Ebrahim Rasool born on July 15, 1962, in Capetown, South Africa, is currently South Africa’s ambassador to the United States. Prior to his present position at the Embassy, Rasool held a wide range of positions and enjoyed a lengthy political career, including Special Advisor to the State President of the Republic of South Africa and Premier, Member of the Parliament in the National Assembly and posts in various governmental departments, including the departments of health, welfare, and economic development.
Growing up, Rasool lived under the harsh conditions of the Apartheid, as his family was forcibly removed from his home in District Six, as it was decided to be a white only area by the Apartheid government. After graduating from Livingstone High School in 1980, Rasool went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts in 1983 and a Higher Diploma in Education in 1984 from the University of Cape Town before taking a teaching position at a high school for a year in 1985. However, his experience of growing up under the Apartheid never drifted too far from him, and he soon joined the anti-apartheid movement. He has held leadership positions with the United Democratic Front (UDF), a group which was vital to the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s. He also assumed leadership positions in the African National Congress (ANC), and endured periods of house arrest and jail time for his political involvement.
Rasool’s political, as well as social involvement has always been catalyzed by his faith alongside his experiences. He has been a steadfast supporter of the Islamic Movement and the Interfaith Movement and was very active in helping Muslims, as well as individuals of other faiths, to gain deeper understanding of their faiths under the conditions of the Apartheid. He continues to do so now. Regarding the role that religion plays in politics, he once wrote that it was troubling to him that, especially following the September 11 attacks, the role of religion in politics has been seen as a negative one. “This is very difficult for people of my generation,” he wrote, stating that as politicians, many people of his time were able to find “a comfortable intersection between religion and politics.” He also added that “Religion asserts values; it asks questions of right and wrong, of practical implementation, of fulfilling God’s command. Religion, for example, consults the Scripture on our role in persuading those who have, to share and those who have not, to be patient until the sharing starts taking effect.”
More importantly, he wrote that “it is the absence of a theology of transformation that creates an intellectual gap in our society. We have to be self-critical as people who are activists in religion as well, because all of the discourses that play out at the macro-level in society in South Africa are also a challenge to religion.” He has also stated the importance of advocating moderate Islam in South Africa, and believes himself to be both, a non-fundamentalist revolutionary and a non-extremist radical.
Moreover, Rasool has also taken deliberate and direct steps in order to deter the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in South Africa. According to him, when he took over as the Premier of Western Cape in 2004, he helped in the drafting and delivering of sermons that denounced extremism in every mosque in Western Cape.
For his general contributions to his home country of South Africa, Rasool has received a number of leadership awards. In 2005, the London Financial Times awarded Rasool the Foreign Direct Investment Africa Personality of the Year Award, and before that, in 1998, Rasool was a recipient of the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights. Most recently, in 2008, Rasool was awarded the Visionary Leadership and Public Goods Award from the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists, and the Commitment and Leadership in the Fight Against Crime award from Business Against Crime.
I too came across the story of Rasool and Mandela’s first meeting while reading the many inspiring stories that came out in honor of Nelson Mandela’s life. What particularly struck me about this story was the fact that neither of these men wasted their time in prison and neither kept to themselves. They not only used the time to continue learning and growing (such as having discussions, watching and discussing films like “The Peopling of America,” etc.), but also used it as a time to help their fellow prisoners grow and learn as well.
Prison presents an interesting time for political prisoners and from reviewing many of the profiles here, it is clear to see that these prisoners not only chose not to waste any time, but also find ways to reach out to others in whatever ways they can, whether that be with their fellow prisoners, their prison guards or with visitors. The American Congressman John Lewis, Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and Timor-Leste leader Xanana Gusmao (see their profiles), as well as many others, also found ways to still reach out to others despite their confinement.
Ebrahim Rasool has a long history of involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle, including leadership in the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the African National Congress (ANC). He spent time in prison and was under house arrest. While his time in prison he spent a lot of time in solitary confinement. It was the place where he met Mandela.
In his interview Rasool said: “I wouldn’t exchange my past as it affected my present though I was in prison. The reasons were noble if I wouldn’t be in prison in cape town in 1987 I wouldn’t meet Nelson Mandela who inspired me so much especially for what I went to prison for.” He met Mandela in the waiting room of the prison hospital. It was an arranged meeting. Mr. Mandela wanted to see his as he heard that Rasool was one of the political detainees. He was very impressed about his ability to mobilize the Muslim community in very constructive way. After that he invited him to watch a movie. Mr. Mandela had a privilege he was given film and projector every Friday night. The next Friday they were watching a movie together called “The Peopling of America”. Mr Rasool didn’t expect that they will be watching a documentary. When it ended Rasool asked why this Movie? Mandela answered I wanted to see how the American were able to deal with the diversity because we need to do this in South African. I want to learn from their mistakes. Rasool has made many sacrifices in his struggle for justice, including spending time in prison and being put under house arrest. Ambassador Rasool has also been involved in mobilizing Muslims , and other faith communities for a deeper understanding of Islam especially after 9/11 where religion is highly integrated into politics and viewed as evil. Though if understanding the core of Islam it is similar to Christianity that illustrates the higher morals to guide the community.