Ebrahim Rhoda has served his community for most of his life, not only through his research and writing but through active citizenship.In 2018, the University of the Western Cape awarded Rhoda its inaugural Gold Medal for Commitment to Community Service, in recognition of his lifelong dedication to the Strand Muslim community.
The medal acknowledges individuals who have made an extraordinary contribution to their community through exceptional leadership, community involvement and activities that reflect meritorious contributions to public life or a significant benefit to society.
Rhoda, who was then 80 years old, said, “Being the first person to receive the Gold Award from UWC meant much more than the value of gold.” In a later interview, he stated that “he accepted this honour on behalf of the Strand Muslim community.”
Rhoda was born in Strand, and was a teacher and principal of Strand Moslem Primary School for 35 years. He recalls that in the early years, very few learners proceeded to matric. In fact, of the 174 learners who passed grade seven (standard five) between 1951 to 1962, only about 10% matriculated.
He has been credited with playing a major role with the late Maulana Yusuf Karaan in encouraging their community to value and pursue education. By the 1970s and 1980s, their efforts had borne fruits and many former learners not only completed high school but qualified at tertiary institutions in diverse professions and trades.
Sheikh Muhammad Faadil Latief is one of Rhoda’s proud former pupils.“He was my teacher and mentor during my primary school years at the Strand Moslem Primary School,” says Latief, who went on to become a lecturer at the Cape Town-based International Peace College South Africa.
“He was an integral part of our school’s development over many years and he still remains a pillar of support, despite having retired from active service.”
Growing up, Rhoda became increasingly fascinated by the history of the Strand Muslim community and the significance of sites such as the nearby Sheikh Yusuf kramat (shrine). This history had been largely ignored by historians and the school curriculum. Yet, elderly members of the community could recount in detail the history not only of Muslims in the Strand but other communities and particular families.
His interest in Muslim genealogy led him to co-found the Cape Family Research Forum (CFRF) in 2002 with other researchers. The main objective of the CFRF was to encourage ordinary people to research their genealogy and numerous families were able to trace some of their ancestors to slaves and exiles brought from presentday Indonesia and other Indian Ocean territories.
Rhoda was selected to participate in a joint UCT-UWC project on researching slave roots, which unleashed his enthusiasm for archival research.Ebrahim Rhoda has published various books over the years. After retiring from teaching, Rhoda registered for a master’s degree in history, through UWC’s Recognition of Prior Learning programme. At the age of 68, he was awarded a distinction in 2006 for his dissertation, ‘The founding and development of the Strand Muslim Muslim Community, 1822–1928’.
Rhoda’s work has shown how histories can be rediscovered through the oral narratives of community sources coupled with archival research. As an apt example, he cites consulting his 90-year-old paternal aunt, Ragiema Crombie in 1990 about their forebears.
“She could not read nor write, but was endowed with an encyclopaedic memory. Almost all of the names she mentioned I would later corroborate with archival documentation,” says Rhoda, whose quest resulted in him “tracing the slave matriarch of our family”.
As his research skills grew, Rhoda became increasingly aware that “much has been written by ‘others’ about the Muslims and other non-Muslim communities at the Cape”.After deciding that “It is high time that we narrate and record our own version,” Rhoda became something of a heritage activist, presenting workshops to learners and beginner researchers, giving informative talks on the Voice of the Cape radio station and inspiring others to become involved in archival studies.
Taking his own cue, Rhoda published a number of articles and three books on the history of Islam at the Cape: ‘From Slavery to Citizenship: a walk through the history of a Strand community’ (2011); ‘The Strand Muslim Community: 1822– 1966 An Historical Overview’ (2014); and ‘The Wentzels: a pioneering family of the Muslim Community of the Strand’ (2018).
Rhoda received the Western Cape Provincial Arts and Culture Award in 2009 in the heritage category for his contribution to public awareness of heritage resources.