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‘The Saint of the Poor in this town’

‘The Saint of the Poor in this town’
October 24, 2020
October 24, 2020 October 24, 2020

MAHMOOD SANGLAY pays tribute to Anwah Nagia (November 8, 1957 – September 28, 2020)

‘STOP acting small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion’ Rumi. Jumuah Mubarak, 21/08/2020

This was probably Anwah Nagia’s last bulk post to the many beneficiaries of his weekly Jumuah greeting, and his daily updates on Palestine. On February 17, this year, he privately lamented that ‘strangely’ some recipients complained of an ‘overload’ of Palestine.

At his memorial service, on October 11, Judge Siraj Desai called Nagia the ‘Saint of the Poor in this town,’ alluding to the historical figure of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz, the 13th century Indian mystic known for his patronage of the poor.

However, in addition to his humanitarian work, Nagia pursued political and ideological campaigns against the systemic oppression and marginalisation of the poor on the basis of class. He remained committed to this notion of transformation, in word and in deed, till his last day.

The astonishing breadth and diversity of Nagia’s community work and his political activism account for the vast influence and indelible impact he has made.

However, all of this was possible only because Nagia had deep roots in sound core values, typically imbibed in his childhood and early youth.

Nagia’s sister, Narriman, in Australia, tells the story of the little boy Anwah who, ‘when his mother was upset, would sit outside her door, even till the next morning, just to see if she’s okay’. And he’s never changed, she says. Nagia’s compassion extends to a deep appreciation for selfless giving and for the dignity of the poor and the oppressed.

Amal Nagia recalls her father’s advice: offer relief to the petitioner at your door before he asks, to protect his dignity.

Mickaeel Collier, deputy CEO of Awqaf SA, relates how his father, Ismail Collier, also a renowned sportsperson and activist, mentored Nagia politically in his early youth. Collier recruited Nagia in operations of sabotage of the turfs of white bowling and cricket clubs in protest against apartheid privilege in sport.

Nagia would be among a group of arrested protesters detained by the apartheid police, and when they were questioned about who was responsible for the protest, he would be the first to take responsibility. Professor Crain Soudien remarks, ‘Anwah was fearless but never reckless; principled but always analytic.’

This maturity was evident in the ideological clarity he obtained in the New Unity Movement and the strategic thinking demonstrated with diverse campaign successes which he often led, against corporations like BP, property developers, institutions like Cape Technikon and the liberal policies of the City of Cape Town. Of course, there are also humanitarian campaigns, like the production of a million masks for the poor in the pandemic. And religious ones, like bringing the relics of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) to the Muslims of South Africa. In each instance, the prize was the people’s diverse interests, their land, physical and spiritual wellbeing, civil rights and amenities like creches and swimming pools.

Particularly noteworthy was his self-effacing way of deflecting benefit and recognition to others. It was clear to all who worked with Nagia that he placed the interests of others above his own.

His friend, Ossie Shaboodien, says, ‘Anwah was the visionary who planted a tree knowing full well he was not going to enjoy its fruit.’

This is humility beyond feigning because each victory, without exception, truly belonged to the people. He gave of his time and resources. The poor, the needy and the marginalised benefitted.

Perhaps the most emblematic of these is the Hands off District Six (HODS) campaign. Nagia led the campaign almost single-handedly and funded the first restitution homes.

And he prevailed over attempts to smear him with false allegations of corruption. According to Soudien, Nagia and his comrades, through bold legal and political campaigns by the Woodstock and Walmer Estate Residents’ Association (Wosawa), have successfully opposed numerous neoliberal ruling class land acquisition projects.

One of the most valued attributes of Nagia was his calculated focus on inclusiveness, particularly the need to embrace an inter-faith alliance in the struggle for social justice.

In this respect, the Al Kaaf Human Rights Centre exemplifies an openness to all faiths, and particularly the common cause Muslim and Christians have in the liberation struggle of Palestine.

His inclusiveness naturally extended to the subaltern, like refugees. The Muslim Refugee Association of South Africa (Mrasa) is one of dozens of orgnanisations, locally and internationally, that acknowledged Nagia’s contribution.

Nurudean Ssempa, an executive member of Mrasa, said Nagia ‘made the best use of his resources in helping the poor and downtrodden. He never got tired in working towards maintaining human dignity.’

The Al Kaaf Human Rights Centre and Palestine Museum remains the most iconic centre of Nagia’s legacy. It is at once the symbol of the archetypal cause in his life and the personal struggle he fought against political interference, official obstruction and even the hindrance of an antagonistic neighbour.

It is an incomplete project, now entrusted to the best among us to complete, and to uphold the values he lived for.

Featured image: Anwah Nagia, best known as a human rights activist, succumbed to COVID-19 related symptoms on September 28. (Photo NAZMEH SCHROEDER)

An abridged version of this article was first published in the October 2020 print edition of Muslim Views.

*  This article was updated on 28 October 2020

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