E. Germain. L'Afrique du sud musulmane: histoire des relations entre Indiens et Malais du Cap. Paris: Karthala, 2007. 445 pp. Plates. EUR 20.00 (paper), ISBN 978-2-84586-710-9.
Reviewed by Bill; Freund
Published on H-SAfrica (November, 2008)
Commissioned by Peter C. Limb (Michigan State University)
Islam, Ethnicity, and Apartheid
This monograph is an adaptation of a doctoral thesis presented to theÉcole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales several years ago and thesub-title accurately describes its contents. It traces over the courseof time the relationship between the so-called Malay community ofSouth Africa, primarily in Cape Town, and the small but significantminority of Muslim Indians in the Cape. The early pages of the booklook at the making of the Malays in Dutch times out of a veryheterogeneous range of people from the Indian Ocean shores togetherwith yet others encountered at the southern tip of Africa. Slaves andexiles associated with Islamic learning both played a role in allowingIslam to take root and survive at the Cape. It is a quite well-knownfact that the Afrikaans language was first captured in print usingArabic script for Islamic religious purposes; the Muslim populationconsisted for long of people who communicated almost entirely inAfrikaans and were slow to learn English, forms of Malay havingquickly died out beyond occasional vocabulary and grammatical usages.Many early Muslims were in any case of Indian, often Bengali origin.The nineteenth century brought the Malays an apparent halcyon periodwhere they applied themselves to urban crafts, became a largely closedand self-defined ethnic minority defined by their religion andcentered in towns, especially Cape Town itself, and yet participatedin the broader culture. Loyalty to Britain stemmed partially fromgratitude at the abolition of slavery. By Muslim standards, Malaysaccepted much more egalitarian relationships between the sexes thanusual and were strongly influenced by the broader civic culture aroundthem. They were in fact very unusual as a long-term resident Muslimminority in a predominantly Christian society. There is an equivalentMalay society in coastal Sri Lanka, which also had been a Dutch colonybut in fact it is not easy to find similar groups elsewhere in theworld. By the middle of the nineteenth century, as they began to erectmosques which at first were close in style to contemporary churches,they were also coming into regular contact with distant Muslimsocieties. At first, it was the Ottoman Empire to which they lookedfor succor and it was there that the first Afrikaans books appeared.This happy phase, when racial lines were far looser than they were tobecome, gradually drew to a close in part as a growing white workingclass ousted the Malays from many crafts as others became obsolete.Muslims at the Cape tended to reject state education because theyassociated it with efforts at Christian proselytization and thisdoomed them to a declining as well as a minority status where once ithad been feared that all the Cape slaves would turn Muslim. Over time,the apparently natural leadership of Muslims amongst people of colorfell further and further away in reality.However, in the late nineteenth century, new Muslim immigrants arrivedfrom the Indian subcontinent, some of them coming from the main waveof free migrants to Natal and some of them coming to the Cape as theirfirst African destination, often via Mauritius. Many were Konkani-speakers from the south-central shores of the Arabian Sea coast ofIndia. These were commercially orientated immigrants with economicstrategies that made leading families very successful over timedespite growing racial discrimination. Increasingly severe immigrationlaws were long ineffective. Most immigrants continued to arrive afterUnion, especially in the form of women brought as wives to SouthAfrica. With exposure to English, native-born Cape Muslims of Indianimmigrant ancestry succeeded in the educational sphere and began toenter the professions.The relationship between the two groups was often close and tookvarious forms. From the start, Indian bachelors would marry Malaygirls, sometimes from leading families. However, Indians would lookdown at Malays and at aspects of their religious and family practicesand the two groups generally socialized separately and had differentplaces of worship. Nonetheless, as Germain captures very well,continuing themes of jealousy and resentment went together withIslamic fraternity and cooperation in the history of institutions andorganizations. This account is well researched and often very detailedand is particularly rich for the first half of the twentieth century.During the era of segregation, Malays were partly attracted toalignment with the National Party, which identified them as SouthAfricans, while trying to distance themselves from Indians who wereidentified as unassimilable aliens. Dr. Abdurahman, well known as thepreeminent Coloured politician of his day, is here mostly highlightedas the exception, the first doctor of color who strongly promotedEnglish-language education and at least a politics of alliance betweenall South Africans of color (admittedly the reality was a bit morecomplex). In his own lifetime, many Malays rejected such a perspectiveand the Indian Gool family into which his own children married and whotried to lead the masses into a socialist opposition were castigatedby most as overeducated atheists.Under apartheid, by contrast, the racial lines drawn by the state wereoverwhelming. Malays became a kind of Coloured although what wascalled the Schotse Kloof neighborhood in Cape Town was given a sort ofspecial ethnic status (never exclusively inhabited by Malays,however). Malays and Indians, even if both Muslim, were expected tolive in often distant, racially defined neighborhoods. Malayness waspatronizingly defined in terms of cuisine, music, or language--evenphysical appearance--while religion was downplayed. This was promotedespecially in the writing and activities of a white Nationalist"friend of the Malay," I. D. du Plessis. Whereas the old mosques wereallowed to remain where they stood, it was difficult to get permissionfrom the state to erect new ones, especially outside approved racialborders. Germain sees a Muslim identity in this period as one thatinevitably led to resistance and rejection of a race-basedperspective. But what did such resistance, if defined as Islamic, meanin a context where Muslims were a small minority? Prominent anti-apartheid figures such as the late Dullah Omar were privatelycastigated by more than just government stooges as West-Coast-Indians-turned-atheists. The book finishes with a very short section that runsthrough many post-apartheid issues.There are some important contributions to understanding South Africanhistory in this study. Germain presents us with a very detailed lookat organization and politics at the most mundane level for the earlytwentieth century particularly. This certainly should as a result be areference work for any scholar interested in this period of Cape Townhistory. More sweepingly, there is a subtle understanding in his workof the difference between religious, ethnic, and racial modes ofidentity, even if he never chooses to theorize this difference, whichcan contribute to the now voluminous debate on Coloured identity, aswell as identity more generally, in South Africa.In one sense, this is a revolutionary book. Almost all the relevantscholarship has tended to use the categories presented by the state--Coloured and Indian--as a matter of course whilst then furtherrefining discussion by introducing religion and ethnicity as sub-categories. Here by contrast, Islam becomes the defining category; theethnic and racial categories become secondary. This may (perhapsunconsciously on Germain's part) have an unprecedented logic in thenew post-apartheid situation in which South Africans find themselves.For "affirmative action" purposes, the racial categories are stillused but they no longer otherwise define the rights of people in anyway and may gradually fall out of usage in the way that has been takenfor granted.But does this really work? Can one really talk about people likeAbdurahman, the Gools, or Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool first andforemost as Muslims without far more attention to the broader Colouredand Indian population, for instance? This remains unproven. It isunsurprising that Germain says so little about the dispersal (and itsconsequences) of Malays amongst other Coloured people into the Flatsin the apartheid period, although he suggests that the diffusion ofsecondary and tertiary schooling is flattening old boundaries. In factthe entire second half of the twentieth century is covered rathersuperficially, with perhaps too much attention paid to aspects of anti-apartheid politics and its top leadership that fit his theme. Thewhole story of the Unity Movement, which so captivated the Colouredintelligentsia as a whole, almost disappears here. The question ofinterrelationship with the growing number of Muslim African immigrantsin South Africa, the influence of new Islamic anti-Western politicaland social movements so effectively using the media, the rise of theCape Flats gangsters and prison culture, these are big topics onlysuperficially and briefly tackled by Germain.There are finally two cavils that have to be introduced. First of all,as the subtitle tells us, this is overwhelmingly a Cape-based study.In Natal, the large Indian population overwhelmed a quite small, ifgrowing, Malay element, which is both unstudied by scholars so far andunlikely to have been very influential in the overall history of Islamor Muslims in the province. This is probably also true for the formerTransvaal. We read bits on Johannesburg and Durban but they aredisconnected and underdeveloped. Second, the book is very largelybased on research undertaken early in the 1990s and misses out on morerecent scholarship and notably the emergence of important historiansof Muslim origin such as Mohammed Adhikari, Shamil Jeppie, and GoolamVahed, who has presented the first really compelling modern studies ofMuslim Indians in what is now KwaZulu-Natal. Perhaps more seriously,it does not address the anxious writing on identity a number of post-apartheid intellectuals such as Zimitri Erasmus have produced. It is ashame it was not published a decade ago but then the vagaries ofacademic publishing do not always leave us with choices in this regard. .
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Bill; Freund. Review of Germain, E., L'Afrique du sud musulmane: histoire des relations entre Indiens et Malais du Cap.
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