29 November 2023

By Imraan Buccus

This past week over 2.1 billion Muslims across the globe celebrated Eid al-Fitr to mark the end of the month-long fasting period of Ramadan. A third of that number are from the African continent.

Eid signifies the end of Ramadan, the obligatory month-long fasting period where Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. The time is devoted to increased prayer, charity and the avoidance of all immoral activities.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the month of Ramadan was particularly difficult with the devastating floods that claimed hundreds of lives. But the fact that this tragedy took place in the month of Ramadan also meant a heightened philanthropic impulse from the Muslim community.

During Ramadan and on the day of Eid; many charitable bodies prepare and distribute food to tens of thousands of people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, at several townships in KZN. Customarily, hundreds of giant pots of food are prepared for the occasion of Eid and planning is done with military precision. An army of volunteers sign up for the food distribution.

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For Muslims the act of charity is an act of faith, where it is a religious obligation to dispense with 2,5% of your total wealth in acts of charity. This charity is referred to as Zakah. In Muslim countries the charity is collected and distributed via the state. Scholars like Sultan Khan have reminded us that in SA, Muslims have succeeded in preserving this institution in keeping with prescribed religious norms and values over time to benefit both its community and other communities.

When apartheid ended, more than a quarter of century ago now, there was great optimism that a democratic state would now, as a legitimate entity, be able to gather money via tax and distribute it according to social need. There was a sense that religious and community-based forms of social solidarity would be ‘small potatoes’ in the context of the reach and power of a legitimate and progressive state.

Of course, that hope crashed and burned when Jacob Zuma’s kleptocracy wrecked both the state and our social hopes. Today very few people have much confidence in the state. We see this in all kinds of ways – from declining participation in elections, to the rush away from state schooling, the collapse in confidence in the police and much more.

It is striking that in the wake of the devastation following the recent floods, which hit informal settlements particularly hard, residents often turned to their own organisations and to religious groups while not even bothering to approach the state for help. It was also striking that people with means overwhelmingly also ignored the state and gave what they could to religious or community-based organisations.

The Muslim philanthropic impulse was conspicuous during the floods with many people making donations of money, food, clothes, mattresses, building material and time. It was gratifying to see young people, including teenagers, on the frontlines along with established activists like the former trade unionist and radical film maker Fazel Khan.

Around KZN, 29 non-profit organizations collaborated, through Muslims for Humanity, to provide aid for victims of the flood. Conservative estimates point to at least 50 -60 000 victims being assisted. The work of Gift of the Givers and its spiritually inspired philanthropy is well known. In addition, organizations like Awqaf South Africa donated R500 000 towards water infrastructure support in flood-stricken areas.

Another organization, Caring Sisters Network, identified the provision of blankets as a need that was not being catered for; and distributed more than 10 000 blankets.

As KZN is buffeted from crisis to crisis, from the riots to the floods, in the context of a complete failure of political leadership and widespread disgust at the kleptocrats in the City Hall solidarity across class and creed is a vitally important mechanism to build or even sustain some sort of social cohesion.

Of course, the work done by community based and religious organisations can’t replace what could be done with a state with integrity, but it does hold some sort of line in the face of the more or less complete abandonment of society, especially the poor, by the kleptocrats who run the ANC in Durban.

In such dark times even small acts of solidarity matter.

Dr Buccus is Al Qalam editor.

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