by Rafieka Williams
The Cape Malay population of Mayfair may be small, but they carry in their heritage a strong sense of community in everything they do. The bond they share is defined not by geographical location, but by a past with distinct traditions of culture and faith. Who are they, where do they hail from, and what does the future hold for them?
The smell of baked dough whirls in the air around the corner from Shoneez Confectioners. You can’t trace it immediately if you’re walking or driving up St Elmos Street in Mayfair, Johannesburg, but there is a freshness in the air that strikes you in passing and ignites your curiosity.
As you get closer, you see the big windows with the name of the bakery. Well-lit, with turquoise and green graphics, the bakery is a bright light amid the dreary browns of the block. Situated between a spice shop and a barber, the bakery glows with the promise of a new relationship with Cape Malay cakes as opposed to just buying what you need and leaving.
Behind the counter of Shoneez Confectioners stands the owner, Shoneez Moor. Her accent is distinct from the twang of the South African Indian customers she serves every day. You can tell she is Malay from the way she says “shukr” and “alhamdulillah”, Islamic phrases of praise to God. Her dress sense is also distinct from the many women who come into the store wearing hijabs, a scarf wrapped around the face which fully covers the hair, and abayas, an Islamic dress which covers the body.
Moor is wearing fashionable sneakers, track pants, a sports T-shirt and a gold necklace with her name on it. She is a self-made woman.
Five customers wait inside the bakery to pay for their goods from the single cashier. The space brings out the colours of the cakes, giving each an appeal of its own. Red cakes covered in coconut, golden chocolate chip cookies, cream-coloured caramel twisted doughnuts, shiny chocolate-covered, dark brown brownies. All are observed and analysed before a choice is made.
One of the customers grabs a bag of rolls from the back section of the bakery. As she waits to pay for her purchase, her eye falls on the scones. She calls someone to assist her. A few minutes later, she leaves with her rolls, her scones, and some caramel sticks and doughnuts. The look on her face says: “I couldn’t help myself.”
Moor’s cakes are a typical part of the Cape Malay experience, a combination of welcoming warmth, exceptionally well-prepared food and a belief in something unconventional.
Moor never set out to bake. Her success lies in pure self-determination and hard work. “I run a tight ship,” she says, speaking about her business ethic. Her baking comes from the skills she learnt from her mother as a child growing up in Bosmont, west of Johannesburg.
She says she used to write all the recipes down in a book as she was growing up, and is now using them as a catalyst for her success. She points at a batch of freshly baked butter biscuits. “This is gadat biscuits,” she says.
A gadat biscuit is no different from any other butter biscuit except that it is made with the intention of being served at gadat, a Cape Malay form of celebration that involves praying in a group, as a community.
The Cape Malay people of Mayfair are, within and without, trying to carve their own space as a community with strong ties to Cape Town. They are caught between thriving in their own personal lives, and having to assimilate to more dominant cultures in the area. Although they are few, they have found ways to stay true to their own despite being different; using their culture to their benefit.
Pragna Rugunanan, a sociologist at the University of Johannesburg, says research on Cape Malay people in Mayfair is rare because “the community is hard to access”. She suspects that one of the reasons that Cape Malay people and other immigrants move into this community is because Mayfair and Fordsburg have strong Islamic influences, with the variety of mosques established by residents who came here after land was made available to them by the government.
Farouk Achmat was born and bred in District Six, once the heart of Cape Town, where the ancestry of the Cape Malay identity was cultivated. Before the area was demolished under apartheid law, the races intermingled freely. Malay people had a strong influence on the Afrikaans language, the third most-spoken language in South Africa next to isiZulu and isiXhosa. Today, you will find that many Malay people still speak Afrikaans as a first language.
Although Achmat makes the distinction between being coloured and being Cape Malay, no Malay person can trace their exact connections to Malaysia or Indonesia. From the original slaves and political exiles, such as Sheikh Yusuf and Tuan Guru, who first brought Islam to South Africa and spread it, the Malay people adapted to new ways of life at the southern tip of the continent. For this reason, Achmat believes there is a cultural difference to being Cape Malay that goes beyond race.
In Cape Malay culture, Islam is intertwined with traditions and cultural practices. Achmat moved to Mayfair in 2000, to deepen his understanding of his religion. He says that as a Cape Malay you’re considered to be a “slams”, a derogatory term used for Cape Malay people within the Islamic faith. He explains that Cape Malay people know their religion on a communal basis but the feeling of community is lost in Mayfair beyond the idea of sharing the same religion.
According to Achmat, the traditional practices of Malay people are frowned upon by many of the South African Indians in Mayfair. “They see it as bid’ah,” he says. Bid’ah in the Islamic faith is considered to be reprehensible innovations. These are new ways of doing things that are considered to be against Islamic scripture. But Achmat says “this is the way we grew up” and that it cannot be changed.
Faieza Shaktar of 6th Avenue, Mayfair, speaks proudly of her Cape Malay heritage. In her home she wears what is referred to as an “onnerkappie”, a small, material head covering worn by Muslim women that covers all your hair, usually worn as an alternative to the full scarf. In Cape Town, it’s common to see women wearing one of these head coverings.
Shaktar speaks Afrikaans with fire, often running out of breath, going from one topic to the next. What starts out as a quick visit, turns into a full day, just talking. Words like “kanallah” (please), “tramakassie” (thank you), “wallahi” (I swear), and “boeta” (big brother) are second nature to her, but if you don’t know Cape Malay people, you would be lost as to their meaning.
Shaktar tells of working for an Indian man once. “Hier vra hy vir my, ‘why don’t you wear your abaya?’ toe se ek Do I wear abaya for you?” Shaktar says that as a Muslim this upset her. The way she understands her religion is not to show people in her attire that she is Muslim, but in the way that she treats people.
Wherever Shaktar goes, whether it be to mosque, the shops or just outside her door, she always has conversations with the people around her. For Shaktar, talking to people and learning about them is an important character trait. She says that this warmth that she expresses towards people is something that she was taught growing up, the way her grandmother used to send food to her neighbours when it was labarang, a Malay term for the Muslim festival of Eid.
“She used to make such a big pot of biryani so that her Christian friend auntie Carol and auntie die ene moet a bak kry. We used to be delivery boys, kassam. One day my granny said ‘you know this woman, I send her every year, I send her biscuits, food, cake, whatever, and every year for Christmas she sends me a bowl of peanuts’.” She laughs hysterically at her memories. Her grandmother continued sending and giving. “It doesn’t matter who you are, give that person, and that person. It’s my neighbour, you know.”
In Malay culture, your neighbour is an imperative part of your culture, because neighbourliness builds community. Traditionally, Cape Malay people would bake and exchange treats during Ramadan, a norm that is still practised in Cape Town and the Bosmont area in Johannesburg. In Mayfair, Shaktar says, this doesn’t happen because South African Indians don’t do it, but this doesn’t deter her. She still sends goods to her Indian neighbours. “I feel good in showing them that this is how we do it, and I didn’t make what they eat, I made onse doughnuts, ek het onse banana puris gemaak, things that I came with from my grandma.”
A few streets from Moor’s bakery, at 94 St. Bride Avenue, live Gabier and Somaya Davids. It’s Saturday and they’re having guests over, just as they did on Friday and Thursday. Having people over at their house is a regular occurrence. You can hear the camaraderie as you stand outside their gate. Today, the guests are Faldelah and Farouk Dorsen, friends of the Davids for almost 20 years.
Faldelah also wears an onnerkappie. Her Cape Malay accent is high-pitched and she speaks so fast that her words are seemingly attached to each other. Farouk wears a kufi cap, an Islamic skull cap for men. They met in the first few months the Davids moved here and are still having lunches together.
“Although we live in this Indian community, and although we know everybody here in this community, you will find that our closest friends are Malays from Cape Town,” says Gabier.
When the Davids moved here, they found it extremely difficult adjusting to the secluded nature of Mayfair and Mayfair West, compared to what they know as Malays. There is rarely anyone walking in the streets unless they’re going somewhere, no conversations between neighbours outside their gates, and no children playing. Even though there are many mosques, they are not regularly packed on a Friday for prayer, unless it is Eid.
Gabier explains that this was a challenging environment to live in because it was different to the communal aspects they were familiar with as Malays, whether from Cape Town or Johannesburg. The Davids decided that if they weren’t going to get their culture in Mayfair, they would bring their culture there. They have regular gatherings with other Cape Malays, where they practise traditions they are used to.
“We’re very traditional and our forefathers used to do gadats at any opportunities we had, birthdays, weddings, to congregate. And having that it’s almost like you stick with your own kind,” says Gabier. “We understand the tradition, we speak the same language, we converse in Afrikaans, we like games like dominoes.”
But the Davids don’t think that their children will continue with the traditions in the ways they did. “Everything is about technology now,” says Gabier. He fears that all traces of their Cape Malay heritage will become a thing of the past, just like the memories of faraway District Six and nearby Fietas.
And yet, the threads of the community continue to weave their way into the future. Back at the bakery, Nawaal Schroeder, a 20-year-old Wits student, is packing away cakes behind one of the counters. She is clothed in an abaya and a hijab and an apron. Schroeder studies occupational therapy as a full-time student and works at the bakery on weekends.
She has a welcoming and friendly demeanour, greeting customers with a smile, the kind of smile that you emulate in your eyes. “It’s very funny because a lot of people think I’m Indian and I don’t even look Indian,” she laughs heartily. She says although there are a noticeable amount of coloured people at Wits, Malay people are rare. Schroeder makes the distinction between South African Indian Muslims and her own experience of being Malay, “They don’t know about any of the cultural stuff that we do,” she says.
Schroeder recognises that some of her young Malay cousins have difficulties staying in touch with their culture because of outside influences. “It’s sad that a lot of them are trying to become Indian or white or like these hip-hop celebrities,” says Schroeder. She adds that her mom raised her to be proud of her Malay heritage and not to be embarrassed.
“It forms a very strong part of my identity. It’s unique because we don’t have the same practices that the South African Indians have,” says Schroeder. For her, “Being Malay has deep-rooted influences on the South African heritage as a whole.”
And, like the rest of the South African youth, Schroeder knows that times are changing. With her strong ties to her culture, she still believes in progress and moving forward. Schroeder says that when she one day has kids “it would be good to merge the two”, meaning the Malay traditional world and the modern world.
“Don’t modernise it too much where you lose the essence of the culture,” she says as if to remember an age-old truth. Schroeder goes back to packing the caramelised koeksisters and decorated lamingtons onto a tray and the bakery seems more welcoming when she is in it. As she works she carries a certainty in her expression, the bakery is home for her. Not home the way we understand it but home in that there is a sense of belonging here in Moor’s bakery, with the modern-day twist on traditional cakes and the smell of new and old coming together to affirm what is their own.
Schroeder represents a bright future for Malay culture in Johannesburg, knowing where she comes from and paving a way to merge her tradition with the modern world. One could almost say the future is as bright as the blaring light coming from the bakery as it lights up the dreary brown building it forms part of.