Not a saint but a very human human being

Dullah Omar was a Muslim man of Asian ancestry. He was South African. An African.
A man of the world. But most of all, in his own words, a “human being”. A person equal to all others. A person who refused to differentiate on the basis of race, colour, gender or religion.

The former minister of transport’s death on March 13 calls for quiet reflection, for serious contemplation of the central principles that guided one of the great sons of this country. What lessons can we learn from a life well lived? He was committed to a philosophy of a common humanity. This formed the key thread of his life-long struggle. When he was laid to rest, it was the thread of this common humanity that effortlessly went on display. Through the gates of the local stadium flowed men and women of all colours and creeds, some who had walked from the surrounding vicinity, others who had come by bus, by taxi, by plane — rich and poor.

A common humanity that puts to shame those of us in all communities who continue to remain bigoted. Those who exclude others on the basis of race, religion or gender. Those who insist on maintaining the apartheid belief that they should mix only with those of their own kind and shun others.

Omar opened his door to all in both his professional and personal life. He led a life of service, extending a helping hand as best he could.

He was no saint. By his own admission he was a human being like any other with a fair history of making mistakes. But he quintessentially represented what it means to be a new South African, understanding the concept of ubuntu — that a person is only a person through other people.

Somehow, in his later life, he managed to find the balance between a commitment to humanity and an expression of the religious belief of his family and community. His funeral was organised according to his wishes and showed a complex combination of religious, community and political commitment.

Perhaps in his death, those Muslims who, over the years, opposed his approach will reluctantly admit that he has done more to advance awareness of Islam in the broader South African community than those with a narrow religiosity. He became the first Muslim to be given a state funeral in the history of South Africa. He threw the SABC into momentary disarray when the broadcaster realised that the existing protocols pertained only to Christian funerals.

The broadcasting of the Islamic burial procedure cannot but contribute to the immense efforts in this country to enhance inter-faith understanding. This understanding is so crucial in today’s world, where religious divisions threaten all of humanity.

Omar’s instruction that the funeral arrangements be simple, with as little pomp and ceremony associated with the state funeral as we know it, signalled a strong commitment to simplicity that is not always the strongest feature of our young democracy.

Over the past 10 years, those who fought against apartheid have easily been drawn into the elaborate formal trappings of the old order. What Omar’s funeral showed us was that it is possible to say no.

It is possible to change those pompous trappings. There was no military parade and gun salute. Naval officers quietly stood to attention in their white uniforms and draped the national flag over the bier holding Omar’s body. This same bier had carried other members of the community to their resting places and will continue to be used for that purpose. Omar was wrapped in cotton-wool and white linen in the tradition of every other Muslim — rich or poor.

He continued to live within the community among the people in Rylands, where apartheid had thrown him, placing his skill and wealth of contacts at their disposal. Even when he was placed under tremendous pressure by people against gangsterism and drugs (Pagad) protesters, he only left his home temporarily.

How fortunate the people of Rylands, Athlone and Guguletu have been to have a national leader in their midst. They, in particular, will miss him sorely. Omar’s practice does raise questions about the interconnections between our leaders and communities, and will again and again force the issue of constituency representation on to the debating table.

He has left us with a strong sense that he strove to be of service to the people and not to a single party. Although in the past 20 years Omar held the African National Congress flag high, this did not preclude his assistance to people irrespective of political party — one point Nelson Mandela chose to make at his funeral. Mandela told of a time when Omar belonged to the Unity Movement and visited him on Robben Island. Despite being part of another party, Omar had raised money for bursaries for 20 students belonging to the ANC. He was known to have been similarly generous in his assistance to the Pan-Africanist Congress and other parties. So often today, political leaders place party above country. They place party above the people. Omar has taught us that the commitment must, in the final instance, be to the well-being and upliftment of the people.

Abdulah Mohamed Omar, born May 26 1934; died March 13 2004

Zubeida Jaffer works as a political analyst with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town. Website: www.ijr.org.za

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