June 29, 2016 | by Shafinaaz Hassim
Love & Community: The Memons of South Africa

Exactly ten years ago, I had the privilege of performing the Hajj with my parents and siblings, and of the many remarkable encounters, I recall attending a lecture prior to the five day rituals given by a Maulana from New York. To sum up a lengthy and beautiful speech, he spoke about Islam as the ultimate experience of Love, that our kalima is a declaration of Love and the Hajj was a journey of love to meet the Beloved. Most striking was his comment that by giving charity and sharing with those less fortunate from our earnings and property, for the sake of Allah, we are able to prove our love for our Beloved Creator. Love is in giving.

Memons have a history of giving love through aid. Philanthropy is an essential part of being Muslim, and an active part of how we conduct our life and business beyond the obligatory zakaah and the recommended lillah and sadakah.
Our small and resourceful Memon community has amassed ample evidence in this regard, by being driven by small and substantial groupings of women and men around the country, who follow the ideals of faith-based philanthropy and make it a lifestyle to collect and share what we have as a form of Love for all creation. There are no boundaries to accessing these funds for the needy, be it for education or medical, sustenance or housing, or even political  safety. Our local organizations find ways to meet the needs of refugees, the homeless, those battling illness, and various others. Joining a long list of groups around the country we have relied on life-changing efforts of organizations like the ‘Memon Association of South Africa’, ‘Caring Women’s Forum’ and ‘Gift of the Givers’ for numerous interventions.

As we know, the Memon Association of South Africa was formed  in 1965 when a student from Brits was unable to access funding from other institutes, and a small group of businessmen in Johannesburg put together the money he needed. This start was an open blessing and has revealed itself as a platform and opportunity, sustained for fifty years and counting, to collate the philanthropy  of thousands of individuals and families, and to channel these funds to students who need it most, regardless of whether or not they’re from Memon families.
To give is to enumerate the blessings we attract into our lives, and God-willing, to weigh the scales of good in our favour. May the association see at least another fifty years.

We understand much of the narrative on the historical arrival of memon-speaking Indians to South Africa in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to include this pioneering merchant class seeking newer pastures. Memons are known for being enterprising and forward reaching, and these qualities attest to the ways in which Memons in South Africa and abroad have both thrived and contributed to political, social and economic structures and advancements, even as a minority. These earlier migrants arrived from the North Western province of Kathiawar in India, which was demarcated in clusters of villages and small towns inland of the port city, Porbander. Taking from the names of these smaller towns, Memons in the diaspora and in South Africa in particular still identify by the specifics of respective dialects received from their village of origin or tribal affiliation, ie Ranavau, Bhanvad, Jodiya, etc. In the broader sense, Memons were comprised of Halaai, Kutchi and Sindhi, all descendants of the Lohana tribe, and were first introduced to Islam around eight centuries ago.

Having arrived on ships, often after months of enduring a journey of strife, diminishing resources and disease where some relatives, often small children did not survive and were buried at sea, families then settled in Durban and Pietermaritzburg while others moved inland to Johannesburg, Pretoria, and then to smaller cluster towns like Brits, Rustenburg, Mafikeng, Middleburg, and further north to what was then Potgietersrus, Pietersburg and Louis Trichardt and surrounds. Families and in some cases those who came from the same village tended to move together, creating thriving new communities and businesses, actively involved in setting up environments conducive to their children’s Islamic and secular education and progress.

From these entrepreneurs and visionaries for whom trade and enterprise was both legacy and a way of survival, there have been born professionals and trailblazers in every field and sphere. The contemporary Memon community consists of an ever-increasing range of industry forerunners, often with global reach, high ranking ulema, hufaaz, scientists, architects, quantity surveyors, medical professionals, judges and lawyers, accountants and economists, media professionals and academics, an inexhaustible thread of women and men who are specialists in their chosen field. Our sportsmen, writers and nasheed artists inspire the youth to aspire to be the best they can be.

Memons have been  involved in the struggle to end apartheid, and the constant struggle to eradicate all forms of racism and discrimination is an important part of enhancing our spiritual experience. Despite being a minority, we are influential activists, vocal about oppressive structures, corruption and inequality and we understand the need to demand social justice for all, politically and socially. When we speak of community, we need not speak of an insular bubble from which we operate for the survival of those who constitute Memon-speaking families, or those whose ancestors came from Kathiawar. Creating a sense of community is a social contract, a promise we make to each other to live and act in ways that enhance the safety and progress of those we have immediate contact with while extending our humanity to all whom we are able to. A circle of community may seem complete, but to be alive and to thrive, it must be allowed to grow, otherwise what is inside it will shrivel up and die.
We have become increasingly aware that our proud learning of Memon language and culture is not a means for division but a beautiful layer of identity; as Muslims we are motivated by a common humanity to continue to do what’s right.

The Memons in South Africa are evidence that even in relatively small numbers there is power to overcome adversity and injustice, that through our individual means and our many appeals and organizations, we believe in a better world and in our collective power, both within and beyond our idea of the Memon cluster, we hold the solutions to upturn social inequality.
If we think what’s past is done, then in  democratic South Africa we need to also look at the contributions we have made as proof that on the road ahead there is much work to be done and we have the will, the opportunity and the continuing need to be an active part of continuing to call out the wrongs and strive for social justice for one and all. May it always be with compassion and with Love.

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY MAGAZINE OF THE MEMON ASSOCIATION OF SOUTH AFRICA, 2016.

‘Shafinaaz Hassim is a public sociologist and author based in Johannesburg. She is listed as one of the top 39 young writers in Africa, and she comments on social and political issues affecting women and minorities. Her grandfather, the late Mr Abdul Sattar Ismail Mottiar, was one of the founding members of the Memon Association of South Africa. She is the daughter of Sikander and Gulbaden Hassim of Polokwane.’

Shafinaaz Hassim is a sociologist based in Johannesburg. She is the author of 'Daughters are Diamonds: Honour, Shame & Seclusion -- A South African Perspective' (2007), 'Memoirs for Kimya' (2009), and the critically acclaimed novel on domestic violence 'SoPhia' (2012). Her work has been shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Creative Writing Prize and the prestigious K Sello Duiker Award 2013, and she has been awarded in Hay Festival's category of top 39 authors under the age of 40 in Africa during the London Book Fair 2014. She is also the editor of the Belly of Fire anthologies for social change series, which was launched in 2011. Her research focuses on biographical narrative in the interplay between personal and political spaces and she writes both fiction and non-fiction. She has lectured and presented seminars at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, Humboldt University in Berlin and at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

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About Shafinaaz

Shafinaaz Hassim is a sociologist based in Johannesburg. She is the author of Daughters are Diamonds: Honour, Shame & Seclusion -- A South African Perspective (2007), Memoirs for Kimya (2009), and the critically acclaimed novel on domestic violence SoPhia (2012). She is also the editor of the Belly of Fire anthologies for social change series, which was launched in 2011. Her research focuses on biographical narrative in the interplay between personal and political spaces and she writes both fiction and non-fiction. She has lectured and presented seminars at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, Humboldt University in Berlin and at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

My Books

Princess Rasgulla and the Ponytail Monster (2017)

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The Garden of Love and Longing (2017)

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Nisa Qamar and the Master of Jinniaville (2016)

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