It was the spirit of 'kanala' that saw over 120 mosques built by the community in three hundred years.
Photo copyright Shafiq Morton.
THE Cape Muslim community has not always been a wealthy, let alone middle class sector of our society. With its origins via educated, but impoverished political exiles, artisanal Mardykers (free blacks), former ‘bandietin’ and slaves, it was an underclass at the time of the abolishment of slavery in 1834.
However, the community did have several things in its favour – that despite its petty conflicts – would keep it together. The communal camaraderie that is born out of decades of oppression does create an inborn resilience, and a sense of resourcefulness, that can become an unstoppable social force.
Then, of course, there is Deen – proudly carried in the hearts of our forefathers from generation to generation, via its Hadrami-influenced Indian and Indonesian roots, Shaykh Yusuf of Makasar, Tuan Guru, Shaykh Abu Bakr Effendi and Shaykh Muhammad Salih Hendricks all instrumental in this.
However, the abolition of slavery – as many historians have pointed out – did not end the discrimination and racism of the authorities, or citizens, of Cape Town. Life was still a testing challenge in a city renowned for its bawdy taverns, smallpox outbreaks, streetwalkers and lack of sewage disposal.
In the early 19th century, there was no such thing as ‘affirmative action’ to bolster the job market for the disenfranchised. The status-quo of ‘them and us’ had remained, with the poor confined to the edges of the town, their now cheap labour required to sew, chop, plaster, sweep, wash, build and cook for the masters and madams of the colony.
As the city expanded, due to the sweat of our grandfathers and grandmothers, these skills would become the glue that held the collective together. For in the community, a tradition of sharing one’s expertise became a way of life. If a plumber’s wall cracked, his neighbour – the builder – would repair it. If his pipes burst, the plumber would fix them, this all done for no cost.
The late Dr Achmat Davids, the doyenne of our local historians from the Bo-Kaap, told me many years ago that this was the root of ‘kanala’ (the Malayu word for ‘please’), where we would exchange – or offer – our skills or resources without recompense. This would become the bedrock of Cape Town charity, where the poorest found a way to work together to survive via the ‘kanala joppie’.
The ‘kanala joppie’ might have been born out of necessity, but it was a very noble custom. For where Zakah was impossible, as no one earned enough to pay it, the community could still reduce the effects of poverty by working together, and pooling its means.
In this way, houses were built; cars were repaired; pots of food were cooked for the high nights; and in three hundred years, over 120 mosques were constructed – something that amazed Tuan Najib Razak, current Malaysian prime minister, when he visited Cape Town in 1994. He simply could not believe that a community could have achieved so much without outside help.
It was only when our hard working parents sent us to universities that Zakah – the pillar of cleansing disposable wealth – would come into focus. As we slowly climbed the social ladder to the middle classes as doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants and teachers, surplus income became available.
To this effect, SANZAF was founded in 1974. In fact, over the past four decades one can track the economic progress of the community via SANZAF’s growth. SANZAF’s expansion, I believe, has been completely exponential to this.
However, this growth would not have been possible had our parents and grandparents not shared this Ubuntu-like spirit of ‘kanala’. I do not think it is co-incidental our community’s well-known generosity is founded in this historical ‘kanala’. Of course, there have been abuses, but the gains have always far outweighed the losses.
This is perhaps why SANZAF, representing a minority of 4 million amongst 55 million people, has been able to punch so above its weight – something widely recognised offshore in places such as the oil rich Gulf. For if it hadn’t been for the big-heartedness of our slave-born Cape ancestors, we would not be where we are today.