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Conflict of Identities:

The Case of South Africa’s Cape Malays[1]

 

Muhammed Haron

Department of Theology and Religious Studies,

University of Botswana

 

0. Introduction:

 

Nineteen Ninety Four was indeed an eventful year for South Africans in general and for the South African Muslims in particular. During the early part of April 1994 the Muslims celebrated the tercentenery of Islam in South Africa, and towards the end of that month they went to the polls along with all the other South African citizens to participate in South Africa's first democratic elections. It was thus a memorable experience for the Muslim community who joyfully expressed their national and religious identity respectively.

 

The South African Muslim community, particularly those who hailed from the province of the Western Cape, has always raised the question of identity. During the years of apartheid and before, the vast majority of them never identified themselves as South Africans since they rejected the legislated racial policies of the White minority regime. The Population Registration Act no.30 of 1950 divided the South Africans into four distinct categories, namely Whites, Indians, Africans, and Coloureds[2]; it defined the latter as ‘not a white person or a native’. The Coloured group was further sub-divided into 'Cape Malay,' Other Coloureds, Khoisan,[3] Bastards et al. Most of Western Cape's Muslims were thus placed into the 'Cape Malay' category; and the term remained employable by those who trekked to other parts (eg. Mafeking, Kimberley, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Johannesburg) of the country as well as to the neighbouring states (Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia). 

 

This paper revisits the question of identity by examining the texts that specifically deal with this community. It then proposes a few thoughts on how to mediate between the use of these identities without having to reject the one for the other; bearing in mind that the conflict of identities remain problematic without a satisfactory solution insight.

 

1. The Identity Revisited:

 

The question of identity is ambiguous because it implies both uniqueness and sameness. This question has been raised by majority and minority communities; the latter have always grappled with the concept because in South Africa they formed part of the marginalized sectors of the community, oppressed masses and neglected groups[4]. Erasmus pointed out that the “Coloured identity has never been seen as an identity ‘in its own right’” because it has been negatively defined and did fit the classificatory schemes created by the apartheid statisticians and politicians; it was viewed in terms of ‘excess’, ‘lack’ and ‘remainder’[5]. The negative connotations of these terms have thus been inherited also by the sub-categories of people such as the ‘Cape Malays.’ However, there were occasions in the 19th and 20th centuries when they were described and regarded as respectable persons who did not drink and were hardworking and reliable; they were thus different from the other ‘Coloured’ groups and seem to have maintained those distinctions mainly because of their religious and cultural traditions. In fact, during the difficult decades of the 1970s and 1980s the ‘Coloureds’ and their sub-categories appended ‘so-called’ to their ethnic identities that clearly reflected that the communities had been experiencing an identity crisis amidst a continuous traumatic socio-political and economic crisis. It was particularly during these critical times that the younger generation of ‘Cape Malays’ chose to employ the religious label instead of the ethnic one; they thus preferred to be called South African Muslims instead of South African Cape Malays.

 

Taking the mentioned points into consideration, it is not surprising to observe that amongst researchers there have been those such as Achmat Davids (d.2000) who expediently moved between the two identities; for example in the 1980s he strongly identified with the religious label for local political reasons. He however consciously switched to using the ethnic identity in the 1990s when the community began to make close cultural contacts with the Southeast Asians. Prior to him there was Dr. I.D. Du Plessies, the Afrikaner scholar who was the subject of Shamil Jeppie’s mini-thesis, who constructed and made a strong case for the use of this ethnic label.

 

In order to have an understanding of the emergence and use of the term it will be appropriate to summarise a few of the writings which concentrated its research on this community; these will give one an idea of the discourse’ nature of identity in Cape Town during the past two to three decades. Although this paper begins with the research by Robert Shell, there were earlier scholars[6] who appropriated the term without at any stage interrogating it. For the purposes of this paper the writings of a select group of researchers will be scrutinized.

 

2. The Researchers and the Concept:

 

In 1974 Robert C-H Shell completed his honours thesis at the University of Cape Town. He critically assessed The establishment and spread of Islam at the Cape from the beginning of Company rule to 1838. In this well researched project he chose to use the regional-religious term 'Cape Muslims' for many of those who came from the east. He argued that the term 'indonesian' would have been a fairly accurate term to use in order to describe them. Shell[7] pointed out that the Cape Muslims came to be called 'Cape Malay' not for ethnic reasons but for linguistic ones since Malay was the lingua franca of the Indonesian archipelago and was widely spoken at the Cape during and prior to the 19th century. 

 

Not long after the earlier mentioned research M.G.Harris, a Cape Town born researcher, completed a masters thesis at Western Washington State College in Canada during 1977. His thesis was titled British policy towards the Malays at the Cape of Good Hope, 1795-1850. Dipping into his first chapter one immediately observed that he chose not to define the term, and it may be deduced that he was amongst those emerging researchers who did not bother to investigate its origins and rationale for its use. In fact, it might not be incorrect to posit the view that Harris preferred to use the term because it suited him and those of his generation. However this was not the case, when Harris's thesis is compared to M.A. Rafudeen's Government Perceptions of Cape Muslim Exiles: 1652-1806, a thesis completed in 1995 at the University of Cape Town. Rafudeen consciously chose not to use 'Cape Malay,' and in his introductory chapter he assessed the prevailing literature in order to locate the Muslim identity.

 

A seasoned researcher, Dr. Frank Bradlow, who published his research entitled ‘The origin of the early Cape Muslims’ alongside Margaret Cairns’s research in 1978, also opted for the term ‘Cape Muslims;’ this is evident from the title of his article. Herein he demonstrated via fascinating statistical data the diverse origins of the slaves and free blacks, and proved that 51,36% hailed from India and only 44,38% came from the Indonesian Archipelago. He then briefly examined the reason why they were referred to as 'Malays.' He did so by studying the writings of earlier travellers such as Mrs. Kindersley and Isabella Bird. Bradlow, like Dr. Robert Shell, concluded that the term was used because many of the Cape Muslims spoke the Malay language.

 

This very argument has however been used by the cultural societies - in favour of the term ‘Cape Malays’ - as clear proof that ‘the Malays’ were the dominant group and that the research completed by Bradlow has to be revisited. They raised the question that if the majority of Muslims came from the areas other than the Indonesian Archipelago then what were the reasons that caused the ‘Malay’ language to become widespread amongst the rest of the community, and why did those who originated from other parts prefer the use of Malay instead of the languages spoken by the colonialists? These and other related questions remained unanswered because of a lack of primary and secondary research by contemporary scholars.

 

Bradlow and Cairns’s joint research was followed by Achmat Davids’[8], a social worker by profession but widely known as a social historian and a radio presenter, The Mosques of the Bo-Kaap: A Social History of Islam at the Cape. He[9] categorically stated that the term 'Cape Malay'[10] was unacceptable, and that it teems with racial prejudice. Davids' statement was made at the time when the general Muslim populace sympathised and supported the internal and external liberation movements against apartheid. And in the socio-political context of the time the oppressed masses rejected all the ethnic labels imposed by the state; for example, when someone was labelled 'Coloured' the word 'so-called' was added in order to reflect speaker's rejection of the ethnic/racial term, and the adherents of the Islamic tradition preferred being called Muslims instead of 'Cape Malays.' It is however ironic that Davids proposed the term Cape Muslims because when the Malaysians and Indonesians forged commercial and cultural contacts with South Africa even before it became a democratic state, he made a round-about turn by donning the Malay headgear and tacitly accepting the term ‘Cape Malay’ and using it interchangeably with the term ‘Cape Muslim.’[11]

 

The question of identity was, however, addressed in some detail by Ismoeni Taliep, the current principal of Cape Town’s Trafalgar Senior Secondary. He addressed this issue in his 1982 honours research project entitled: Coloured or Muslim?: Aspects of the political dilemma of the Cape Muslims, 1925-1956. The project was completed at the University of Cape Town. In his introductory chapter he analysed the political dilemma of the Cape Muslims, a handful of whom argued - in the early part of the 20th century - for an exclusive ethnic identity which would set them apart from the Coloureds. He made reference to the Cape Malay Association (hereafter CMA est. 1923) who believed that the 'Cape Malays' were socially and religiously superior to the other non-Whites, and thus requested that the then government grant them more rights and privileges. Taliep's first chapter addressed the question of 'Malayism' head on, and went on to describe and discuss this phenomenon; he recorded how it emerged and declined (circa 1920s-1950s). He[12] held the view that the establishment of the CMA heralded the birth of 'Malayism' as an ideology, and that they saw themselves as a distinct cultural and racial group; and by then the terms 'Malay' and 'Muslim' had become synonymous. Further in the thesis Taliep reflected upon the continuous conflict between those who were in favour of the term and those who opposed it.

 

In 1983 Anne Lyon, a National University of Australia post-graduate student, came to Cape Town to study the 'Cape Malays.' She titled her thesis: Cape Malays /Cape Muslims: A Question of Identity. Lyon, basing herself on earlier theoretical studies, tackled this vexed question by analysing four approaches. The first operates within an emic framework which views identity from within the group itself; the second emphasizes an etic definition as it is defined by outsiders; the third focuses upon the expressive nature of the ethnic identity's symbols; and the fourth analyses the interrelationship between groups. Her study revealed that the 'Cape Malay' identity present several parallels and contrasts to that of Malay identity studied elsewhere. Although she acknowledged that Islam played a pivotal role in shaping their identity, she seemed to prefer the ethnic identity instead of the religious one. She however pointed out in her conclusion that they do not see themselves exclusively in racial terms.

 

Subsequent to this post-graduate thesis another was in the making, namely Muhammad Shamil Jeppie's Historical Process and the Constitution of Subjects: I.D. Du Plessis and the Reinvention of the 'Malay.' This thesis was completed in the Centre of African Studies at UCT during the early part of 1987[13]. At a very crucial period in Cape Town's socio-political history this seminal study critically evaluated Dr. I.D. du Plessis' works and activities since the 1930s until the 1960s. He concretely demonstrated the diabolical role Du Plessis played as researcher, academic and administrator in not only reinventing but also in reinforcing this identity as a natural consequence of the political developments within the country. Jeppie discussed in chapter two Du Plessis' ethnic model, and in the following two chapters illustrated how Du Plessis went about reinventing this identity, and how he created bodies such as the Cape Malay Choir Board (est. 1939) to further his vision. In addition to this he also proposed a special Institute for Malay Studies at UCT and a Museum; for the latter proposal he was enthusiastically supported by The Quarterly Bulletin of the South African Library’s editor, namely Mr. Kennedy[14]. Jeppie[15] belonged to the younger generation of Cape Town based Muslim scholars who very strongly disarticulated the ‘Malay’ subject and very firmly rearticulated the ‘Muslim’ subject. In his article entitled ‘Commemorations and Identities: The 1994 Tercentenary of Islam in South Africa’, which explored the politics of the festival, he[16] concluded that “If representatives of the new-found (re-newed?) 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.”[17] This strongly worded concluding remarks cautioned all those groups such as the ‘Forum for Malay Culture in South Africa, to thread carefully and sensitively in the terrain of ethnic identities.

 

Mohamed Adhikari, a University of Cape Town historian, presented in a 1989 history workshop his preliminary findings of ‘Identity and Assimilation in the Malay community of 19th century Cape Town’. Adhikari's research explained why 'Malays' came to be subsumed under the broader Coloured identity, and why, unlike the Khoisan, retained a separate identity within the umbrella of group consciousness. He[18] argued that the 'Malay' identity emerged after Emancipation and was to a significant extent a consequence of the abolition of slavery. He[19] posited a very important point and that is that 'Malay' identity was an open identity in that group membership was in no sense ascriptive; and he further argued that those from diverse cultural and racial categories, who embraced Islam at the Cape, identified with the 'Malay' community. Towards the tail end of his paper he[20] mentioned that the 'Malay' group identity was reinforced by the attitudes and behaviour of the rest of the society which was predominantly Christian.

 

Since Adhikari's research no other work of note appeared on this subject except those that analysed the 1994 tercentenary of Islam in South Africa. Apart from Jeppie's article, there is also the research paper of Kerry Ward; her paper was titled The Sheikh Yusuf Tricentenary Commemoration in the Re-imagining of the Cape Muslim Community. [21]She examined the commemoration's contribution to the understanding of the processes of social transformation taking place in South African society. She made use of the discourses and debates around 'invented traditions' and 'imagined communities' to explore the commemoration and argued that this development reveals the complexities in shaping notions of individual and collective identity. She asserted that the resurgence of 'Malay ethnicity' in the post-1990 era is an indication of the fragmentation of political identities in the aftermath of ANC's unbanning and the diffusion of the struggle against the apartheid state. She added that a new vision of the community's history has also been central to the revitalization of ethnicity, a vision which coincided with the debates regarding this identity in the Southeast Asian region. The rest of the paper assessed the meaning of the 1994 tercentenary through an examination of its organization and events such as the exhibition of artefacts in the Cape Town Castle.

 

 

 

3. Closing Remarks:

 

The writings, which were examined, covered various aspects of the imagined 'Cape Malay' community in South Africa. The publications and theses demonstrated to what extent the researchers and community grappled with the problem of identity. As yet no comprehensive text is available which provide a detailed and conclusive study of this community. There are however numerous methods to undertake such a project. The first would be archival research; thus far too few individuals have done archival research. And as far as is known, only one person has done a tremendous amount of research in this arena but has not been able to publish his work due to his own circumstances; he is Mr. Ebrahim Salie who was a former history teacher at Spes Bona High school. Another interesting area of research would be to study the genealogies of as many individuals and families as possible; this would provide concrete proof regarding their origins and background. If this is undertaken it will help to put to rest many of the speculative thoughts regarding this under-researched area, and it will also minimise the crisis of identity experienced by the community. The social history of the communities who migrated from Cape Town to other cities such as Port Elizabeth, East London, Kimberley, Mafeking, Johannesburg and Durban must also be explored. In fact, little or no research has been done on these communities which shows that there has been a lack of interest or an absence of funding to pursue this and the other mentioned projects.

 

The mentioned areas may still be regarded as virgin territory. Since the community reflected very little concern by not making funds available or establishing funding institutions for this purpose or obtaining money from the National Research Foundation in South Africa, there is another method which might yield the necessary results. This has to do with collaborative research[22] between specialist scholars in Southeast Asia and South Africa respectively. For example, collaborative genealogical research can be done, and archival research pertaining to the respective communities early social histories can be undertaken as initial projects. From this they can expand and chart out other areas of research. The objective should be to basically reveal how the communities were connected, and to what extent is the present community justified in their use of the term ‘Cape Malay’ in South Africa.

 

In conclusion, a close study of the Cape Muslim community will indicate that the 'Cape Malay' identity continues to be a contested terrain; a terrain where there are a fair number of voices in support of and against it. Since the re-connection between Southeast Asian and the Cape Muslims took place via a seminar, which was held in April 1993 at the University of the Western Cape, which addressed the 'Evolving Muslim Identity at the Cape,' there has been a flurry of activities between the two regions. This has resulted in the emergence of the Cape Malay Chamber of Commerce, the South African Malay Cultural Society, and the Forum for Malay Culture in South Africa. Each of these groups have defended their use of the term 'Malay' and have vied to attract moral and economic support from within the South African government's Department of Arts, Culture and Technology as well as assistance from similar departments in the Southeast Asian region[23]. The Forum in fact also organized a mini-conference to which a number of Southeast Asians were invited; this effort was not well supported by the community because of internal (ongoing) community politics. Finally, one only hopes that more substantial research is undertaken to reveal the ‘true’ history so that it can form part of the current SA History project, and more importantly so that the conflict of identity can be minimised and not necessarily phased out as some scholars might wish; after all these scholars are aware that ‘the question of identity’ remains a contested terrain where one will continue to find ardent supporters and detractors in both ‘kampongs’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1]  This paper was presented at the MALAY WORLD CONFERENCE KUALA LUMPUR 12-14 October 200. Consult Haron’s “The Cape Malays: An Imagined Community in South Africa – A Bibliographical Essay” in Africa Records and Documentation (forthcoming, UK-2001); and also Haron’s Muslims of South Africa: An Annotated Bibliography  (Cape Town:  South African Library, 1997) for more bibliographical data on this community.

 

[2]  Refer to Richard van der Ross's The Rise and Decline of Apartheid: A Study of Political Movement among the Coloured People of South Africa, 1880-1985. (Cape Town: Tafelberg. 1986); Gavin Lewis's Between the Wire and the Wall: A History of South Africa's Coloured Politics. (Cape Town: David Philip. 1987); R. H. Du Pre’s Separate but Unequal: The Coloured People of South Africa – A Political History.  (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1994); and Wilmot James et al’s Now that we are free: Coloured Communities in a Democratic South Africa. (Boulder: Lynne Reinnier and Cape Town: IDASA, 1996). Zimitri Erasmus’s Coloured by History Shaped by Place: New Perspectives on Coloured Identities in Cape Town. (Cape Town: Kwela Publishers & SA History online, 2001).

 

[3] A very recent development amongst the San community is that they object to be lumped together with the Khoi because they consider themselves to be different in many ways. See Mail & Guardian April 2001. This protest took place after the Khoisan Council of South Africa held its meeting to discuss the future of this distinct cultural group.

[4] Refer to Alfonso G. Dagron’s work which dealt in brief with this issue in his Making Waves: Stories of participatory communication for social change. (New York: Rockefeller Foundation, 2001); p.34.

 

[5] Zimitri Erasmus’s Coloured by History, Shaped by Place: New Perspectives on Coloured Identities in Cape Town (Cape Town: Kwela and SA History Online, 2001), pp.17-19.

 

[6] These scholars’ works, listed in Haron’s bibliography, may be visited to analyse how the term has been used. As far as this researcher is concerned not much was debated during the 18th and 19th centuries; however, the changing social-political circumstances in the early 20th century caused individuals and groups to question the validity of the term. The Cape Malay Association of the 1910’s and 1920’s, for example, was very comfortable in using the term for its own objectives; in fact, the CMA sought political favours from the then South African government in the 1920s.

 

[7] See his thesis p.40.

[8] Davids passed away in the year 1998 whilst working for the Cape Town Muslim community radio station, Voice of the Cape.  He was the prime planner behind the tercentenary which took place in April 1994 and was also honoured by one of the universities in Indonesia for his efforts in researching the early history of the Cape with his focus on those who came from the Indonesian archipelago. Consult Jeppie’s obituary of Davids in Journal for Islamic Studies 1998/9 (Cape Town: Centre for Contemporary Islam, University of Cape Town) as well as Haron’s list of Davids’ publication in the same issue. An interesting obituary also appeared in the quarterly Boorhanul Islam Magazine during the latter half of 1999.

 

[9] Refer to his book p.12.

 

[10] It may be argued that Bradlow was very much aware of the socio-political changes in the Muslim heartlands and the impact these had had on Muslim minorities and he thus thought it wise to use the religious term instead of the ethnic term.

 

[11] He was however not the only one do so. There were other prominent individuals whose origins are from Turkey but who seem to find it appropriate to use the term and don the Southeast Asian outfit.

 

[12] Consult his thesis p.33.

 

[13] A summarised version of this thesis now appears in his article entitled “Reclassification: Coloured, Malay, Muslims” in Chapter 4 pp.80-96 of Erasmus’s earlier mentioned 2001 publication.

 

[14] Consult the editorial of the first quarter 1944 issue of the bulletin.

 

[15] He completed his doctorate at Princeton University and spent a while at Oxford University to revise his thesis for publication.

 

[16] Refer to his article in Sonn’s edited work; p.76.

 

[17] Refer to M.S. Jeppie's "Commemorations and Identities: The 1994 Centenery of Islam in South Africa." In The Question of Muslim Minorities [ed. Tamara Sonn]. Ch. 4. pp.72-91. Atlanta: Scholars Press. 1996; and K. Ward's "The Sheikh Yusuf Tricentenery Commemoration...." in the bibliographical section of this essay.

 

[18] See his unpublished 1989 research project in the African Studies library at UCT; p.3.

 

[19] Ibid p.5.

 

[20] Ibid p.25.

 

[21] She first presented her paper at a 1995 History workshop and later revised the paper which was published UCT’s Social Dynamics (1998).

[22] Mention has to be made of the fact that Southeast Asian scholars have been coming irregularly to the Cape to undertake research; these were however not of a collaborative nature. For example, Ms. Munazzah Zakariyyah from the National Library of Malaysia came to South Africa to collect information on Malay Manuscripts; she subsequently wrote an article entitled “Pengesanan Manuskrip Melayu di Afrika Selatan: Satu Catatan Ringkas” in Jurnal Filologi Melayu (5:111-118, 1996) and then completed Katalog Manuskrip Melayu di Afrika Selatan  (Kuala Lumpur: Perpustakan Negara Malaysia, 1998). Then there was also Associate Professor AB Aziz Mohd Zin from the Islamic Academy attached to the University of Malaya who did field work research in Cape Town; he was then associated with the (now defunct) Department of Arabic Studies at the University of the Western Cape. He undertook a general study on the Cape Muslims and their organizations, and assessed their juridical and theological practices. His first article entitled “Perkembangan Dakwah di Cape Town, Afrikan Selatan dan Survivalnya Masakini” appeared in Jurnal Usuluddin (9:153-168, July 1999), and the second in the subsequent issue. Apart from these two scholars there were others who were connected to ATMA at the National University of Malaysia (UKM) who also conducted research pertaining to the Cape Malays of South Africa; these – as far as is known – are still incomplete.

[23] During June of 2001 Mr. Hashim Salie brought an entourage on tour to Malaysia. Unfortunately, oral sources indicated that the tour was far from successful. Prior to this others also conducted similar tours to Malaysia.