Tuesday, 15 November 2016

How Christians, Jews, Muslims Fought Apartheid In Cape Town

Cape Town from a hotel window -Picture by Sixtus Mbom
By Paul Shalala in Cape Town, South Africa

Some have called it the ‘white man’s city’ others call it the ‘Afrikaner’s city’ though it is officially known as Cape Town.

My two hour flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town last week on Sunday was a bit shocking as I found myself among hundreds of white people in a huge Boeing plane operated by South African Airways (SAA).

Less than 15 people in the plane were black, the rest were of course Afrikaans-speaking people who rarely spoke English.

Actually, SAA has more flights between Cape Town and Johannesburg than any other domestic route.

This is the reason why the airline has deployed some of its biggest planes on this route.

Upon landing at Cape Town International Airport, for those of us who are used to Johannesburg which is predominantly black, we got amazed to see how white the city is.

Most of the people alighting from planes, those taking off, waiting and those who work at the airport are white.

When you move to the town center, almost everyone is white except bus drivers, guards and those who sweep the streets.

Indeed this is the ‘white man’s city.’

Even the provincial government in the larger Western Cape is predominantly white, led by the Democratic Alliance, a party which many say is for the whites though it recently elected its first ever black leader Mmusi Maimane.

Cape Town was founded by Dutch settlers in the 1600s and they were later joined by the British and Indians.

The indigenous black tribes like the Xhosa who lived in the area where pushed to the fringes and today, the city is almost white except a few settlements like Langa which are predominantly black but are barricaded by huge fences.

But what role did the people of Cape Town play in fighting apartheid which was practiced by the South African governments from 1948 until the early 1990s?

Once you ask such a question, opinion leaders here tell you that religious leaders were in the forefront of the struggle.

This blogger and a dozen other journalists from across Africa were last week in Cape Town to learn how religion is influencing the news media on the continent.

Lucky enough, the team visited a church, a synagogue and a mosque to speak to religious leaders on every aspect of life in Cape Town.

Their first visit was to Saint George’s Cathedral, the church where the revered Archbishop Desmond Tutu was installed and served the Anglican faithful of Cape Town for 10 years.
St. George's Cathedral - Pictures by Winnie Kamau

The church is located on Wale Street and has a commanding position over the city’s central business district.

The 1,300 capacity structure is what many refer to as Cape Town’s symbol of resistance against the apartheid.

It is this Anglican building where blacks sought refuge every time they were teargassed and beaten by the racist government in the past decades when segregation was legal in Africa’s largest economy.

Due to its historical significance, St. George’s Cathedral attracts thousands of tourists on an annual basis.

The cathedral is named after its first Archbishop.

On this tour, Mary Van Blerk, a volunteer tour guide, took us round all the corners of the building.

For an hour, the old lady explained all the aspects of the building from its construction, to the installation of Archbishop Tutu and the fight against apartheid.

“Construction of this cathedral started in 1901 and it was only completed in 1913. Most of the materials used in this building were from the colonial master Britain. Even the architecture is colonial,” said van Blerk.

Moving around the cathedral, I got a sense of the connection between the British Empire and the Anglican Church.
Flags from previous wars

Most of the corners of the cathedral are decorated with pictures, plaques and flags of fallen British soldiers from the Anglo-Boer wars and other battles fought in South Africa.

These decorations had inscriptions of the actual battles fought, the years and dates.

The British Royal family is also included in the decorations.

Plaques of Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the cathedral in March 1995 and that of his son Prince Charles in November 2011 are also on display.

Asked about the role played by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the cathedral and Cape Town as a whole, van Blerk had this to say.

“Archbishop Tutu was installed in this very cathedral in 1986. On that day, we had 1,300 people who filled the cathedral to capacity. He was Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 until when he retired in 1996. He is very much loved and was a powerful figure during the apartheid era. It’s a pity he is now old and frail.”

Some of Archbishop Tutu’s notable quotes about human rights are printed on windows for visitors to read.

Archbishop Tutu is not the only celebrated church leader at St. George’s Cathedral.

The ashes of Archbishop Geoffrey Clayton, who was in charge of the Cape Town Archdiocese in 1948 when apartheid became law, are buried in the cathedral.

The archbishop’s wish was to have his ashes buried there as a protest to the racist law which barred blacks from being treated as equal citizens with whites.

In the northern side of the cathedral is a human size sculpture of the second Archbishop of Cape Town William Jones.

It is one of the items which attracts thousands of people to the cathedral.

Another crowd puller is the throne for the Archbishop which was donated and shipped from Westminster in London.

This steel structure used to serve as the seat for the Archbishop and it is the one where Archbishop Tutu sat on during his installation 30 years ago.

But today, the throne is a ceremonial item as the Archbishop seat with congregants.

Touring the cathedral is free of charge and taking photos is allowed.

Tourists from within South Africa and abroad visit the cathedral daily.

According to church records, authorities spend R10, 950 in running costs per day.

The church meets these costs through donations from the public and church collections.

Our next stop on the tour was the Great Synagogue of Cape Town which is adjacent to the South African Jewish Museum.
Rabbi Feldman talking to journalists in the synagogue

There, Rabbi Feldman, who is originally from Australia, explained the history behind the Jewish community in the area.

“This synagogue was the first in South Africa. It was built in 1841 and earlier this year we celebrated 175 years,” said Rabbi Feldman.

He explained that among the first Dutch settlers to Cape Town were some Jews who immigrated from The Netherlands.

He says they built this Syanagogue for worship and for generations, they have been making donations to maintain it.

From stained glass windows to chairs and tables, Jews have been donating items to make their place of worship look attractive.

Asked about the Jewish community’s contribution to the fight against apartheid in the country, Rabbi Feldman said Jews were in the forefront of the struggle against racism.

“Helen Sazman was the first South African Member of Parliament to challenge apartheid. She was a Jew. If you remember the Rivonia trials, 16 of the suspects were Jews. Even when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, the first house where he went was owned by a Jew.”

Before wrapping up the tour, the last visit was to the 222 year old Auwal Masjid, the first mosque to have been built in southern Africa.

The mosque has stood the test of time and has been part of the Cape Town community for over two centuries.

Malawian-born Ismail Muhammed is the mosque’s caretaker and explains the history behind the building.
Ismail Muhammed kneeling on the left

“This mosque was originally built by Imam Tuan Guru, a Malaysian muslim cleric who was exiled from Malaysia to Robben Island. He served his jail term on the island for 13 years and upon his release, he was given land by a woman and he decided to build a mosque in 1794,” said Mr Muhammed.

According to Mr Muhammed, Imam Guru gave the authorities in the Dutch East Indies (now Malaysia) a tough time due to his uncompromising stance hence their decision to banish him to Cape Town’s infamous offshore island.

The mosque caretaker adds that Iman Guru also built a madrassa where hundreds of muslim children attended school.

He said since then, muslims have been worshipping there and it has become a symbol of the Islamic community in South African.

On apartheid, Mr Muhammed revealed that a number of muslims from Auwal Masjid paid the ultimate price during the fight for the restoration of democracy in South Africa.

Visitors taking selfies at the mosque
“We have a number of our members who were killed because of being against apartheid. These people were heavily involved in the struggle.”

The Auwal Masjid was one of the first religious sites former South African President Nelson Mandela visited upon his release from prison.

After this four hour two of religious sites in Cape Town, it was clear to me that apartheid did not just affect the blacks and Indians.

It was also an impediment to religious freedoms.

The role that Christians, Muslims and Jews played in fighting this unjust law and system in South Africa showed that race should never ever be used as a basis for judgement as humans are one irrespective of their colour.

This tour revealed to me that Cape Town is not “The white man’s city” but actually it’s a multi-racial and multi-religious city.  

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