From the kitchen window of my borrowed apartment in Cape Town, I can look up at the grandiose monument to a discredited Utopia. On his sprawling estate at Groote Schuur, below Devil’s Peak on Table Mountain, Cecil John Rhodes hatched his plans for eternal white dominion in Africa – built on the sweat and blood of the Africans who mined the treasures of its earth. After his death in 1902, the architect Sir Herbert Baker designed a neo-classical memorial to the visionary imperialist. Flanked by eight bronze lions and guarded by the artist GF Watts’s sculpture of a leaping horseman, the Rhodes Memorial commands spectacular vistas over two oceans – the Indian and Atlantic – and faces towards the planned starting-point of Rhodes’s never-completed Cape-to-Cairo railway line.
On the nearby Upper Campus of the University of Cape Town – itself built on Rhodes-donated land – a statue of the arch-colonialist once stood. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign of late 2015, part of a broader tide of youthful protest across South Africa, toppled that stone tribute to conquest and control. The Memorial itself, much more imposing and conspicuous, still stands proud. On a sunny summer Sunday in December, diners crowd the adjacent restaurant while a Muslim family poses around Baker’s Greek columns for wedding photographs. On the plinth of Watts’s statue, a stanza from Rudyard Kipling’s poetic homage to Rhodes lauds his ‘immense and brooding spirit’. ‘Living he was the land,’ runs Kipling’s fulsome elegy, ‘and dead,/ His soul shall be her soul!’ Sheer megalomania? In today’s eyes, for sure. But for many decades Rhodes did preserve his name in the titles of two countries moulded in his image: Northern and Southern Rhodesia, now Zambia and Zimbabwe. Further down the hill, Rhodes’s farmhouse headquarters at Groote Schuur became the Cape Town residence for South African presidents – a tradition that Nelson Mandela intermittently sustained. His successors found its use a concession to imperial history too far. Now it serves as a little-visited museum.
In almost all its historic iterations, utopia for some implies dystopia for others. Rhodes’s stratified paradise of plunder saw all wealth and power flow upwards from the ‘native’ toilers through intermediate classes of ‘coloured’ subalterns, Muslim and Jewish traders, and Afrikaner farmers, until it reached the narrow apex of the Anglo overlords. When, in 1948, Anglo-Boer antagonism finally ripped up this segmented blueprint for South Africa, the more nakedly racist ideology of apartheid took its place. With its rigid demarcations of identity and community, and its punctilious top-down planning to dictate where you lived, how you worked, and whom you loved, apartheid belongs firmly on one, twisted branch of the Utopian family tree.
Utopia still haunts the best, and the worst, of our dreams of social change. And South Africa gives a special vantage-point from which to observe the evolution of this stubbornly evergreen desire. After the apartheid state set out on its journey towards a dreamworld of ‘separate development’ guaranteed by whip and gun, it took more than four decades of struggle before, in 1994, a nation founded on non-racial ideals came into being on this soil. Only in late 1996 did South Africa acquire its exemplary constitution: arguably, the most ‘Utopian’ document of its type since that of the United States in 1787. As 2016 closed, the retired constitutional judge Albie Sachs – one of its principal architects and interpreters – took to the local media to promote a new book and defend the tarnished record of his ‘rainbow nation’. Meanwhile, a never-ending tide of political scandal joined deepening inequality and persistent insecurity to present a distinctly dystopian picture of South Africa to the outside world.
Favoured in its landscape, its climate, its resources, the Cape Peninsula has attracted the carpenters of ideal communities since the Dutch coloniser Jan van Riebeeck made landfall here in 1652. Even then, one man’s field of dreams proved another’s killing-ground around the Cape of Good Hope. That, by the way, is a Utopian euphemism; in 1488, the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias had first named it the Cape of Storms. Harassed, persecuted and enslaved, the indigenous Khoikhoi people of the Cape lost their lands to the agents of the Dutch East India Company who carved out splendid estates on the lush slopes of Table Mountain. Soon after his arrival, van Riebeeck began to plan a ‘protective barrier’ (that giveaway feature of almost all divisive Utopias), planted with bitter almond trees to separate European settlers from displaced Africans. A stretch of his supremacist hedge survives in the gorgeous grounds of the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens: a strip of pain in a landscape of bliss. The Gardens’ own curators define its importance: ‘For many, this hedge marks the first step on the road to apartheid and symbolises how white South Africa cut itself off from the rest of Africa, dispossessed the indigenous people and kept the best of the resources for itself.’
Not far from Kirstenbosch, Cape Town even boasts its own ‘garden city’ suburb. Pinelands is a charming green enclave laid out in 1919 on the pattern of pioneer developments such as Letchworth in Hertfordshire. In the 1920s, only a minority of Capetonians could have hoped to lived there. Even now, according to the 2011 census, Pinelands remains 63 per cent white (and 15 per cent Coloured, 14 per cent Black African and 5 per cent Asian: a fairly typical distribution for upmarket suburban Cape Town).
On the borders of Pinelands, a variant type of utopianism thrives among the 45 micro-enterprises of the Oude Molen Eco-Village. From playgroups to elderly care by way of organic smallholdings and livery stables (run by a former gangster), the social entrepreneurs of Oude Molen have transformed an abandoned hospital site into a classic self-managing ‘intentional community’ of hard work and high ideals. Remember that Gandhi first endeavoured to put his communal precepts into practice in South Africa – on Tolstoy Farm in the Transvaal. In this issue of Critical Muslim, Hassan Mahamdallie investigates a celebrated example of another such project: the Findhorn Community in Scotland. Whereas outposts of enlightenment such as Findhorn often stand apart, the Rhodes Memorial looks straight down from its imperial heights on Pinelands and the eco-village. Few other cities give as powerful a sense as Cape Town of what happens when incompatible versions of the good place, and the good life, converge on a single patch of fiercely contested ground.
Torn and stitched, ripped and sewn, the social fabric of Cape Town affirms that ideas of Utopia – and its dystopian shadow – still live in the mind and on the ground. By no means does Thomas More’s ‘good place’ and ‘nowhere’ (his Greek title hints at both meanings) belong to a vanished past of system-building folly. When More published his teasing tract, in 1516, Utopian cities and islands – and their possible deficiencies – already had a literary history that stretched back for 1800 years. The mythical Atlantis invoked in two of Plato’s dialogues, Timaeus and Critias, figures as both an abode of virtue and a barbarian antagonist to the authentic great polis: Athens. In Plato’s earlier Republic, the philosopher-kings preside over a bureaucratic city of order that later critics of Utopia would read as the sinister prototype for modern tyranny. Writing from a tradition that More hardly knew, Ibn Tufayl’s twelfth-century philosophical tale Hayy ibn Yaqdhan sets the self-education of its young castaway on another island, where thought flowers and wisdom blooms (Marco Lauri explores Tufayl’s work in this volume). After More, landmarks of the genre – such as Tomasso Campanella’s City of the Sun and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, both in the early seventeenth century – refined the rules of the Utopian game.
In literature and politics, Utopian narratives revived in the mid-nineteenth century. Not coincidentally, this was another epoch – like More’s Renaissance – marked both by intellectual upheaval, and the aggressive overseas expansion of European powers. Quarrels between the ‘Utopian socialism’ of Fourier, Owen or Saint-Simon and the anarchist or Marxian insistence on class conflict and direct action as the motor of revolution defined the terms of a debate that persists to this day. Set among Russian thinkers and activists of this time, Tom Stoppard’s trilogy of plays The Coast of Utopia (2002) pits the moderate reformism of Herzen against the incendiary militancy of Bakunin. Stoppard pretty clearly sides with Herzen – but, as with other champions of gradualist reform, he has trouble making his hero match the dangerous charisma of the Utopian firebrand.
In the age of HG Wells, Jules Verne and William Morris, the positive and negative sides of Utopian dreams weighed fairly evenly on the scales of fiction. For every regimented technocracy, as in Edward Bellamy’s Boston-set Looking Backward (1888), a post-industrial Eden of leisure and creativity beckoned – most famously, in Morris’s vision of a socialist ‘epoch of rest’, News from Nowhere (1890). Wells himself spanned the spectrum of attitudes to Utopia, from the dystopian hell of The Time Machine (1895) – with its apartheid-like segregation of toiling Morlocks from pampered Eloi – to the more benign paternalism envisaged in A Modern Utopia (1905). The genre spread far beyond the West. In 1905, the Bengali Muslim women’s rights activist Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein first published her novel Sultana’s Dream, about a crime-free, hi-tech ‘Ladyland’ run entirely by women. In Begum Rokeya’s feminist wonderland (discussed in this issue by Yasmin Khan), men now undergo the seclusion of purdah.
Yet, for much of the twentieth century, the crimes of modern totalitarianism hijacked almost all Utopian discourse. The tradition of speculative social architecture fixed by More in his riddling yarn found itself swamped, first by the brazen horrors enacted in the name of an ideal state by Fascist and Communist regimes. After their fall, dystopian fiction switched its attention to the more insidious coercion enforced by intrusive technology and obligatory consumerism. Global war, and the ideologies of mass manipulation that flourished in its wake, had destroyed the dialectical balance between liberation and subjugation, freedom and order, in the imagination of a conflict-free community.
For Utopia, the twentieth century by and large read Dystopia. It thrilled to the literary nightmares of George Orwell or Aldous Huxley, of JG Ballard or Margaret Atwood. In his pioneering dystopian satire We (1921), which Orwell acknowledged as an inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Russian author Evgeny Zamyatin not only conceived a Stalinesque surveillance-led dictatorship. He dramatised the absolute division of insiders from outsiders, citizens from barbarians, that marks almost all negative Utopias. Around Zamyatin’s all-controlling One State, a ‘Green Wall’ – think of Trump as well as Van Riebeeck – protects the supervised subjects of the ‘Benefactor’ from the untamed wilderness beyond.
Huxley himself was capable of a Wellsian ambivalence about the ideal state. His (relatively) benign story of a Utopian community, Island (1962), has far fewer readers than the prophetic glimpse of shopping-and-sedatives passivity in Brave New World (1932). Meanwhile, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) became the skeleton key that turned the lock on any despotic system. The Algerian writer Boualem Sansal has recently paid one of the most original of countless fictional homages to Orwell, in his novel 2084. Unlike the more conventionally-minded Michel Houellebecq, with his teasing tale of a future France in thrall to Saudi-financed Islamic fundamentalism, Submission, Sansal brings to life the underlying logic of obedience and resistance in any tyrannical theocracy. True, his oppressive ‘Abistan’ has strong echoes of Khomeini’s revolutionary Iran. Still, this divinely-ordained dystopia breaks free of its topical moorings.
Many of Sansal’s readers will assume that such ghastly visions of control refer exclusively to distant lands and alien creeds. In the West, the critique of Utopia became a cost-free default position for anyone immune to the temptations of totalitarian dogma, whether secular or sacred, and repelled by the artificial paradises promised by supermarkets, junk entertainment and social media. Of course, ran this consensus view, no sane and humane person could ever fall for the sinister and nonsensical master plans satirised by our literary flesh-creepers. Civilised societies rested exclusively on pluralism, pragmatism, and modest, ameliorative reform.
As I write, during the final days of 2016, this anti-Utopian orthodoxy has itself come to resemble an idealist’s cloud-cuckoo-land. Ever since the attacks of 9/11, scholars and reporters have tracked the undeniably Utopian impulses behind certain strands of jihadi fundamentalism. In this issue, Sadek Hamid interrogates these themes. The city of Raqqa in Syria, taken by Isil fighters in 2014, turned into the unhappy laboratory for the creation of a perfect godly state. Its theology would have baffled earlier religious Utopians – for example, the American Puritans of the seventeenth century – but not its patriarchal machinery of domination. In literature, the finest dystopias can leap boundaries of context or culture. Read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to understand the blood-washed masculinist playground lately erected by Isil in parts of Iraq and Syria.
So the Grand Guignol of Islamist utopianism may have left Western reformers with illusions of immunity intact. History, in the West, had not quite ended as Francis Fukuyama and the free-market Utopians had dreamed as Soviet Communism crashed. Marginal zealots might still spread fear, and inflict death, in sporadic acts of doctrine-driven violence. Overall, however, the mass enslavement of majority populations in the West to irrational, all-consuming ideologies had surely run its course. After the year of Trump and Brexit, such complacency has swiftly evaporated.
Feelings of loss, alienation, resentment and prejudice may well have stoked isolationist movements in the US and UK alike. Both political earthquakes, however, drew energy from a kind of Utopian nostalgia; from the fantasy of a better yesterday. These nativist insurgencies not only clamoured to build walls and barriers – against Muslims, Mexicans, migrants, refugees, even (in the case of Brexit) against wealthy, white fellow-Europeans. However fancifully, they also hankered after collective solidarity and mutual welfare – the togetherness of a gated community. Their world-shaking success poses in stark terms the questions that have shadowed every Utopian project, whether literary or political, since the age of More himself. Does the ideal state of justice and harmony presuppose a homogeneity of culture, race or faith? Can its elect and its elite enjoy their comfort and fraternity solely on the back of suffering endured by an underclass of servants, helots or outcasts? And will Utopia only work if restricted to – in the phrase once invoked by apologists for the white supremacist state in Southern Rhodesia – our own kith and kin?
Contributors to this issue of Critical Muslim show from their different perspectives that thinkers, activists and visionaries have never ceased to ask questions, and seek answers, about the good place or the ideal state. Nazry Bahrawi and Marco Lauri remind us that the Islamic legacy of Utopian thought stretches as far back as the speculations of Abu Nasr Muhammad Al-Farabi in the early tenth century and, of course, ibn Tufayl, the twelfth-century Andalusian philosopher. Bruce Wannell explains that the fabled Qur’anic gardens of delight resemble ‘a utilitarian market garden and fruit orchard and date-palm grove’ rather than some luxurious leisure centre – as do More’s own strictly practical allotments, in his Utopia. Yasmin Khan shows that the quest for Utopia is alive in contemporary, and not so contemporary, Arabic and Muslim literature. For Sadek Hamid, the Islamic revolutionary state – the ‘Khilafatopia’ – envisaged by the militants of Hizb ut-Tahrir finds expression only in ‘ahistorical, idealised terms that do not bear serious scrutiny’. More hopefully, Naomi Foyle locates in her ordeal of illness and recovery the materials for a truly Utopian practice of care and solidarity through which we may ‘overcome differences and unite in the face of a shared threat’. And, among the contemporary Utopians of the Findhorn Community, Hassan Mahamdallie identifies the varied ideological springs that nourish its idealists today as ‘the old streams of Christian dissenters, Rosicrucians, occultists and theosophists now flow into the broader river of New Age eclecticism and alternative lifestyle consumerism.’ Practical or fanciful, traditional or futuristic, dogmatic or holistic: Utopia seems to offer a personalised micro-climate for every traveller who yearns to make landfall there.
Return to the source, and it muddies rather than clarifies the waters. Playful, ironic and elusive, More’s Utopia dances so nimbly between genres and tones that it has for centuries defeated all efforts to catch its ‘message’ in the net of a coherent ideology. His enigmatic fantasia ‘concerning the best state of a commonwealth and the new island of Utopia’ can be read plausibly, and simultaneously, as a parodic traveller’s tale, an ethical treatise, a political satire and a philosophical dialogue. Opt for one interpretation –Communist Utopia, Catholic Utopia, Colonial Utopia, Green Utopia – and some smart authorial ruse will trip up the most confident critic. Allegedly brought back to Antwerp from the new-found Americas by the voyager ‘Raphael Hythloday’, More’s story of a paternalistic island state balances the ideals of common ownership and radical equality with punctilious social discipline and stifling conformism. More makes sure that his Utopia offers something for everyone to love – and loathe. These days, we may warm to his defence of animal rights and environmental stewardship, and cheer his (or maybe Raphael’s) vehement denunciations of personal wealth and competitive inequality in any unjust system where ‘by far the largest and the best part of the human race will be oppressed by a heavy and inescapable burden of cares and anxieties’.
On the other hand… (and More always deals his cards from two hands), cheerleaders for Utopia must embrace those features of its landscape less attractive to liberal, modern eyes. That means its slavery (although limited in hardship and duration), its colonialism (justified, as in Europe’s colonial heyday, ‘wherever the natives have plenty of unoccupied and uncultivated land’) and its fussily microscopic regulation of everyday behaviour. Perhaps you would enjoy the jolly fruit-and-veg competitions staged between the spacious garden estates of More’s airy, well-planned cities – a kind of Great Utopian Grow-Off. The provisions for divorce ‘by mutual consent’ sound enlightened enough. But adultery carries the penalty of ‘the strictest form of slavery’. A second offence incurs capital punishment.
More, of course, never intended his mischievous treatise as a manifesto, a route-map – still less as an application for planning permission. Ursula Le Guin, whose own speculative fiction has updated the Utopian impulse for a less patriarchal and rationalistic cultural climate, calls the original text ‘a blueprint without a building-site’. ‘Utopia is uninhabitable’, as she argues. ‘As soon as we reach it, it ceases to be Utopia.’ Nonetheless, More’s account of the ethnic and religious make-up of his island clarifies the practical task that later Utopians would face when they tried to imagine the optimum conditions for mutual trust and collective harmony.
Since this is (purportedly) a tale shipped from the Americas, More’s Raphael explains that Utopia owes its foundation to the invasion of ‘Abraxa’ – the island’s original name – by the warlord Utopus: a sort of conquistador. He forcibly civilised its ‘rude and uncouth inhabitants’ and lifted them ‘to such a high level of culture and humanity’. So this free and noble people descend from the victims of imperial occupation. Most slaves in Utopia are either prisoners of war, or condemned criminals bought by the authorities from foreign states as cheap labour. A third category, ‘hardworking penniless drudges’ from abroad, enter voluntarily as migrant workers and are treated ‘almost as well as citizens’. Since slavery cannot be inherited, Utopia’s citizen population has presumably grown more mixed. In Utopia’s own colonies, easy intermarriage seems to be the norm, as ‘the two peoples gradually and easily blend together’.
More’s commonwealth looks much more multi-ethnic than many of its later heirs and offshoots. Crucially, this human diversity ceases to matter much thanks to the island’s cultural uniformity. We learn that its 54 cities are ‘identical in language, customs, institutions and laws’. It sounds a little like the French republican ideal, now so battered and beleaguered: superficial diversity above an unshakeable bedrock of shared civic values.
As for the Utopians’ religious beliefs, More again permits plurality but celebrates an underlying unity. The island hosts a variety of faiths, with Christianity a late and moderately popular arrival. Some folk worship prophets or planets. A few even profess a kind of atheism and materialism. This weird eccentricity bars the dissident from public office and attracts censure as a ‘low and torpid’ outlook. ‘Yet they do not afflict him with punishments, because they are persuaded that no one can choose to believe by a mere act of will.’
‘The vast majority’, however, believe in ‘a single power, unknown, eternal, infinite, inexplicable.’ The Utopians call this supreme being Mithra: More borrows the name of the Persian spirit of light. Their minimal monotheism – along with a belief in the afterlife – binds together the various confessions. In keeping with the ‘natural religion’ of Renaissance philosophy, the Utopians unite around two simple principles – an abstract divinity, and a soul that survives death – and agree to differ on almost everything else. So their tolerance has its limits (although no one jails or burns those poor materialists) but extends far further than the mainstream Christianity of More’s day. Moreover, the laws strongly penalise the feuding of sects and factions, and ‘anyone who fights wantonly about religion is punished by exile or enslavement’. Fuss-free and de-cluttered, More’s reasonable religion has some affinities with the faith depicted by ibn Tufayl and his Muslim counterparts.
Composed in Latin in 1515 and 1516, after happy sojourns with his literary friends in Antwerp and Bruges, Utopia enshrines a Utopian moment in the life both of More himself and that of the European intellect. Although prompted by high-spirited conversations with Pieter Gillies, the learned city clerk of Antwerp, More’s story has its roots in his fifteen years of comradeship and collaboration with the boldest, broadest mind in the Christian Europe of their time: Erasmus of Rotterdam. In 1516, More, Erasmus and their pan-European humanist network could justly think of themselves as a vanguard of scholar-reformers with history on their side. Hence the witty assurance with which, in Utopia, More dares to bracket or suspend much of Catholic doctrine without bothering to question it. In this zero-gravity environment of fantasy and speculation, conscious doubt and heresy would feel as boring as conventional piety.
Reality soon crashed into this idyll of unchained thought. By the end of 1517, Martin Luther had begun his public challenge to the church. Soon, the semi-secret garden of ideas that More and Erasmus had cultivated would wither away. Reformation and Counter-Reformation drew ever-harder lines across the mental map of Europe. To the acute distress of Erasmus, the free-spirited author of Utopia would become Henry VIII’s hard-line, heretic-burning Chancellor. Finally, the king’s ambitions pushed St Thomas More through the door of (entirely orthodox) sacrifice and martyrdom. It might be that the most enduring models of Utopia not only take shape around fictional islands, peninsulas and oases. To bloom, they may need to grow on the most privileged islands and enclaves of history: those brief spells when everything seems possible – and nothing inevitable. Likewise, the varied Utopian ecology of the decades prior to 1914 failed to survive the toxic shock of the First World War and the Russian Revolution.
In futuristic or revolutionary forms, the road to Utopia can merge with the pathway to paradise. In nostalgic and escapist guises, it can resemble a trail leading back towards a Golden Age. In Cape Town, the latter yearning also finds its place. Close to the inner city, Cape Town’s District Six Museum remembers in an affectionate – if somewhat rose-tinted – fashion the multi-cultural neighbourhood that for generations flourished near here. Then, in 1966, the apartheid state declared it ‘white’ under the notorious Group Areas Act and planned to expel its residents. The District Six commemorated here fits neatly into the Utopian template of unity in diversity now adopted by liberal urbanists around the world. Mixed in race, religion and income, a place where black, brown and white, Muslim, Jew and Christian lived, worked, and traded, the area glows in memory as a wrecked idyll. Much of this is largely true: from its ‘Cape Malay’ (i.e. Muslim) choirs and cuisine to its jazz scene and sports clubs, District Six did form, if not a melting-pot, then a well-functioning patchwork. It also had its gangsters, its poverty, and its class fractures. The former resident who showed us round, Noor Ebrahim, came from a family that owned a successful ginger-beer factory. This was never just a hybrid slum.
Fitfully, through the 1970s, ethnic cleansing swept up 60,000 residents of District Six and dumped them in the grim townships of Cape Flats. Its lattice of crowded streets between dockside and mountain was bulldozed, with only the mosques and churches left standing as a hollow gesture of respect. By this time, however, even the city council – not to mention global public opinion – had begun to protest against the most glaring outrages of apartheid. Objectors managed to block the government’s plans for development, which means that, even today, much of District Six remains a windswept wasteland. The relocated residents and their children now have a notional right of return. As yet, far too few new houses have risen on the empty lots criss-crossed by urban freeways. Both practical and sentimental, the long fight to rebuild this flattened arcadia continues.
In the townships themselves, the Utopian – or dystopian – racial geography of apartheid becomes hideously clear. Contrary to lurid cliché, they vary enormously in prosperity, in atmosphere, in architecture. Many neat suburban homes will sport the same minatory metal shields, announcing that the owner has signed up with an ‘armed response’ security firm, as in the plushest avenues of Newlands or Bishopscourt. At the other extreme, the ‘informal settlements’ of Langa or Khayelitsha proclaim in their dense tangle of corrugated-iron shacks a level of poverty and desperation that fuels the crime that keeps the private police of South Africa in business.
On the nation’s ‘Day of Reconciliation’, 16 December, I attended a classical concert in Mitchells Plain: the mainly Coloured township, close to the coast of False Bay. This is where most of the dispossessed people of District Six ended up after their forcible eviction. It happened to be a Friday, and along the broad, monotonous streets groups of men in white thawbs were walking to the mosque. Mitchells Plain has areas of relative affluence as well as acute deprivation, with tracts of solid bourgeois homes in addition to stretches of frail shanties. But it has suffered even more than other Cape Flats communities from the social blight of gangsterism, with its simultaneous cause and consequence: crystal-meth addiction. The area counted as a ‘model township’, designed by the apartheid regime as a well-regulated showcase for the virtues of ethnic separation. One could argue that, twenty-two short years after the advent of democracy, every young life cursed by drugs or violence here still ranks as the victim of a distorted utopianism – the coercive urge to lock down humankind into fenced reserves, divided by iron laws of hierarchy and inequality.
Once inside Yellowwood Primary School, though, a more positive utopianism found its voice. After the Cape Town Philharmonic’s first-class youth orchestra had played Mozart and Bartók, school principal Donovan Senosi spoke with passion about the value of art and culture in opening to every learner the prospect of a wider, richer life. Around the walls of the school hall, joyful works of art by pupils showed that his ideals had borne fruit. In 2013, Mitchells Plain gained unwelcome headlines as the area with South Africa’s worst crime statistics. Cape Town itself, according to a 2016 survey, ranks as the ninth most violent city in the world, with a homicide rate of 65.53 for every 100,000 people. For some communities, imagining Utopia may be not so much a luxury as a necessity.
In any case, the peoples of this peninsula have a long history of transforming sites of exile and loss into homes of solidarity and hope. In a broad ring around the city and its mountain stand the twenty-three kramats of the Cape. Some ornate, others austere, scattered over hillside, farmland and shoreline, dotted among the renowned vineyards of Constantia and even planted near the former prison-camp on Robben Island, these shrines to Muslim holy men compose the much-mythologised Circle of Saints.
Several stand on Signal Hill above the old Muslim quarter of Bo-Kaap, with its homes – and places of worship – photogenically painted in a riot of sweetshop colours. Where else would you find a turquoise mosque? According to legend, the kramats protect the Cape from disaster with a ring of spiritual steel. Once a strictly local cult, the kramats have now found wider fame. The Cape Mazaar Society tends to them, researches their history, and invites people of all faiths to visit. Incidentally, it chooses to describe the forefathers of Islam in the Cape as Saints (capital S).
Many of these shrines owe their existence to an earlier wave of persecution and expulsion. The first Saints to land at the Cape, in 1667, arrived as political exiles deported from the Dutch colonies of the East Indies. As the Mazaar Society’s guide puts it, after the Dutch colonisation of parts of Java and Sumatra, ‘Very soon, the inhabitants began to resist and united to form defences against the imperialist tyranny. The men to lead the people were of a high calibre; men of great spiritual intellect who commanded a great deal of respect from the communities. They were however cunningly captured, and together with their followers, banished to the Cape.’
Sheikh Abdurahman Matebe Sha and Sheikh Sayed Mahmud, now buried on the oak- and vine-swathed slopes of Constantia, had ruled as princes in Malacca and Sumatra. Near Cape Flats stands the tomb of Sheikh Yussuf of Macassar, the pioneer leader of the peninsula’s Muslim community. When the Mecca-educated Yussuf arrived as a political exile in 1694, governor Simon van der Stel welcomed him, even granted him a stipend, but insisted that he and his party – imams included – stay at a safe distance from the Dutch settlement. Sheikh Yussuf, perhaps, enjoyed the last laugh. The area around his shrine is now known as Macassar. Cape Muslims flock to his kramat during an annual Easter Pilgrimage. Some mistake, surely? Not at all: under Dutch colonial rule, all slave labourers (many of them Muslims) had the right to an Easter-tide holiday. The Muslims used it to visit shrines.
Colourful, syncretic, ‘superstitious’, the folkways of Islam in the Cape might horrify a purist. From the sacred daisy-chain of guardian kramats to the sweet-and-spicy flavours of Cape Malay food, they also feed the springs of a shared popular culture. Dislocated, even enslaved, the sheikhs and their followers grew their Utopian hopes on the harsh terrain of exile. The prophecy says that the Circle of Saints preserves from calamity everyone within its compass. Treat it, perhaps, as an alternative myth of the good, safe place to that bitter almond hedge of segregation planted by Jan van Riebeeck. Not only in Cape Town, but around the world, utopianism still shows its double face: inclusive and exclusive; open and closed; the broad circle, and the high hedge. The voyage continues.