Imam Abdullah Haroon, whose life we will remember and celebrate again, marking the 48th commemoration of his death on the 27 September 1969. The imam epitomised and personifies the beauty of the city in which he was born and lived, Cape Town. If ever there is a person, in the history of the city, who exemplified what it is to be a Capetonian then Imam Haroon must certainly count among those individuals, others include the late Dullah Omar, Oscar Mpetha, Johnny Issel, Wilfred Rhodes, Christmas Tinto, Neville Alexander, and many more.
As a young activist born and raised in Johannesburg, I have come to know Cape Town is a resilient city. Every day we read of the hardships faced by the majority of the citizens of this city. Gang violence, crime, substance abuse, unemployment, poverty, lack of housing, among so many others, does not come in the way of a Cape Townian smiling. No matter what the circumstances the people face, they remain open, warm and welcoming. They are able to crack a joke, poke fun at themselves and yet continue to face these hardships.
The Imam lost his mother when he was still an infant, he being the youngest of his siblings. It is said that his father was unable to manage coping to raise him and therefore his paternal aunt stepped in to raise him. Even today, this story, of either being raised by an aunt or granny, rings familiar. Despite these hardships, his aunt emphasized education and by the time he finished school Imam Haroon was sent to the great city Makkah to further his studies.
Like so many other families and people on the Cape Flats, Imam Haroon and his family suffered the devastation of the Group Areas Act having to move from their family home in Lansdowne to Athlone. Circumstances surrounding his death also quietly speak about how defiant he was in the face of cruelty and injustice.
Yet Cape Town could also be described as South Africa’s political intellectual hub. The political history of the City is exemplified in a life such as Imam Haroon’s. A number of political parties or movements were born from the Mother City, for example, the United Party, the Liberal Party and the United Democratic Front. The City also saw the establishment of important workers movements and unions such as the Food and Canning Workers Union, later FAWU, as well as the South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU).
Despite his close association with the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), Imam Haroon was known to facilitate seminars and talks, primarily to his students, with Ray Alexander from the Food an Canning Workers’ Union and Eulaile Scott of the Black Sash. Later names such as Albie Sachs, Alex la Guma and Robert Sobukwe would be added to this list. The wide range in speakers and organisations indicated the rich diversity of Imam Haroon’s political prowess and this was attributed to the fact that his faith, Islam, was and is fundamentally opposed to injustice and inhumanity.
This variety of ideas found its home in the Unity Movement and Imam Haroon’s personal convictions is what led to the eventual establishment of the Call of Islam. Through reason and the cultivation of ideas, injustice and discrimination could be opposed. Through the unity of people and standing in solidarity, no matter what their political persuasion, challenges could be overcome and tyranny defeated.
When we look at the areas today surrounding the places where Imam Haroon lived and worked, Lansdowne Road which runs past Hanover Park and Mannenberg. Athlone district which borders Bonteheuwel, Heideveld and Nyanga. When we think of other areas where the tyranny of drugs, gangsterism and crime continue to reign, then the example of Imam Haroon, of faith, thought and unity of people no matter what the persuasion, stands as a lesson for community leaders all over the Cape Flats.
Cape Town is a deeply spiritual city. Imam Haroon was able to take up the fight for justice based on his faithfulness to his faith Islam. He was a profoundly deeply religious and spiritual man. The faithfulness to his faith gave him the confidence to explore and examine other faiths and spirituality. As a result, he was instrumental in solidifying Muslim-Christians in Cape Town.
Contrasting our suffering communities is the spirits and the religions of the Khoi, the San and the Griqwa. A consistent feature in our communities is that we eat koe’susters on a Sunday morning after being to church. Despite violence plaguing our townships, one is still able to witness at night Muslims on their way to mosque for those last prayers of the day, Isha’a. It is faith in the Almighty that gives our suffering people hope but which also spurns them on to continue to fight injustice, as Imam Haroon did.
Imam Abdullah Haroon died at the hands of the security police but was first tortured before he was murdered. He had been in detention being denied the opportunity to see his wife and children. According to the Minister of Police, it was not in the interest of South Africa to know why Imam Haroon has been arrested and detained.
Today we know. We know because as those of us who were born and bred in this city, we knew of the destruction and devastation of apartheid. We continue to see daily that destruction and devastation wreaking havoc in our families and in our communities, caused by drugs and gangs. This is the new struggle and we look to Imam Haroon as an example of leadership. Despite having died over forty-eight years ago, the Imam still shows us the way to defeat oppression and injustice.
However, the Imam was also an internationalist. Having travelled to Makkah to study and other parts of the world to help and assist the PAC, among others, he ensured that the fight against oppression and injustice was not only fought in Cape Town and South Africa. His example shows us, that despite our own fight for freedom, we must be willing to take up the plight of the peoples of the world who are in more vulnerable positions than we are.
Imam Haroon will encourage us to fight tyranny and oppression in Mannenberg and Nyanga, in Hanover Park and Khayelitsha, as he would want us to fight persecution and genocide in Palestine and Myanmar. The best tribute that we can pay to him is to live our faith, interrogate ideas and to fight injustice.
Cape Town and South Africa is honoured to be able to commemorate Imam Haroon as part of its heritage.
Jessie Duarte is the Deputy Secretary General of the ANC
*Acknowledgement to the South Africa History Online (SAHO) for the information in this article