Jivan Keshavjee, Habib Chagan and the Ismaili community of Pretoria


The community of Ismaili Shia Muslims to which Miriam and Habib belonged was small but very enterprising. Its founder, Jivan Keshavjee, had arrived in Pretoria in 1894, about the time the Coolie Location was set aside for Indian occupation. He was from Chotila, a village near Rajput in India, where his family was engaged in commerce. He came to South Africa with a friend, Ganibhai Haji Cassim, who had relatives in the country. Jivan and Ganibhai worked in Port Elizabeth for a short while before they left for the Coolie Location in 1894.

In the next year, with the help of other Muslims already established in the area, Jivan started a business at 112 Prinsloo Street, K.J. Keshavjee and Sons, so named as he was known as “Khoja” Jivan Keshavjee. ‘Khoja’ means trader. His relatives who were not Keshavjees, entered the country as “Khojas,” adopted the designation as their surname and used it for their businesses. At some point, Jivan Keshavjee dropped the term and when his brothers, Velshi, Manjee and Naran, arrived in Pretoria, they came in as Keshavjees.

– snip – Soon after the Nationalist government came into power in 1948, His Highness, Sultan Mohammed Shah Aga Khan, the Ismaili Imam, called on his followers in South Africa to leave the country. As they saw no hope of a viable future in South Africa, the Keshavjees sold their cinemas to the Chetty brothers, the emerging cinema moghuls, and emigrated.

Habib, like his pioneer Uncle Jivan, was a charismatic figure. When he left in 1952, he drew people to Kenya in the same way that Jivan had drawn people from India to the Asiatic Bazaar. Almost everyone followed. Ten years later there was no longer an Ismaili Muslim community in Pretoria. A few individuals remained but the majority had made their way to other parts of the world.

– snip – When the Ismailis left Marabastad, Pretoria lost the contributions that fine minds make to enhance a society. Had the “Khojas” remained in the Asiatic Bazaar, however, many avenues of development would have been closed to them. In other countries they had the freedom to fulfil their potential. In Canada and the United Kingdom, they embarked on careers that carried the most gifted – among them the descendants of Velshi Keshavjee – to the top of their professions. In 1987, Murad Keshavjee, Velshi Keshavjee’s grandson, who became a member of the Ontario Liberal Government of David Peterson, was deputy whip of the Liberal Party, Chair of the Committee of the Ombudsman and Parliamentary Assistant to the Ministry of Citizenship. Shafique Keshavjee, Sherbanoo Velshi Keshavjee’s grandson, is the leading heart-and-lung thoracic surgeon in Canada and director of the Toronto Lung-Transplant Programme.

The successes of Ismailis, even in diaspora, are clearly attributable to the cohesiveness of their community, a unity fostered through religious beliefs and the spiritual guidance of the Imam.


Related posts:
Organs can be repaired outside the body – New technique pioneered by Dr. Shaf Keshavjee
Pioneering Ismaili transplant surgeon from Toronto – Shaf Keshavjee
Mamajees Kitchen by Lella Umedaly – Cuisine

Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

3 thoughts

  1. Lella Umedaly states in the ‘My Life’ section of her book ‘Mamajee’s Kitchen’:
    “My grandfather, Velshi, was a very religious Shia Imami Ismaili Muslim who was strict in his ways. He and his three brothers built a beautiful mosque in the heart of Pretoria’s Indian area. In those years, my grandfather also developed a friendship with the famous Indian pacifist and statesman Mahatma Gandhi. The Mahatma came to South Africa as a young man, after he completed his law degree in England, and he lived near Durban, on the coast. He traveled to Pretoria to try an important case and befriended my grandfather, and even though he was of the Hindu faith, he tutored my uncle Rajabali, helping him to learn his Ismaili Muslim prayers. Because of Gandhi’s close relationship and influence, Uncle Rajabali became a vegetarian.”

    MUTHAL NAIDOO, from whose Blog your above post is taken, has another blogpost in which he lists the names of all the people who resided at Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg, South Africa in 1910, among them Mohandas Gandhi(later to be known as Mahatma Gandhi) and Rajabali Veslhi Keshavjee:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.