South African Baha'is reflect on 100 years of racial unity

November 18, 2011

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Today, Baha'is here of all backgrounds can freely meet together and demonstrate their belief in the oneness of humanity. But this has not always been the case.

Among the stories told at the centenary commemoration of the South African Baha'i community were those recounting the perils faced by Baha'is who were trying to follow their faith during the hardest years of apartheid.

"The community reflected on the role of the early Baha'is in promoting unity in a country with a volatile and racially segregated past," said Khwezi Fudu, a spokesperson for the Baha'is of South Africa.

"But we also celebrated – through musical, dramatic and audio-visual presentations – the contribution that the Baha'i community has made to the country in the areas of racial unity, moral education of children and young people, gender equality and interfaith dialogue."

In a message to the gathering, held at the national Baha'i center on 12 November, former South African President Thabo Mbeki said, "We are...greatly encouraged by the fact that as you have responded to the challenges of human development you have sought not only to deliver services but also to nurture the capacity of all human beings to develop themselves, including their morality."

The Baha'i Diversity Choir performs at the celebration of the centenary of the Baha'i Faith in South Africa. Slideshow
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The Baha'i Diversity Choir performs at the celebration of the centenary of the Baha'i Faith in South Africa.

"We are honored and feel greatly strengthened that we have members of the Baha'i Faith in our country and among us," he added.

A multi-racial election

Dignitaries and guests attending the commemoration heard how, after the Baha'i Faith first arrived in South Africa in 1911, people of all races gradually joined the community. By 1956, when the community was sufficiently large to initially elect a regional governing council, Baha'is from southern Africa of varied racial backgrounds gathered at a small farm in Highveld.

As a precaution, Reginald Turvey – an acclaimed painter who was a Baha'i – was posted on the road to the farmhouse as a lookout. If the security police approached, he was to signal and the voters would then disperse. The African Baha'is would pretend to be cleaning and cooking while the white community members would pretend to be playing cards.

That historic election went off without a hitch – its result a testimony to the Baha'i principle of racial unity: of the nine members elected, two were black and one was a colored South African, along with a Swazi and a Mozambiquan, and four whites.

Distinguished guests

Guests at the centenary commemoration included South Africa's former first lady, Zanele Mbeki; the Sigcau royal family of the AmaMpondo people; Agostinho Zacarias – the United Nations' Resident Coordinator; and other distinguished individuals, including government officials, members of the diplomatic corps, artists, media and corporate representatives, academics, religious leaders and social activists.

The Australian High Commissioner – Her Excellency Mrs. Ann Harrap – who gave a keynote address that explored issues such as the empowerment of women, described the occasion as "entertaining, inspirational and educational."

"I was overwhelmed by how the Baha'i community has come together to present what they have contributed to South African society over the past 100 years," she said.