|The Cape Malay Community|
The very first Malays in South Africa are thought to have arrived in the Cape with Jan van Riebeeck in 1652. A short while later, even more arrived in the form of slaves, political prisoners and criminals, who were brought to the country to perform involuntary labour. By 1799 the Cape Malay community had grown sufficiently for the government to send an entire regiment – known as the Malay Regiment – of soldiers to the Eastern Cape to help the colonial army fight against the Xhosas. In 1846, the Malay Corps arrived in the Port Elizabeth area to fight in what eventually became known as the ‘Battle of the Axe’. Once the fighting subsided, many of these soldiers chose to stay on in the area that became known as Uitenhage and Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela Bay) and build lives for themselves.
Originally, the entire area that is now known as South End was once part of a farm called Papenbietjiesfontein. In time, it was given to the municipality and, shortly thereafter, the bulk of it was divided into plots and sold to the Malays. Before long, the flourishing community of South End started to develop. The earliest Cape Malays who had helped to establish the community here were not noteworthy in themselves. However, as a people, their role as pioneers and their devotion to the Islamic faith were of the utmost importance. These early pioneers maintained the religious practices of the Cape and these have passed down over the generations regardless of where their descendants chose to settle.
As is to be expected, religion was a very important part of life for the Cape Malays. The first mosque to have been built in the Cape Colony was erected in 1846 in Uitenhage and is known as the Masjid-Al-Qudama mosque. It was followed by the Majied-Ul-Abkbar mosque in Grace Street, which was the first mosque to be built in Port Elizabeth. Built in 1855, the Grace Street mosque is more than 150 years old. It is interesting to note that the original members of the congregation ran out of funds halfway through construction and it was only through the grace of the Sultan of Turkey that the building was finished. The building of this mosque was seen as being of great importance since, prior to this, Cape Malays had been forced to leave on Thursday for Uitenhage in order to attend services on Friday.
Later, more mosques were built in Rudolph Street and Pier Street, making them an easily accessible centre of the Muslim community. Unfortunately, most of the mosques were no longer in walking distance for many Muslims after their forced relocation under the Group Areas Act. Furthermore, the Malay people had to fight efforts to have their sacred places of worship bulldozed on more than one occasion. In the first instance, the United Nations spoke up against the regime’s efforts to destroy one of these historical landmarks. Just 5 years later, the same mosque was almost bulldozed to make way for a new freeway. Its dome and minaret were removed as part of the demolition before proceedings came to a grinding halt. Today, a truncated piece of freeway stops just short of the mosque as a reminder of past events. Thus, the mosques in Port Elizabeth are a fitting symbol of the tenacity, courage and resolution that the members of the Muslim faith in South End share.
The Cape Malay exhibit presents Malay art, traditional Malay wooden sandals (Kaparangs), the incredible Matchstick Mosque that was built by Mr Gamat Astrie in 1982, the many sporting achievements of the Malay in both the past and present, early Malay family life and information about Alliance Plumbers (established in 1955) – the first non-white plumber and drain layer in the Eastern Cape. The Malay involvement in the struggle against Apartheid is told through the efforts of Omar Cassem – an Arabic scholar, anti-apartheid campaigner, calligrapher, interior designer, poet and angler – who played a large part in getting South Africa banned from the Olympic Games during the Apartheid regime and in encouraging Muhammad Ali to cancel his South African tour. The exhibit tells a story of success despite adversity, a theme that ran strong through the lives of South Enders.