Dr Zuleikha Mayat (94): ‘Live every moment, love all humanity, stay true’

Dr Mayat has lived far beyond her ‘Indian Delights fame. She plans to launch her latest book, Odyssey of Crossing Oceans, after the lockdown. This is part 2 of a radio interview with her son, Aslam Mayat and daughter-in-law, Shameema.

Shameema: Tell us about Women’s Cultural Group.

Zuleikha: Very early on, the Women’s Cultural Group, although comprised largely of Muslim ladies, had all races and religions. Hindus, Parsees, Christians, Africans and Whites. Sadly these days it is only Muslims. Over the years we at the WCG have done many things. Mushiras from overseas Maharul Qadri and of course my mentorsFarooqi Mehtar and Safee Siddiqiunder whose guidance I wrote urdu poetry under the pen name Fehmida. There were alsoFashion showswhich led to my book Nanima’s Chest, which was a collection of the dresses and textiles of the community, lost lying unused in cupboards. The book intended to preserve and record these fabulous garments, and to popularise it so that our younger girls took pride in wearing them. These days the Arab black abaya is popular, or Western garments at weddings, and our Indian garments and shawls are again fading away. There were several fund-raising dinners, one of which was a dinner to raise funds for the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation with Leila Khaled as the main speaker. At this function we honoured the wives of our MK operatives. WCG made written representation to the Law Commission on MPL and was admitted as a friend at the Constitutional Court.

Aslam: Professors’ Weitzen & Goolam Vahed wrote a book commissioned by the Human Sciences Research Council on the then 55 year rich and varied history of Women’s Cultural Group.

Shameema: You and husband Mohammed (doctor) stayed a year in London.

Zuleikha: Because of apartheid Mahomed could not specialise in SA so we left our three little kids with my sisters in law. Mahomed specialised in gynae and obstetrics. Whilst there I did courses in journalism and Islamic Studies at University of London.

Aslam: At the airport in Nigeria you had an interesting experience.

Zuleikha: My husband had a zest for life and dragged me into his escapades. Nigeria had newly got independence so we wanted to visit. Because of apartheid, South Africans could not get visas to African countries. Mahomed tried his luck at the airport whilst we were in transit. The officials would not budge. He said he was going to the toilet. After half an hour the officials became concerned, then alarmed, and then threatened to lock me up, even though I was genuinely worried at his disappearance. In the meantime, he had sneaked into an office, took out a telephone directory and randomly phoned Ministers of Govt. He explained to the first one he got that we were blacks under the yoke of apartheid, that we were proud of their independence and wanted to visit a free African country. Eventually Mahomed smilingly returned and told the officials to call the Minister. As soon as they did, their entire demeanour changed from outright hostility, to fawning servility. Was I furious when we got to a hotel room! But that daring charm was par for the course during our wonderful marriage. And I could never be mad for long.

Aslam: You and your husband were denied passports, but allowed out to attend medical conferences, which was grudgingly given to avoid international repercussions.

Zuleikha: Yes, we repeatedly used that excuse to visit far-flung countries like Russia and Japan. Those travels with Mahomed culminated in the book Binte Batuti.

Aslam: Which when translated from Arabic) means’ daughter of Ibn Batuta’, the traveller greater than Marco Polo. Your political involvement was peripheral?

Zuleikha: In the early years WCG did not get involved in politics, but I did in my personal capacity. I worked with Black Sash. Mary Grice was a member of WCG and Black Sash. Mahomed delivered the children of Prince Buthelezi. Whenever he visited we could not stop our Alsatian from barking. (Aslam – We have a message from Prince Buthelezi and I quote) “In those days black people were not allowed to stay at hotels in South Africa. I remember the number of happy occasions that my wife Irene and I stayed over at their home to enjoy the hospitality of our friends Zuleikha and Mahomed.”) Ismail & Fatima Meerwere our close friends, and my mentors. If Fatima knew you, she would drag you into her affairs. And so it was with me. The Meers were under surveillance and needed safe houses. As a result Mandela slept overnight a few times at our home. Mahomed would pick him up and drop Nelson off in the morning at a nearby garage. When Mosie Moola escaped from prison, our home was raided in the wee hours, but luckily only our family was at home. Black Ladies Federation with Fatima Meer and Winnie Mandela. Fatima Meer and I were on the parents committee during the UDW student boycott. The students were led by ex Constitutional Judge Zak Yacoob.

Aslam: Betty Shabbazz, better known as Mrs Malcolm X visited our home. You took food for detainee students.

Zuleikha: It was not permitted, but I insisted saying that as a Muslim I was not permitted to eat if my fellow Muslims were hungry. Because it was Ramzaan, the commandant relented. With the food I packed Quranic Lights book for each. The Afrikaaner commandant said literature was not allowed, and what use is this Bible because they are all Communists. I sweetly replied all the more reason they need to read it. This is how the students got the iftaar meal and Quranic Lights, a compilation of verses from the Quran with English translation. It was published before our youngsters in the Muslim community had become as conscious of their deen.

Shameema: Talking of prisons you visited Robben Island and was a friend of Kathy (Ahmed Kathrada).

Zuleikha: Shameema, I visited Robben Island with you and Aslam to attend the world launch of the Free Marwan Barghouti and all political prisoners by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. My friendship with Ahmed Kathrada began when he wrote a letter to my brother Abdul Haq to pay condolences on the death of his friend Mahomed. My brother lived in Canada and my mother said that I must respond. That began a 10-year correspondence. When Professors Weitzen & Goolam Vahedstumbled on the letters during their study of WCG they insisted that these letters be published and they compiled the book Dear Zuleikhabhen, Dear Ahmedbhai”. My letters were the uncensored ones I wrote and Kathy’s were the censored ones that came to me. I first met Kathy with Aslam in Victor Verster prison.

Aslam: Tell us about the death of your husband.

Zuleikha: My husband attended a synthesis meeting with the likes of van Zyl Slabbert. These talks eventually led to the progressive Whites reaching out to ANC culminating in the famous meeting in Zambia with the exiled ANC delegation of Tambo, Mbeki, Hani, Mac Maharaj and Pallo Jordan. After the conference we drove to Potch with my sister Bibi and my niece to meet my brother Abdul Haq down from Canada. On the way a drunk driver drove into us. Mahomed and Bibi died and my niece and I survived with broken hips and leg. Mahomed was fair with green eyes and looked European. The ambulance driver wanted to take us to the nearest white hospital because Mahomed was dying of loss of blood. But when he reported that there was a coolie maisie, he was ordered to take us to the much further black Leratong Hospital. Your father, who dedicated his life to saving others, did not survive the journey.

Shameema: Has your activism stopped post apartheid and in old age?

Zuleikha: I have been involved in Palestinian protests with Ela Gandhi, Paddy Kearney, Fawzia Peer, Logie Naidooand others. WCG partnered with the Palestine walk For Freedomat Kings Park Stadium. WCG hosted the Orthodox Jewsfor Justice in Palestine. Currently I am a patron of the Active Citizens Movement. I spoke with Dr Albertina Luthuli(daughter of Nobel Laureate Albert) to drop charges against Pravin Gordhan. Incidentally Pravin worked as a chemist for my husband and his partners at their surgery in Albert Street. I spoke with Judge Thumba Pillayand Prof Jerry Coovadiaat City Hall at the Rohingya protest march. I attended the event in Johannesburg when Minister Lindiwe Sisulu declared Kolved House a national monument. This is the famous flat of Ismail Meerwhere Mandela, Kathy and others met. This year, aged 94, I marched at the anti-CAA protestat the beachfront. I would urge our intellectuals and leaders to get more involved in activism and less time on WhatsApp…

Shameema: Last year you received an award fromGOPIO, where you gave an inspiring talk criticizing the departure from democratic norms and ethos in India. We are used to calling you Mrs Mayat, but you are a doctor.

Zuleikha: I received an Honorary Doctorate in Sociology from UKZN.

Shameema: Prof Betty Govinden wrote award winning Sister Outsiders – a collection of Indian South African Women writers, profiling you, Fatima Meer and Dr Goonam. Your latest book is imminent.

Zulieka: My book Odyssey of Crossing Oceans is with the printers. It traces the crossing of the Arab dhows down the Western coast of India to Malabar and Sri Lanka. From India the kala-pani was again crossed to other distant lands. The book encompasses the triumphs and tribulations in each country of the odyssey, but with the focus on South Africa. See each of you at the launch.

Zuleikha: Shameema, you mentioned philanthropist ML Sultan. WCG has its offices at Mariam Bee Sultan Centre, one of the many legacy buildings of the Sultan Charity. Recipes to Indian Delights came from the community, which supports our functions. Whilst we take pride in our contribution we must never forget that no one is an island. We need each other, whether it is family or community. That teaches us to always be humble and make shukr to Allah for our blessings.

Aslam: Fabiayi alahi rubiku ma tukazibaan.

Zuleikha: Live every moment of your life to the fullest. Love all humanity. Above all stay true to yourself.

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