Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A view from the tip of Africa

Mansoor Jaffer and his wife Kay are amazed by the diversity of cultures in Kerala. They also talk about life in a post-racist South Africa

Photo: Mansoor Jaffer (centre) with Shevlin Sebastian (extreme right) and Mark Antony, a 'New Indian Express' colleague of Shevlin's

By Shevlin Sebastian

More than a hundred years ago, Jaffer Murtaza left his home in a village, Borli Panchatan, in Maharashtra to seek his fortune in South Africa. He arrived at Cape Town with a group of other Indians. They started working in small shops in Cape Town. Later, a lot of Indians owned corner shops in South Africa. In fact, there was a cruel joke which said that the reason why Indians don’t play football is that when they are awarded a corner, during a game, they will immediately set up a shop.

Today, his grandson, Mansoor Jaffer, a journalist, has come to India for the first time, along with his wife, Kay, a former professor of English at the University of the Western Cape. “I came to see my roots and meet a few relatives in my ancestral village,” says Mansoor. But before that, the couple is touring India and have come to Kochi.

“I heard about the beauty of Kerala from my sister Zubeida, who is a writer, and had attended the Kovalam Literary Festival a couple of years ago,” says Mansoor. And, of course, Mansoor and Kay have been moving around, going to Munnar and the border districts. “It was only when we came here that we heard about the Mullaperiyar Dam issue,” says Kay. “In Cape Town, we do get news about India on cable TV. And we are aware of Anna Hazare and the Lokpal Bill.”

The duo finds Kerala a fascinating place. “From outside India, you cannot imagine the mixing of communities that exists,” says Kay. “You feel it must be a Hindu country, since 82 per cent of the population belongs to that community. But in Kerala, the mix of Muslim, Christian and Hindus is wonderful to see. I have seen mosques, temples and churches next to each other, apart from a Jain temple, and not to forget the Jewish synagogue at Fort Kochi. It has been incredible to witness the melting pot of cultures and religions.”

Unfortunately, South Africa was never a melting pot. Till recently, it was a racist society, where whites, blacks, Asians and coloured lived in separate areas.

“When we grew up, my wife and I could not vote, or swim at the local beaches, or study in many schools in Cape Town,” says Mansoor. “Imagine if you were living in Fort Kochi and you are forcibly moved out and asked to stay in another place. Other people, usually whites, moved into your house. Twenty years later when you get freedom and you come to Fort Kochi and see other people living there, you will get angry and resentful. But you also have to understand that in the broader interests of society, you need to forget it. As [former President] Nelson Mandela said the conflict which has been going on between blacks and whites for three centuries, needs to be broken. We have to learn to heal and forgive.”

And, amazingly, the African National Congress (ANC), the party which rules South Africa now, always felt that whites belong to the country. “The freedom charter, which was formulated in 1955, by the ANC and its allies, makes it very clear that South Africa belongs to all those who live in it,” says Kay. “It was a non-racial document. And, for us, it was a struggle for democracy, and equality for all peoples.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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