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Radical or Reactionary: Islamic Resistance in Apartheid South Africa and Lessons for Interpreting the Arab Spring

[Mosque Scene. Painting by Conrad Nagel Doman Theys taken from] [Mosque Scene. Painting by Conrad Nagel Doman Theys taken from]

In a recent article posted on the website of the Muslim Judicial Council of South Africa, an observer of the recent Egyptian elections declared that, “Just as Mandela emerged from the dungeons of apartheid, so too have Morsi and thousands of his colleagues from Mubarak’s hideous torture cells.”[i] The significance of the events in Egypt, particularly the victory of one of the world’s most high-profile Islamic political parties, is no doubt a source of inspiration for many. Regardless of one’s opinions of religious politics, however, it is incumbent upon observers of the Middle East to pose critical questions to those who narrate the events of the region, particularly those who recycle old narratives of Islamic backwardness.  Indeed, as the South African case demonstrates, Islam in politics is neither a unitary phenomenon nor exclusively tied to political conflicts in one part of the world. It has been invoked by peoples in geographic locales as disparate as Cairo and Jakarta, but also in political situations as unique as those of apartheid South Africa and post-colonial Algeria.

In the midst of the current furor over the recent election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammed Morsi to the presidency of Egypt, a reflection on the nature of resistance and politics explicitly “Islamic” in nature is prescient. While scholars have combed over various Islamic political movements throughout the Islamic world, one community often overlooked are South African Muslims, whose struggle against apartheid merits consideration.  In fact, an examination of the multiple responses offered by the various South African Muslim communities towards the brutality of apartheid affirms what seemingly needs perpetual reaffirmation in contemporary conversations on the nature of religion and protest in the Muslim world. Namely, that Islam is not, nor has it ever been, a monolithic entity. Countries with diverse political histories like Tunisia, Turkey, Iran and now Egypt all have “Islamic” governments. Indeed, theologically distinct responses to the South African government blossomed in both Cape Town and in remote communities in the Transvaal of South Africa during the 1950s through the1990s, demonstrating that a unitary “Muslim” response to injustice never existed. After briefly outlining the historical origins of two major Muslim communities in South Africa — the Cape Muslims and the Indians of the Transvaal, I will examine how a study of the infamous Group Areas Act of the 1950s created different and divergent responses to apartheid amongst Muslims communities. The responses were both historically and theologically coherent to their respective communities, and the differences between them can provide a more comprehensive approach for discussing “Islamic” politics.

The Muslim Communities of South Africa

In 1652, Jan Van Riebeeck and the Dutch East India company established a settlement to supply ships plying the routes between Europe and Asia at what is today Cape Town. With the growth of this settlement the Dutch began bringing forced labor in from all parts of the Indian Ocean: Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique and the East Indies, among others. This racial amalgamation was to form the basis for what has become today’s Cape Colored Community, of whom many are Muslims.[ii] Religiously speaking, it was the influence of the Malay population — those from the East Indies — that brought Islam to the Cape.

The second category of Muslim immigrants were Indians who came to South Africa in the 1860s as indentured servants to work on sugar cane plantations in the British colonial province of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). Indian indentured servitude was not an unusual phenomenon in the British Empire, nor was it limited to southern/eastern Africa — it was practiced as far away as the West Indies and the Fiji Islands. About a decade later, a second wave of Indian migration from predominantly Muslim regions of the sub-continent arrived and penetrated conservative Afrikaner towns and isolated African communities in the interior province of the Transvaal.[iii] These Indians did not come as indentured servants, as their predecessors had, but rather as entrepreneurs who opened shops and other small businesses in rural communities. They also established many mosques throughout the rural interior of the country. Unlike the Cape, where imams operated almost autonomously and provided communal leadership, control of the Indian mosque resided in the hands of wealthy proprietors, not in those of the theological leaders. This basic difference in authority is crucial to understanding each community's response to apartheid.[iv]

Despite this difference, the fact remains that both communities suffered under racial segregation and apartheid and sought ways to reject, deflect and absorb the blows leveled at them by the apartheid state. Abdulkader Tayob argues that present day Muslim communities in South Africa are seeking to carve out a “heterotopic” space for themselves that allows a balance between their civil responsibilities to the state as well as their religious responsibilities to Islam. Likewise, during the apartheid years these communities had to find a way to operate against the state while at the same time remaining true to their theological convictions.[v] This tension existed within both the Cape Muslim and Indian Muslim communities and created multiple responses to the apartheid regime. Furthermore, the debate was not only limited to how best to react to apartheid, but also to what extent cooperation with their African compatriots (non-believers, for the most part) was of any value.

The Group Areas Act: A Comparative Analysis

In 1950, two years after the election of the National Party and the formal establishment of apartheid, a series of laws known collectively as the Group Areas Act (GAA) forced the relocation of millions of non-white South Africans into racially-specific ghettos. Passed only seven years before Ghana became Africa’s first independent state, it became a cornerstone of apartheid ideology in practice. The GAA decreed that people of different races were to be allocated separate and eventually semi-autonomous tracts of land on which to build new lives. It was one of the first steps in a regressive political process while the rest of the continent moved towards political independence. Muslim responses to this act, however, were diverse. The different historical trajectories of the Cape Muslim and Transvaal Indian communities resulted in markedly different responses to the GAA. Broadly speaking, the Cape Muslim community’s response could be considered “radical” while that of the Indian community “pragmatic.” That said, both communities’ reactions were products of deep historical roots and were therefore coherent to their respective constituents.

Throughout Muslim South Africa the figure of the imam and that of the Mosque governing committee have been important in the formation of religious and political discourse.  In the Cape, the imam has always been the central figure in the Muslim community. Tayob contends that this position enjoyed “absolute authority in the mosque through the normal ritual and educational programs.”[vi] It comes as no surprise then that political jostling for leadership of mosques in the Cape has not been uncommon. This instability often splintered Cape Muslim communities, in which social and political allegiances were tied to local imams. With the passing of the Group Areas Act, however, the relationships the imams had formed with their followers were destroyed. The new geographic and demographic realities of separate development left local imams with considerably less influence than they had previously enjoyed. In an attempt to reassert their authority (and mitigate the influence of the mosque trustee boards), the imams went to work reestablishing themselves as educators and religious authorities in their new surroundings.

Contrary to the Cape, mosque trustee committees directed the political and theological positions of the local Muslim community in the Transvaal. These directing boards, known as jamat committees, were formed of Indian merchants who came to the Transvaal in the second wave of Indian migration in the late 1860s. It is important to acknowledge that this organizational difference between the Transvaal and the Cape was both historically constructed and of paramount importance in understanding each community’s reaction to apartheid, and in particular the Group Areas Act.

The merchants and traders who established these mosques were, for the most part, the wealthiest members of their respective communities and therefore exerted substantial financial control over the mosques through the allocation of funds and donations via jamat committees. As such, the local imam’s decision-making capacity and theological acumen carried much less weight in this part of the country than in the Cape. Furthermore, because these trader elites had penetrated the local economies through the establishment of successful, Indian-run businesses, they had formed a business relationship with white South Africans in the area. Having found their niche in the community, the increasingly restrictive laws of apartheid were not met with anger and radicalization, as they were in the Cape, but rather with pragmatic accommodation and strategic concessions. Religiously speaking, Transvaal Muslims did not adopt a theology of resistance, but rather turned inwards to orthodoxy.

When the Group Areas Act fully came into effect in the mid-1960s in the Transvaal, the initial reaction of the Indian Muslim community was to appeal to shared religious and political values with their white neighbors. As such, the Muslim community adopted a language of anti-communism in the hopes that their political and religious conservatism would resonate with similar opinions in the hearts and minds of the white population.[vii] The apartheid government, unconvinced by their appeal, remained intransigent and went ahead with the forced removals and separate development agenda. The jamat communities then turned to the courts to address their grievances and won, perhaps surprisingly, building permits for mosques in white areas. Thus, the Indian Muslim community was forced to move to townships, while their places of worship remained in white-only areas. 

Theologically speaking, the Indian Muslim communities turned to orthodoxy during the years of apartheid. For centuries, the Cape Muslim and Indian Muslim communities had generally directed their attentions for religious guidance and inspiration to different parts of the Muslim world:  Cape Muslims to the Middle East and the Indians to the subcontinent. These connections became even more formidable when many imams who were brought to the Transvaal from small villages in India.[viii] This ensured the continuation of many Indian religious traditions, a separation from the rest of the non-white South African community, and, perhaps most importantly, political subservience to the men who brought them over — members of the jamat committees. One tradition of particular importance brought from India was the Deobandi school of Islam that was articulated through the Tablighi Jama and Jamiatul Ulama religious movements. These two movements preached a return to the lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad in the modern world, in as much as that was possible, and encouraged South African children to pursue their religious studies in India or Pakistan.

The “purity” preached by expatriated Muslims from the subcontinent was pursued in many different ways. In some instances textbooks were edited to conform to the “new orthodoxy” of these movements. In others, popular celebrations were severely curtailed in the name of scriptural purity. At the end of Ramadan, for example, many in the Transvaal Muslim community would celebrate “Big Nights,” when the community would come together to celebrate the end of the month of fasting. The Jamiatul Ulama, in particular, pushed for the abolition of this tradition by arguing that it injected “nontextual practices into the society.”[ix] However conservative their religious tendencies might have been, their relationship with the state was all but nonexistent. Tayob characterizes the Deobandi approach as one that regarded the state with a degree of “aloofness,” but steered clear of being in direct opposition to its policies. Deobandism espoused obedience to the merchant class “as opposed to subservience under political rulers.”[x] The Transvaal Muslim community simply did not have the intellectual maneuvering space to pose a political challenge to apartheid. Class divisions between the jamat and community members became entrenched through deobandism, allowing the conservative merchant class to dictate relations with the state. A direct critique of apartheid was, in effect, an act of insubordination against the merchant class, and in particular the jamat committees.

The history of the Cape Muslims and that of the Indians in the Transvaal reflects not only the diversity of thought within the South African Muslim community but also to the historical nature of Islamic thought in South Africa. Because narratives of the past had informed each community’s reaction to apartheid, we can argue that neither Islam nor any other religious tradition exists outside of history. While theology was certainly central to articulating a response to apartheid, the way that theology was shaped was through an understanding of religious texts that was contingent on narratives of the past and the immediate needs of the present. This lesson is an important one when confronting the “Arab Spring” and current political developments in the Middle East. Commentary from American media outlets and regional observers tend to degenerate into primordialist histrionics, with little regard to the historical evolution of religious practice, political participation, and foreign intervention. Historical memory and the marshalling of it, therefore, should be incorporated into contemporary analysis of Islamic politics in the Middle East. Just as South African Muslims wielded theology in a historically and contextually coherent manner, some Egyptians and Tunisians have turned towards religious politics that not only speak to the needs of the present but also reinvigorate conversations with their own past. Both Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood hold a priveleged position when juxtaposed against the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes. All said, if we affirm that people are neither prisoners of their past nor solely creatures of the present, perhaps we can come to a more nuanced understanding of contemporary politics.



[ii] It is worth noting, however, that contemporary scholarship has taken issue with the notion of a separate “Colored” people, claiming it is a category created and deployed by successive racialist governments in South Africa and reified through its continued usage. For an explanation of these debates see: Adhikari, Mohamed. Not White Enough, Not Black Enough: Racial Identity in the South African Coloured Community. (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005.) (

[iii] Of the two Afrikaner Republics, Indians were only permitted to settle in the Transvaal. The Orange Free state had forbidden the immigration of Indians into their territory. Mandivenga, “The Cape Muslims and the Indian Muslims of South Africa: A Comparative Analysis,” p. 3. (

[iv] Dharampal tells us that the Indian population in South Africa (Hindu and Muslim alike) grew tremendously in the 19th century. By 1892 Indians in Durban had exceeded the population of English in the same city. This massive influx was a source of concern for local English who decried that Indians were “taking away the jobs and economic opportunities available to natives.” Dharampal. “South African Indians, India and ‘New’ South Africa.” Economic and Political Weekly. Vol. 27. Oct, 1992. P 2357 (

[v] Abdelkader Tayoub. “Islam and Democracy in South Africa.”

[vi] Abdeulkader Tayob, Islam in South Africa: Mosques, Imams, and Sermons. (Gainsville, USA: University of Florida Press, 1999) p. 44 (

[vii] Ibid p.66.

[viii] Ibid p.70.

[ix] Ibid p.73.

[x] Ibid p.71.


Syrian Population Regression

Population: ~ 17,583,863 (2017 est.)

2011:  5,800+ (killed)

2012:  60,000+ (killed) and 500,000+ (external refugees), 3+ million (internally displaced)

2013:  100,000+ (killed), 2,000,000+ (external refugees), and 8 million+ (internally displaced)

2014: 200,000+ (killed), 3.5+ million (external refugees), 7.6+ million (internally displaced)

2015: 250,000+ (killed), 4.4 million (external refugees), 6.6+ million (internally displaced)

2016: 400,000+ (killed), 4.9+ million (external refugees), 6.3+ million (internally displaced)


Syria Map and Stats

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Population: 17,185,170 (July 2016 est.)
GDP: $24.6 billion (2014 est.); $50.28 billion purchasing power parity (2015 est.)
Unemployment: 50% (2016 est.); Youth Unemployment (ages 15-24): total: 35.8% (male: 26.6%; female: 71.1% [2011 est.])
Internet Users: 5.116 million - 30%/pop. (July 2015 est.)
Exchange Rate: ~ 497.8 Syrian pounds per US dollar (2016 est.)
GDP Growth Rate: -9.9% (2015 est.)
Military Expenditures: 5.9% of GDP (World Rank: 10) (2011 est.)
Health Expenditures: 2.9% of GDP (World Rank: 180) (2011 est.)
Population Growth Rate: 1.56% (2016 est.)
Age Structure: 0-14 years: 31.95% (male 2,815,140/female 2,675,166); 15-24 years: 19.65% (male 1,711,847/female 1,664,814); 25-54 years: 39.03% (male 3,342,264/female 3,364,406); 55-64 years: 5.26% (male 447,205/female 457,525); 65 years and over: 4.11% (male 318,691/female 388,112) (2016 est.)
Literacy: 86.4% (male: 91.7%; female: 81% [2015 est.])
Religious Demographics: Sunni Muslim 74%; other Muslim (includes Alawite, Druze) 16%; Christian (various denominations) 10%
Ethnic Demographics: Arab 90.3%, Kurds, Armenians, and other 9.7%