Islam, Race and Cape Town

Islam, Race and Cape Town

Sean Jacobs, The New School


In South African racial politics, Islam is rarely seen by its practitioners or by outsiders as an “African” religion. It is seen as coloured and Indian. This is particularly the case in Cape Town, where Islam is most visible as a religion. A note on racial terminology: Coloured in South Africa is a distinct racial category, developed during colonialism and legislated under apartheid, and is not just a question of skin color. It denotes “mixed” or “creole” racial identities and in everyday use means a separate identity from black or African. Some coloureds are descended from slaves brought from East Africa and the Indian Ocean, while others are descendants of slaves brought from Asia. Others are descendants of mixed marriages or illicit unions between whites and blacks. Some coloureds are the offshoots of or claim lineage from Khoikhoi or San. Though Indians’ ancestors arrived in South Africa as part of slavery, the larger waves of Indian migrants arrived as indentured labor in the 1860s and later as traders.  The importance of this case study is that it points to the importance of non-black slavery in South Africa in forming Islamic identity and thus seems like a critical contrast to other papers in the volume, in terms of arguments for racialization or racial formations beyond the black/white divide made in several of the Middle East focused papers.

Though Muslims only constitute less than two percent of South Africa’s population and in Cape Town between 5 and 10 percent of the city’s inhabitants, they are a visible minority. Crucially, South African Muslims are “integrated into South Africa’s political and cultural identity, serving in the government at senior levels, operating vocal media outlets, and engaging with the state on matters of law and culture.”[1]   In Cape Town, specifically, Muslims have left their mark on the city, whether in cuisine, politics, music, theater as well as architecture and the urban landscape. Cape Dutch architecture is infused with influences from Batavia and East Asian traditions (whether that be the influence of slavery or religion, or both). Downtown Cape Town is dotted by mosques and six kramats (burial places of holy men) are situated around the mountains that ring the city as well as on Robben Island, where political prisoners were sent (some of the earliest political prisoners on the island were political exiles from Indonesia). The result is,

there are few other countries as alert to Islamophobia or as instinctively and inclusively protective of its Muslim citizens as South Africa. There’s a confidence that Cape Muslim communities have about being simultaneously Muslim and South African, an ease in those identities that comes from a deep sense of belonging and historical entanglement.[2]

Ebrahim Rasool is a former antiapartheid activist and was Premier of the Western Cape province (one of South Africa’s nine provinces) after Apartheid and South Africa’s ambassador to the United States from 2010 to 2015. In 2014, Rasool told an interviewer,

South Africa has been this wonderful laboratory for Islam, which has found a high point under democracy and freedom – for Muslims to perfect the art of integration without assimilation and isolation; for Muslims to live with the wonderment of many identities and not a single religious identity. I mean, which other country would have Hashim Amla as the captain of their cricket team or Nizaam Carr coming off the reserves bench for the [Springbok national] rugby team? These are symbols that are so taken for granted in South Africa … but do you know how it rocks the world of eight million American Muslims and 1.5 million French Muslims?[3]

These characterizations hold much truth, but at the same time they may obscure that the South African identity embraced by most South African Muslims is a coloured or Indian – and significantly not an African – identity. In short, this outcome is the result of dynamic interactions between state imposed segregation and people’s constructions of their own identities in ways that are both inclusive and exclusionary.


Muslims and Slavery in South Africa

Nearly 8 out of 10 Muslims in South Africa are considered coloured. Indian Muslims make up about 20% of South African Muslims; these Indian Muslims, who started arriving in the mid-19th century, are largely concentrated in the provinces of Gauteng and Kwazulu-Natal. Smaller numbers of Muslims are black South Africans (i.e. Zulu, Xhosa speakers, etcetera) or newer immigrants from the rest of Africa (especially West Africa and the Horn of Africa) and parts of South Asia.  This predominance of coloured or Indian Muslims contributes to the popular belief that Islam came to South Africa from the Indonesian archipelago and India with slaves and later indentured workers or “passenger” Indians.

One effect of seeing Islam as coloured and Indian is that black Muslims in South Africa are usually seen as converts only.[4] But the view that Islam is not black is at odds with Islam’s origins in South Africa. Islam arrived in South Africa with slavery. For the next 180 years or so, slavery became the dominant economic and social system in the Cape Colony. In its initial form, Islam was actually a creole identity, attracting many converts from among the enslaved people, who were quite diverse.

Slavery in South Africa does not fit the neatly racialized assumptions about the relationship between blackness and slavery predominant in other contexts. Between 1652, when the Dutch first established a colony at the Cape, and 1808, approximately 63,000 slaves were imported to the Cape (Shell 1997). The majority of slaves (26.4%) were imported from other parts of Africa, particularly Southeast Africa; another 25.1% were brought from Madagascar, 26.1% came from India and 22.7% came from the Indonesian archipelago. The African slaves came mostly from what is now Mozambique and Madagascar. These slaves were black Africans; the slaves from Madagascar and Africans were often described together as black, mostly in negative terms.[5]

In contrast to the popular belief that black Muslims are ‘converts’, many of the African slaves arrived as Muslims. Worden has argued that “both the south Asian and African components of Cape slave history have been obliterated in public memory and in heritage representations,” though it could be argued that the African components of slave history has suffered more from this amnesia.


Racializing South African Islam

One distinction between the slaves brought from Southeast Africa and those from Indonesia and other Dutch colonies elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, was that the latter group included clerics, royals and political exiles (e.g. Sheikh Yusuf of Macassar banished to the Cape in 1694 who is commonly seen as the founder of Islam in South Africa).  The new arrivals from Indonesia and the Indian Ocean started the colony’s first madrassas during slavery and later built its first mosques. (Tuan Guru, or “master teacher,” a prince from Tidore in the Ternate islands of eastern Indonesia started the first madrassas.) They also transcribed the Koran and produced other, mostly religious, literature. This is how they came to invent Arabic-Afrikaans. (Contrary to Afrikaner nationalist propaganda, Afrikaans is not a white language; the first scripts in Afrikaans were religious treatises and madrasa handbooks.)

A key feature of Islam that may have attracted many slaves to Islam during the 18th and 19th centuries was the fact that in contrast, to Christianity – which discriminated against its black and brown converts – Islam “welcomed slaves into the fold, treated them with kindness, and offered them the dignity of a proper funeral.”[6] Islam also offered literacy. “The madrasas accepted slaves and “free blacks” alike and offered one of the only educational options available to children from these communities.”[7]  Basically, Islam treated all believers as equal.

While the Dutch were not tolerant of other religions (early Islam was mostly practiced in secret), Islam flourished under the British, who took over the colony in the early 19th century and abolished slavery. The first mosques were built under British rule. The British, like the Dutch before them, vigorously policed racial boundaries, thus further entrenching these identities.

By the 19th century, the collective noun “Cape Malays” were used to describe the Muslim slaves. As Gabeba Baderoon (2011) points out, “Cape Malay” meant both “Muslim” and “slave.” Even Khoi converts to Islam were considered Malay. Everyone, including European visitors to the colony, noticed this. Gavin Lewis, in his book-length study of coloured identity and politics, noted that “as late as 1976 a Christian missionary in Cape Town noted that “all Muslims, even those of English or Scottish blood, are indiscriminately called Malays.”[8] This is an important distinction from how the term Malay came to be used later. Over time, Malay began to be associated with “coloured,” the new category for people of “mixed race” that would become codified first under colonialism and then under white “self rule” (1910-1948) and which became law under Apartheid after 1948. In fact, among the many sub-categories of “coloured” codified by Apartheid (Griqua, Cape Coloured, etcetera), one of these was “Malay.”

Colonialism and apartheid in South Africa were quite vigorous in how they policed the “races.”  In the process, slavery also came to be associated with an Asian past.


Constructing Muslim Identity in Cape Town

Even if coloured Muslims were involved in identity making of their own or displayed racist attitudes, they did so within the bounds of state-enforced racial categories and segregation.[9] At the same time, the state was an active agent in constructing Muslim identity in Cape Town.

The best way to illustrate this is to look at the role of I.D. Du Plessis.  He was a journalist, academic and later, first a commissioner and then secretary and adviser for Coloured Affairs to the government. He was also a member of the Broederbond, the secret organization that advanced Afrikaner nationalism through the state, universities, business, and churches. Du Plessis thought of himself as an ethnographer of “Malay culture” and from the 1930s onwards, he began to publish his “studies” on the culture and cultural contributions of Malays. Du Plessis was particularly interested in promoting Muslims who lived in the Bo-Kaap (Upper Cape) or Malay Quarter, a part of the inner city. As a result, the Bo-Kaap was spared the Group Areas Act, which uprooted black and coloured communities across the city. Du Plessis also used his influence and energies to promote “Malay Studies” as an academic discipline. (He did not succeed in this regard, however.) Outside of these academic and formal pursuits, Du Plessis also encouraged and funded the establishment of “Malay Choirs,” all male ensembles (like barbershop quartets) that sang “old Dutch songs.” Some sources also credit him with publicly defining what is meant by “Malay cuisine.”  All this was aimed at emphasizing the uniqueness and separateness of “Cape Malays,” but also to direct Muslim political expression.

Crucially, Du Plesssis was not alone in this. He worked with local imams who acted as his informants. For these imams, the state was protecting Islam and its worshippers. The effect was to orientalize Islam at the Cape and in South Africa, by emphasizing its roots in Indonesia at the expense of Africa.[10]

After the Nationalists took over power in 1948 and implemented Apartheid, they worked hard to “divide and rule” black communities. One of these was to convince Muslims that they could only thrive as a minority group because of special government protection. Not surprisingly, despite the activism of some radical Muslims like Dr Abdullah Abdurahman (who founded the African People’s Organization at the start of the 20th century), his daughter Cissie Gool (who associated with communists and was one of the few black city council members before apartheid stripped what limited vote coloureds and blacks had) or the work of prominent members of the Trotskyist Non-European Unity Movement (like Ali Fataar), Cape Muslims weren’t particularly radical about South Africa’s colonial and apartheid politics.  The scholar and cleric, Faried Esack, for example, writes about the 1940s:

Although there were prominent and widely respected Muslim personalities involved in politics, Islam did not play a direct role in their thinking, nor did they appeal to their community to work for a just society on the basis of Islam.[11]

As a result, post-World War Two, white public and official opinion developed a view of Islam as “law abiding.” They weren’t entirely wrong. The Muslim religious authority in Cape Town, the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), established in 1945, was accused of being quiescent and avoiding a direct confrontation with Apartheid. When some Muslims organized under the Call of Islam in the early 1960s to oppose forced removals, white members of parliament were shocked by the protests as they had a stereotype of Muslims as apolitical and law abiding.  Muslim clerics, like Iman Abdullah Haron who sought a more explicit association with black resistance (like the Pan-Africanist Congress of Robert Sobukwe) was isolated by the MJC before his murder by apartheid police in Cape Town in 1969. (Haron’s funeral caught the MJC by surprise; 40,000 people turned up to mourn him.)


Muslims and the opposition to Apartheid

Opposition to Apartheid gained new impetus from the mid to late 1970s. This is the period that saw the development of movements propagating black consciousness (and in the process reimagined black resistance to apartheid as not based on ethnic blocs as coloured, Indians or Africans). In the 1980s, the United Democratic Front would revive the leftism associated with the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party. A fair number of Muslims served in the leadership of these organizations. However, young Muslims, who joined these movements were mainly radicalized by external events: the Iranian Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (some young South African Muslims went to fight with the Mujahideen) as well as the Palestinian struggle: By the mid-1980s, “among the Muslim community in the Cape, Palestinian scarves and white fezzes have become symbols in the anti-apartheid struggle.”[12]

These developments were of course not unusual for political Islam at the time. The slogans of the Iranian revolution became commonplace, so did “Arafat scarfs,” as the checkered Palestinian scarves were also known. Esack identified three main tendencies among Muslim resisters of apartheid: One, the Muslim Youth Movement (centrist and more focused on proselytization, with links to visiting Pakistani and Indian clerics); two, Qibla (which while linked to the local PAC,repeated slogans, often in Persian, of the Iranian Revolution, like “One solution, Islamic Revolution”); and, three, the Call of Islam. Of the three, only the smaller Call of Islam directly engaged with the largest mass movements of black people like the UDF, the trade union movement COSATU or civic associations. Basically, Islamic identity became the people’s way of entering the anti-apartheid movement. However, emphasizing Muslims’ duty to oppose injustice, de-emphasized South African Muslims’ stake in the anti-apartheid struggle as workers and black people.

This seemed especially incongruous with Muslims’ daily experiences:

Muslims have always been subjected, in varying degrees, to the same oppression and exploitation faced by their ‘racial’ compatriots. ‘Coloured’ Muslims have experienced the same hardships as their ‘Coloured’ brothers and sisters under the Group Areas Act. The harsh labour conditions in the textile factories of the Western Cape and the trauma of not having a clearly defined position in a society where apartheid demands that all groups have an identifiable role, has been a formative feature of the Coloured Muslim experience.[13]

The end of apartheid predictably led to a reconfiguration of Muslim identities as it did other South African identities. On the one end, like Islam elsewhere, South African Islam became more in line with the Global Ummah. Historically, coloured Islam was locally specific in some of its cultural practices and rituals (often incorporating Shia rituals), but it increasingly referred to South Asian or Saudi theology. Political Islam also featured via the anti-crime group, PAGAD, in the mid to late 1990s,  though it faded quickly.[14] At the same time, there was a move to connect coloured or Malay Muslims with Indonesia.[15] This took the form of some official and unofficial efforts from Indonesia on the one hand and on the other hand, work by local historians and cultural entrepreneurs to promote those linkages above all else and to excavate that part of slave history only.[16] It is unclear how much of this was in opposition to Islam as an “African religion” or was a reflection of racial attitudes towards blackness in the Muslim community, but it did have had some effects to not see Islam as an African religion. It may also explain why many black Muslim immigrants from other parts of Africa or other black South African Muslims haven’t fully found a home in South African Islam.[17]

I want to end with a story about a friend that I think illustrates some of these dynamics about Islam and race in Cape Town very well.

Kholofelo (Kholo) Molewa is a black Muslim South African. A businessman and philanthropist, he is originally from Johannesburg but made Cape Town his home after moving to the city for university studies. Most casual observers would classify his wife as coloured, but she sees herself as black and culturally coloured and or Muslim. They have two children.

In May 2018, during Ramadan, he gave a talk on “racism in Islam” at the Claremont Main Road Mosque.[18] It’s worth emphasizing the place of that mosque within Cape Town Islam and why it is not unusual that Kholo spoke there. The Claremont Main Street Mosque is situated in a white suburb of the same name to the south of the city in the shadow of the Table Mountain range. It was built in 1851. Most of the worshippers had deep roots in the area and older ones had direct experiences of forced removals when Claremont was declared a white group area in the 1950s.  They were, however, allowed to still worship at the mosque.  In the 1980s, the mosque became associated with the Call of Islam, which was allied to the United Democratic Front and the ANC. The mosque’s imam, Rashied Omar, is an academic and well known for his progressive approach to faith. Kholo’s invitation to speak was not unusual at the Claremont Main Road Mosque and speaks to debate and inquiry within the community and how – at least for some – there are public spaces to question and critically probe racial identities and tropes. (On a separate occasion at the mosque, Kholo gave a talk about Black Lives Matter and its South African application.)

Kholo’s talk was in response to violent clashes a few weeks earlier between residents of two working class neighborhoods in the city, Mitchell’s Plain and Siqalo, over land and housing. Mitchell’s Plain happens to be Cape Town’s largest coloured township.  Siqalo, which is situated on the edge of Mitchell’s Plain, is a squatter community that is mainly Xhosa speaking.[19]

As Kholo reminded his audience, the clashes had dominated the news and one media outlet referred to it as “race war.” Worse, rumors and “fake news” about the violence abounded on social media.  Alarmingly, voice-notes containing racist messages circulated over WhatsApp in which coloureds denounced black Siqalo residents as criminals and opportunists. In one voice note, a male voice urged coloured Mitchell’s Plain residents to fight back against “the black people,” “crush” and “trample” them and encouraged others to spread this message to “every mosque, every church and every neighbour.”

Mitchell’s Plain residents weren’t shy to talk to local media. Kholo was especially taken by one clip which made the rounds on social media. In this, a black reporter from local network, ENCA, interviews a group of coloured women, whose heads are covered (“in doeks”). The women are joined by an older man from Mitchell’s Plain. The group is “visibly” angry.  The man speaks over the women and describes how his fellow Siqalo neighbours fear hard work and how “these people,” whom he identified as being from the neighboring Eastern Cape province were land invaders.” In this, he was merely repeating an offensive talking point by a local, white-led opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, which refers to black residents of the city as “refugees” and “immigrants.”

What struck Kholo, however, was that the old coloured man – “who incidentally looks like my father’s uncle” – framed his contempt for his black neighbors “within the language of Islam.” To the old man, Siqalo residents “don’t know how to lift themselves up by their bootstraps because they lack sabr [patience]” while he “because of his Islam, … managed to [work] his way out of poverty.” Even worse, the coloured women agreed with the man, by intermittently saying “Allahu Akbar!”

This led to a revelation for Kholo:

Two main things struck me as the elderly gentleman spoke. One, a personal musing, the other more an oblique political wondering. Firstly I wondered where this man – with whom I share a faith – would locate me [Kholo’s emphasis] within his overall worldview. Would my Islam exempt me from an indictment that references not only my character but also indeed my spiritual worth? Or would my blackness automatically discount my belonging to the Ummah? And therefore putting me out of reach of its benefits?

Which is how Kholo ends on a personal note:

I have a young son, whose very identity is located within all the strands of “blackness” and “colouredness” and “malayness” – that define and ill-define the Cape’s rich cultural milieu. But sometimes in a fit of South African fatalism, I often wonder when he’ll be called the K-word for the first time (and not necessarily by an Afriforum type [a white rightwing social movement] but by a member of his community) … And when those moments come, my hope is that perhaps by then we would have completely reimagined this notion [of] the Other – as especially it relates to determining the borders of blackness – whereby an older Harun [his son’s name] does not have to live in a world perennially plagued by angst and fatigue when it comes to race, being asked to pick ‘sides’ where there are essentially none.



[1] Gabeba Baderoon, 2011, “Islam”, in Encyclopedia of South Africa  (Lynne Rienner), 152.

[2] Nadia Davids, 2017, “We are all many things,”, 4 April  2017.

[3] Jonathan Faull, 2014, “The Renaissance of Rasool,” Mail and Guardian, 11 December.

[4] But for challenges to this view, see Tahir Fuzile Sitoto, 2018, “Scripting Black African Muslim Presence in South African Islam: A Quest for Self-understanding beyond the Moment of Conversation, Islam in Africa, 9: 163-178; and Rhea Rahman, 2021, “Racializing the Good Muslim: Muslim White Adjacency and Black Muslim Activism in South Africa,” Religious, 12, 58: 1-20.

[5] Nigel Worden, 2016, “Indian Ocean Slaves in Cape Town, 1695-1807,” Journal of Southern African Studies, 42, 3: 389-408. Quote at 403.

[6] John Edwin Mason, 1999, “Some Religion He Must Have”: Slaves, Sufism, and Conversion to Islam at the Cape,” SERSAS Fall Conference, Savannah, GA, October 15-16.

[7] Saarah Jappie, 2011, “From the Madrasah to the Museum: The Social Life of the “Kietaabs” of Cape Town,” History in Africa, 38: 369-399, 376.

[8] Gavin Lewis, 1987, Between the wire and the wall: A history of South African ‘Coloured’ politics (David Philip), 10

[9] cf. Farid Esack, 1988, “Three Islamic Strands in the South African Struggle for Justice,” Third World Quarterly, 10, 2: 473-498, at 474

[10] cf. Shamil Jeppie, 2001, “Re-classifications: Coloured, Malay, Muslim,” Coloured by History Shaped by Place(Kwela Books).

[11] Esack, 475

[12] Esack, 473

[13] Esack, 489

[14] See Suren Pillay, 2003, “Experts, Terrorists, Gangsters: Problematising Public Discourse on a Post-apartheid Showdown,” Shifting Selves: Post-Apartheid Essays on Mass Media, Culture and Identity (Kwela Books).

[15] Jeppie 81

[16] cf. Jappie 2011; Worden  2016

[17] Sitoto 2018

[18] Kholofelo Molewa, 2018, “Negotiating Otherness” Post-Tarawih Talk on Racism,” Claremont Main Road Mosque, 22 May.

[19] Sean Jacobs and Zachary Levenson, 2018, “The limits of coloured nationalism,” Mail and Guardian, 13 June.