The story Of Suraya Esau


Author: Latifa Daud

Educator, published author, and activist, Suraya Esau’s passion for justice and equality runs in her blood. Her story tracks her ancestors’ journey from Indonesia, to the Cape, South Africa, and her migration to New Zealand. It explores the complexity of identity, and the drive for women’s empowerment in all aspects of life. Meet Suraya. 

For Suraya Esau, the life of political activism and colonial consciousness is in her blood. Suraya, of Dutch and Indonesian heritage, was born the youngest of 12 in Cape Town, South Africa during the apartheid regime. Her father migrated to Cape Town from the city of Kimberly and established Rahmaniyeh School, a state-integrated Islamic school that followed the English, Afrikaans, and Islamic curriculums together. This is where Suraya would later end up receiving her education. “If you had to enter this school, it wouldn’t look like a Muslim school”. Growing up during apartheid meant that one couldn’t escape political awareness.

Pic: Suraya with her dog

She grew up in Cape Town’s District 6, which Suraya describes as being diverse with people from all religious backgrounds, from Muslims, to Hindus, to Christians, to the Jewish living side-by-side. “Christians were welcomed to enter the mosques; Muslims were welcomed in churches”. This diversity, in a country where people were discriminated against based on racial lines, made these religious spaces conversation grounds to talk about apartheid and ignite a spark for change. “We would go to church and the priest would talk about the ramifications of apartheid at the time and politicise people. The same thing would happen in certain mosques”.

“As a Muslim … we’re taught that no person is better than another person but through his humility.” Suraya’s anti-apartheid activism began as a teenager. In 1994, when she was in her 20s, South Africa held their first democratic elections. Suraya had the honour of taking her mother, who was in her 70s and had never voted, to the polling booth. “It was quite emotional on that day when we took our parents to vote for the first time ... That was one of the milestones in my life to have been able to have done this for my mother”.

At this time, Suraya’s husband Achmet was a school teacher. In the months immediately following this historic election, Achmet and Suraya found that the racial hierarchies that they thought were in the past, were still strongly functioning in the educational setting. For this reason, they made the decision to leave South Africa in 1995, landing in New Zealand as their chosen new home. When explaining their reason for choosing New Zealand, Suraya says they “wanted a normal society for our children to go to, and of course the All Blacks”. Rugby is in their blood, so the decision was obvious.

Achmet moved to Aotearoa in 1997. Suraya followed with their three children in 1998 and completed her teaching degree. New Zealand of the 1990s did not know much about Islam, so the transition to Kiwi life was not easy. Achmet faced 300 rejected job applications before Ngati Whatua came through as their saving grace. The family connected with the iwi through rugby, and renamed the couple Aroha and Rangi. Suraya then advised Achmet to send his next application with the name Rangi. “If this doesn’t work, we go home [to South Africa]”. Achmet was offered the job in Wairua under this name, and the family relocated.

The Esau family were the only Muslim family in the community, so lifestyles of both the family and the community were mutually foreign to each other. “We had to face what was different and find what was similar … How are we going to approach this without losing our identity, and how are we going to raise our children in a society that knows nothing about who we are as a people?” Their avenue was through sport, becoming coaches and umpires as a way or integrating into the community. The Esaus lived in Wairua for three years before moving to Helensville.

Pic: Suraya with her family

Many years later, Suraya, who by then had become a deputy principal, came across the opportunity of a lifetime. A travel agency in Cape Town was organising a tour to Indonesia in collaboration with the Indonesian government. This tour took them on a journey of the history of their people’s colonisation, specifically focusing on the life of Shaykh Yusuf of Macassar. In the 1600s, Shaykh Yusuf resisted the Dutch occupation of Indonesia. He was imprisoned and taken to Cape Town where he is said to have established Islam in the Cape. His grave now lays on a hilltop in the town of Macassar, South Africa.  

Suraya describes the experience as a type of homecoming. “We were seen as the people who had come back home 350 years later”. The locals even organised a mawlid attended by more than 1000 people, including kings and princesses of Indonesia. Apartheid destroyed documentation of where people came from, so as part of Suraya’s post-apartheid identity research, Suraya wrote a children’s book about the journey of Shaykh Yusuf of Macassar. “One needs to make sure this is not lost. We need to capture these voices”. My People: Shaykh Yusuf of Macassar was launched in 2018 and distributed in Cape Town.  

Pic: Suraya in Cape Town

The Esau family’s activism spirit has lived on during their life in Aotearoa. Nelson Mandela’s statement, “we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians” is one they take very seriously. On the first Saturday of every month, Suraya and Achmet picket at Aotea Square in protest against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. They are also involved in Ou Matao Reo, an organisation aiming to amplify the voices of New Zealand’s Maori Muslim community. Suraya explains that every culture from across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, has adopted Islam within their culture. “We need the same for Maori. We need to make sure Maori find their place as a Maori cultural group within Islam and only Maori can do that”.

All of the movements Suraya has been involved in throughout her life have been about amplifying voices, particularly for women. “it is important for women to be heard, to be seen, and for women to go out there and be go-getters”.  

Pic: Suraya at her book signing