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Obituary: Soulmates in the anti-Apartheid struggle

25th Oct 2019
Obituary: Soulmates in the anti-Apartheid struggle

Galiema Haron, 93, died on the anniversary of her husband Abdullah Haron’s burial. The Imam was the first cleric of any faith to die in custody under the South African Apartheid regime (Photos courtesy of the Imam Haron Foundation)

Our mother’s departure

My sisters and I had the honour of being with our dear mother, Galiema Haron (nee Sadan), as she departed to the eternal world that the Almighty had decreed for us all. Galiema, who was bedridden for over a decade finally passed away as the Adhan (call to prayer) was being made at exactly 5h11 (Cape Town Time).
While we expected her death long before this day, it dawned on us at that moment that Allah had willed that her gentle soul be taken on the same day (September 29) when Imam Abdullah Haron, our dear father, was buried exactly fifty years ago aged 45-years.

Abdullah Haron, February 8, 1924 – September 27, 1969 (Photos courtesy of the Imam Haron Foundation)

Imam’s devoted companion

As the news of Galiema’s death spread, the media pounced on our family for more information on this unsung heroine who has suffered for fifty years in silence since the day the Imam was taken into custody by the notorious Security Branch officers.
From the day she married the Imam in March 1950 until he was detained, she contributed to the household income. Galiema was a skilled dressmaker with many clients and a remarkable ability to size a person’s measurements with her sharp eyes and stitch a perfect outfit.

She ensured that everything was in place which is what pleased the Imam about his wife of almost twenty years (circa 1950-1969). When Galiema’s body was being washed (ghusl) by Mrs Sumayya, before her burial in our father’s grave that was declared a heritage site by the Western Cape Government, she told my sisters that our mother wasn’t an extravagant person; basing this assessment on the number of buckets of water that she used to clean our mother’s aged body. This is a very informative observation since we were fully aware of how she saved her pennies and spent them on the three of us (Shamela, Muhammed, and Fatima) and others (in the extended Sadan family).

Before our father’s detention our eldest sister, Shamela, was sent to the United Kingdom to study radiography. Not long after our father’s death, she married and made the United Kingdom her home. Our mother thus had to give all her attention to myself and Fatima (the youngest) who — with the support of her husband, Ganief Masoet, and his family — took care of our mother from the time she was bedridden since the mid-2000s. We realised the critical role our mother played in our lives and we were also cognizant of the fact that we could never pay her back except to sincerely implore the Almighty to bless her kind and spirited soul.

We paid tribute to her through a lengthy serialised piece in the Cape Times, not only out of respect but to also demonstrate her firm conviction to our father when he sacrificed his life for social justice in Apartheid South Africa. She assisted him morally and financially by caring for us — their children — throughout these years especially so after his tragic death.

Imam Haron: A man for all seasons

Our father was an Imam at the Al-Jaamia Masjid since 1955 and a sales representative for the British Wilson Rowntrees (sweets) company from 1963. He was a political detainee for 123 days (May 28 – September 27, 1969). He was held in solitary confinement under Apartheid South Africa’s 1967 Terrorism Act and throughout this period he was refused legal representation.

On Saturday, September 27, 1969, the Security Branch officers came to inform our mother that her husband had purportedly fallen a flight of stairs and that he had died as a result of his injuries.

However, the post-mortem examination on Imam Haron revealed a strikingly different story; he had two broken ribs and a total of 27 bruises, bruises that the family witnessed as they prepared to wash his body — with the support of some of his loyal followers and a few elderly members at the masjid.

These acted as ample evidence that he was brutally tortured at the hands of the infamous officers; this was because he took a firm stand against the Apartheid state’s unfair policies that wreaked havoc among South Africa’s oppressed masses; most of whom were black. In spite of this the reprehensible SB members, Major Genis and Sergeant Van Wyk were not found guilty of any wrongdoing.

Some 40,000 people marched with the coffin of the Imam for about six miles to his final resting place in Mowbray Muslim Cemetery. His death caused global outrage, and he famously became the first Muslim to be commemorated at London’s prestigious St Paul’s Cathedral.

Since the SB spied on the Imam for many years since before 1966, the questions that confront us are: Why incarcerate him? What did he do that made him an icon within the Cape community? How did he pursue his activities to achieve social justice? And in which way did he practise Islam that was meaningful in a racist context wherein he succeeded to operate? The answer to these and other questions lie in a few historical moments in his life that directed him along this principled path.

Imam’s education

The Imam was schooled at Talfalah Primary, a Muslim managed school, in the early 1930s, where he completed the highest standard. His aunt Mariam, who took care of him after his mother Aeysha died in his infancy, sent him to Makkah, where he studied at the hands of the famous Shaykh Malik Al-‘Alawi (d. 1982).

On the eve of the breaking out of World War II, he and two classmates were forced to return to their countries; but before he did that, the Shaykh asked him what he would do for the sake of the Almighty upon his return. He promised that he would adhere to a Prophetic practice and fast every Monday and Thursday vow he kept until the day he was killed.

The Imam memorised the Qur’an during his adolescent years and constantly recited parts of it wherever he drove. These were clear indicators that the Imam geared himself spiritually and that he inculcated these personal practices over these years.

So by the time the Imam was detained, he was already spiritually highly-charged and it is for that reason, one may argue, that the devious Security Branch officers were unable to break his spirit and nor able to obtain information from him about his network and contacts. As a result of the Imam’s resistance, they cruelly tortured him.

Imam’s further education and his imamate post

On the Imam’s return to the Cape, he continued with his studies while working in his father’s shop. In Cape Town, he studied under two Shaykhs of whom Shaykh Ismail Ganief Edwards (d. 1958) stood out as his main mentor.

The Shaykh is known for having penned numerous Ajami (Arabic-Afrikaans) texts that dealt with kalam, fiqh and Arabic. The Shaykh had a major influence on the light-headed Imam. When the elders of the Al-Jaamia congregation approached Abdullah Haron to become the Imam, he consulted his Shaykh before taking up that position.

At the time of his appointment in 1955, he was regarded as the youngest Cape Imam and he used that position to transform and advance his community.
He set up the Claremont Muslim Youth Association, circulated the Islamic Mirror, conducted adult classes for men and women, instituted a Muslim educational structure with other teachers that focused on early childhood education and edited the Muslim News [1960s newspaper in South Africa].

The Imam used the masjid as a significant platform to engage and dialogue with individuals from other religious traditions and political persuasions. He did this to stimulate intellectual debates and assist his young congregants who belonged to the Coloured People’s Congress, the Unity Movement, and the Teachers League of South Africa to find ways of socialising with others without having to compromise their religious identity.

Tens of thousands of people attended the imam’s funeral despite the risk of being arrested (Photos courtesy of the Imam Haron Foundation)

Imam’s social activism

He produced a cadre of young men and women who could see how Islam fitted into a predominantly Christian society that was severely distressed by the Government’s racist policies. He used the pulpit to share Islam’s position vis-à-vis racist practices and he participated in public gatherings to condemn the Apartheid system. He fused his religious activities with the ongoing anti-Apartheid political struggle.

Throughout the 1960s, he reached to many from the community; he assisted them to get funds from the International Defence and Aid Fund that was under Canon Collins stewardship, he travelled the length and breadth of the country for both religious and political purposes, he visited the homes of families traumatised by the Apartheid security forces, and he generously gave his time to his community. At the Cape, he was in close contact with the Pan African Congress and with them reached out to those who were most affected.

Throughout these years of the Imam’s socio-political involvement and participation, Galiema was by his side assisting him in whichever way she could. She had no knowledge that he was intensely involved politically, but she loved him dearly and more importantly, she unequivocally trusted him. She was aware that he was a sales representative, but she was not cognizant that he used it as a convenient cover to attain socio-political objectives.

The Haron home was open to all and sundry; individuals from the black townships frequented the house and those from anti-Apartheid circles dropped in to discuss issues of concern. Galiema was thus a pillar upon whom he could rely, and he was contented with the role that she played.

Our parents’ bond was unbreakable; she devoted herself to him so that he could pursue the social justice path. They united in the struggle; he the iconic martyr and she the unsung heroine, who continued to struggle in keeping the household going for many years after his death. The two were indeed soul mates, one may argue that he would not have made his mark and would not have left a legacy that he did if it was not for her unstinting support.

As a consequence of their relationship, the Imam demonstrated stewardship by transcending all sorts of socio-political barriers for the sake of attaining social justice. ‘A man for all seasons’ he socialised freely with all; kids enjoyed his company; the elderly loved his interactions, and the young respected his advice.

The Imam encouraged them to take leadership positions by giving them opportunities to speak at the mosque and on other platforms. Quite a few went on to take up imamate posts, while others conducted children and adult classes. Even those in the building trade and the clothing industry were inspired by the Imam’s lectures and this spurred them on to read critically. His influence was felt across communities, and this may be attributed to his endearing personality and commitment to upholding justice for all.

Muhammed Haron
The University of Botswana and The University of Stellenbosch

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