Muslims in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in 2006 and is re-highlighted here for its importance.


Islam is a minority religion in South Africa. Numbering around one million, Muslims make up less than 2 per cent of the population of 52 million. Around 90 percent of Muslims are termed “Indian” and “Malay” Muslims. The former are descendants of indentured and trader immigrants who arrived from the Indian sub-continent from 1860; the latter’s ancestors were slaves imported from South and Southeast Asia from the 17th century. Around 10 percent of Muslims are termed “African,” that is, individuals indigenous to Africa.

These terms are, of course, problematic because people cannot be boxed into biologically differentiated race groups to which we can attribute specific features. However, in post-apartheid South Africa, the census divides citizens into four racial categories: White, Colored, Asian, and Black African. Malays are part of the Colored group. These categories have been widely internalized by most South Africans, are employed in everyday life, and are therefore real social phenomena.

Statistics do not reflect the qualitative experience of being Muslim. Muslims are largely urbanized and live in racially segregated suburbs and townships. The Adhan (call to prayer) is audible to most Muslims, who have Muslim neighbors, and madrasahs are in close proximity. Concentration has produced a sense of population density that the census does not capture.

The fact that practicing Muslims turn towards Makkah in prayer does not mean that they constitute a monolithic fabric. On the contrary, they are deeply divided by race, class, ethnicity, language, politics, education, and beliefs. Generally, average per capita income is highest among Indian Muslims, followed by Malays and then Africans. This reflects higher levels of education and lower levels of unemployment.

Language is another marker of differentiation. Over 90 percent of Indian Muslims regard English as their first language. Among Colored Muslims the divide is roughly equal between English and Afrikaans. However, among Black Africans, indigenous languages like isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sepedi, Setswana, and SiSwati are represented.

For much of the 20th century, Muslims were oppressed by the policies of segregation and apartheid of successive White governments. Institutionalized racism, job reservation, the migratory labor system, separate amenities, and racially-biased social and welfare services resulted in deep inequalities that manifested themselves in racial terms. This had mixed consequences for Indians and Malays. Residential clustering in racially based Group Areas allowed Muslims to build mosques and madrasahs and to practice Islam in a value-friendly environment.

Access to education led to higher levels of literacy as many more Indian and Malay children completed school and graduated from the Universities of Western Cape (Coloreds) and University of Durban-Westville (Indians). Mass education led to economic mobility and was also critical in reshaping conceptions of self and religion. As more Muslims had direct access to the printed word, there was a shift from Islam being “taken-for-granted” to being “explained” and “understood.” Younger, educated Muslims challenged traditional conceptions of Islam at the same time that more conservative interpretations of Islam became institutionalized.

The Rainbow Nation

Apartheid ended with the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990, the unbanning of political organizations, multi-party negotiations and, ultimately, South Africa’s first democratically elected government on April 27, 1994. The new nonracial democracy did not support an Islamic worldview; on the contrary, the African National Congress (ANC) government legalized abortion, prostitution, pornography, and so on. Together with the government’s affirmative action policy and African Renaissance agenda, and the impact of globalization, these dramatic social, political, and economic changes have triggered significant behavioral changes among large numbers of Muslims.

The Western Cape witnessed an assertion of “Malayness.” This must be viewed in the context of the “rainbow nation” concept put forward by Nelson Mandela, which encouraged people to seek their own identities. Some Muslims condemned this reinvention of a Southeast Asian identity. Academic Shamil Jeppie felt that “if representatives of the new-found ethnicity, with its wealthy connections, contribute to the type of isolation, insularity and belligerent communalism rampant elsewhere in the world, they ought to be scorned and rejected by South Africa and its Muslim population.”


Thousands of Muslims in Pretoria, Cape Town, and Durban protested against the anti-Prophet cartoons (photo by Ebrahim Mohamed).

The Cape was also the site of political radicalism in the name of Islam when community leaders formed “People Against Gangsterism and Drugs” (Pagad) in May 1996 to fight the scourge of drugs and gangsterism. Pagad drew on elements in Islamic religious sources — without regard to historic context — that emphasized the believer’s imperative to oppose indecency and crime through direct action to achieve a just and morally correct society. Those who refused to do so or criticized Pagad were branded hypocrites (munafiqun). Pagad gained the support of Muslims by embracing Islamic slogans, dress, and rhetoric, with additional community support created by extensive use of the newly democratized airwaves in the form of Radio 786.

The rise of Pagad seriously challenged the fledgling nonracial democracy. Violence reached dangerous levels as gang members reacted through a systematic program of killing Muslim businessmen and professionals, while petrol bombs were hurled at several mosques. Pagad altered the textures of social life and civil society in the Western Cape. While it forced the state to address the problems, its tactics destabilized civil society. Police were ambivalent when Pagad killings involved gang members only, but took the threat seriously when restaurants and police stations in white Cape Town were bombed from 1998. From the beginning of 2000, the police focused on destroying Pagad by arresting key leaders. In this way the movement was neutered within two years.

Turning to the Core

Among Indian Muslims, many have begun “turning to the core:” Many more women have begun to veil their faces; there has been greater concern with observing religious regulations concerning food; the numbers of Muslims going annually to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage has increased dramatically; televisions sets have been rooted out from many Muslim homes; there is a de-Westernization of dress; many men have taken to wearing Arab garb, short hair, shaved moustache, and long beards; many have given up insurance and medical aid, and have turned to Islamic banks; Islamic media has flourished (radios, newspapers, and a television channel); and there is a dramatic growth in Muslim and Islamic schools. Theological debate is virtually absent as “truth” has become with the ulama. To question ulama means questioning the truth.

Another conspicuous feature of the new Islam is self-reformation, whereby individuals are becoming attached to sheikhs (spiritual mentors). Many Muslims are retreating to an Islamic identity in their private lives and constructing boundaries around various points of contact: between men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, Muslims and the state, Islam and secularism, and so on. In introducing new and tighter Islamic codes in the public and private domains, Muslims are using the new freedoms of a secular state to redefine the kind of Muslims they want to be.

Animosity to the State?

While inward-looking, Muslims are using the constitution to realize specific needs and rights. For example, Muslim lobbying led to the government setting up the South African Law Commission (SALC) project committee in 1999 — headed by Supreme Court Judge Mohamed Navsa — to draft a bill on Islamic marriages. This has not been resolved because of different interpretations of Islamic law among Muslims.

This irresolution does not imply animosity to the state on the part of the majority of Muslims, nor is there a serious and systematic proselytizing aspect to it. While many Muslim intellectuals and professionals are concerned about the new conservatism, this pattern seems unlikely to change as long as the ulama continue to shape the traditions and beliefs of the majority.

While the first African Muslims arrived in Natal from Zanzibar in 1872, their numbers remained small until the past few decades. The spread of Islam in the Western Cape gained momentum in the 1960s with the pioneering work of Imam Abdullah Haron, who broke the law by entering African townships for da`wah work. Elsewhere Africans embraced Islam mainly as a result of individual acts or the efforts of Sheikh Ahmed Deedat’s Islamic Propagation Centre International (IPCI).

This is in contrast to North, West, and Central Africa where Arab traders played a crucial role in establishing Islam. Indian traders in Natal mostly remained isolated from Africans. In fact, Islam has historically been viewed by Africans as an “Indian religion,” and an exploitative one at that because of its close association with Indian traders. There is a strong perception among Africans that Islam is an exclusively Indian religion, and Africans who embrace Islam are seen to be “colonized” by Indians. Since the 1990s the numbers of African Muslims have been augmented by the arrival of Muslim refugees from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Angola, Malawi, and other African countries.

Tensions have surfaced between African and non-African Muslims. African Muslim leaders differentiate between “historically imported” and “historically indigenous” Muslims. It irks many Africans that while their needs are not attended to, local Muslims react swiftly by providing cash, food, and medical supplies to Muslim victims of natural calamities and warfare in other parts of the world. African Muslims wonder why the Muslim gaze is not directed towards them with the same intensity.

Much work needs to be done by Indians and Malays to bridge the racial divide and put an end to the idea that Islam is the religion of rich “foreigners” who drive expensive cars, live in beautiful mansions, spend excessively on lavish mosques, and care little about African Muslims. Younger African Muslims stress the need to chart an independent course whereby Islam is in concert with the socio-cultural experience of African Muslims.

The Wider Muslim Causes

South Africa’s Muslims are not immune from international events. Although most Muslim organizations condemned the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, local Muslims were castigated in many quarters. There were abusive calls to the Cape Town-based Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), followed by an arson attack on its offices. Most South African ulama have denounced suicide bombings. Speaking on the popular Channel Islam, Mufti A.K. Hoosen said that given that suicide was prohibited in Islam, and that the Prophet had cautioned his followers to avoid killing the old, women, and children during conflict, or destroying property, suicide bombings were not permitted, except in Palestine which is considered a “war zone.”

Muslims also condemned the US-led invasions of Afghanistan in October 2001 and Iraq in March 2003, and took part in large-scale demonstrations in support of the Palestinians, led by the Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC). The PSC placed emphasis on inter-faith support as it argued that the struggle was one for land and human rights rather than a religious Muslim-versus-Jew conflict. The South African Communist Party (SACP), Cosatu, as well as NGOs like the Anti-Privatization Forum, participated in pro-Palestinian protests. In February 2006, thousands of Muslims joined in marches in Pretoria, Cape Town, and Durban as part of international protests against the controversial cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Many are also boycotting Danish goods and a local newspaper, Sunday Times, that challenged Muslims who were seeking a court order prohibiting publication of the cartoons.


Ebrahim Rassool, premier of the Western Cape (at the time of writing the article)

Between Integration and Isolation

Conservative ulama generally discourage Muslims from participating in street marches. Organizations like the Jamiats of KZN and Gauteng attribute Muslim weaknesses to the “spiritual shortcomings” of Muslims themselves, rather than Western military and technological superiority. Their message is that Muslims will regain lost ground when individual Muslims perfect their Islamic practices. They urge prayer and self-purification instead of public protest that involves the mixing of the sexes.

Generally, while many Muslims are seeking to implement Shari`ah, there is no attempt to create a counterpower. Organized Muslim bodies are largely compliant because the state interferes little in the way Muslims practice Islam. Notwithstanding this, some observers continue to speak of an “Islamic threat” in South Africa. Journalist Max Du Preez made unsubstantiated allegations of Muslim complicity in the attack on the Israeli-run Paradise Mombasa Hotel in Kenya on November 27, 2002, and questioned the loyalty of South African Muslims to the state. Martin Schonteich of the Institute of Security Studies told the Crime Writers’ Club in Pretoria in February 2003 that there was “rising fundamentalist sympathy in the Muslim community … with even traditionally moderate Muslim leaders becoming increasingly outspoken.” As a result of developments in the “radical” face of Islam, letters to editors and call-in programs portray Muslims negatively. They are seen as intolerant, opposed to democracy and human rights, closed to new ideas, and as zealots easily given to violence. These views reflect the impact of daily reports of conflict involving Muslims throughout the world.

Most Muslims, for their part, have participated actively in South Africa’s non-racial government, shunning the view among a minority that they could not embrace the broader democratic movement because political cooperation with non-Muslims was un-Islamic. The majority of ulama, intellectuals, and community leaders have been urging Muslims to participate in democratic elections. Many, in fact, have directly counseled Muslims to vote for the ruling African National Congress. The Africa Muslim Party (1994) and Africa Moral Party (1999) failed to gain representation in Parliament. The (formerly white) National Party and subsequently the Democratic Alliance have largely failed to exploit the fears of Muslim minorities that affirmative action and high crime rates were destroying the country.

Some Muslim activists, however, have expressed misgivings about supporting the ANC uncritically. They consider it unselfish for Muslims to base their political judgment purely on the fact they are not discriminated against because of their religion and on neo-liberal economic policies that have allowed many businessmen to flourish. They believe that Muslims should consider the fact that little has been done to alleviate the plight of the masses. There are also concerns about the government’s plan to open an embassy in Iraq and collusion with foreign governments that has led to the mysterious disappearance of Khalid Mahmood Rashid and others suspected of supporting the Taliban or Al-Qaeda. It is rumored that Rashid, who was detained in October 2005, is languishing in an American prison.

Muslims have been prominent in government. Muslim ministers have included Kader Asmal (Water Affairs), Valli Moosa (Environment), Abdullah Omar (Justice), and Naledi Pandor (Education). Aziz Pahad was a deputy minister of foreign affairs, Essop Pahad was a special advisor to President Thabo Mbeki; Ebrahim Rassool was premier of the Western Cape and currently severs as the South African ambassador to the US; while Justice Ismail Mohammed occupied the most senior legal position in the country until his death. Muslims generally express satisfaction that South Africa is one of the “safest” for Muslims post-9/11 and acknowledge that South Africa has largely taken an independent line on world affairs. One indication of the general contentment of affluent Muslims in South Africa is that interest in immigrating to Western countries like the US, Canada, and the UK has virtually come to a halt.

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About Goolam Vahed
Goolam Vahed is an Associate Professor of History, Society & Social Change Cluster at the University of KwaZulu Natal. His latest book are Muslim Portraits: The Anti-Apartheid Struggle (2012) and Ahmed Deedat: The Man and His Mission (2012).