The African National Congress
“Imam Solomon contributed his life to the struggle for a fairer, better, more compassionate world. He was a Muslim leader who transcended religious boundaries; a community leader who crossed geographic borders; and an ANC activist who went into exile and returned to become an MP.”
“There was a time not so long ago when South Africans were forced to live separate lives. This institutionalised separation extended into every facet of our existence. Even our places of worship were divided.
In the mid-1980s, after my appointment as Archbishop of Cape Town, a group of us, religious leaders from the different faith groups, recognising that we had more in common than the apartheid rulers dared to concede, established an Interfaith Movement to challenge the iniquitous system.
One of our leaders was a Muslim cleric from the Claremont Main Road Mosque, an Imam who preached stridently for equal rights, justice and a more compassionate society. He was responsible for mobilising a new generation of young people to act against apartheid.
We marched together, worked together in the UDF, overcame many anxieties and shared many disappointments.
Imam Gassan Solomon was a highly principled and an inspirational human being. When he appeared at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, representing the Muslim Judicial Council, he concluded his input by quoting from the Koran: “And say truth has arrived and falsehood has perished for indeed falsehood is by its nature perishing.”
Imam Solomon understood the value of truth. One of the jewels of the Western Cape has left us for a higher place. He will be sorely missed,
May his soul rest in peace.”
“Parliament has lost a dedicated representative of the people, we have lost a committed leader and stalwart.
“His track record in fighting for liberation and human rights is well-known, his sterling contribution will forever remain etched in our memories,”
On Wednesday 28 October 2009, Imam Gassan Solomon passed away following a protracted battle with prostate cancer. He fought his cancer as bravely as he fought apartheid and later poverty. This was the death of a struggle hero, a Muslim Imam, Member of Parliament, a cadre of the ANC, and a decent human being.
As news of his passing away spread, and his funeral arranged according to the traditions of Islam, the tributes and condolences poured in. Every message pieced together a chronicle of his life that soon was a chronicle of an entire community’s history – the story of Muslims of South Africa, and their struggle over 300 years.
And as this story of a man and the community that produced him unfolded, the mission and purpose of the African National Congress was retold and affirmed. It is correct that the ANC is a broad church because it was this distinctive combination of traits that allowed a unique cadre and his people to find rest in the ANC’s inclusivity after centuries of slavery, exile, criminalisation and oppression – as people, blacks and Muslims.
It is correct that the ANC has chosen a path of non-racism as both a goal and a method of struggle so that Imam Solomon and all Muslims, Coloured, Malays, Indians, etc could reconcile the values of justice, equality and peace with the values of the ANC that has had the historic mission of National liberation and the establishment of a non-racial democracy.
The death of Imam Solomon and the history of the Muslim community causes us to pause and reflect on why he joined the ANC as his political house. Here was a man, at the age of 19, a victim of the Apartheid Group Areas Act that removed his entire extended family in 1964 from the family land in Constantia, which had been bought by his grandfather in 1902.
His political consciousness was further shaped in 1969 when the Claremont Imam, Abdullah Haron, was murdered in detention giving direction to an entire generation of young Muslims, but effectively shocking the older generation – including the clergy – into silence, preferring a retreat into the rituals rather than the activism of Islam.
From among the younger generation of Muslims, Imam Gassan Solomon was thrust with the leadership of the Claremont Main Rd Mosque, and the Mosque became the lodestar for the politicised Muslim youth who experienced the 1976 uprisings. From the pulpit Imam Solomon interpreted the Quran in ways that simplified Muslim Liberation Theology and he quoted the chapter that declares that the true heretic is the one who prays to God but does not fight for the basic needs of the people.
This clarity of vision was allied to a practical strategy that understood that the Muslim masses needed to be mobilised and the key to this was to engender a vision and to inculcate courage into the clergy. It was this strategy that brought people like Gassan Solomon and Faried Essack into the Muslim Judicial Council.
The fruits were immediately apparent as the MJC declared in 1983, in response to attempts to co-opt minorities into the apartheid system: The MJC “…believes that it cannot divorce itself from the rest of the oppressed and those with the same ideals in the formation of a united democratic front, to oppose a system of apartheid in South Africa.”
This opened the floodgates for Muslim participation in the anti-apartheid struggle, through the United Democratic Front (UDF). Imam Solomon and others immediately understood the need for a vehicle to harness this moment, and in 1984, The Call of Islam was born with Imam Solomon as Amir (President) at a rally of 8000 people in a mosque on the Cape Flats. Imam Gassan inspired Muslims with his oratory into mass action against apartheid that was evident in the way in which mosques, schools and the streets of the Cape Flats reverberated with chants of both Amandla and Allahu Akbar!
But while at a mass level the battle was won by The Call of Islam – now a UDF affiliate – there was intense theological, intellectual and theoretical contestation within the Muslim leadership about whether a democratic state or an Islamic state should be a goal, and about whether Muslims can participate with communists and non-Muslims, and many others. Again The Call of Islam prevailed.
By 1985 the apartheid state understood the Muslim capacity for Martyrdom and sacrifice and acted to deal with the leadership by detaining, threatening, exiling and vilifying them. Imam Solomon went into exile in Saudi Arabia and returned to help build the New South Africa. But the legacy had been established as Muslims swelled the ranks of the UDF’s mass base, the ANC’s underground and Umkhonto we Sizwe, driven by the simple removal of any contradiction between Islam and the ANC as the premier Liberation organisation.
Imam Solomon understood that the ANC cadre carries many responsibilities to win the confidence of the masses. It is this that made him a driving force in the Zakaah Fund that distributes food to the destitute, the Voice of the Cape Radio Station and many other organisations of the people. He was an excellent constituency worker in Grassy Park and a committed Parliamentarian.
Imam Gassan Solomon has done his ancestor, Tuan Guru, proud. He completed a struggle started by Tuan Guru, an exile from Indonesia in Cape Town because of his fight against Dutch colonialism, one of the first prisoners on Robben Island, a man who established the first Mosque and Madrassa in South Africa, a unifier of all the oppressed: slaves from Malaya, the West Coast of Africa, and from among the indigenous people of the Cape. Today, they are all fused into one single community that produced Imam Gassan Solomon.
The ANC mourns with his family. Their loss is our loss. His legacy will not be lost. The ANC is proud that we were able to be his home. His death has shone a light on the values and principles that has made the ANC the home for all South Africans committed to an equal, democratic and non-racial society. We recommit ourselves to these.
Pick up his spear!
>> Kgalema Motlanthe is the ANC Deputy President and Deputy President of the Republic of South Africa