Judge Siraj Desai says South Africa must carry on the baton of Dr Anwah Nagia and continue the fight for social and economic equality. He was addressing mourners at a tribute programme in honour of Dr Nagia at the Zeenatul Islam masjid on Tuesday before he was laid to rest at the Mowbray makbara. Dr Nagia died on Monday, following complications as a result of COVID19 and recent triple-bypass surgery. His janazah was held under strict COVID-19 protocols and was attended by people across the spectrum such as ulema, activists, politicians, business people and the NGO sector.
Accolades have poured in far and wide, with many hailing him as a visionary and a pioneer for his contribution to human rights and social activism in South Africa. Family and friends lauded the 62-year-old for a life dedicated to advancing the lives of others and for being a principled, virtuous, honest, exemplary and purposeful leader – who danced to the beat of his own drum. Judge Desai, one of his closest friends, says Dr Nagia’s social and political aspirations is his greatest legacy.
“We must continue to fight dispossession, for the development of District Six and for a society in which there is greater equity. We live in one of the most unequal societies in the world and to live to Anwah’s dreams and aspirations, we must address this imbalance with all the energy we can muster,” he told mourners.
Dr Nagia held an array of accolades and positions, including chairman at Element Investment Managers, executive chairman of Altius Investment Holdings, Cape Town Market and Africa Commodities Group director and founder of the Kaaf Human Rights Centre and Palestine museum and the chairman of various NGO bodies including the Mustadafin Foundation.
School of politics
Long time friend and confidante, Judge Basheer Waglay, judge president of labour court, said their political education was instilled during their school days at Trafalgar high school during the 1970’s – a tumultuous era for the anti-apartheid movement.
“When I met Anwah in 1976 when I got to Trafalgar High School, we became good friends and remained friends since then. We were very active in the SRC, what we called the Cultural Society, and ran debates, sports and other activists (with) schools in Langa and Gugulethu. We were the only school which interacted with black schools at the time.”
“Anwah used to organise these events. He had this amazing talent of being able to organise anything. One of the most remarkable things he organised at school was a stamp exhibition. When teachers at the school heard about it, they smirked. But it attracted very serious stamp collectors from the Cape. It was hailed as the best stamp exhibition ever held in the Western Cape. We not only made news locally but internationally in stamp collecting circles everywhere.”
His contribution and that of his friends did not stop at school politics. Judge Waglay fondly recalled a memorable boycott Dr Nagia had arranged alongside the now Minister of Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel of Fatti’s and Moni’s products, as well as “many such struggles in support of workers”.
After formal schooling, Dr Nagia carried on the fight for justice and involved himself in various public interest issues. He was arrested multiple times for being at a ‘Whites Only’ beach to being in possession of banned literature from the liberation struggle.
“He always made himself available to fight the peoples fight. His struggles and contributions are a matter of public concern,” said Judge Waglay.
The judge echoed the sentiments of many of his friends and colleagues, that Dr Nagia was most passionate about the return of the people of District Six residents to their homes and the return of Palestinians to Palestine. He added that his contribution “cannot be measured”.
Osman Shabodien, the chairperson of the Bo Kaap Civic and Ratepayers Association also attended Trafalgar high school and maintained a 49-year friendship with Dr Nagia. Shabodien recalled one incident whereby Dr Nagia had thrown a police van’s window in with a brick and that the students “had to run for (their) lives.”
“Through all our lives, no matter what people say about Dr Nagia; in his personal life, political life and even in his life as friend, brother and comrade… he never deserted us,” said Shabodien.
“We will sorely miss the definite contribution that he made silently. The achievements he (made) as a person is far greater than what he was. That will still stand for us as monuments and legacies for our generations to come.”
“There was never a question of having to get someone to do it for (him). He would get in the car and do it himself. The challenge we’re sitting with now is to move forward and try to move on with what Anwah has started. In Sha Allah we need to be brave and take that baton.”
Restitution and restoration
Former Trafalgar High principal, Nadeem Hendricks, had been Dr Nagia’s ‘right-hand man’ for most of his activism projects, particularly in the field of restitution and Palestinian advocacy. Along with other activists, the two were the founding members of the District Six Beneficiary and Redevelopment Trust, who spearheaded restitution in South Africa post-democracy. Having forged a close bond spanning 38 years, Hendricks has learnt profound lessons from his close friend’s life.
“I’ve been with Anwah in a battle to ensure that District Six is returned to the people. Anwar’s philosophy from the word go has not changed to this very day. Anwah has always believed that every inch of District Six was for the people who were removed. He said that nobody who occupied a particular piece of land that did not live in District Six or does not have a legitimate right to return to District Six will ever succeed because (that) land belonged to the people of D6,” emphasised Hendricks.
Dr Nagia refused to compromise with the government and was passionate that the people of South Africa had the right to claim for the return of land stolen from them by the Apartheid regime. One of his foremost principals that was that restitution must address the pain, indignity and trauma of forced removals and that the existing apartheid spatial planning of Cape Town must be reversed. So passionate was he about the restitution process in District Six, that Dr Nagia had in fact personally financed the first phase.
“Anwah believed in the right of the claimants and their families to have a particular area in the house. He refused to be part of the process that would have seen flats, apartments or RDP houses to be built in D6. He did not want people to move into undignified homes.”
Dr Nagia had won a milestone court order in 2000, whereby it was declared that a process would be reopened for another two years to allow people to claim restitution again. It saw him coin the term “land reform beneficiaries”, where tenants paying rent for “20-40 years are equal to the owners of the land.”
The impassioned activist resolutely once said that “if Jews can still claim [restitution] for the Holocaust, why can’t the people of South Africa if the government has failed to enlighten them to the rights to their land?”
A week before he went into the hospital for a triple by-pass operation, Hendricks stated that Dr Nagia had warned against the current restitution plan for District Six.
“He said that we must tell people that the court order presently instituted by government and other roleplayers is a betrayal of the struggle of the people to return to District Six because it will only look after 900 homes. Anwah knows and the government knows that 5000 houses can be built in District Six. (Because) after the 900 is built, there is going to be complete betrayal and the land is going to be sold off by the City to the wealthy in the country.”