Noor Ebrahim is a proud man. Rising long before dawn, he methodically prepares for Salat al-fajr, and as the call to prayer fades in the background, Ebrahim is set to begin his day. An educator, a writer, a Muslim, a survivor: Noor Ebrahim is a man of many facets, and yet above all else, he is first and foremost, a South African.
Perched on an old bench that Ebrahim himself was once legally not allowed to sit on, I had the privilege of listening to this man’s sombre tale of Cape Town, South Africa, during the tumultuous years of apartheid.
Brimming with joy, Ebrahim reminisced about a simpler time when race and religion did not solely define an individual. A brief period in history when people of all shades and faiths lived harmoniously in an area known as District Six, a community approximately one and a half square kilometres in size and home to around 70,000 Capetonians.
Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the jagged peaks of Table Mountain, thousands of Malays, Hindus, Muslims, Indians, Africans, and Christians rolled through the motions of life. Friends met for tea, lovers shared a first kiss, and families celebrated a marriage. It was melodic. It was home.
“I think the most wonderful thing about District Six is the way we all lived together in harmony,” said Ebrahim. “We had no problem with religion, with colour. This is my most wonderful memory.”
South Africa’s vast geographical landscape is unquestionably gorgeous. The warm, salty air wafting in from the Indian Ocean, combined with the cool Atlantic breeze makes for an exceptionally dry climate, producing unique and stunning vegetation that simply does not exist anywhere else in the world. Certainly serene, and yet at the same time historically complex, South Africa is perplexing.
South Africa is also a diverse nation. According to a 2015 census survey, published by Stats SA, Africa’s most southern country is home to approximately 54 million people and 11 official languages. Of the 54 million, just over one million, or 2.5 per cent of the population, are considered Asian—including largely, but not limited to, people of Malay, Indian, and Pakistani descent.
In contrast, over four million South Africans, 8.8 per cent of the population, are classified as coloured—mixed race, and around 8.3 per cent are Caucasian. Whereas the majority of the population, just over 44 million or 80.5 per cent, are African.
Although immersed in culture and religion, she is a country that suffers from debilitating racial, religious, and cultural tension, stemming from centuries of colonization and white supremacy. Similar to Malaysia, South Africa is slowly healing in a post-colonial world; however, whereas Malaysia is arguably tending to a fading scar, South Africa is crippled by a vulgar and fresh wound.
By 1948, apartheid legislation in South Africa was swiftly being implemented. Laws dictating where the non-white majority of South Africa could live and work were legally sanctioned by the ruling national party at the time.
Classified as either white, non-white, coloured, or Asian, South Africans were no longer permitted to co-exist. Segregation laws brought about “whites only” park benches, humiliating classification procedures, immense racial-based violence, and significant inadequacies in power dynamics and opportunity.
Separated now by race, non-white South Africans were shipped off to townships lacking infrastructure and the most basic community amenities, i.e. schools, places of worship, etc. Interracial families were ripped apart, lives were destroyed, and a large percentage of South Africa’s population was now legally oppressed, both socially and economically. Such drastic inadequacies quickly prompted crime rates and drug abuse to sky-rocket. Severe unemployment, deficient transportation, and a faulty education system not only led to an increase in poverty, but also maintained, if not heightened, the status quo for the privileged elite.
“During apartheid years when I walked the streets, I was so afraid to even look at a white woman. If the police saw me, just for looking, they would beat me,” said Ebrahim.
Needless to say, the ramifications of apartheid remain deeply entrenched in virtually all aspects of South African society. However, despite today’s reality, Ebrahim reiterated that South Africa was once a land of opportunity. It was a melting pot, and in a way it not only worked, but it strengthened District Six, Cape Town, and the Nation.
“You know, I’ve always believed that we should have been the richest country in the world, but we’re the poorest, because of apartheid,” reflected Ebrahim.
Ebrahim went on to explain that although District Six was diverse, respect for differing cultures and religions was at the core of the community.
“I am very proud to a Muslim, but I also had friends who were very proud to be Hindu or Jewish, or Indian or African,” added Ebrahim.
Akin to Malaysia, South Africans in District Six celebrated all of the major religious holidays as a community. It was common place to find a Synagogue, a Cathedral, and a Mosque around the corner from one another, and there was intrinsic value placed on learning about your neighbour’s religion.
“The most important thing in District Six was respect for each other, especially religion. We never looked down on someone else’s religion. My African, Indian, Christian, and Jewish friends would all celebrate Eid with me and my family,” explained Ebrahim. “We recognized that we were more similar than different, and worked together to construct a positive future. We were not friends, we were all family in District Six. You won’t find that today.”
Before apartheid laws came into effect, District Six was thriving, it was vibrant. Much like many communities here in Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia, District Six was a testament to the strength diverse perspectives can elicit, compared to the all-to-common hatred we see generated on a daily basis.
“We were called coloured people by the government, but in District Six, we never used this word. I mean, we always had people live there, why does it matter if someone is white or someone is black? We are all human beings,” reflected Ebrahim.
Malaysia and South Africa are certainly facing their own unique challenges when it comes to racial, cultural, and religious tension, and yet the parallels between the two countries are apparent. With that being said, Ebrahim’s story, his lived history, must be considered if progress is to be made.
From Canada to Malaysia, and everywhere in between, do we not share similarities? Surely we are entrenched in both our individual and cohesive values as a community, and as a nation, and yet can we not find respect—elicit love through commonality rather than hatred through difference?
It goes without saying that Ebrahim and many other South Africans struggled immensely under the oppressive apartheid regime. More than that, the very real effects of colonization that are still prevalent in today’s society, not only in South Africa, but around the world, must be acknowledged and validated. And yet history aside, Ebrahim is patriotic. Like many Malaysians, whether they be Muslim, Hindu, Christian, or Buddhist, he is rooted, for better or for worse, in the culture of his homeland.
“South Africa means a lot to me. This is my home. A lot of my friends left, but I didn’t want to. I said no, this is my home, this is my land. I think what’s important also, is that [our experience] has made us stronger. We survived.”
Ebrahim may be living a world away, but we all have something to learn from his experience: an experience that transcends nationality, race, and religion. His devotion to Islam gave him strength to persevere, but it was his diverse community in District Six that gave him hope for the future. And can we not agree that we are all responsible for the future of this world?