Put together in less than two months by a group of scholars and community activists, the idea of Mawlid SA 1434 created huge interest and was well-received by the media who widely covered it.
The only negativity came from the anti-mawlid camp, a group of anonymous killjoys, who condemned the event as a reprehensible innovation. Its faceless captains subsequently declared that a curse would befall the mother city.
Curse or not, the organisers certainly faced some daunting challenges. The night before a gale-force south-easterly shredded the VIP marquee, and the city authorities (fearing the stage would collapse in the wind) demanded the next day that before the mawlid could go ahead its superstructure had to be dismantled.
And if that wasn’t enough, the simultaneous visit of Deputy President Kgalema Motlante, provincial Premier Helen Zille and Mayor Patricia de Lille had created an organisational nightmare – the clearing of the park for a bomb sweep.
So when I arrived early on Sunday morning at 8 am, and decided to take a short cut to the main arena from the Green Point lighthouse, I discovered that the gates had been locked. Hundreds of people were waiting to get in. Some told me they’d been waiting since 6.30, but apart from a few grumbles, most were remarkably phlegmatic .
At the stadium end of the park there was a sea of white. Things were happening there. The Reddam rugby field, originally set aside for overflow from the main arena, was already filling up with brightly coloured umbrellas and family groups. At the main gate I spotted three x-ray scanners and teams of security officials in fluorescent bibs.
That was bad news. Bureaucracy had put a serious spoke in the wheel. It would not only mean the scheduled opening procession of Islamic schools and mawlid congegrations would be almost impossible, but that even more frustrating delays would be on the cards.
Eventually, to the relief of the organisers, Mawlid SA 1434 started at 11 am when Premier Helen Zille, accompanied by Shaikh Abdurahman Alexander and the Siddique Pipe Band, entered the park.
The rest of the people, having now waited patiently for hours, trickled through the gates and the arena filled up. Considering the interminably long wait, I discovered that again – apart from a few complaints – most in the crowd were good-natured and determined to see the positive side of things.
City officials told me that about 16,000 had braved the elements (and the red-tape). I thought: What would the anti-mawlid camp, probably choking on their halal-certified coffee, say now?
“Shafiq, this reminds me of Mina!” shouted a cheerful Hajjah, who told me that neither the government nor the windy weather would put her off celebrating the mawlid.
“It’s our day and I’m going to enjoy myself with my family and my friends,” she said as she opened a camp chair and her son offered me a koeksuster. Only in Cape Town, I thought, only in Cape Town.
Meanwhile, on stage VIP’s faced the teeth of the south-easterly in the blistering sun as the stage had been stripped down to bare scaffolding. Marius Fransman (Western Cape leader of the ANC), Maulana Igshan Hendricks (President Muslim Judicial Council), Deputy-President Kgalema Motlante, Premier Helen Zille and Mayor Patricia de Lille sat in a row.
As the speeches commenced, I was asked whether the mawlid had become a political rally. I replied that I didn’t think so.
“Surely we’ve come to celebrate the Prophet (SAW), not our politicians,” insisted this person who – like so many others – had patiently waited to enter the park.
But as the event wore on I began to sense that there was a much bigger picture. None of the politicians made “political” speeches. Forget about vote catching for a moment, our leaders were saying good things about Islam and the Prophet (SAW) in a country where Muslims were not even 5% of the population.
When main guest speaker, Shaikh Yahya Ninowy (a descendant of the Prophetic House) spoke eloquently about the prophet Sulaiman (as), I began to realise that this mawlid was less about politics and more about our unique, polyglot South African identity in the image of the Prophet (SAW).
For sitting in the assembly was a rainbow community peacefully enjoying a day in Cape Town’s mid-summer sun. I’m cynical about politicians at the best of times, yet our leaders – representing different parties and faiths – were not squabbling, but listening politely to a Sufi Shaikh from the US.
For Motlante, De Lille and Fransman it was an enjoyment of public space once denied to them by apartheid’s masters. If the mawlid had been held in 1985 the Urban Park would have been a sea of riot police. It might have been 18 years after 1994, but being there amongst fellow South Africans was still a triumph – and an affirmation of our collective identity.
But there was something else too. The whole week I’d been getting messages from abroad expressing great interest in Mawlid SA 1434.
“Wish I was there,” was a sentiment I’d heard expressed in numerous Tweets and Facebook messages from Kuala Lumpur to Cairo. Some of the messages were not without envy that the Cape Town community could host such a significant public occasion, and attract not only the mayor and provincial premier, but the Deputy President of the country as well.
There was no doubt that Mawlid SA 1434, streaming live on radio and television, was being watched by the world. Mawlid SA 1434 was not just 16,000 Capetonians gathered on the grass in Green Point, it was an international event.