The black pearl of the Cape


The black pearl of the Cape

Many tourists visiting Paarl may assume the town is white even if most residents are not. Their history is one of slavery, displacement and a rich, proud culture, write TRACEY RANDLE and FRED DE VRIES.

  • 12 January 2024
  • People & Culture
  • 16 min to read
  • article 5 of 23
  • Tracey Randle and Fred de Vries

IT’S not part of the tourist itinerary, but just above Non Pareille Street you’ll find the old Muslim cemetery of Paarl, situated against the slope that leads to the bare, round granite mountain that gave the Cape wine town its name. At the entrance you’ll find a sign with the names of the first 16 Muslim families who settled here some 200 years ago: Abrahams, Antar, Bergman, Bejamin, Bolhari, Carrim, Domingo, Du Toit, Gamieldien, Hanslow, Latief, Louw, Moerat, Nackierdien, Nackerdien, Parker. Names that hide a centuries-long history of captivity, slavery and forced removals, but also militancy, wealth and tenacity.

The gate is well maintained. But if you open it and walk across the site over loose stones, parched sewejaartjies and crunching yellow grass (there is no longer a path), the impression changes. You can see the rudiments of about 20 graves. Pillars have collapsed, chunks of memorial plaques are scattered here and there. Some are placed together on the edge of a single grave. Occasionally you can read some words: “Abdullah Bergman born 10 11 1818", or “In Loving Memory of My Dear Mother Qatisa Gamildien born 1871".

The goblin that loves facile interpretations hops on your shoulder and whispers: “This, my friend, symbolises the decline of a culture: broken memorial stones in a neglected cemetery — what more proof do you need?" He might be right, because when you walk eastwards, beyond Main Road, you come across two small, isolated mosques. Taxis are parked on the open field next to the one by the river. A driver nonchalantly shakes the last drops from his member after urinating against a tree a metre or so from the mosque. Behind the building, homeless people have built shelters from cardboard and plastic.

The other mosque, on Breda Street, looks equally deserted.

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But let’s stop here for a moment. Because the story of decline is wrong. Sure, the old cemetery is neglected and the Muslims in Paarl have been structurally marginalised. Fifty years ago they and other dark-skinned inhabitants were forced to move to the other side of the Berg River that cuts Paarl in two, so that the west side of town with its Christian schools and meticulously maintained hockey and rugby fields could shine like a white pearl. Bulldozers razed the houses to the ground, leaving only the two mosques and some outbuildings standing.

And sure, the apartheid ideologues got what they wanted: the racial separation was self-perpetuating and seemed irreversible. The west side of Paarl is now a long strip of coffee shops, antique shops, restaurants, boutiques, galleries, supermarkets and wine shops with tasting rooms, a paradise for tourists and day-trippers who shall not let their holidays be spoiled by bits of uncomfortable history. In fact, they will believe that Paarl is white, even though 85% of the population is not.

On the other side of the Berg River, a different world begins: busy, noisy and hardly a white face in sight. There are hoods with flats that have been named Chicago and New Orleans. According to the latest crime statistics, these parts of Paarl are among the 30 most criminal neighbourhoods in South Africa. There is also plenty of poverty. We drive past people queueing in a field off Abattoir Street, waiting for food parcels.

But there’s also life. And hope. And pride. As well as an increasing sense of history. At the end of Lapperts Street looms the Masjidun Nur, Paarl’s main mosque with four impressive minarets, madrassa and high school. Islam is growing, says spiritual leader and deputy imam Ikram Kahn, 73, in his windowless office on the ground floor. “The mosque has room for a thousand worshippers, but on Fridays the prayer room is too small and we also have to use the basement as well.”

But at the same time, Kahn adds, the madrassa is struggling with a declining number of students — people cannot afford the monthly fees of R50. “For many children there is no way out (from poverty and gangsterism)”, explains activist Yousrie Abrahams later. “We try to create a safe space for them around the mosque.” Indeed, in the fenced courtyard boys with kufis happily pretend they are Messi or Ronaldo, while the girls play a less robust ball game.

The Muslim community in Paarl is moderate Sunni with some Sufi traits because of Turkish influences (the mosque near the river is  called Masjid Uthmania — Ottoman mosque). Once there were some Shiites but they left under pressure, says Kahn. “And as far as I know — and I should know — there are no extremist elements here.” But the events in Gaza have changed the community. Protests take place every week in local shopping centres and on the sides of the main thoroughfares. Dozens of Muslims from Paarl joined the mass demonstration that took place in Cape Town on November 11.

Iman Allie and her father Fadel were there. “Impressive,” they say in unison when asked about the experience. Fadel, 49, used to be an anti-apartheid activist. “We now have to hand it over to the younger generation,” he says, gesturing to his 20-year-old daughter who lowers her eyes. “Talk to her.” Iman studies at Stellenbosch University but still lives in Paarl. She chairs the Palestine Solidarity Forum at the university. “In March, about 30 people came to the meetings but the last time there were more than a hundred,” she says. “Young people are more aware and more radical than the older generations.”

Fadel can’t resist and joins the conversation. He experienced apartheid, he says. His father was among the Muslims who were taken in trucks to the east side of Paarl more than 50 years ago. “We still feel the legacy of white repression. It is important that we know our history, our spiritual leaders and thinkers. Most people of colour have no idea about it any more.”

A rare photograph of the interior of the Breda Street Mosque, Paarl, circa early 1900s.
A rare photograph of the interior of the Breda Street Mosque, Paarl, circa early 1900s.

It was slavery that brought Islam to the Cape in the 17th and 18th centuries. It happened under the auspices of the world's first multinational, the Dutch East India Company (VOC), with its headquarters in Amsterdam. South African slavery, however, developed in a different way than in the Americas. There, the millions of Africans who had been shipped across the Atlantic rapidly lost their language, religion and dignity.

The experience in the Cape, where the VOC established a refreshment station after the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in the mid-17th century, diverged from this stereotype. Between 1652 and 1795, more than 60,000 slaves were shipped to this part of Africa under the VOC administration. A third came from Asia, especially India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. Many of them were Muslim. Almost every farm in Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Paarl — the three oldest colonial towns — had one or more slaves. But there were no plantations, which prevented the large-scale slavery found in the New World. For example, in 1750 there were only six Cape farms with more than 50 slaves. Slave holdings grew substantially by the early 1800s as architectural and agricultural history was built on the skill and backs of slaves.

Another important difference was that Muslims were more successful in preserving their culture and faith than their counterparts in the Americas. Even their language did not completely disappear — Bahasa Melayu, the lingua franca of the East Indies, was for quite a while the language in which slaves communicated and in which Islam was spread. Public practice of Islam was forbidden but “underground" prayer groups in the homes of ex-slaves, in the forests and in the mountains kept the faith alive. The fact that many Muslims knew the Koran partly or completely by heart made the transfer of knowledge easier.

It is no coincidence that some of the earliest written examples of Afrikaans at the Cape are in Arabic script. White Afrikaners later shaped Afrikaans into “their language” but scholar Achmat Davids proved that it was the descendants of the slaves, not their masters, who first wrote in Afrikaans.

Moreover, there were eloquent Muslim leaders in the Cape from early on. Most famous was the Celebes-born Sheikh Yusuf al-Makassari, who made the pilgrimage to Mecca at the age of 18 then spent time in the Prophet's birthplace to immerse himself in Arabic and Islam. After his return to the Dutch East Indies, he settled as a spiritual leader in Bantam, Java, but soon joined the resistance against the Dutch colonists. After several hostilities, he was arrested in 1686 and exiled to the Cape, where he arrived on April 2, 1694 on the VOC ship Voetboog with other “bandiete". Among them were 12 imams, two spouses, two female slaves and 12 children. Yusuf was detained in Zandvliet, 40km  east of Cape Town. There, in isolation, he could do no harm. Or so the authorities believed. Wrong. “Zandvliet became a rallying point for slaves and other exiles from the east,” write Yusuf da Costa and Achmat Davids in the paper Pages from Cape Muslim History. “The group grew as Sheikh Yusuf's reputation spread."

Sheikh Yusuf died in 1699 and was buried in Macassar, which still gives the area its name. Gradually, Muslim communities emerged in the Cape. “The memory of these political exiles and prominent personalities became an important part of Muslim religious consciousness and practices," notes Abdulkader Tayob in Islam in South Africa: Mosques, Imams and Sermons (University Press of Florida, 1999). Islam became the social glue for slaves and other outsiders. As historian Nigel Worden put it, “it offered enslaved people a degree of independent slave culture, separate from that of the slave owners".

The substantial growth in the Muslim population in the Cape began at the end of the 18th century as a result of the entrepreneurial spirit that motivated the Dutch colonists. It came down to a regulation from 1770 which stipulated that no Christians could be sold into slavery. “Many burghers encouraged the conversion of their slaves to Islam, as the law of matrilineal descent allowed the enslavement of children of Muslim slaves but not Christian ones," writes Gabeba Baderoon in Regarding Muslims: from Slavery to Post-Apartheid (Wits University Press, 2001). Slave owners also believed that Muslims, partly due to the ban on alcohol consumption, were more reliable and compliant than their black counterparts.

Cape Town got its first mosque and madrassa in 1794. Fifty years later, a third of the town’s population, approximately 6,435, adhered to Islam. The rapid growth was due to the freedom of religion that came into effect in 1804. Many of the teachers were ex-slaves or former bandiete. The first imam of Cape Town, Abdullah ibn Kadi Abdus Salaam, nicknamed Tuan Guru, or the Master Teacher, was, like Sheikh Yusuf, a rebel brought by the VOC from the Dutch East Indies to the Cape in 1780. He was held captive on Robben Island and knowing the Koran by heart, he wrote down its 6,000 verses while in custody — several times. One of his handwritten Korans can still be seen in Cape Town’s Auwal Mosque.

The madrassa and the mosque in Dorp Street attracted people from Africa, India, the Dutch East Indies and Madagascar, free blacks, ex-slaves, Khoi-San, literates and illiterates. The place grew into an “inclusive institution in an exclusive colonialist society", writes Shafiq Morton in From the Spice Islands to Cape Town: The life and times of Tuan Guru (National Awqaf Foundation of South Africa, 2018).

Something similar happened in Paarl, albeit on a smaller scale. A Muslim community had formed there around 1850. The most important families were the ones mentioned on the gate of the cemetery on Non Pareille Street. They were traders, carpenters, builders, cart makers — craftsmen. One of the most prominent members was master builder and property owner-cum-developer Yakoef du Toit, who had bought a piece of land in Breda Street. Here he built a mosque which opened in 1889. Soon there was a disagreement over the choice of imam. Du Toit believed his son Kiamdien was perfectly suited for the position. Others disagreed, and when he didn't get his way Du Toit simply built a new mosque a few hundred metres away: the building where taxi drivers now urinate against the tree. The community worked hard. Soon there was a school, which became known as Paarl Muslim School. In addition, the Muslims founded sports clubs, such as the Paarl Ottomans Cricket Club and the famous Vineyards Rugby Football Club, which centred on the Moerat family. They dominated the SA Federation Cup in the late Sixties and early Seventies and produced several international stars.

Breda Street, leading up to the Mosque, early 1900s. The community that built the mosque lived in the surrounding streets.
Breda Street, leading up to the Mosque, early 1900s. The community that built the mosque lived in the surrounding streets.
Image: © G.A. DECKER
Breda Street Mosque, Paarl, circa early 1900s, before the minaret was added.
Breda Street Mosque, Paarl, circa early 1900s, before the minaret was added.
Image: © G.A. DECKER

A wealthy “coloured" middle class developed in Paarl. Many of them had a slavery background, even though this is often difficult to trace because the burghers, farmers and VOC employees generally did not register their paternity if they had impregnated a slave woman. This lack of clarity has led to a mystification of the family roots. For example, 74-year-old Marwaan Moerat, one of the seminal Vineyards RFC players, believes his roots go back to the son of French general Joachim Murat, a brother-in-law of Napoleon Bonaparte. According to Moerat, the man came to the Cape and raised a child with a slave on a wine farm. The name Murat was corrupted to Moerat. Something similar applies to mosque builder Yakoef du Toit, who was probably a descendant of Francois du Toit, the first French Huguenot to set foot on Cape soil with the VOC in 1686. With each new generation the offspring became darker, while keeping the Du Toit surname.

The main Muslim neighbourhood was Ou Tuin, the bustling area between the Berg River and the town centre, with the two mosques as its spiritual heart. That bustle died down to an eerie drone when the apartheid authorities in 1962 decided Ou Tuin should become a “group area vir okkupasie door Blankes". It is not clear how many people lived here at the time, but in 1962 Paarl counted about 27,000 coloured inhabitants, double the number of whites, and many of them lived in Ou Tuin. According to some estimates, about 3,000 Muslim families lived in Ou Tuin — roughly 15,000 people.

Over the next 10 years, Ou Tuin was demolished, stone by stone, until only the two mosques and a few outbuildings remained. Those who could afford to bought houses in the formerly white Charleston Hill neighbourhood, while the poor had to move to the more remote New Orleans and Chicago flats. The forced removals effectively killed social cohesion in the community. There was little you could do, says Moerat, who was 16 when his family had to load up their belongings and leave. If you resisted, they simply razed everything you owned to the ground.

Left: Two unnamed women return from hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, circa early 20th century. Right: an unnamed group of women and children in ornate wedding attire, circa late 19th/early 20th century.
Left: Two unnamed women return from hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, circa early 20th century. Right: an unnamed group of women and children in ornate wedding attire, circa late 19th/early 20th century.

But history is a restless ghost. Five years ago, Myles Minnaar, 40, started The Village Guy page on Facebook in which he unearths bits of Paarl's history through research and interviews. More than 5,000 posts have appeared on the site. Together the stories, photos, observations and interviews form a gigantic montage from which a clearer and more revealing picture of Paarl’s hidden history slowly emerges.

“It’s a platform for telling stories," says Minnaar, who works closely with 23-year-old creative director Misché Lawrence. His father was one of the victims of the forced removals. Fifty-six years ago dad, then a teenager, received an ominous card with a plot number on it. That was it, voetsek julle. Myles asked his dad to write a piece about the experience.

The old man obliged and wrote: “On a fateful day in September of 1967, I witnessed, as an impressionable 16-year-old, how my father turned around for the last time, with tears in his eyes, to the empty shell of a building that was our home for the past 16 years. He walked, head bowed, to the truck loaded with all our possessions, and our lives, to be transported to a place completely unknown to us. The excitement of moving house was completely drowned by the knowledge that we were not relocating because we wanted to, but were told to by some people in authority who deemed our skin colour inferior to theirs and therefore rendering us not acceptable to live near to them. This was part of a process which sounded the demise of a close-knit, poor, largely uneducated but proud community, a community many people looked down upon, sometimes scornfully, but a community that made me who I am today and of which I was, and still am, immensely proud to have been a member of. The community I am referring to was made up of the good (and sometimes bad) people of the Ou Tuin."

Ismael Hamit, Paarl 1911.
Ismael Hamit, Paarl 1911.

After a long legal battle, some community members had a modicum of success with land restitution, but as always in South Africa it is not a clear-cut or even visible/viable success. The story of Ou Tuin, its early Muslim community and its forced removals never took on a wider narrative such as the similar eventsin the iconic District Six with its complex and drawn-out processes of restitution. Like its linked cemetery site, the Ou Tuin story has remained eerily unheard and forgotten among the white sewejaartjies, except for the community itself.

“I want every generation to become familiar with the history of Ou Tuin," says Myles Minnaar. He’s bound to succeed. The Village Guy has more than 45,000 followers and has had a million hits. Perhaps those hardy everlasting fynbos blooms are the most appropriate graveside offering. They often appear in the veld after fire and endure year after year, quietly surviving and thriving even under the harshest conditions.

*Tracey Randle is a herstorian and curator based in Cape Town with 20 years’ experience in historical research and museum exhibition design. Fred de Vries is a journalist and writer who grew up in Rotterdam and now lives in Cape Town. The research for this story was made possible thanks to a grant from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Photographs are courtesy of the Paarl Heemkring /The Drakenstein Heritage Foundation. Photographs are courtesy of the Paarl Heemkring /The Drakenstein Heritage Foundation.

♦ VWB ♦

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