My Visit to the Rainbow Nation
By Shahid Athar MD
For many in the United States, South Africa is identified with violence, drugs, jungles, lions, elephants, safaris, racism, and apartheid. The positive aspects of that society are hardly known in the USA.
South Africa, being the most industrialized nation on the continent of Africa, is similar to the United States in many ways. It accounts for 42 percent of Africa's industrial output, manufactures 60 percent of Africa's telephone sets, produces 40 percent of Africa's food, and drives 50 percent of Africa's cars. South Africa's GNP is three times that of Nigeria or Egypt and it is the world’s largest producer of gold and platinum.
But there is also abject poverty in the country. Not too far from high-rise buildings, super highways, and huge industrial plants are mud huts and people living under subhuman conditions. Similarly, as witnessed in other industrialized countries like the United States, drugs, violence, unemployment and lack of education among the black and poor are prevalent. Among the most deplorable areas is Swatto, the ghetto where poor Africans live under subhuman conditions without electricity, water, or any shelter.
The white-enforced apartheid has created interesting social situations. One is the Azaadville neighborhood in Johannesburg, near Swetto. Muslims who were living in better neighborhoods were forced to vacate their homes for the whites and re-settled in this colony near Swetto. Subsequently, with their hard work - many were merchants - they developed that area with the construction of nice houses, schools, and mosques. In Azaadville, there are many Muslims who had settled in South Africa for centuries. Most of them are of Gujrati Indian origin brought as slaves about 200 to 300 years ago. Now their children are professionals as well as highly educated.
South African Muslims have built institutions such as the Daruloom Zikrya, an Islamic college that teaches subjects such as astronomy. The campus also services community needs such as the site of the annual convention (ljtama) of the Tablighi Jamaat, the Islamic missionary party that attracted 25,000 delegates from all over the country and the world. The Muslim institutions include many media ventures, such as Radio 786 that has an audience range of 1,000,000 listeners. I was interviewed at this radio station for one hour.
The condition of Muslim women in South Africa is improving in terms of education and rights but they still feel that conservative men and clergy enjoy an upper hand.
The South Africans were surprised to learn that some 20,000 Muslims serve in the American Military. They are keen to know how Afro-Americans look at South Africa, what the common problems are, and what the common solutions to both countries are. A must see is Robben Island, a small island off the coast of Cape Town where for 300 years, lepers, mentally sick, as well as political and religious prisoners, including President Nelson Mandella, were kept by the ruling whites. The cell where President Mandella was kept for 27 years is among one of the most popular tourist attractions. The tour of the Robben Island jail offers a peek into the oppression of fellow human beings. The island also has the mausoleum of Kiramat, a Muslim saint (Sayed Abdurahman Mutara) brought as a prisoner from Indonesia by the Dutch and kept there until his death. He preserved Islam by his memory of the Qur'an and wrote the first hand-written copy of the Qur'an in South Africa in 1794 which is displayed in the mosque in Cape Town.
Even though Muslims are less than 2% of the population they have been emancipated from slavery and enjoy an enviable social and political position today. Ebrahim Rasool, who was a provincial Health Minister in 1997, is now the Chairperson of the African National Congress of Western Cape Town. There are many prominent Muslim judges in the Supreme Court and the Law Minister is also a Muslim.
My visit was very rewarding and I was moved by the kindness and hospitality of the South Africans. I am looking forward to returning to the country sometime soon.
(Dr Shahid Athar is a past president of The Islamic Medical Association of North America. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org , web pagewww.islam-usa.com )