachers in this regard, because the reality is also that the social and economic environment of learners on the Cape Flats often over-determines their future prospects.
Inspirational Cape Flats Stories
In the last section of this khutbah I would like to highlight the lives of three individuals who further embody this spirit of resilience which challenges the narrative that that nothing positive or inspirational ever happens in Cape Flats communities. These are individuals who strive to make their communities places of safety, comfort, hope and joy and whose successes are attributed to the resilience within these communities. They are also examples of the embodiment of active citizens and people who rise above the conditions that structural and systemic inequality seeks to preserve.
The first person whose life of resilience and active citizenship I would like reference is Aunty Hameda Williams, who runs a weekly soup kitchen from her home in Manenberg. Hameda was born in Manenberg after her parents were forcibly evicted under the Group Areas Act from District Six. She attended the local Silverstream High School and was inspired by her late mother’s commitment to sharing with those less fortunate than her family. After her mother passed on and having witnessing first hand the abject poverty in the Manenberg area she and her cousin decided to start a weekly soup kitchen. The Manenberg soup kitchen has been running for close to a decade. Every Tuesday evening the Manenberg Soup Kitchen feeds 800 to 1000 people on Tagus Street opposite the Downsville primary school. The Manenberg soup kitchen is completely reliant on donations from her family. Aunty Hameda insists she is not a local heroine but just doing her duty as a conscientious Muslima by making a modest contribution to sharing with her neighbours. She represents an embodiment of the prophetic tradition in which the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have proclaimed:
لَيْسَ الْمُؤْمِنُ الَّذِي يَشْبَعُ وَجَارُهُ جَائِعٌ إِلَى جَنْبِهِ
“He is not a believer whose stomach is filled while the neighbour
to his side goes hungry.”
(The above hadith can be found in al-Sunan al-Kubrá 19049 of Imam al-Bayhaqi)
The CMRM has been privileged to provide modest support to the soup kitchen courtesy of the Saabri Ashrafi Relief Fund and the leadership of our vice-chair Boeta Achmat Peters. Aunty Hameda Williams is an example of countless other women and men on the Cape Flats whose families were forcibly removed under the unjust Group Areas Act and dumped on the Cape Flats. They have limited resources themselves, but still endeavour to share and provide sustenance for their neighbours who find themselves in even greater precarious circumstances.
The second example of resilience and active citizenship I would like to refer to is Sis Mandisa Monakali.
Sis Mandisa grew up in the Cape Flats township of Gugulethu, and is a survivor of violent abuse who recognized that the problem of violence against women and children represented an obstacle to development and the empowerment of women in township communities. Almost thirty one years ago in February 1989 Sis Mandisa founded a social services and educational organization that she called Ilitha Labantu, meaning “Sunshine or Hope to the People”. The organization developed out of community work conducted by a handful of committed women from the township who provide counseling services and educational skills to women and children who are survivors of violent abuse. Ilitha Labantu’s location and language of communication, renders it accessible to township women and children in need of such support and counseling. Sis Mandisa and her organization are currently globally recognized for its modest contribution to the empowerment of women and children.
On Thursday 24 October 2019, Imam Shaheed Gamieldien and I formed part of a delegation representing the Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration Initiative who crossed the Manenberg-Gugulethu Bridge to join in solidarity with the residents of Gugulethu in a Shutdown Protest and March against Gender-Based Violence, Substance Abuse, Gangsterism and Crime where Ilitha Labantu was one of the main organizers of the protest. The protest march was celebrated as a small victory over apartheid group areas which sought to divide the Cape Flats communities by dumping them on different sides of the railway line.
The third example of resilience that I would like to reference is of a local sports hero who rose above the precarious conditions of his township environment to achieve international success on the playing field. This is the story of Vernon Philander. Vernon recently announced his retirement from international cricket and is currently playing his last cricket test match at Newlands this weekend after an illustrious career which has made him world famous. Vernon was born and raised in the township of Ravensmead in the Northern suburbs and attended Ravensmead Secondary, not a well-resourced model C school. He played for the anti-apartheid club Tygerberg Cricket club located in Ravensmead, where he was coached by the former rector of the University of the Western Cape, Jakes Gerwel, and his junior club convener was the well-known non-racial South African Council on Sport (SACOS) cricketer George van Oordt. This was a Cape Flats based sports club that achieved success for many years with limited resources. Vernon’s most ardent supporter was his mother, Bonny Philander, who epitomizes scores of other mothers and fathers on the Cape Flats who tirelessly encourage and support their children to channel their energies into sport and other wholesome recreational activities. Some like Vernon Philander, soccer star Quinton Fortune (who grew up in Kew Town), and Desiree Ellis (Banyana Banyana coach who grew up in Hanover Park) are fortunate enough to go on to achieve national and international success, but for most other Cape Flats sports men and women, sport serves as a welcome relief from the harsh socio-economic conditions that prevail in townships. We wish Vernon Philander well and have no doubt that he will use his retirement to inspire and nurture future world class cricketers who are currently playing cricket on the Cape Flats under challenging conditions.
The three Cape Flats heroes whose lives of resilience and active citizenship I have highlighted above are emblematic of the hundreds of thousands of ordinary women, men and children who struggle to live purposeful lives against the odds. The tragedy of gangsterism, crime and violence is that we often forget about those who strive to live purposeful lives within these communities. Sadly, the identities and struggles of these local heroes and heroines are buried beneath the stereotypes of the intermittent media sensationalization of gangsterism and crime. Part of our work should be to counteract this negative narrative by lifting up the scores of positive stories of resilience and active citizenship.
One of the many challenges over the next year and I dare say decade for social justice activists will be to sustain the organic and creative Cape Flats movements against gang and gender-based violence and crime, and against spatial apartheid, and to get more people to join and strengthen community-based organizations. If we are able to sustain this protest movement, we would have grasped a great Kairos moment and used it as a real opportunity for transformation and building a more egalitarian society in which the dignity of women, children and all marginalized people are restored and protected. Let us not squander this current moment of hope and transformation.
I call upon the CMRM congregation and indeed all responsible citizens to rise to this challenge and to join and support the many vigils and protests organized by communities living on the Cape Flats, whether it may occur in Bonteheuwel or Langa, Mitchells Plain or Khayelitsha.
I would like to conclude with an inspirational prophetic tradition (hadith) in which the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is reported to have proclaimed:
لَا طِيَرَةَ وَخَيْرُهَا الْفَأْلُ
قِيلَ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ وَمَا الْفَأْلُ قَالَ الْكَلِمَةُ الصَّالِحَةُ يَسْمَعُهَا أَحَدُكُمْ
There are no omens in Islam (i.e. signs that predict what will happen in the future), but the true believer is always optimistic and hopeful (i.e. expecting the best of the future even if they do not know exactly what it will be). The companions asked what optimism is. The Prophet (pbuh) replied” “A righteous word (i.e. positive message) that one of you hears”
(The above hadith was reported by the companion Abu Hurayra (may Allah be pleased with him) and is recorded in the hadith collections of Imam Bukhari (5422) and Imam Muslim (2223)
At the onset of the Gregorian New Year 2020, we express our gratitude to the courageous interfaith activists from Christian and Muslim congregations who have worked hard to give birth to the Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration. We look forward to its sustainability and even greater contributions in the New Year. Let us resolve to give more generously of ourselves by spending more time and energy to making a positive impact on the lives of others less fortunate than ourselves. More especially, let us resolve to work hard in the New Year to make a positive contribution towards bridging the class divide that remains at the root of gross inequality in our society. In conclusion, I call upon myself and you to most of all resolve to improve our lives by trying to become more compassionate and caring human beings, insha-Allah.
In this sacred hour of jumu’ah, and at this the beginning of the New Gregorian year 2020 let us pray that Allah, the Hearer of all duā’s, helps us in the New Year to make use of our time more meaningfully, to fulfill our duties toward Allah more devoutly and to grant us good health and prosperity. May the coming year be one in which we are safe from all kinds of calamities, including gang and gender based violence and crime. May the New Gregorian Year 2020 bring us all greater happiness, joy and peace with justice, more especially for the hundreds of thousands of people living on the Cape Flats and other conflict-ridden zones in the world.
Allahumma anta al-Salam – O God Thou art peace
Wa minka al-Salam – and Peace emanates from Thee,
Fa hayyina Rabbana bi al-Salam – Allow us to live and subsist in peace