Dr Abdullah Abdurahman: South Africa’s First Elected Black Politician
Martin Plaut
Jacana, 2020

1.

Martin Plaut’s biography of Abdullah Abdurahman is a brilliant effort to bring to the surface the life story of a largely forgotten but important figure in Cape and South African history. There is not a lack of information about the life of Abdurahman and Plaut’s volume includes a fairly comprehensive bibliography. For that contribution alone, this biography is invaluable. He reminds readers of the works of Mohamed Adhikari[1], Crain Soudien[2], Gavin Lewis[3], and Richard van der Ross[4], and he makes particular mention of Eve Wong’s[5] thesis for her Master’s degree from UCT. 

At the time of his death, Dr Abdullah Abdurahman was a highly respected figure. His funeral procession brought the city of Cape Town to a standstill. The funeral was attended by the Mayor of Cape Town and tributes flowed in from several quarters, including from the Prime Minister, Jan Smuts. It is therefore interesting that in less than one hundred years after his passing, the legacy of the Doctor from District Six is in need of rescuing.

Biographies about popular figures – alive or death – are a dime a dozen. But writing about someone who was once known but has now receded into obscurity is a challenge. It is very much like salvaging a sunken ship or excavating an archaeological site. So, one approaches this biography about Abdurahman with some excitement in order to discover which new treasures will be revealed. But one is also curious about why this particular story has been neglected; in the same way that one wishes to understand why a ship sank or why a once majestic structure was abandoned.

In the first quarter of the 21st century, South Africa is in desperate need of stories being told and retold. As someone who is engaged in social media on retelling the stories of people from the distant and recent past, I am often surprised at how many people are unaware of large aspects of South African history. One has to wonder what is being taught at our schools. Of course, the blame must be placed squarely at the feet of national government which has neglected the heritage sector – including its transformation and governance – at the expense of a narrow exposition of our history. With the lack of knowledge of the past, there is a growing body of misinformation to fill the gaps.

Globally, there is an assault on facts of even not more than a few days old. The efficacy of this assault grows stronger as the distance between events of the past and our present recollection widens. In few places is this more evident than in present-day South Africa.

The campaign to erase memory has become such a threat to the moral order that holocaust denial is considered a crime in Germany and several other countries. Just 26 years after the official end of apartheid – which was declared a crime against humanity – South Africa is experiencing a rise in apartheid denialism. While the seven volumes that comprise the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gather dust, there is a strident effort to deny or minimise the impact of apartheid (and the colonial injustices which preceded it). While these sentiments have always abounded at dinner parties, braais and on social media, they were given greater currency in March 2017, when Helen Zille tweeted while waiting to board an aeroplane:

“For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc

“Would we have had a transition into specialised health care and medication without colonial influence? Just be honest, please.

“Getting onto an aeroplane now and won’t get onto the wi-fi so that I can cut off those who think EVERY aspect of colonial legacy was bad.”

More recently (June 2020), she followed up with another Tweet:

“Lol, there are more racist laws today than there were under apartheid. All racist laws are wrong. But permanent victimhood is too highly prized to recognise this.”

In the age of “alternative facts”[6] even these statements were considered to outlandish and other leaders of the largest opposition political party distanced themselves from them. However, these statements do not stray too far from the official positions of some opposition political parties and bring to light the discomfort that many white South Africans feel about conversations about colonialism and apartheid. And the question remains: Why is it so important for some to rehabilitate the legacy of colonialism and apartheid? The answer to this question beckons us to pause and reflect on the importance of Plaut’s book.

2.
Shaun Viljoen subtitled his biography of Richard Rive, “A Partial Biography.”[7] Plaut could very easily have done the same to his work on the life of Abdullah Abdurahman. His biography is unashamedly biased in favour of the subject. He builds the character of the Doctor of District Six up to such an extent that, I would argue, he brings into question the stature of some of Abdurahman’s contemporaries.

But Plaut’s biography is also partial in the sense of being incomplete. The 218-page volume tends to focus more on Abdurahman’s opposition to the formation of the Union of South Africa, which sought to exclude the majority Black population from its political life. This might very well be the most important political work in which he participated. It is certainly the aspect of his life which brought him on to the international stage, taking him to meet high level players in England and India. But it is just one part of his life.

There is just a passing reference to the major contribution that Abdurahman made to education for Coloured people. The roles that he played in the establishment of the Teachers’ League of South Africa, ensuring Harold Cressy’s admission to the University of Cape Town (where Cressy became the first Coloured person to obtain a degree), and the founding of both Trafalgar and Livingstone High Schools – the first high schools for Coloured people – are all glossed over.

Interesting information from his record on the Cape Town City Council are also omitted. Plaut neglects to mention, for example, Abdurahman’s vote in favour of the renaming of Maitland Road to Voortrekkerweg[8] in 1938. In response to criticism for this decision, he is reported to have said, “the fact is that non-Europeans stood side by side with the Voortrekkers and their blood was shed freely on the field of battle with the Voortrekkers.” His position on this matter explains some of the negative attitudes to his memory which have lingered after his death.

Plaut concludes that Abdurahman fell out of favour because he located himself too much in the centre of politics and thus earned the ire of both those on the right- and left-wing of South African politics. This elevates Abdurahman to the status of Nelson Mandela who today is considered a sell-out by a radical young Black generation and a terrorist by recalcitrant white racists.

Indeed, there were strong conservative tendencies in the Cape that were fearful of antagonising the white colonial establishment and the status quo. Abdurahman faced opposition, for example, from John X. Merriman (one-time Prime Minister of the Cape) who described him as a “pathetic figure.”[9] Also from within his own community, Abdurahman had his detractors such as F.Z.S. Peregrino and N.R. Veldsman who hitched their wagons either to British idealism or Afrikaner nationalism and who sought to avoid confrontation by all means in the hope that their compliant behaviour would win concessions for Coloured people.

At the same time, while he was a close associate of some of the founders of the African National Congress – such as John Dube, Walter Rubusana, and Sol Plaatje – it is to be understood why the ANC today would not embrace Abdurahman. Though as Plaut points out, the positions taken by Abdurahman at the time did not differ significantly from the early leaders of the ANC. But Plaut presents evidence that even contemporaries such as his own daughter – Cissie Gool – and James La Guma accused him of having “betrayed his people” because of his close ties with white liberals.

Having flown under the radar for the greater part of the last six decades, Abdurahman has escaped some of the vicious criticism that has been levelled at someone like Gandhi – another of his contemporaries and associates. Gandhi has, of course, been found to have harboured strong prejudices against Black (particularly African) people. There is no evidence that this was the case with Abdurahman. On the contrary, the record shows that he worked tirelessly (albeit unsuccessfully) to build bridges between African, Coloured and Indian people in the fight against institutionalised racism.

3.

Plaut’s book (perhaps inadvertently) throws the spotlight on the relentlessness and endurance of white supremacy in South African society.

Abdurahman’s efforts to block the formation of the Union of South Africa were fuelled by his opposition to a political settlement between two white groups – British imperialists and Afrikaner nationalists – at the exclusion of the majority Black population. The Union of South Africa laid the basis for the current political dispensation. It confirmed the borders of the current state – two former British colonies and two former Boer republics. It is interesting that the Afrikaner nationalists wanted to extend the borders to include Bechuanaland (Botswana), Swaziland, Lesotho, and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). They were also intent on extending the Boer republics’ policy of disenfranchising the “native” population. How different the fortunes of the region would have turned out if they had succeeded.

The settlement that led to the Union is symbolised today in the three capitals of South Africa – Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Cape Town – to appease the white Afrikaners and the English, and the two towers of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, which represent the two white groups. The statue of Louis Botha (the first Prime Minister of South Africa) graces the entrance to Parliament in Cape Town. This is the same Botha who said,

“On the native question in South Africa, the first decade was necessary for the consolidation of the Union. The whites… have laid the foundations of, and must continue the erection of, that edifice to make it habitable. Afterwards they would negotiate to see how much room was left for the natives.”[10] 

The hope of 1994 was that the inclusion of the “natives” and, for that matter, all Black people (African, Coloured, and Indian) in the political life of the South African state would magically erase all the history that preceded. This hope was premised on the idea that in exchange for Black South Africans not taking revenge for centuries of oppression, white South Africans would make goodwill gestures of restitution to respond to Alan Paton’s warning:

“I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they turn to loving they will find that we are turned to hating.”[11]

Plaut illustrates how the period after the formation of the Union of South Africa marked the betrayal of Black aspirations by both Boer and British interests. In particular, in 1936, the British reneged on the promise made by King Edward VII in 1909 to preserve the rights of Black voters in the Cape. The lack of goodwill shown by the white minority towards the majority of South Africans is therefore not a recent phenomenon. Even overt Quislings such as N.R. Veldsman did not win any concessions and were thrown to the side when their usefulness was expended.

Abdurahman emerges as a tragic hero in this biography. He follows all the rules set by white society. He attends one of the best (almost exclusively white) schools in Cape Town. He qualifies as a medical doctor at a prestigious university in Europe. He marries a European woman with whom he returns to Cape Town to set up a medical practice. He is well-connected with the white liberal establishment. He opposes the “radicals” of his time and pursues a politics of restrained protests via official means through his elected positions, by petition and dialogue. In the end though, all his efforts come to naught. He is rejected. He dies with the Union of South Africa on course to embracing a system which would last for another 54 years.

Steve Hofmeyer – an Afrikaner nationalist who moonlights as a musician – famously tweeted in October 2015 that “Blacks were the architects of Apartheid”. After reading Plaut’s book ones understands why someone like Helen Zille actually has much more in common with Hofmeyer than with Black members of her own political party.

Today, the Western Cape (which comprises part of what was once the Cape Colony – and later, Cape Province – in which Abdurahman operated) remains largely divorced from the rest of a unitary Republic of South Africa. Public schools which are predominantly white, such as the one which Abdurahman attended, still exist today. There is a call, which is growing in popularity, for secession from the rest of South Africa. Realising that they cannot succeed on their own, white supremacists who want an independent Cape are appealing to Coloured people to support this call. As during the time of Abdurahman, there are elements in the Coloured community who pin their hopes on white-led parties to restore rights to them which were taken by white people more than 300 years ago. Whether we have learnt from the story of Dr Abdullah Abdurahman remains to be seen.

An edited version of this review was published in The Johannesburg Review of Books. You can read it here.


[1] Mohamed Adhikari, Not White Enough, Not Black Enough: Racial Identity in the South African Coloured Community, Ohio University Press, 2005. Mohamed Adhikari (ed), Dr A. Abdurahman: A Biographical Memoir by J.H. Raynard, Friends of the National Library of South Africa, in association with the District Six Museum, 2002

[2] Crain Soudien, The Cape Radicals: Intellectuals and Political Thought of the New Era Fellowship, 1930s – 1960s, Wits University Press, 2019 

[3] Gavin Lewis, Between the Wire and the Wall: A History of South African “Coloured” Politics, David Philip, Cape Town, 1987

[4] Richard van der Ross, In Our Skins: A Political History of the Coloured People, Jonathan Ball, Johannesburg, 2015

[5] Eve Wong, The Doctor of District Six: Exploring the Private and Family History of Dr Abdullah Abdurahman, City Councillor for District Six of Cape Town (1904 – 1940), MA, University of Cape Town, 2016

[6] “Alternative facts” was a phrase used by Kellyanne Conway on 22 January 2017 when she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer‘s false statement about the attendance numbers of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States of America.

[7] Shaun Viljoen, Richard Rive: A partial biography, Wits University Press, 2013

[8] Al J. Venter, Coloured: A Profile of Two Million South Africans, Human & Rousseau, Cape Town, 1974, p. 489

[9] Al J. Venter, Coloured: A Profile of Two Million South Africans, Human & Rousseau, Cape Town, 1974, p. 490

[10] Quoted in Martin Plaut, Dr Abdullah Abdurhman: South Africa’s First Elected Black Politician, Jacana, 2020, p. 82

[11] Alan Paton, Cry, The Beloved Country, Jonathan Cape, 1948, p. 235