Historic day for Muslim cemetery


January 17 should be etched in the memories of all Capetonians – not just Muslims – and it should be something all Capetonians see as an iconic day in the history of the city.

This was the message of the Tana Baru Trust Committee at the 130th anniversary commemoration of the uprising of the Cape Muslim community in protest of the closure of a sacred Bo-Kaap cemetery, the Tana Baru cemetery in the Bo-Kaap, in 1886. The Tana Baru cemetery, which covers 18 308 square metres, was the first officially recognised Muslim cemetery in Southern Africa and many of the pioneers of Islam in the province, lie buried there.

Aadil Bassier, chairperson of the trust committee, said an historic event took place on that day.

“We want to build up, empower and instil the thought that January 17 is a critical day. The reason it is critical is because on that day, Muslims decided to march because they felt like (the closure) was attacking one of the fundamental pillars of their faith. Not in terms of ideology, but what they had gone through to acquire the land when suddenly it was taken away from them.”

The cemetery site was taken away by authorities after an outbreak of smallpox in the area. “It wasn’t just a spur of the moment protest. There was a lot of negotiation beforehand,” stressed Mr Bassier. A child was buried on the site in defiance, on Sunday January 17, 130 years ago.

In 1978 the Committee for the Preservation of the Tana Baru was formed, with the task to preserve the scared ground. In 1998 the Tana Baru Trust was registered as a legal entity when Imam Abdurahman Bassier became the first chairperson.

One of the challenges facing the current committee is that there are 14 different erven on the site, all owned by different owners.

“We have to try (and get) it under one roof so we can submit a coherent plan to council,” said Mr Bassier.

He said the City of Cape Town has recently come on board and is working with them on the project.

The vision of the committee, said Mr Bassier, is to transform the cemetery into a world-class heritage site. “When you come to Cape Town, whether you’re from Sweden or Canada, it should be on your bucket list of places to visit. We feel that it is so rich in history that it deserves to be on par with things like Kirstenbosch Garden, Table Mountain and Robben Island.”

Another member of the trust, Imraan Solomons, said a priority for the trust was to buy the land that they didn’t own.

“This is important going down the line and applying for heritage status,” said Mr Solomons.

He added that they were currently engaging with the other land owners of the site and hoped to conclude negotiations within the next year. “We are hopeful we are on the right road with that and have already acquired three properties.”

Mr Solomons said it was important for the trust to work and engage with local community on the project.

“They need to support it because there will be tourists visiting the site. We definitely require the support of the community and so far they have been very supportive.”

Mr Solomons, who know lives in Woodstock, said it was important for him because he grew up in the community.

“I think it’s got an important role to play in that the generations that follow need to understand how the heritage has developed. There is some context as to why they are here and what their role in the community should be.

“With time, if we don’t generate interest and ensure that significance of what has happened is documented, we will lose that link. We have to ensure that interest is constantly revived.”

Mohammad Groenewald, of the Bo-Kaap Civic Association, said it was important to learn lessons from the past.

“History plays such an important role in understanding our lives. If we look at the closing of the Tana Baru, they had engaged with the authorities. At one point they knew they were going to lose the battle and they buried a young child here two days after the closure. The burial took place on January 17 which was also a Sunday, which makes this year’s anniversary special.”

For a community like Bo-Kaap, said Mr Groenewald, these lessons are especially important with the challenges that Bo-Kaap is going through today in terms of gentrification.

“Our forefathers, even if they lost a battle, always put up a fight. That is the kind of spirit that must continue. We need to engage government. The struggles we are fighting today are different but the lessons remain.”

He added that they look back on their forefathers and can be proud of the legacy they left behind. “In 200 years from now will they be able to look back at us and say we left a good legacy? You can look at a number of issues that we are facing.”