A week ago I was honoured by the country with the Luthuli Award (Silver). The award, presented by the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, is the highest that our country grants to citizens whom it believes have made an “excellent contribution to our society”.
In my case, the citation reads: “for his brilliant contribution to academic research and the fight against race, gender, class and religious oppression. His body of work continues to enlighten generations of fledgling and established academics”.
I am always curious, discomforted and often bemused at how easily some people carry their status as being “a somebody”.
I am, of course, grateful that my contribution to scholarship and to the creation of a more just world is being recognised and, at the same time, feel more than slightly awkward about it. I always feel a little bit thrown off when recognised as an individual. This is partly due to a deep personal sense of inadequacy (not to be confused with modesty). I am one of the many academics, who despite being celebrated by others, am filled with a constant sense of being a charlatan.
The more important reason why I am a reluctant celebrant of my own achievements is a deep and abiding awareness that whatever is inherent in me of virtue or talent is not something that I am responsible for. As a believer in a ‘transcendent force’, I believe that what is inherent to me is ascribed to the ‘grace of God’. Others may call it ‘nature’ or ‘accident’; that’s fine with me. The bottom line is that I found myself with some talents or gifts.
Of course, I wrestled with these gifts and moulded them into something. However, these inherent talents or gifts would have remained latent and buried had it not been for the love, caring, support on the one hand, and the oversight or forgiveness for my numerous blunders - to put it very mildly - on the other, of countless people through whom I am - and continuously become.
How is it possible for me strut the stage like a peacock when I am acutely aware that whatever I have achieved in life is because of my late mother’s endurance as a single mother with six sons.
In theory my mother had no daughters, but she had conceived a daughter outside of marriage, whose existence we learnt about years after her death on the factory floor, literally the victim of the triple oppression of women; apartheid, class and gender.
And what about Spaasie, that young and probably underpaid domestic helper from the rural areas who slept on our kitchen floor and assisted to keep our small two-bedroomed township house in Bonteheuwel clean?
And then the likes of Jill Wenman, my English teacher at school who brought me food to nourish my body and books to stir my intellect when things were tough at home? And who rushed to the car driven by the hated Van Wyk brothers - Spyker and Andries - in the apartheid regime’s Special Branch when I was first detained at the age of 15 and handed me her lunch pack to me before they slammed the car doors and sped off with me?
I still ask Jill, now in her 70s, for advice before I start teaching a new batch of students.
And what about the Jami`atul Ulama of Natal and Christian Aid in the UK who funded my Islamic Studies in Karachi and my PhD studies in Birmingham respectively; the late Achmat Davids who offered me shelter when I was literally orphaned; and the late Brother Norman Wray in Karachi, who provided me with shelter when I was spiritually and ideologically orphaned?
So, Farid, you became a bit of a somebody in “The Struggle” days. Really? And the now mostly forgotten and uncelebrated activists in the Call of Islam, the UDF, the Organisation of People Against Sexism who organised meetings, pamphleteered at bus stops and train stations, mobilised the masses? And today, you want to pretend that it was all so that you can shine and strut around like a somebody?
It might sound weird but I never cease to think about the cleaners when I walk into a clean toilet; or the people who work in the shadows of our university’s admin offices, and the security guards in our apartment and at the university where I teach. It’s really curious how universities are usually seen as spaces for lecturers and students. And the workers?
And my students who have and continue to inspire and teach me? And my friends who call me out when I try to b.s. them or myself?
I know that all this stuff make me come across as humble and people generally like humble characters. I don’t think that this is why I am writing this, although one can never be sure.
What I am sure about is that humility and gratitude are not gifts that we offer others whom we live with; they are the ways in which we remain human.
I am, and constantly become, both, because of and through others. In the words of Ari Sitas:
“Beware what you ascribe to leaders you take from the people.
Take from the leaders, give to the people for leaders are colourful flags. They wave and waver as the wind blows as people work the bellows and make the whirlwinds thunder.”
So, as walked that stage at the Presidential Guest House, I waved my award and, drowned out by the sounds of the official choir on the stage, I shouted out “Ho ja, my mense! Is ja! Is julle warrit maak! Dankie vir alles! Somewhat untranslatable, but roughly, “Hey my people! It’s make this possible; thanks for everything!”
Esack is Professor in the Study of Islam, President Emeritus, International Qur`anic Studies Association at the University of Johannesburg.