Throughout much of South Africa, Muslims have established a distinguished presence in the country since their arrival nearly four centuries ago. This is despite accounting for a mere 2% of the total population.
But for some, like Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) student, Aysha Amogelang Ramatena, a sense of exclusion and misconception still exist in some spaces.
“I started TUT in 2019, did my MHC in Accountancy and that’s when I realised that it literally has five Muslims,” she said, adding that there were no student bodies, such as the Muslim Students Association (MSA), where she could feel like she belonged.
To be fair, most major universities in South Africa have long-existing student bodies like the MSA. They also provide prayer facilities for Muslim students on campus. Ramatena said she believed there simply aren’t enough Muslim students at TUT for such structures to be established.
Being black and Muslim
Ramatena was born and raised a Muslim. She attended an Islamic school in Rustenburg, North West during her childhood. However, she soon had to adjust to a different environment when she began attending a high school that was non-Islamic.
Later, as a student at TUT, she found it difficult to explain to people why she wore a headscarf.
“I thought maybe going to a higher institution like TUT was going to be a bit better; people would be a bit more welcoming, but it seems like a challenge each and every day,” she said.
“It’s a bit sad because I always have to prove a point to people as soon as they ask me ‘why are you always wearing a scarf?’ I have to explain that it’s the hijab. I always have to cover my hair,” Ramatena said.
Ramatena went on to say that being a Black Muslim in South Africa has been a challenge due to misconceptions.
“As a Black Muslim, it’s also difficult because people don’t think Black people can be Muslim. You’re always going to have to explain yourself – whether you want to or not. It’s something that people find very peculiar and they require an explanation,” she said.
Being so few in number, Muslim students at TUT do not have prayer facilities, unlike their counterparts at other universities in the country. This has been a hassle for Ramatena during her student years.
“We don’t even have prayer facilities I always have to ask to get excused so I can actually go and pray,” she said.
Even so, Ramatena said, it’s not entirely unpleasant as a Black Muslim on campus. She soon integrated into social groups and said she believed things are working out for her.
“The one thing that I love about them is that they actually accept me for who I am and I think I’m rubbing off on them because I saw two of them wearing scarfs the other day. So I’m actually happy it’s working out,” she said.
“It’s not bad being different. It’s just uncomfortable at times because I don’t like always explaining myself.”
Speaking in response to the Muslim prayer facility reportedly being shut down at another institution, Ramatena expressed disappointment.
“I feel like as soon as you know that you have a place on campus for yourself, that’s where you feel a sense of comfort, but as soon as something that you feel like home is taken away from you, it feels like you’re being robbed of something,” she said.
Last week, the MSA issued a communique to students at the University of Pretoria’s Prinshof Campus that the “HW Snyman Jamaat Khana is being taken away from the Muslim students”. It said protracted negotiations with the university were to no avail.