The following is a Jumuah khutbah delivered by Ihsaan Bassier at Claremont Main Road Mosque on Friday 17th June, in commemoration of Youth Day.
Youth Day 2016. Forty years ago, school students courageously rose up against an oppressive government and inspired an era of mass resistance. I string together stories of agitation, grassroots organisation and civil defiance; this was an era preceding youth today, like myself. Instead, the Rainbow Nation was born with me in 1994, founded on a philosophy of patience, ballot democracy and forgiveness. My school history lessons recounted the triumph of the human spirit over impossible adversity. All would be equal – a fatal myth that has cost a lifetime of this country’s progress.
Substantial resistance is gathering against the Rainbow Nation as a failed project. Economic freedom eludes the overwhelming majority. Legacies of migrant labour and residential segregation have worsened. We have heard in this masjid from the farmworker trade union CSAAWU, how today a typical farm owner pays his workers below-subsistence wages. He controls their food access and visitation. There are numerous cases where workers’ children have been banished from farms. Some farms have had forty generations of the same family of workers, their titles simply changing from slaves.
More of us are realising that the reconciliation of 1994 and subsequent TRC years was a political compromise under the threat of extreme violence and economic sanction by the dominant whites. Only cosmetic changes followed. The duplicity of the New Dispensation is evident in the liberal Model C and private schools of this area, including my own: that history lesson celebrating diversity is taught to a class that is ¾ white, perhaps 2% African Black. Students are trained to carry out traditions of whiteness proudly, like the weekly memorial of World War 1 soldiers at 12pm on a Friday. The mourning of freedom fighters or the martyrs of August 16 2012, the Marikana Massacre, is unheard of.
The contradictions are sharpening. A few months ago, the country held the 50 year anniversary of the Group Areas act; that same day 35 families were evicted from Mfuleni. Former District Six residents have petitioned unsuccessfully for decades while the land remains largely empty. Close by, decades-long tenants of De Waal Drive flats face imminent eviction.
Weeks ago, systematic buy-in to racism was infamously highlighted when nearly R150 000 was raised for a white waitress who claimed to have been racially abused. That same day, reports of black cashiers in Long Street Steers bearing the brunt of drunken racial abuse were ignored. Amid the scramble to preserve the edifice of freedom and non-racialism, people are pausing.
As we search for answers, we notice role models of the most inspiring calibre emerging all around us. In this masjid are educators and activists that devote their lives to the struggle. May Allah reward them for their efforts, Amin. Rhodes Must Fall, Fees Must Fall and other student organisations have shocked this country spectacularly. Activists are writing, producing a literature of intersectional, self-reflective, bold politics. Symposiums are held every week that stretch our imagination and help us unlearn the myths designed to entrench power.
We try to educate ourselves against our patriarchal, queer-phobic, anti-poor, ableist and racist mindsets. Many of us take to heart Audre Lorde’s advice, “We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other, until it becomes a habit.” May Allah grant us empathy and wisdom in minimising the emotional violence we inflict on others, Amin. We are exploring decolonisation, envisioning a truly equal, just and free society propelled by participatory democracy.
A strong theme in the student protests was the disobedience of law, police, management and other power structures. During FeesMustFall protests at UCT last year, barricades were erected unlawfully around the university, preventing students from attending classes. Protesting workers and students spontaneously invaded peak time traffic in Main Road Rondebosch, against police orders.
It is easy to frown at this behaviour, but we must interrogate the law. The law is not the same as what is right. The evictions from Mfuleni and elsewhere are lawful. The Marikana Massacre was lawful. Earlier this year, I witnessed how three old women peacefully protesting their working conditions at UWC were surrounded and intimidated by over 20 policemen. It is only as the upper-middle class that many of us, including myself, are oblivious of how deeply the law serves to suppress resistance against the calamitous inequality. As we become more involved, we witness the harsh reality that we ignore or refuse to accept. May Allah help us to become more involved so that we may uncover the systems that protect power, Amin.
Ayah 191, Surah Baqrah, gives us motivation: ؤالفتنت اشد من القتل
“And persecution is more grave than killing.” How far would we go to stop murder? We are commanded to go even further to fight all oppression, even at extreme cost. We must be bold in workplaces, masjids and our personal lives.
A second theme in effective protest is the dire need for every person to be involved. There is a cost to fighting oppression. During FeesMustFall protests, thousands of poor workers put their livelihoods at risk. Many of us, while erecting barricades or facing police, were terrified. Several activists fell into deep depression resulting from the trauma.
Activism is not easy. We should celebrate each other’s efforts, and lighten the load. There will always be an excuse: family commitments, work, a plan that we’ll “give back” later on. Prioritise this political Jihad. There are any number of organisations you can join right now. In this masjid, speak to any of the activists or the frequent guest lecturers that are invited, like Ndifuna Ukwazi last Sunday. Go to a meeting – if you pop in to the AIDC, a community centre in Observatory, they can put you in touch with a network of organisations. Small steps.
At your workplace, speak to the cleaners, builders and cafeteria workers – ask them how you can help improve working conditions or increase wages. Find out if they’re unionised and commit yourself credibly to use your relative power in the workplace to support them. I am part of an organisation that supported cafeteria workers at UCT who were prevented from unionising. Despite being illegal, it has taken nearly a year of plotting with workers, often secretly because they risk reprisal. The right to unionise was achieved only after a full boycott, petitioning the Department of Labour and two occupations of shops. May Allah grant us courage and strength in our efforts, Amin.
A third principle is the interrogation of our organisations’ spaces and processes. Resisting systems of power embedded in culture is tricky – especially when we benefit from the power. A somewhat revolutionary practice can be found in some student organisations: coming to decisions by regular, open, mass meetings rather than by executive hierarchies. Another practice is an unapologetic emphasis on intersectionality and marginalised voices, for example making sure a black womxn chairs. Those with privilege — men, whites — acknowledge that they will struggle to set aside deep, unconscious prejudices. This is a rosy picture of the contestation that actually transpired, of course.
Other examples of interrogating spaces include the very universities as sites of protests, which are elite spaces; or signs against sleeping in the masjid for the homeless, as an act of anti-poor aggression; or recognising knowledge only when someone has authority, like a doctorate or corporate position, rather than exploring the far richer experience that the marginalised possess. Whose voices do we notice?
صُمٌّ بُكْمٌ عُمْيٌ فَهُمْ لَا يَعْقِلُونَ
Which filters of prejudice render us “deaf, dumb and blind”, so that we don’t understand – as Allah warns in 2:171? May allah grant us patience in listening to others, and increase our self-reflection, Ameen.
Ramadan is a time for evaluation. CMRM has a wonderful masjid tradition emphasising that the spiritual is political. May Allah empower the masjid members in their work, and guide us to support them, Amin.
Politically, we are making very little progress. Academic economics papers find that the ⅔ of South Africans live under the poverty line of R1350 a month. Just compare to your budget – it is unimaginable to me that R1350 could cover rent, food, tuition, transport and all else we consider bare necessities.
Most of the congregants in this masjid, as always including myself, are upper middle class. Many of the students here attend the extremely privileged surrounding schools; many of the parents are university educated. We must connect the political to the personal, and ask, “How does our unconscionable political reality interact with our own position?” Economists estimate that 60% of our current wealth is due to our parents and not our own efforts – perhaps they paid for extra tutoring, or supported us so we didn’t have to take a job while studying. Additionally, university educated people have experienced a boom in income of over 50% on average compared to others, due to external factors such as globalisation. Taken together, this means that very little of this upper-middle class congregation’s wealth is due to our own efforts.
In fact, if we believe that our wealth and sustenance is due to Allah and Allah alone, then it is our duty to share wealth equally, or at most consume only what we need.
The brutal inequality is so irreconcilable with our consciences, that many of us invent rationalisations for our wealth. I have heard classmates from my old school Rondebosch, one of the most privileged in the country, sincerely remark how their hard work got them accepted into UCT. Most of us here buy partly into this ideology, because we are not willing to sacrifice our lifestyles. There is a sick tradition in our community that celebrates lavish lifestyles, like when someone buys a fancy car. I am the last person to speak on sacrificing lifestyle. But I do believe we need to persistently try. May Allah grant us perspective and motivation, Amin.
Most importantly, we need to connect this personal position to the spiritual. Ultimately, being Muslim is about being a just, good person. How can we see ourselves as good, when we consume wealth that is not really ours? We have to recognise the masked economic dependence of our wealth on the exploitation of others – the domestic worker, the farmworker, or the unemployed evicted member of Mfuleni who is denied land.
وَلَا تَأْكُلُوا أَمْوَالَكُم بَيْنَكُم بِالْبَاطِلِ وَتُدْلُوا بِهَا إِلَى الْحُكَّامِ لِتَأْكُلُوا فَرِيقًا مِّنْ أَمْوَالِ النَّاسِ بِالْإِثْمِ وَأَنتُمْ تَعْلَمُونَ
Allah proclaims in 2:188 – “And consume not your wealth among yourselves in falsehood or let it down in bribes to the ones who are judges, so that you consume a group of people’s wealth among humanity in sin while you know.” I have used wealth as an example of power, but we must apply this to our many privileges.
The state of the nation and the moral burden on us may be overwhelming. Build up from small steps. Draw inspiration from those amongst us. Always assume a position of humility. Be tender with each other, forgiving, loving and generous to praise. But be ruthless in our standards for what we can achieve. It can be done.
Allah, reward those who devote themselves to social justice and strengthen them with perseverance and hope. Help us learn from them, and grant us the courage to take bold, self-reflective steps in our personal lives and towards a decolonised future. Let us grow as a community, encouraging each other towards good and dissuading each other from evil. Amin.
Ihsaan Bassier is an Economics Honours student at UCT. He is an active participant in organisations at UCT such as the Left Students’ Forum, Muslim Youth Movement and Decolonise Economics. He has written numerous opinion pieces on the challenges of decolonizing the economics curriculum at UCT. Ihsaan is also hafiz al-Qur’an and has in the past led tarawih prayers at CMRM and Masjid Boorhanol Islam.