His daughter called him an Uncle Tom, but Abdullah Abdurahman fought for his principles

Review: Dougie Oakes

Dr Abdullah Abdurahman – South Africa’s first elected black politician, by Martin Plaut (Jacana)

Even in the late 1800s, enough was known about attitudes that prevailed among the rulers and their supporters of the British Colony on the southern tip of Africa to suggest they would have stopped at nothing to crush the political aspirations of a grandson of a slave couple.

Abdullah Abdurahman, who had risen to become one of Cape Town’s greatest city councillors (for District Six), had more than just the racist attitudes of white rulers ranged against him and the organisation he led – the African Political Organisation (APO).

Ranged against him too were other prominent members of the coloured community who showed what often seemed a puzzling disposition to fight among themselves – with many continuously seeking to put their trust for political salvation in the hands of white Afrikaners (or Dutch-speakers), British expats, or members of the Crown in faraway Britain.

Those who saw salvation in alliances with one or other white grouping – and Abdurahman was one of them – were invariably betrayed, sometimes shamelessly so by those they regarded as partners.

In many ways, Abdurahman was a complex character. He was outspoken. He was fearless. He was charming. And yet, there is little evidence to suggest that he ever attempted to call the other sides’ bluff – or at least to see if they were bluffing.

His weakness was that he was always the one to blink first, and this was why he was slated by the (albeit fractured) left, especially of South Africa’s political movements.

Dr Abdullah Abdurahman – South Africa’s First Elected Black Politician is a modest 220 pages (including, from page 179, extensive notes, a select bibliography, and an index.

In many ways, Abdurahman’s story is one of triumph, tragedy and betrayal.

His triumph centred on his rise in a Wellington-based family of slaves, to university in Scotland, to being capped as a medical doctor, to slicing through the colour-bar by marrying a Scottish woman, to forming one of the most influential political groups in SA – the APO – and becoming the country’s first elected black politician: the city councillor for District Six.

His tragedy was that, despite his best efforts, ranging from begging to threatening, to travelling to Britain to argue the case for black people, he was never able to persuade those who wielded power that the key to South Africa’s future centred on non-racialism.

Finally, his betrayal was seeing some members of coloured communities throwing in their lot with the racism of people such as JBM Hertzog for monetary reward.

Plaut points out – and it is an interesting observation – that hardly any information (for example, private letters) on Abdurahman’s life was available to him when he began compiling this biography. He had already started writing the book when material from Abdurahman’s life finally emerged, in the private papers of the educationist Dr Edgar Maurice.

Unfortunately, most of this had been damaged, and was unusable.

Consequently, Plaut was forced to rely, perhaps too heavily (but understandably so), on Gavin Lewis’s seminal work on the coloured people, Between the Wire and the Wall and on material compiled by other writers, such as JH Reynolds, Yousuf S Rassool, Mohamed Adhikari, Crain Soudien, Bill Nasson, Richard van der Ross and Patricia van der Spuy.

One major question that emerges in the life and times of Abdurahman is this:

“Was the biting criticism of the politics he practised fair?”

If cognisance is taken of the attitudes of the period, the answer must be “No.’

And yet.

There were times he was slated across the board – especially by the left, even though its proponents were as unsuccessful as he was in confronting the prevalent racist attitudes of the white administrators of the country.

At the height of anti-Abdurahmanism, even his daughter, Cissie (later to become the firebrand politician Cissie Gool), referred to him as an “Uncle Tom” and as one who had “betrayed” his people.

Others, such as the trade unionist and Communist Party member John Gomas, described him as a “lackey of the white ruling class”.

Van der Spuy attacked the lack of success of the non-European conferences in which he led the APO from 1927 until the early 1930s, attributing this failure to his refusal to “admit confrontational tactics into their repertoire”.

Abdurahman’s weapons in the fight against white racism hardly changed throughout his political career. He believed that petitions and peaceful protest, accompanied by radical rhetoric and alliances with other groups fighting white domination, might resist the advance of segregation and racism.

He was wrong. And this was perhaps the main reason he was criticized so heavily in some quarters.

Adhikari, though, was more sympathetic.

“There can be little argument,” he wrote, “that in the four decades before his death on 20 February 1940, Abdurahman was far and away the most influential and popular political leader within the coloured community (and the outpouring of grief that followed his death was proof if this).”

Abdurahman’s biggest disappointment was the defeat of both his APO and his allies, the SA Native National Congress (later the ANC) to the segregationists of the north in the run-up to the establishment of the Union of South Africa.

It was a defeat that was described by the black activist AK Soga as “treachery”. Even the usually mild-mannered newspaper proprietor John Tengo Jabavu was moved to write that the terms of Union introduced “immoral colour distinctions among the King’s subjects”.

The author, Olive Schreiner, described the debate that ushered in Union as “without exception the most contemptible from the broad human standpoint”.

Abdurahman was furious.

When the Cape Town City Council met to discuss plans to discuss plans to spend £4 000 on festivities to commemorate the creation of the Union of South Africa, he refused to vote for the expenditure. “No coloured man can feel happy,” he said. “No coloured man, I hope, will sing God, Save the King on that day. I know I won’t.

“How can any man find anything to celebrate?”

But the new, white rulers of a new, white Union were as far away from their black countrymen as it was possible to be.

Louis Botha, first prime minister of the Union said black people were not fit to sit in parliament and “no self-respecting white man would sit next to a coloured man in parliament”.

In 1924, in a sign of things to come in coloured politics, when an even more rightwing Pact Government led by JBM Hertzog came into power, a prominent coloured politician, NR Veldsman, sent him a letter of congratulations.

His reward was to be made Inspector of Coloured Labour in Cape Town Docks.

 

 

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