Hadima Ebrahim Ally (72) can’t remember the last time she felt this elated. Casting her eyes over the cheering crowds and beyond, to the city skyline and harbour in the distance, the great grandmother adjusts her hijab (scarf) and beams.
“Oh, I am so happy today. You know, I wish I could just stay here and not go back home to Chatsworth,” she chuckles.
For Ally, and about 5 000 other descendants of Zanzibari slaves who made Durban home more than a century ago, the source of this joy has been decades in the making.
After an almost 40-year struggle to win back land they were forcibly removed from in the early Sixties, and after being shunted into ill-fitting Group Areas, this unique community has reason to celebrate.
Recently, the KwaZulu-Natal Land Claims Commission handed over title deeds to 5,2ha of what is now prime real estate on Durban’s Bluff.
There were the usual scenes of jubilant singing and joyful tears that accompany such ceremonies.
But for the thousands of staunch black Muslims, who drew bewildered looks from residents as they descended on the site for the celebration, the day marked much more than a land restitution victory.
It signified, finally, an affirmation by the powers that be of the identity they have fought so hard to maintain.
The Zanzibaris, one of South Africa’s smallest minority groups, is a closely knit community, which has managed to sustain an antiquated East African religious culture while embracing an integrated new South Africa.
Most still speak and teach their children Makua — a language that originated in northern Mozambique — and celebrate rites and rituals handed down through the generations.
“That’s the one thing that is drummed into us from little: without your culture, you are nothing, you have nothing,” says Abey Canthitoo, community spokesperson and head of the Zanzibari Development Trust.
Their ancestors landed in Durban in 1893 after a British ship, patrolling off the city’s coast, intercepted Arab slave traders with 500 captured Zanzibaris on board. The slaves were brought to the port, interned as indentured labour for three years and freed. The colonial rulers settled them at Kings Rest, a hillock overlooking the harbour.
There they built a small mosque and practised a way of life rooted in the religious culture of the Spice Islands.
In 1961 the suburb was declared a white area. Within three days of being notified, their homes were bulldozed and they were trucked off to the Indian township of Chatsworth, where most still live today, and Wentworth, a coloured area.
“I had a baby of 18 days. We had to pack in a hurry — what we couldn’t pack we had to leave behind. I lost a lot of things,” Ally recalls.
How they ended up in Chatsworth is classic apartheid absurdity.
“Under apartheid logic, if you were a Muslim, you must be somehow aligned with what was seen as an Asian identity,” says KwaZulu-Natal University lecturer Shahied Vawda, who has researched black Muslim communities in Durban townships.
“The apartheid government didn’t know what to make of us,” says Canthitoo. “My parents both had ‘lost tribe’ written in their dompas.”
Bizarrely, the Zanzibaris were finally classified Asian. Ironically, it was this misguided view that helped preserve their culture, Vawda believes.
“They were placed in a Muslim community, which largely accepted them, and allowed them to practise their beliefs,” he said.
But even as fellow believers, integration for the Bantu-looking Zanzibaris didn’t come easy. “In the beginning, it was difficult. They didn’t understand us. They used to call us kaffirs. If they caught you with an Indian girl, they would donner you properly,” recalled Canthitoo, who was eight when his family was moved to Chatsworth Unit 2.
There were few amenities for them in the years that followed so the Zanzibari Civic Association was formed to fight for better residential services.
The slave descendants also had to contend with a community which followed a brand of Islam different from their Sufism, a ritualistic Islamic order with roots in ancient Persia.
But Vawda believes the Amazamzambane, as they’re known to Zulu speakers, might have had a harder time being accepted in a township.
“Black Muslims in KwaMashu and Inanda today are still considered outsiders, even though they are Zulu and speak the language.”
In Wentworth, the Zanzibaris also struggled to strike a balance between trying to fit in and practising their cultural lifestyle.
“I went to a coloured high school and generally kept a low profile there. We never spoke Makua at school, we never wore our kufis [skullcaps] and we behaved like the other children. We tried to blend in,” recalls Canthitoo.
In the apartheid mindset, the Zanzibari families were under constant pressure to conform to the cultural identity of their neighbourhoods, Vawda says.
As perceived outsiders in segregated suburbs, there was an underlying threat for them to toe the line, not to make waves.
While cross-cultural marriages were rare in the 1950s and 1960s, Canthitoo says, today more Zanzibaris marry outside the group than in.
Remarkably, little has changed in the way they practise this religious culture today. The community frequently gathers to witness rituals and rites of passages, such as coming-of-age ceremonies.
But the tide of modern living is taking its toll on efforts to keep the flame burning among the young.
“Some of my grandchildren don’t speak Makua. They don’t want to learn, they only want to speak English,” Ally laments.
For the older generation, the Zanzibari lineage is an umbilical cord to their identities.
Ally has nieces and nephews in Zanzibar after her sister emigrated and died there. But most have little interest in going to Zanzibar or trying to establish ties there.
“It’s not a priority. We are South Africans through-and-through. This is who we are now, this is where we belong,” Canthitoo says.
In a nation with a Constitution, which protects minority rights and encourages cultural diversity, does this cohesive community want special status as a minority group?
“I think that would be the death of us,” Canthitoo argues. “We have to remain in the mainstream of South African society.”
The Zanzibari Development Trust plans to build 250 middle-income housing units, an office park and a cultural centre on their new land.
The government has also given the trust more than R9-million towards this development.
For Canthitoo, it is the end of an era of blighted struggle.
“What we know is that we will never again be slaves to circumstance.”