Mandela, an icon of all struggles. Muslims at the forefront of apartheid resistance

24th Dec 2013
Mandela, an icon of all struggles. Muslims at the forefront of apartheid resistance


[Nelson Mandela addresses the crowd during a statue unveiling ceremony in his honour at Parliament Square on August 29, 2007. (Photo: Ahmed J Versi/Muslim News)]


By Shuaib Manjra in Durban

An icon is a symbolic representation of goodness. Nelson Mandela’s characterisation as an icon represents political integrity, sacrifice, principle, honour, loyalty and leadership. He was the unifying force that led South Africa through a period of difficult struggle, protracted negotiations, a challenging political transition and governance that transformed South Africa from an apartheid regime to a democratic state:  a state that equally embraced all its citizens – regardless of race, religion, culture or sexual orientation.

Mandela provided the necessary leadership that embraced the national good, conceded necessary compromises, stood his ground on matters of principle and even went against his own party at times when he saw the need to work for the greater good. The notion of the government of national unity and the sunset clauses saw the apartheid apparatchiks salvage some honour – necessary in any negotiations. Mandela saw the wisdom in this compromise when the extremists were calling for maximalist position.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which Mandela established, sought to restore some degree of healing among survivors and served as a catharsis among its perpetrators. In this it sought closure among victims and perpetrators. Most important of all was the establishment of a range of independent Constitutional institutions, called the Chapter 9 Institutions, to protect our constitutional democracy, girded by a bill of rights.  South Africa’s constitution ranks as one of the most progressive in the world.

Through this Mandela earned the respect of each and every South African, and the world. He reached out to the most racist elements of the white community, the downtrodden African peasants, monopoly capitalists, socialists and to the religious communities. He publicly and equally embraced all religious traditions in a country with a Christian majority. He shared Eid celebrations with a number of mosques around the country. He developed personal friendships with the Chief Rabbi and the head of the Muslim Judicial Council at the time, the late Shaykh Nazeem Mohamed.

But Mandela’s relationship with Muslims went way back into the 1960s when his comrades in the struggle represented all South Africa’s communities. In the early days the progressive movement was racially organised: black Africans belonged to the African National Congress, Indian’s formed the Natal and Transvaal Indian Congresses, Whites belonged to the Congress of Democrats, and peopled of mixed descent joined the Coloured People’s Congress. Collectively they were lumped together as the Congress Movement.

Among those involved in these early days with Mandela were figures such as Dr Yusuf Dadoo, Moulana Cachalia, Ismail and Fatima Meer, Yusuf Cachalia, Amina Cachalia, Rahima Moosa and scores of others.

Closest to Mandela was Ahmed Kathrada who, together with Mandela was arrested in Rivonia and sentenced to life in prison in the Treason Trial. He and Mandela shared imprisonment on Robben Island for twenty years and shared a close personal friendship.  Mandela had used Kathrada’s house as a legal practice during his time on the run from the Security Police. Ismail Ayob served as Mandela’s lawyer for decades until a fall-out after Mandela’s retirement involving Mandela’s daughters who were keen on getting their hands on Mandela’s fortunes.

During his time on the run in the 1950’s, Mandela was known as the Black Pimpernel. He moved constantly to avoid the suspicion of the authorities and did a tour of the country. In these difficult times he spent many a day being sheltered by Muslim friends and sympathisers in their homes.

Even food on Robben Island was issued along racial: Black prisoners got less food and of a worse quality than that provided to those classified as ‘Indian’ or ‘Coloureds’, who in turn received poorer rations than those classified as ‘White’. Alternative food was difficult to come by and impossible to smuggle in earlier period of Mandela’s incarceration due to strict security. With some relaxation of security in the 80’s Farida Omar, wife of Mandela’s lawyer Abdullah Omar, used to smuggle in food. Later Dullah during his consultation with his clients used to carry samosas, rotis and curries prepared by Farida in his lawyer’s briefcase on to the Island. Mandela savoured these.

When in the latter years Mandela had greater freedom on Robben Island, where he spent over two decades of his imprisonment, he used to visit the shrine of Tuan Sayed Abduraghman Motura on the Island, where he found great solace. Tuan Maturaa of Batavia was amongst the first political prisoners on the Island – after he was imprisoned by the Dutch Government in 1742 (d 1754). Those visiting the Island cannot miss the imposing dome of this shrine.

As President, Mandela feted Muammar Qaddafi, Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro and other leaders who supported the ANC during its difficult periods, despite these leaders being out of favour with imperial powers. Mandela dismissed those who protested against these relationships in no uncertain terms: “don’t tell us who we must have as our friends”. In this he was both independent minded and fiercely loyal.

Prior to the first democratic elections in 1994, Mandela toured North Africa, the Middle-East and South-East Asia in order to raise money for the ANC election machinery. These predominantly Muslim countries gave generously – a gesture that Mandela would not forget.

South Africa’s foreign policy also reflected neutrality that favoured the third world and progressive movements around the world. He famously said that “South Africa will never be free until Palestine is free”.  He opposed the invasion of Iraq unequivocally and in his vintage forthright way pointed out the hypocrisy of such governments: “neither Bush nor Blair has provided any evidence that such weapons (of mass destruction) exist. But what we know is that Israel has weapons of mass destruction. Nobody talks about that.”

However, Mandela’s most abiding contribution to all communities in South Africa, including the Muslim community, was his notion of inclusivity. Despite South Africa being a predominantly Christian country, it gave every citizen equal value; it gave each religion equal status; and it was non-racial in its outlook. Of course, affirmative action and broad-based black economic empowerment were necessary to re-engineer a society where privilege was held by whites, who also controlled the economic levers. In this, Muslims, the vast majority of whom are classified as previously disadvantaged individuals, benefitted from greater job opportunities and Government tenders.

Mandela’s first cabinet had a significant number of Muslims: Abdullah Omar as Minister of Justice, Mohammed Valli-Moosa as Minister of Environment, Abdul Kader Asmal as Minister of Water and Forestry and Essop Pahad as Deputy-Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Auditor General was Shaukat Fakie and the Chief Justice was Ismail Mohammed. Not bad for a community that comprises about 1.5% of the population. Ahmed Kathrada was Mandela’s Parliamentary Counsellor or Political Advisor.

In the first Parliament and Senate Chamber, Muslims represented between five and seven percent of all representatives – the vast majority belonging to the ANC.

Mandela’s other salutary lesson for African leaders was his voluntary retirement after only one term, when constitutionally he could have served another. It did not take long for his successor Thabo Mbeki to attempt to lead for an additional term.

Of course, while much is attributed to Mandela because of his iconic status, as an icon he is simply a representation. Behind Mandela was the ANC, the Mass Democratic Movement, the Trade Unions, the religious communities and individuals espousing progressive politics. Much credit must be given to all of them who supported Mandela. But as a leader Mandela took the lead, made the critical decisions and always ensured inclusivity and justice. It is these notions that South Africa, and the indeed the world, will most miss.

But Mandela is not beyond criticism. His critics have a point in that his sense of inclusivity meant that economic power largely remained in the hands of Whites. The TRC brought little relief to victims and saw those who had committed gross human rights violations walk free. Even those who ignored the TRC process were left largely untouched. The land question remains unresolved with the bulk of land still controlled by a minority.

But Mandela could do so much and did not claim sainthood. As an architect of the peaceful transition, he prevented a violent revolution and brought about racial harmony. His successors now need to launch a second peaceful revolution to bring about economic prosperity to all. But most importantly, they can learn about service through the words of this great leader: “I stand here before you today not as a prophet, but as a humble servant to you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”


Mandela, an icon of all struggles  2

[Ahmed J Versi with Nelson Mandela and then High Com missioner of South Africa to

London, Cheryl Caralous in March 2000. They discussed his relations with Muslims

in South Africa]

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