By Na’eem Jeenah
(My columns in Al-Qalam have often reflected my personal experiences where I believe these are relevant to make a particular point. This column, however, is particularly self-indulgent and I apologise upfront for that.)
I remember having felt quite uncomfortable as the meeting began at Luthuli House in Johannesburg. I had been invited by the ANC to attend a “sectoral” meeting at its headquarters, as part of its consultation with various communities and “sectors” in South Africa around the ANC’s performance. It was part of an attempt to understand what “people on the ground” felt. I had been invited as a representative of the Muslim Youth Movement and, despite some confusion, was given to understand that the meeting was for the “religious sector”.
The first jolt I received was when I entered the lift at Luthuli House. Pasted on the mirror at the back was a notice for the sectoral meeting for “the Indian community”. That disoriented me for a few minutes. Firstly, because I had prepared my thoughts as a representative of a religious-political organisation rather than anything else. Secondly, because I loathe such discourses of “minorities” and “races”and political parties’ entrenchment of apartheid classification. And, thirdly, because, as I expressed to the meeting, I was representing an organisation 80 percent of whose members were african. I had to put that on record for the sake of my own integrity, and so that I would not later be hauled over the coals by MYM members. I nevertheless sat through meeting in great discomfort as issues of “the Indian community” were being discussed.
I recalled this incident from more than 15 years ago recently when I received an email from a Muslim organisation that wanted to nominate me (among others) for an award to be given to people of “Indian heritage”. I was, of course, extremely honoured and humbled for being considered for such a nomination, but I knew, with just a glance at the email, that there was no way I could accept it. A part of me even felt slightly insulted, though that wasn’t a rational feeling.
I immediately forwarded the mail to a friend who, I knew, would immediately understand how I felt without my having to explain. Upon his advice, I wrote to the organisation to ask that I not be nominated – while expressing my feeling of gratitude and honour.
In my email I noted that any “contribution” I might have made to society (and I’m not yet convinced that I have) was done with a firm consciousness of my Islamic obligations, and done as a Muslim and a Black South African. I have not considered myself “Indian” for four decades. My ancestors were from India, and I have no desire to obscure that truth, but I do not consider that fact to be relevant to my work or to who I am. I consider myself, and have considered myself since I was a teenager, as a Black person, an African (being of this continent), a South African and a Muslim. These are the parts of my identity that are relevant to me; my ancestry… not so much.
Along with a whole generation of Muslims in organisations such as the MYM, my life and its struggles and “contributions” have been as a Black South African Muslim, with my ideological perspectives shaped by Islam. As such, I viewed myself and my brothers and sisters with whom I have worked (and continue to work) as part of the broader liberation movement in this country, for the emancipation and empowerment of oppressed Black people and exploited and marginalised poor people. These are “my people”; those who struggle for justice – from whatever background and of whatever religion, are “my people”; I do not regard indians, as such, as “my people”. I certainly do not regard the former tricameral parliament member who was present at that ANC meeting I mentioned as being among “my people”.
Considering, then, that I do not regard my ancestors’ Indian origin as significant, I would feel uncomfortable (and somewhat fraudulent) to be nominated for an award that is under the banner of “Indian Heritage”.
More important than my personal discomforts is the fact that the use of racial classification (and racism) has done an enormous amount of damage to our people in South Africa for centuries, and continues to do so. It is a tragic indictment on us that almost a quarter century after our first democratic elections we continue to use racial categorisation to identify people, as a basis on which to organise and to give awards. One of our great failures in South Africa post-1994 is to address the question of what a South African nation is; as long as we deploy racial identities as realities, we will get no closer to addressing it. In a country where the division of people has been a dominant objective in organising society, we cannot afford to entrench those divisions – even if it’s done in the name of “diversity” or “the rainbow nation”.
Unfortunately, in many parts of South African society, racial and tribal classification has been emphasised increasingly in the past decade, instead of finding ways to move away from them. If we hold on to such identities, can we then blame people such as Julius Malema who pick on particular racial identities for their political objectives?
Increasingly, we find this as a problem within the Muslim community too. The “Indian” vs “African” vs “Malay” discourse has, it seems, become more entrenched since 1994, with potentially dangerous consequences. How different would the Muslim community be if we were able, successfully, to dump racial categories and own each others’ problems as being those of the Muslim community as a whole, rather than as being that of a certain section of the community? ‘Race’ is not real, and forcing it become real will fragment, not unite, and will keep us from addressing crucial challenges such as poverty and the skewed distribution of resources.