A South African Muslim Woman’s Memories of Mandela

I wrote part of this piece when Dr Laury Silvers asked me for a few words she could read in her khutbah at El Tawhid Unity Mosque in Toronto. She wanted to open with words from a South African, and I am grateful to her and the congregation for the oppurtunity to express these words on the passing of our beloved Comrade, President, Tata Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who returned to his creator on Thursday night, December 5 at the age of 95.

Mandela greets Muslim women. Photo credit: Shafiq Morton.

Tata (father), as we fondly call Nelson Mandela, represents so much to me, as a South African Muslim woman, as he does to all South Africans. His name is synonymous with struggle and sacrifice. His contributions to dismantling Apartheid in South Africa and his lifelong commitment to non-racialism and non-sexism has made my years growing up in South Africa an incredible experience. I still cannot fathom that he spent the total sum of my life (27 years) imprisoned!

I was born in one of the areas to which South African Indians had been forcibly relocated, at the tail end of Apartheid. Madiba’s rise to presidency, however, meant that I would no longer be confined to racially-segregated towns and limited options for education as my parents experienced.

Mandela taught us important lessons about the deeper meanings of peace and forgiveness but he was by no means a passive resistor against the indiscriminate violence of the Apartheid state, and nor was he without severe critics and opposition. Whilst I do not wish to sanitize or idolize the life of Nelson Mandela, neither is today a day to critique or analyse his policies and politics – it is a day to celebrate the immense goodness that one person brought to the world around him. What I do wish to highlight is that he overcame many of his own inner weaknesses (such as his rather tumultuous relationships with women) during the struggle years, and wrote openly about his development. He taught us to own up to our lives, our mistakes and our choices – and to walk for the ideals we profess to stand for.

Even after his rise to presidency in the new democratic South Africa, Madiba continued to show support and solidarity for global issues of social justice, especially HIV/AIDS, education for all children, the occupation of Palestine, and of course, gender eqaulity… all issues that still require our commitment and activism today.

Mandela with struggle activist Fatima Meer. [Source].

Madiba had a wonderful and open relationship with the Muslim community, and many of his closest friends during the struggle were Muslim. Figures like Ahmad Kathrada, Ismail Meer, Yusuf Dadoo, Fatima Meer, Rahima Moosa and Amina Cachalia are household names in South Africa and represent some of the key stalwarts in the anti-apartheid movement, many of whom were close confidantes and intimates of Nelson Mandela, and some of whom spent decades in prison with him.

He was always happy to join in on Eid celebrations and feasts, give sermons when called upon, visit Muslim shrines in the Cape and attend gatherings of the Mawlid an Nabi (birthday of the Prophet (pbuh).) He often quoted the Quran and Hadith in his speeches and made sure to use the greeting of “as salam alaykum” when meeting any Muslim. His appreciation for the diverse religious and cultural makeup of South Africa made a lasting impact in bringing these groups together.

Gender activist and academic Fatima Seedat recounts that it was Mandela’s first attendance at Eid prayers at the Brixton Masjid ul Islam (of which I am a congregant) in 1998 that mobilized women to claim their space at these sacred gatherings.

“Tata Mandela’s commitment to the liberation of all humanity from oppression gave us room to advocate for women’s access to prayer space in South Africa. The first time women attended communal Eid prayer enmasse in the Northern regions of our country was when Mandela addressed the Brixton Eid prayer. It was not an easy victory, committed gender activists worked hard to convince the mosque board that women should not be excluded from the event. Similar motivations lead the struggle for women’s rights in Durban and soon women claimed the privilege of community prayer here too.

Tata, your commitment to equality for men and women has given us opportunities for equality that our Prophet intended but which our patriarchs have refused. We are in your debt. May we come to be worthy of the inheritance of your legacy and continue the struggle you started.”

Me at four years old.

Unfortunately, there still remain Muslims in this country who insist we should not pray for him, as he was not “a believer.”  I will insist that we must, in the spirit of his teachings and legacy, and in light of the greatest example of beloved Nabi Muhammad (pbuh), resist with all our being, this kind of thinking that seeks to make us separate from him, to create otherness amongst human beings, and to take away from Allah alone the right to recieve His own creation in a manner befitting their life’s struggles and sacrifices.

I have had the honor and privilege of meeting Madiba a few times in my life, especially during Eid celebrations and family weddings that he would attend. His warmth, humor and kindness were always palpable.  He had an amazing presence… it embraced and enchanted everyone he met. The first time I met Madiba (pictured), I was just four years old, and I wore my shoes upside down! In future encounters I managed to look more dignified. As a teenager I remeber him joking with my uncles and father about greeting their wives and daughters (my aunts, mother, cousins and I) never sure if he should shake our hands or not, causing him some light-hearted confusion.

My daughter outside Mandela’s home in Soweto on Saturday night.

The last time I saw Mandela in public was in 2010 at the 7th annual Nelson Mandela lecture, delivered that year by Muhammad Yunus. I was saddened by his frail appearance and ailing health… It was a time we as a nation had started preparing emotionally for the inevitable.

Yet, the South African spirit is one of resilience, and even as we are plunged into days of mourning, all around us people dance and sing the struggle songs, celebrating a great life.

My prayer is that the legacy of Nelson Mandela will not be one confined to eulogies and tributes, but that like him, we will all take that long walk to freedom.

“Oh Soul at peace, Return to your Lord, well-pleased and pleasing, so enter among My servants, enter into My garden.”


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