Profile of Farid Esack

The outspoken Gender Commissioner talks to Simon Dagut about his formative years and beliefs in individual freedom.

IT IS EASY enough to dismiss Farid Esack as a professional odd-man-out — he is the male Gender Commissioner, the progressive Muslim, the liberal comrade. He certainly can seem a quirky and paradoxical figure, inclined to charge quixotically at any current controversy likely to lend him publicity. Last year, for instance, he published an impassioned and nearly incoherent plea for leniency towards Allan Boesak; got involved in defending Colleen Lowe-Morna, then chief executive officer of the Gender Commission, in a sort of B-movie version of the Helena Dolny-Land Bank affair; and continued his long-running and highly public battle with Islamic conservatives over the rights of women within Islam. The new century has started with his suing the Citizen for allegedly publishing a defamatory letter about him. He is always popping up, passionately demanding fair play.

Not that Esack is averse to the limelight or that he cannot be utterly wrong-headed. His article in the Mail & Guardian (March 26, 1999) about his comrade the Reverend Allan Boesak, for instance, was written in a white heat of rage and shows it. It is absurd to suggest, as Esack did, that because Boesak made an "immense contribution to the struggle" and that he was tried by a white judge and a judicial system that carries the "baggage of complicity" in apartheid that he should be in some way excused of fraud. The entire piece is an object lesson in windy rhetoric and emotive special pleading and was exposed as such by Rhoda Kadalie, the former Human Rights commissioner and UDF activist, in the next week’s edition.

But the story does not stop there. Esack’s article did not just irritate liberals and other enthusiasts for the rule of law; it also struck a deep emotional chord in some very senior figures in the ANC. Two cabinet ministers telephoned to thank him for putting into words what they had been feeling — how painful it was to watch one of their own, who had been brave and inspiring during the heroic days of the struggle, condemned by relics of the regime they had fought to overturn. This seemed one of the highest prices they had to pay for the negotiated settlement. As Esack says, "the amount of money that the state had to spend on defending Magnus Malan was less than the total stolen by Allan Boesak." At an emotional level, it just felt horribly wrong.

If Esack were a standard-issue ANC politician he would, no doubt, have been utterly delighted with this response. He had, after all, been praised from on high for an emotive attack on "apartheid relics". But asked to comment on the Boesak article now, he says "Many people thought it was a terrible article — and they were quite right. It was poorly written and pathetically argued. Rhoda Kadalie’s response was brilliant." What is more, he admits that a lot of the anger in his letter was misdirected. He thinks now that he really felt angry with a lot of his fellow comrades — and with himself — who had known for some time that Boesak was going off the rails, but did nothing to stop him. As Kadalie put it in her letter, "his friends gossiped endlessly about his newfound opulence, his self-conscious vanities and his affairs."

Esack’s commitment to liberation politics and his critical distance from it are the product of a most unusual life. He was born in the Cape Town suburb of Wynberg in 1959. His devoutly Muslim mother, abandoned by two husbands, worked long hours in a nearby steam laundry struggling to support her six boys. This background makes Esack one of relatively few senior struggle veterans whose origins are among the poorest of the working class. As he recalls, his very passionate commitment to the redress of injustice was formed by "just looking at my mother. She was a woman who was literally — and for me this is not a cliché — under the triple oppression: patriarchy, apartheid, capitalism. She really slogged, and she died at the age of 52. And the only thing that she ever got back was a measly box of chocolates at the end of the year." Esack vividly recalls the hunger and cold of his earliest years, scavenging in the gutters for apple cores and running rather than walking to school to try to stave off frostbite.

This background, however, did not lead Esack to adopt the Trotskyite hard-left position still to be found in small patches — like some rare and endangered species of fynbos — on the Cape Flats. He calls himself a member of the "soft left" and does not think that socialism can be achieved in his lifetime. In fact, he is not at all sure what socialism would mean in practice beyond the existence of a social democratic welfare state; he is an admirer of the German cradle-to-grave support system. The only two things he is certain about in this area, he says, are that unbridled capitalism continues to wreak havoc and that his confusion mirrors that of all honest socialists in this post-ideological age.

Esack is probably as, if not more, interested in the fate of particular individuals as in the structural issues that command the attention of the orthodox left. "I do understand people like Blade Nzimande and the SACP and I do understand that it is simplistic to take a very personal, bleeding-heart attitude. But one of the major problems that we have with the left in South Africa is that the structural nature of injustice becomes the big thing that they are obsessed with. And when you become obsessed with the structural nature of things you often lose what had originally moved you: the deeply human, the deeply personal." For Esack, at the core of the "deeply human" is his inherited commitment to a version of Islam that places great value on individual freedom and responsibility.

All three of the oppressions under which Esack’s mother laboured intensified when she and her family were forcibly removed to Bonteheuvel under the Group Areas Act, though he is careful not to romanticise Wynberg before it was "tidied up" by apartheid’s callous social engineers. The streets where coloured people lived were crowded, dirty and achingly poor, but there was a strong sense of community. Muslims had three mosques conveniently nearby. There was an old-age home. Conditions in the laundry may have been unpleasant and the pay low but at least it was close to home. When the very young Esack went begging for bread in the nearby white neighbourhood, chances were that he would be given some. Bonteheuvel was less crowded than Wynberg and their new house had running water, but Bonteheuvel was a human dumping-ground rather than a community. A mosque had yet to built and the nearest Muslim neighbours lived some distance away. It was also alienating, dangerous and gang-ridden. He has one especially traumatic early memory of Bonteheuvel: "I just remember my mother coming into the house covered in blood." She had been raped. There is no mystery about the origins of Esack’s commitment to defending the rights of women.

Given the poverty and deprivation of his background, it is astounding how early and how far Esack’s intellectual gifts developed. Equally noteworthy is how quickly his exceptional talent was recognised and how it was valued within the Islamic community. From the age of seven, he wanted to be a priest. At nine, when many of his generation began to turn to the fellowship of gangs and the solace of drugs he joined the international Islamic fundamentalist-revivalist movement known as the Tablighi Jama’ah, an intensely pious group, characterised by political quietism and a strong sense of brotherhood among its members. In these years, Esack’s Islamic faith was intense, personal and orthodox. He feels now that the intensity of his adherence to the Tablighi Jama’ah can be explained partly by his search for a substitute father. By the age of ten, he was a teacher at the local madressah (Islamic school.) At 11, he was briefly acting head of another madressah. By the time he turned 15, he had won a scholarship to attend a seminary in Pakistan.

What made him unusual among his Muslim brothers was that he did not share their tendency to ignore secular politics and to think that the solution to all problems was to be found in greater religious devotion. The year after he joined the Tablighi Jama’ah, he was first detained by the security police. Before leaving for Pakistan in 1974, he had become the chairperson of National Youth Action, a vocally anti-apartheid group. He also briefly flirted, as was the style of the late sixties and early seventies, with black consciousness politics. An anecdote from the period which he particularly likes, and which he still thinks is very significant, concerns an exasperated question addressed to him during one of his many detentions by the much feared "Spyker" van Wyk of the security police, a man whom Esack describes as the "incarnation of evil" in the Cape at the time. Van Wyk, unaware of Esack’s dual affiliation, wanted to know why this politically troublesome teenager could not be more "die mense met die lang jurkies, by which he meant the robed, devout and politically inert members of the Tablighi Jama’ah. The teenage Esack took off his robe when engaged in National Youth Action and put it back on again when involved with his revivalist brotherhood. Later he found a way to fuse, as it were, his activist’s t-shirt with his Islamic revivalist’s robe.

This combination of first-hand knowledge of the coloured poor in the Western Cape, Islamic faith and gang culture gives Esack insight into Pagad (People against Gangsterism and Drugs). Although strongly and vocally opposed to this group and its violent activities, he understands its supporters’ world view — where they are coming from. They are not just — or not only — a group of corrupted vigilantes. They are, he thinks, primarily fuelled by anger against a secular state that seems indifferent to their needs as coloured people and contemptuous of their most cherished beliefs as conservative Muslims.

Esack spent the nine years 1974-82 in Pakistan, where he studied a range of Islamic and other subjects, qualifying as a Muslim cleric, a mawlana. He also completed his secular education, gaining a degree in Islamic theology and sociology. Today his critical distance from the consensus-seeking, loyalist mainstream of the ANC may be partly due to his geographical distance from the exile communities of Eastern and Western Europe and Africa in those years. His life in Karachi also moulded him in different ways from the cell on Robben Island in which he would almost inevitably have ended up if he had stayed in Cape Town. Although he retains a strong affection for many Pakistanis, he found Pakistan — an authoritarian Islamic state — a difficult place to live. The religious and political atmosphere of the college where he studied did not always suit him. As he wryly remarks in the introduction to his book On Being A Muslim, "This was, after all . . . an institution that was to produce some of the leading figures in a group which later made a rather embarrassing appearance on the stage of political Islam, the Afghan Taliban." In contrast to most of those South African Muslims who romanticise Islamic states as ideal societies, Esack has actually lived for a long period in a country ruled by Islamic principles. He knows from personal experience that this is no better for people than sticking to any other excessively narrow ideology.

Esack was equally disturbed by the way in which Christians and other religious minorities were systematically disadvantaged. Unlike most of his Pakistani classmates, his family had experienced mutual support in their shared poverty with Christian neighbours. The older, more intellectually and theologically sophisticated Esack simply could not accept an Islam which condemned his mother’s closest friend and neighbour, the devout Catholic Mrs Batista, or even the patient Jewish debt-collector, Mr Frank, who repeatedly extended their family’s credit. As he puts it, "Many people can actually live with the idea of a God who is unjust as this. I cannot." Some of Esack’s most important contacts in Pakistan were, therefore, among the Christian community of Karachi, which required him to make room in his theology to respect and to value "the religious other". The Pakistani Catholics he met in the seventies also introduced him to Christian liberation theology, at the core of which is the idea that religious belief is most fully expressed in commitment to the political liberation of the oppressed and the social upliftment of the poor.

When Esack returned to South Africa in 1982, he and some friends — the best known being his cousin Ebrahim Rasool, now leader of the ANC in the Western Cape — formed the religious-political group Call of Islam. Originally a small discussion group for anti-apartheid Muslims who wanted to relate their faith to their politics, Call of Islam grew into a significant sub-organisation of the United Democratic Front and Esack took up the life of the eighties South African political priest. He marched, Tutu-like, beneath an SACP banner, the Qur’an clutched to his breast. He addressed, by his own count, over a thousand protest meetings. He conducted many of the political funerals which characterised the period and became involved in international inter-faith organisations opposing apartheid, eventually becoming a senior figure in the World Conference on Religion and Peace.

In 1990, Esack’s intellectual and religious side asserted itself again. He left South Africa again, this time to read for a doctorate in Qur’anic interpretation, spending the next five years in Britain and Germany, conducting doctoral and post-doctoral research. He was not, therefore, involved in the drama and compromises of those years, which did so much to define the political loyalties and identities of most South African politicians, and certainly most ANC members. These years saw a struggle for position with many activists achieving high position. It was a struggle from which Esack voluntarily absented himself. Instead the publications resulting from these years have made Mawlana Dr Farid Esack one the leading academic interpreters of Islam in the world. He is hugely in demand at international academic conferences on religion in general and Islam in particular. His writings on these topics blend a sophisticated and pluralist faith with a detailed knowledge of traditional Islamic thought and a mastery of modern western theological technique. He knows what it is like to believe passionately in a Qur’an which is literally the word of God and to study it as such; but is also strongly influenced by Christian liberation theology and by the sceptical, secular-minded, contextual study of religion dominant in Western universities.

To the extreme irritation of most orthodox South African Muslims, he is able to bandy Qur’anic quotations with the best of them, but does so to defend a version of Islam which tolerates religious diversity, which demands equality for women and which is intended as a justification of soft left politics. It is one thing for the left-wing secularists of the Gender Commission to have demanded that the Johannesburg fundamentalist radio station Voice of Islam allow women’s voices to be broadcast, but when Esack does so, it is more difficult to ignore and provokes greater anger. He gets a lot of death threats. "The passion with which I feel things is a bit too strong for me to ever be a well-loved and a well-accepted son of a minority community or a community that believes it is under siege." But he wishes he could be more welcome in the community that he still feels is his real home.

Esack’s current political perspective is strongly analogous to his religious one. As the Boesak story illustrates, he understands — emotionally and intellectually — the perspective of those who remain within the broad alliance and those temporarily or permanently alienated from it. Take, for example, his attitude towards the dispute that led to the departure of Colleen Lowe-Morna as chief executive officer of the Gender Commission in November. His analysis of the causes of this affair is frank and fair-minded, emphasising both the structural and the personal causes of the dispute. As CEO, Lowe-Morna was the only person at the commission who was financially responsible to the Treasury and to private and foreign donors: "She was the accounting officer. Good treasurers in any organisation aren’t popular people." It was Lowe-Morna’s unfortunate duty to have to explain to the commissioners who appointed her why they could not always have the money to fund a particular pet project or excursion. This made some commissioners angry. And, as Esack explains, they were not angry simply because they were being thwarted. He believes that for many blacks, unconsciously at least, one of the main points of the struggle was to make sure they were never bossed around by a white person again.

As he says, Lowe-Morna "was appointed by the commissioners, but she had a say in whether we could spend on this or that. If she said "no" you didn’t re-examine the nature of your claim. You didn’t say "Oh my god, I shouldn’t have hired a car, or I should have hired a group A instead of a group C vehicle." You didn’t look at that. You said she’s white and I’m black. If you didn’t say it openly, you went and whispered." However Esack emphasises that there were other factors involved — one of the gender commissioners who took the strongest possible dislike to Lowe-Morna is white and he also insists that the racial complaints never rose above whispers. But he cannot help feeling that some people with a struggle pedigree are developing the wrong attitudes. While he thinks that people who were involved in the struggle, whites as well as blacks, are entitled to make claims, "there is a whole sense of ‘this belongs to us because we are black’." Such attitudes, from Esack’s point of view, are totally illegitimate.

His views on the relationship between the executive part of government and the watchdog bodies established in Chapter 9 of the Constitution — the Human Rights Commission, the Gender Commission, the Public Protector and so on — are provocative. He explains the unpopularity of these bodies among some senior politicians thus: "The liberal democracy that our country has is really a very expensive one. And so when government seeks to cut corners, you have a convergence about the elements that irritate and the sheer economic imperative of making ends meet. Sometimes I think that many of the politicians themselves do not really understand what the checks and balances in the constitution are for. If you come from a trade union background, what kind of patience do you have towards notions of the independence of the judiciary?" Equally someone who comes from an entirely gender-activist background and is legitimately angry about a rape sentence, such as the seven years Judge Foxcroft passed on a man who had raped his own daughter, could forget that the whole human rights ethos is an interwoven one. Take action against one judgment in the short-term and in the long run the the whole independence of the judiciary can unravel. "You can’t separate one part of it from another," he says.

But Esack’s defence of the commissions as they exist at the moment is not total. He knows that a lot of commissioners do not seem to be doing very much. He would like to see individual commissioners publish monthly reports detailing their activities. To be fair, some commissioners work very hard indeed. The Gender Commission’s work includes far too much in the way of bureaucratic activity, but commissioners do also deal with complaints from the public about the violation of their rights by government or private employers, provide informed comment on proposed legislation and work on the commission’s own practical initiatives to improve people’s lives.

Esack also worries aloud about the independence of the Chapter 9 commissions. As he points out, appointments to these and related bodies are, in effect, completely within the gift of the ANC — a list of nominees is chosen by a simple majority in the relevant parliamentary committee, from among whom the president makes his choice. He would prefer the process of deciding who gets picked to operate in a more independent way. At the moment, the department of justice funds the commissions, meaning that justice minister Penuell Maduna gets to decide which commissions, if any, will be given enough money to function effectively. Esack would prefer them to be funded directly by Parliament. His message on the watchdog commissions to the ruling party can be summarised as "give them enough money to work effectively as a check on abuses of power, including your power. Resist the temptation to turn them all into lapdogs." Expressing such opinions is not the way to win friends and influence people in high places, but nor does it chime with the view held by many in the opposition camp that the Chapter 9 commissions are no more than some of the plusher carriages on the gravy train.

Is Farid Esack a liberal in all but name? Certainly, some aspects of the liberal world-view are very important to him. His attitude towards the Western Cape coalition government is particularly revealing. He would prefer to see the ANC included in the provincial cabinet of the Western Cape on grounds of "representivity" and because he believes that it is the only party that has demonstrated a serious and sustained commitment to gender equality. Nevertheless, he is quite clear that the ANC — and in this case, remember, he means his cousin Ebrahim and colleagues — were "bad losers" and that they acted in a way which revealed intolerance of the "pattern of democracy throughout the world".

"Liberalism in the classical sense has an enormous amount to offer South Africa," he says. In particular, he values the liberal commitment to "the independence of the different arms of the state, in a country that has never known this." What is more, he strongly shares the liberal commitment to the defence of individual autonomy against the state. And, although he is not "ambiguous about justice and justice issues", he deeply values the principled doubt and the scepticism about all-embracing answers and total solutions which characterises liberal thought: "Ambiguity flows through all my thinking. I think it’s a value. Certainty belongs to God."

But, he points out, this liberalism of checks-and-balances, and of human rights no majority can alter, is not an integral part of the ANC’s political instincts. "The ruling party is committed to it, but its commitment doesn’t come from its own origins. It comes far more from our interaction with international liberation movements and international solidarity movements and the fact that many of us were in exile." The experience, for example, of going to an anti-apartheid solidarity conference in Amsterdam hosted by gay couples had a broadening effect on the minds of activists. But that sort of encounter was not as formative for the political instincts of the ANC’s leaders as decades of experience in a highly centralist, authoritarian and male dominated organisation. The absence of deep liberal roots in the struggle means that "We came up with this really brilliant constitution but it is not entrenched in our own psyches. Liberalism has a valuable role to play in the sense that some of these notions are far more intrinsic to the liberal agenda."

But he also feels that in South Africa, liberalism and white conservatism march too closely together, while many of the liberals’ policies are too Eurocentric. Liberals, he believes, often play their role "in a really arrogant fashion", in a manner which is both patronising and tinged with a strange half-denied guilt. They have an obsession with retaining their own privileges, which is antithetical to the broader agenda of transformation, certainly socioeconomic transformation. They also want to be the guardians of constitutional rights — which, he says, they are entitled to be, but unfortunately this defence is too much of a knee-jerk "they can’t be trusted" attitude. This results in people disparaging the entire liberal agenda, "including the laudable commitment to individual freedom and individual rights".

With his robustly individual opinions and tireless buzzing about on missions of good works Esack admits that he irritates a lot of people. He is sometimes maddening, but he is always unusually honest. But in these drearily conformist times, gadflies are more than welcome. South Africa has become, once again, a place where loyalty is rated far above competence. From the ruling party’s point of view, Parliament is increasingly a forum for the rubber-stamping of the cabinet’s bills, spiced up only by the opportunities it provides to insult opposition politicians rather than to listen to them. Dissent and plain-speaking are hard to find and tend to be frowned upon when they are detected. In this atmosphere, which seems to be thickening every day, it is good to meet someone who combines "struggle cred" with independent thinking.