Partly due to politics and socio economics, Muslims in Cape Town live within close proximity of one another, quite often in one street. One would find a few Muslim families, and within walking distance, a mosque or madrasa or visible signs that Muslims live in the community. This is not to say that Muslims in Cape Town have a rather segregated outlook towards their non-Muslim neighbours. On the contrary, Muslims consider themselves part of a South African people who have a shared history.
This communal understanding amongst neighbours of different religious traditions often results in the Muslim neighbour preparing food for the non-Muslim neighbour’s funeral or birthday party, or even for another to be the seamstress that sews her non-Muslim neighbour’s wedding dress. These are but a few of the examples of neighbourly acts that take place amongst people of different religious traditions in Cape Town.
Muslims here are well established and integrated into the general population. The coming of Ramadan is quite visible in a country where, according to official census, Muslims roughly comprise only 1.5% of the total population of South Africa. Acknowledgements of the commencement of Ramadan are usually seen in daily newspapers. Supermarket chains like Checkers, Pick ’n Pay, Shoprite and others make sections in their stores ‘Ramadan-friendly’, by only stocking products widely used by Muslims in Ramadan in these sections. Posters and banners wishing Muslims well during the month of Ramadan also adorn the huge shopping malls in Cape Town and elsewhere during the entire month. The popular malls even have salah (prayer) facilities that Muslims can use throughout the year. Others like Vangate and Canal Walk (the largest mall in the southern hemisphere) even offer Jum’ah (congregational Friday prayer facilities) in their mosque like quarters in the mall. Certain non-Muslim owned restaurants in shopping malls show sensitivity and generosity by offering Muslims free dates and water at boeka (iftar) time. It could be argued this could be seen as shrewd marketing, but these visible gestures reflect the accommodative nature Ramadan and Muslims receive in the country.
During my various stays in Holland between 2004 and 2007 I did not see any of these visible embracing gestures (of Ramadan) in shopping malls, streets or in the print media despite 10 percent of the Dutch population being Muslim. This is not to downplay the generosity shown to me by the local Muslims who often sort of ‘kidnapped’ me at the mosque and whisked me off to join them and their families at their homes for iftar. It is just that in Cape Town establishments are very accommodative compared to elsewhere where Muslims comprise such a minuscule minority.
To me, Ramadan offers Muslims a training ground to abstain from vice and become more conscious of the plight of the less fortunate. By doing so one’s consciousness of the Creator also increases. Simultaneously, being part of a 1.5 percent Muslim minority and living in a secular democracy, it makes me realise that despite all our complaints ‘we’ in South Africa could well be amongst the most fortunate and catered for religious minority in the world. The freedom to practice our religious beliefs is enshrined in the Constitution, but on the streets our festivals are acknowledged and given space in both the print and electronic media. I live in a neighbourhood in which I hear the bilal bang (adhaan – call to prayer) from three different mosques. Despite being segregated and even though ‘whites’ live apart from Muslims, there are very few ‘whites’ that have NOT heard of the pwaasa (fasten) or about when it starts, or don’t know what a dalchie or samoosa is. This could be due to Muslims being given the space to practice their religion without any hindrances, even during apartheid, but it shows especially how integrated and established the Muslim community is in South Africa.
I see myself not as a Cape Malay. I never did, as I never truly understood nor subscribed to this loosely ambiguous term. I have no references to Malaysia, Indonesia or other country where my ancestors could have hailed from. I do not speak Bahasa Maleyu. I speak Afrikaans and English. I see myself as South African, not dissimilar to my non-Muslim neighbour who shares the same heritage, history, struggles and pain that I do. I embrace the presence and the Muslim practices that make us a unique community. The freedom to wear scarfs and koefiyyahs are but simple illustrations of the freedom Muslims have in South Africa. We might be 1.5 percent of the population, but our presence is very much intertwined in the fabric of everyday life in South Africa.
During this Ramadan a few people blog about how they experience this holy month. You can find the other texts here.