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Remembering the Tricentenary: 20 years on

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IN April, we will mark the 20th anniversary of the Tricentenary Commemorations of Islam in South Africa. They were held in Cape Town over the Easter week-end, a mere two weeks before the country’s first democratic elections on 27 April.

It was an event of epic proportions that attracted worldwide media coverage, most of it curious, about a Muslim community at the tip of Africa.

It was designed to acknowledge the 300th anniversary of the arrival of Shaikh Yusuf of Makasar – a princely Sufi scholar, mujahid and political exile whose defiance of the colonial Dutch in Java only came to an end when his daughter was taken hostage by a malevolent Dutch commander.

Regarded as a living saint and the ‘Taj al-Khalwatiyyah’ – the crown of the Khalwatiyyah Sufi Order – Shaikh Yusuf had studied in the Hijaz and Yemen. He was accorded the honour of lecturing in the precincts of the Ka’bah, and was known in Makkah as the ‘Java Shaikh’.

After his capture, the Dutch were unsure of what to do with him. He was taken to Sri Lanka where his popular presence became an embarrassment. He was then put on a ship, the Voetboog, and sent to the Cape of Good Hope, arriving in April 1694.

En route, the ship ran out of fresh water, a huge disaster for all those on board. But Shaikh Yusuf had dipped his heel in the sea and told the sailors to draw the water, which was then found to be drinkable.

Whilst other great figures and political exiles – such as Sayyid Mahmoud of Constantia – had landed in the Cape well before him, Shaikh Yusuf’s international stature made him the patriarch of South African Islam.

For historian Dr Achmat Davids, there was too much in the moment of 1994 to be ignored. It was a proud moment, yes, but as a pioneer of research into local history, he knew that the South African Muslim community had to develop an institutional memory.

He proposed the idea of a commemoration and it soon mushroomed into a committee drawing in ‘ulama, educators, academics, professionals and a host of public figures, all of them representing a wide range of organisations and interests.

Only a few groups, such as the IUC and Qibla, spurned the idea of the commemoration, and today the Tricentenary still remains, historically, the most representative project the community has ever undertaken.

Dr Achmat Davids was voted as the chairman of the Tricentenary Committee, which set up offices in the Boorhaanol Centre in the Bo-Kaap. He became the pivot around which everything revolved. I sometimes wonder whether the pressures of the event contributed to his ill health, and his passing in 1998

As one who worked as the Tricentenary’s media officer, I have to be the first to admit that it wasn’t easy, and that we had a lot to learn. But in spite of its tidal wave of challenges, many contributed nobly, admirably and generously to the iconic success that the Tricentenary became.

To mention all the names would be difficult. So I’m sure Dr Achmat Davids would be happy with me saying that the Tricentenary was ultimately owned by the community. Everybody had a stake in the Tricentenary.

Looking back over two decades I’m astounded at what was achieved. Everything was executed in slightly less than six months on a shoestring. Today it would not be possible to pull off such an event.

Dr Achmat Davids wanted the Commemoration to be a strong social statement: of belief, of art, of culture and of custom. And that’s exactly what it became. But not only that – for the Tricentenary broke fresh ground on a number of fronts and gained access to institutions that had formerly been white preserves.

Firstly, the National Gallery agreed to host a major exhibition of photography and artwork that was shown to national acclaim. Secondly, the City Council agreed to mount special Tricentenary lights in Adderley Street.

Thirdly, a book Pages from Cape Muslim History was produced by a mainstream publisher. Fourthly, the Castle opened its doors to allow a cultural, musical and artefact display featuring live musicians, tailors, blacksmiths and dressmakers.

There was deep historical significance too when committee members attending a meeting at the Castle, performed maghrib – the post sunset prayer – on its lawns. This marked the first time ever that Muslims, chained in the Castle’s dungeons in the 17th and 18th centuries, had prayed as liberated citizens in its precincts.

The single most unifying factor in the Commemoration, though, was the Chain of Barakah, or Chain of Blessing. This used the Qur’an as its focus and a team, dressed in white, carried a special Qur’an to mosques, madrasahs, private homes and institutions as part of a special reading to advertise the event.

The Chain of Barakah started in late February at the Bo-Kaap Awwal Mosque, the first mosque in South Africa, and ended at the tomb of Shaikh Yusuf over the Easter Weekend. A special niche was constructed in the building to house the Qur’an, which is today – unfortunately – not there.

The triumph of the Tricentenary was, without doubt, a march through the streets of Cape Town. It remains to this day the biggest ever march in the city, surpassing the one of September 1989 during the State of Emergency. For on that fateful Easter Saturday, over 100, 000 people dressed in white walked from District Six into town.

Nelson Mandela, less than a fortnight from becoming president, then addressed the crowd at the Good Hope Centre – an event attended by dignitaries such as ambassadors, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the President of the OIC and a young Najib Tun Razak, destined to become Malaysia’s Prime Minister.

Sadly, when the Tricentenary finally came to an end, a project that should have developed into a vehicle of research, education and upliftment died as well. With budgets depleted, staff burnt out and other issues already distracting the community, a golden opportunity slipped through our fingers.

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