On the 24th of August 2020, in Durban CBD, the historic Juma Masjid / Grey Street Mosque – the largest mosque in the southern hemisphere – caught on fire. The fire affected the part of the complex that houses flats and shops, and 14 flats and their contents were destroyed by the flames. According to the Mosque’s chairperson, Advocate AB Mohamed, the damage done is estimated to be worth at least R10-million. The cause of the fire was investigated and found to be accidental, originating from one of the apartments.
The Juma Masjid was originally established in 1881 as a small brick structure that already existed on the plot of land that Aboobaker Amod Jhaveri and Hajee Mohamed bought. Between 1882 and 1927, the Mosque was steadily expanded and built into the structure it is today, which blends Arabic and South African architecture. Situated on the corner of corner of Yusuf Dadoo (old Grey Street) and Denis Hurley streets, the Juma Masjid sits alongside the Denis Hurley Centre and the Emmanuel Cathedral, and is a symbol not only of religious tolerance and cooperation, but also of the history of Indian people in South Africa.
Many residents of the Mosque’s apartments have lived there for a number of years and, in some cases, the apartments have been passed from generation to generation. Luckily no lives were lost or harmed in the fires, but the residents – many of whom are staff at the Masjid – have lost most of their belongings.
The chairperson of the Masjid noted that the mosque would not just be repaired, but restored, as it is an historic structure and heritage site. Although the fire of the mosque is a dramatic moment of destruction and damage of a heritage site, it is also an opportunity to reflect on how these iconic structures and physical representations of our city’s history are maintained. Heritage preservation in South Africa is a huge undertaking. It is not just a matter of physical maintenance but also requires grappling with multiple and layered legacies of violence, dispossession, discrimination, and economic hardship and to attempt to make the past, through physical remains, relevant to a collective present.
In In IIn August of 2018, Professor Zakes Mda gave a special lecture at the Durban University of Technology on heritage preservation in the post-colony, titled “Unsilencing an Occluded Cultural and Historical Heritage”. In it, Mda highlighted the importance of engaging with ideas of heritage preservation as a complex engagement with political futures as well as political pasts. He said, “In the post colony our priority should be to reconstruct our cultural and historical heritage in our own image. Heritage must not be a mere spectacle‚ we need people to own their heritage.”
While no lives were lost during the Juma Masjid / Grey Street Mosque fire, the loss of shelter and belongings has inevitably hurt the residents and families who stay in the Mosque’s apartments, and is a disruption to the lives they lead within the 127 year-old building. Thinking of Mda’s words that “people should own their heritage”, the Juma Masjid in Durban is a prime example of this, where heritage is not a static display, but something that people can be a part of – a home, a place of worship, and a livelihood to many.
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