The west end of Durban's city centre should be a must-visit on any tourist’s itinerary. It is here that the Victoria Street Market and the Early Morning Market – both more than 100 years old – are situated. It is also here that the West Street and Brook Street cemeteries, the resting places of historical figures such as artist-explorer Thomas Baines and anti-apartheid activist Rick Turner, are situated.
And the area is home to Berea Station, one of the two commuter rail stations servicing the inner city.
But over the past few years, the poverty and unemployment that have affected the country as a whole have also had an impact on this once vibrant part of town.
Against this backdrop of decay and degeneration, two religious institutions have stood firmly together as beacons of light.
The Emmanuel Cathedral and the Jumma Masjid (also known as the Grey Street Mosque) have peacefully coexisted side by side, in their towering magnificence, for more than a century.
And that coexistence has regularly translated into co-operation for the greater good of society.
For example, in 2008, when the country was hit by xenophobic attacks, the Catholic cathedral sheltered about 500 people in its parish centre for more than five weeks. Its Muslim neighbours readily came to the rescue with blankets and food.
It was that moment that inspired the creation of the Denis Hurley Centre (DHC), a custom-made, multifunctional building positioned between the mosque and the cathedral, which will cater for the needs of the city's poor and destitute.
Named after the late Archbishop of Durban, the centre is expected to be completed by October 2014. Hurley, who was known as an outspoken campaigner against apartheid and a fighter for social justice, was parish priest for 10 years at Emmanuel Cathedral after retiring as archbishop in 1992.
Project co-ordinator Paddy Kearney said that a strong spirit of interfaith co-operation had made the centre possible.
"When we started our fundraising appeal in 2009, members of the Muslim community – including the mosque, business people and nongovernment organisations like the Iqraa Trust – were among the first to make a contribution," he said. "They came to us with more than R350 000."
Kearney also pointed out that, while the centre was being built, the cathedral’s projects were run from the Surat Hindu Association Building, situated a short distance away.
"It's remarkable really, given the kind of conflict raging between people of different faiths [in other parts of the world] that this oasis of tolerance and acceptance exists," he said. "It's not just tolerance, it's something more active and dynamic than that."
Kearney believes that this is partly due to Hurley's efforts.
"He was always reaching out to people from all faiths, incorporating them into his interests and concerns," he said, recalling that during the latter years of Hurley's life, as parish priest, he used to go to the mosque in the early hours of the morning and watch worshippers praying. "This was after the attacks on the World Trade Centre, when there was a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment. I think he was trying to reach out. He wanted to maintain good relations."
The current archbishop of Durban, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, has continued the tradition of working closely with people from other faith groups, said Kearney.
Avie Mahomed, one of the trustees of the Grey Street Mosque, said that the institution and the cathedral had always shared a spirit of camaraderie.
"We've not had a dispute for over a hundred years. I've been involved for the past 30 to 40 years, and during that time there’s always been a spirit of brotherhood, co-operation and understanding between us," he said.
"This even applies to the unique situation whereby cathedral worshippers are allowed to park in the centre of the road on a Sunday morning, and Muslim worshippers can do the same on a Friday afternoon."
Roothren Moodley, a Hindu, who is a trustee of the Victoria Street Market and a trader there, said the area was one of the few places in the world where three religious institutions stood side by side in "absolutely harmony".
"They support each other – the mosque, the cathedral and the Surat Hindu organisation – there's a lot of goodwill between them, they've never had any issues," he said.
South Africans are generally tolerant of one another when it comes to religion, said Rabbi Hillel Avidan, a Jewish patron of the DHC. "The level of religious fanaticism is very low, particularly in Durban. I work with other religious leaders on so many platforms. We do whatever we can do. We also have a South African Faith Communities' Environmental Institute, backed by all faith groups in the country, who work together to protect the environment."
The situation differs from Great Britain, where he was previously based, he said. "There's a lot of tension between different religious groups there, even though most leaders are trying to do what they can [to improve relations]."
Religious communities can inspire political tolerance
South Africa seems to be an example for the rest of the world when it comes to religious tolerance. But when it comes to politics, especially before the elections, there appears to be a different story.
The South African Reconciliation Barometer survey, a nationally representative public opinion poll conducted annually since 2003 by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, has consistently found that South Africans consider political differences to be one of the most divisive issues inhibiting reconciliation.
In last year's survey, it came third only to income and disease, with 16% of participants citing political parties as the most divisive factor, compared with only 8.6% who cited religion.
“Sometimes the polarising nature of our political divisions leads to physical violence,” says Jan Hofmeyr, the institute’s programme head for policy and analysis. “This occurs especially in the run-up to elections, and was recently highlighted in the Democratic Alliance march to the ANC headquarters where the police had to keep people apart.”
Hofmeyr says that one needs to look beyond the obvious to understand political intolerance. “Even in emergent economies like Brazil, people link their economic security to the politics of the day. With political intolerance, material things are the primary driver. People are feeling anxious. We don’t have a Western European system where, if people lose their jobs, welfare systems will look after them.”
He says that often, nowadays, the intolerance is intra-political and not inter-political. “Sometimes competition within parties results in violent conflict within communities. This is because we have a proportional representation party system, and only candidates on a party’s list get to Parliament. Whether somebody
gets on the list or not may be the
difference between earning a livelihood or not.”
Hofmeyr says that often people who get elected into decision-making positions can decide on the allocation of resources such as tenders. “So the intensity of political violence is underpinned by very real material interests. It’s deeply structural and it’s very difficult to say what the solution is because it boils down to issues like inequality and poverty.”
Mary de Haas, a veteran political violence monitor, says that part of the solution lies in holding political leaders accountable for the conduct of their followers. “This is admittedly difficult because they will disclaim knowledge of troublemakers.”
De Haas says that apolitical and effective policing of political meetings is also important. “There are ongoing allegations of political partisan policing. Effective policing is a long-term goal we must strive for if we are to have true freedom of expression, including political expression.”
Can the religious community play a role in resolving political tensions? The director of the Diakonia Council of Churches, Nomabelu Mvambo-Dandala, who is also a patron of Durban’s Denis Hurley Centre, says that religious leaders need to be more proactive in this regard.
“The religious community needs to be more assertive. They are a good model and they have something to offer the country. But they must be proactive – they must not undermine or underestimate themselves. They must put tolerance on to the agendas of politicians on an ongoing basis … A process needs to be put into place which promotes political tolerance.” – Fatima Asmal