Mandela in Focus

Farook Khan and Kevin Joseph’s book, Mandela in Focus which was launched last week is in demand. Among the host of exclusive stories and photographs, is a riveting account of President Nelson Mandela’s inter-action with Islam while on Robben Island. Here is an extract:

“Then there is the Muslim influence on President Nelson Mandela. His two friends from his days’ at Wits University were Ismail Meer, Ahmed Kathradha and the “seniors” in the struggle in those days were Moulana Ismail Cachalia and Dr Yusuf Dadoo.

They met at a flat in Kholvad House, the first black owned high-rise building in the Johannesburg Business Central District. But the deep insights into Islam came from his incarceration on Robben Island.

Two major events occurred: One, while still a prisoner, President Mandela heard that a Muslim leader from Kensington, Cape Town, Sheik Ahmed Al Kaderi had been given permission to find a grave of a Saint who was also imprisoned on the Island some 300 years ago. Sheik Abduraghman Motura was a political prisoner brought from Malayasia and was restricted to this desolate place which had no water supplies of its own.

The man who was to become President expressed a keen interest and when the grave was eventually found, he volunteered to be part of the work team to build a shrine.

It was duly built and was concentrated in June 1969 and just 185 Muslims were allowed to attend this auspicious ceremony. None of the prisoners nor was President Mandela allowed to attend this event.

However, as the years went by, another man took over the upkeep of the shrine.

Abdul Latief Rawat was fast asleep one night during 1972 when he dreamt of a grave and a voice, which said, “Come and visit me. I have a problem.”

Instinctively he knew that the voice was that of Sayed Abduraghman Motura who was incarcerated on Robben Island for 11 years until his death in 1744.

Sheik Ahmed Kaderi, a respected scholar and pious man who was a top leader in the Islamic community of the Western Cape, searched, found and had a shrine built over the grave in 1969. He negotiated and was eventually given permission by the Department of Prisons to search for the grave, which he located in 1969. He went on to secure permission to build a shrine. Once the then authorities granted their approval, Sheik Ahmed Kadri, With the help of political prisoners including President Nelson Mandela built an impressive Shrine (Mazaar,) which was consecrated in 1969.

Unknown to Mr Rawat, the shrine was left unattended for four years and in that time, the windows were damaged, the door leading to the grave was blown away and the building needed attention.

“I got in touch with the authorities to secure permission to travel to Robben Island. At this stage, it was still a prison and one had to get special permission. There was no response and I persisted until such time I got a reply.

“When I eventually I received a letter, it was to the effect that if I wanted to visit the Shrine on Robben Island, I would have to get permission from Sheik Ahmed Kaderi. I did not know the man and I began making enquiries.

“It took a long time before I traced him to his home in Kensington and I turned up at his house. I found him to be bedridden and extremely ill. I spent some time talking to him before I made my request.

“He turned me down and said that nobody had gone to the Shrine for four years and that neither would I go there.  I pleaded with him to give me permission, but he refused,” said Mr Rawat.

However, this was a mission, which could not be given up so easily. The pharmacy technician, who worked in a government hospital, was determined to realize his objective.

“I visited the Sheik several times and as our relationship developed, I hoped that he would see my sincerity and give me a letter of authority to visit Robben Island. Eventually, he agreed.

“But the battle was not over, it took about six months with me shuttling between his home and mine before he asked me to write the letter and then he signed it,” said Mr Rawat. He then wrote to the authorities and sent the signed letter from the Sheik as well. There was no response.  It seemed that the issue did not get any further.

“It was not until 1976, that a complete stranger, a Mr Abdul Kader from Cravenby in Cape Town came to my home looking for me. He had with him a letter from the Department of Prisons. I was suprised.

“He had written to them asking for permission to visit the Shrine on Robben Island. He was told to contact me, as I was now the man in charge. This is how I learnt that I now had the authority to travel to the Island,” said Mr Rawat.

It gave him a great deal of joy when he saw the letter and started making plans to make the trip for which he waited so long.

Sheik Ahmed Kaderi who was very ill, eight other colleagues and himself boarded the ferry, the Diaz which was in bad condition and casted off in inclement weather.

“The rain pelted down and the conditions on the ferry was terrible. The toilets had overflowed and raw sewage was floating around. The stench was just too much for me to tolerate. I went out and stood on the deck.

“By the time we reached Robben Island, I was drenched and water was running off me like one cannot believe. Once on the Island, we walked on the dirt road leading to the shrine. When we got there, I realized the problem.

“The Shrine was derelict, there was at least six inches of water inside flooding the shrine. The windows were all broken and the front door was missing. I then understood the dream I had. My mission was very clear to me,” said Mr Rawat.

The small party offered prayers before returning to the ferry and the mainland.

“Since then right until 1994, I visited the Shrine every Sunday and I also took people over and each one of them had to be cleared by the Security Police. Permission was granted for some people while others were refused,” said Mr Rawat.

He said that he did not meet any of the political prisoners although he was mindful of who they were, including President Nelson Mandela.

When democracy arrived, a major function was held on the Island, which many dignitaries, Mr Rawat, attended was present.

He said that Mr Mandela had chosen to walk out of jail on the very day, the annual Urs (memorial Service) was held on the Island.

“A week later, he returned to lay flowers on the grave and revealed that he cleaned the Shrine regularly and that when he was finished, he would sit on the floor at the left hand side of the door.

“He told us that the peace and contentment which he experienced was profound.” said Mr Rawat…….

On his first visit to Durban after his release, President Mandela attended the annual memorial service (Urs) of Hazrat Soofie Sahib at Quarry Road, Springfield.

Dressed in a green yellow and black knitted “koffiah” thousands of Muslims sitting and standing shoulder hailed him as their hero.

The man from the so called Communist Party did not look out of place, in fact he fitted in and looked every inch a Muslim.

Then on a subsequent trip, he was the guest of honour at the Jumma Mosque in Grey Street, Durban.


The exclusive photographs are by Kevin Joseph. Cost is R599 for this coffee table book and is available from [email protected]

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