Historic Muslim burial site 'invaded' by homeless family

2016-06-17 12:35

Cape Town - For Muslims, the Tana Baru Cemetery in the upper reaches of Bo-Kaap is a historically important and holy burial site. It is also home to a family of four, living in poverty, GroundUp reports.

John Swartz and his family say they have been living in the cemetery for 32 years. His wife, Sarie Rex, and two children, Ebrahim, 5 and Shahieda Rex, 10, live in a dilapidated one-room house held together with pieces of wood, broken furniture, plastic, and cardboard.

Abandoned in Parkwood by his mother when he was 6, Swartz found himself begging and stealing to support his three siblings, the youngest of whom was 6-months-old. A family took them in, but it did not turn out well.

"The dad abused us. He hit me very hard. He raped my sister," says Swartz through a stream of tears. With his siblings, he went to Steinthal, a children’s care facility in Tulbagh.

The Swartz home. He says it has burned down eight times (Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp)

At 17, Swartz ran away and found himself back in Parkwood. Through sheer luck, he was reunited with his aunt. He didn’t stay with her for long, because of the gangsterism and violence that plagued the area.

Another side to the story

Swartz moved to the city, begging and sleeping on the streets, before he found the Tana Baru Cemetery.

A local resident, who stays nearby and wishes to remain anonymous, paints a different picture.

According to her, Swartz has been staying in and around Longmarket Street, near the cemetery, for as long as she can remember.

"In the area perhaps, but not on the property [Tana Baru] itself," she says.

"When people come to Ziarat (to visit the burial sites) and pay their respects, they ask why is there a shack there?"

The resident says many locals are against Swartz living on sacred land. He gets drunk and disturbs the peace. They speak of "dodgy characters" that come and go.

Swartz and family are not the only homeless people staying on the Tana Baru grounds. Others were removed.

"What holds him is obviously the children. You don’t want to do anything that’s going to starve the kids," the resident says of Swartz.

First Muslim cemetery in SA

Dr M Aadil Bassier, chair of the Tana Baru Trust, says: "We provided him with shack materials and a new place to stay. He was there for a month or two, but he came back. This was three or five years ago.

"We are trying to resolve the matter in a humane way, but the guy can get very aggressive. This is a heritage site that is of great value to the Muslim community. It is the first Muslim cemetery in the whole of South Africa."

As a heritage site, nothing could be constructed on it.

There is a seven-step plan in the works for the cemetery. The first step is to preserve and maintain the heritage grounds. However, with the family staying on the site, these objectives may not be met.

Read more on:    cape town  |  culture  |  religion

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