Medical Doctor, Cape Muslim leader & founder of the anti-apartheid movement, African People's Organisation and human rights campaigner.
Lives of Courage
Abdurahman, who was born in Wellington on 12 December 1872 and graduated as a medical doctor from the University of Glasgow in 1893, entered public life in 1904 when he became the first black person to be elected to the Cape Town City Council. Journalist George Manuel reported that initially many councillors regarded Abdurahman's presence in the chamber as an affront to their dignity and that some even refused to sit next to him. Unintimidated by their hostility he in time won the respect of even the most grudging of opponents through a combination of personal charm, political acumen and skill as an administrator. Abdurahman retained a seat on the council until his death in 1940.
It was, as president of the African Political Organisation (APO) that Abdurahman made his most important political contribution. The APO, the first substantive Coloured political organisation, was founded in Cape Town in 1902 as intensifying segregationism at the turn of the century forced Coloured people to mobilize politically. Abdurahman joined the APO in 1903 and was persuaded by general secretary Matt Fredericks to be elected president in 1905 to prevent the fledgeling organisation from being torn asunder by feuding political factions. Not only did Abdurahman unite the APO but he completely dominated the organisation for the thirty five years of his presidency, so much so, that people often joked that APO stood for Abdurahman's Political Organisation.
Under his leadership the APO grew into a body of several thousand members with a national network of over a hundred branches by 1910, making it the country's largest black political organisation of the day. For the next three decades the APO remained by far the most important Coloured communal organisation, dominating Coloured protest politics and co-ordinating wide-ranging efforts for the socio-economic upliftment of the Coloured community. Organisations such as the South African Coloured Union formed in 1913, the United Afrikaner League founded in 1919 and the African National Bond established in 1925, all created with the express intention of challenging Abdurahman's influence with the Coloured electorate, were ephemeral and drew little support.
In 1914 Abdurahman became the first Coloured person to be elected to the Cape Provincial Council, another seat he retained for the duration of his life. On the provincial council he sought in particular to influence policy on issues of health and education. Although an articulate advocate of Coloured interests, Abdurahman's influence on this council was muted because Coloured people formed a relatively small part of the electorate.
It was only in the late 1930s with the emergence of a radical political movement in the shape of the National Liberation League that this dominance was challenged and it was only after Abdurahman's death that the APO was finally eclipsed.
The mercurial Abdurahman was a gifted orator and a charismatic leader. Abdurahman's way with the Coloured electorate lay not only in the eloquence with which he articulated their political desires and the energy with which he strove to achieve them. Very significant was that his personal bearing, life and achievements embodied their highest social aspirations. Much of Abdurahman's attraction as a leader lay in the confidence with which he negotiated the intimidating environment of the dominant society and the fearlessness and flair with which he attacked the injustices suffered by Coloured people.
At the inter-personal level Abdurahman's charisma lay in his unaffected, amicable manner and the ease with which he related to all sectors of his community, especially those less privileged. Despite his social standing Abdurahman remained attached to elements of Coloured working class culture. He, for example, expressed a clear preference for the humble but flavourful fare of traditional Coloured working class cooking and freely spoke vernacular Afrikaans in his day-to-day dealings with patients and political supporters. He was readily accesible to rank and file supporters and prepared to help out in such practical ways as interceding with the authorities on behalf of an individual, finding a firm prepared to take on a youngster as an apprentice or paying the school fees of an indigent but deserving student, a generosity he bestowed on dozens of students over the years. By simultaneously embodying their highest social aspirations and retaining the common touch Abdurahman became immensely popular within the Coloured community.
Abdurahman's political constituency consisted mainly of the Coloured petty bourgeoisie and the more ‘respectable' strata of the Coloured working class. This modernizing elite was assimilated to Western culture sharing its values, aspirations and social practices. They wanted little more than to be judged on merit, exercise citizenship rights and win social acceptance within white middle class society. Except for a handful of radical activists, politicized Coloureds during the earlier decades of the twentieth century did not wish to effect fundamental changes to the society except for the abolition of institutionalized racial discrimination.
This strong assimilationist impulse found forceful expression in Abdurahman's own brand of liberalism, which was deeply influenced by the old Cape liberal tradition. The basic principles of his political philosophy were that all citizens be equal in the eyes of the law, that the franchise be colour-blind and that the state ensure equal enjoyment of civil liberties. Abdurahman's credo is summed up in the oft-repeated sentiment that ‘it is not race or colour but civilisation which is the test of man's capacity for political rights.' These principles, which he expounded with great eloquence, resonated with both the assimilationism of his supporters as well as their sense of grievance at being the victims of racial discrimination.
A great deal of Abdurahman's effort was expended on a futile struggle to stem the erosion of Coloured civil rights. In 1906 and 1910 he played leading roles in delegations that unsuccessfully petitioned the British government to veto the denial of Coloured franchise rights. In the 1920s and 1930s he led a rearguard action against state initiatives that undermined the economic and political status of Coloured people, most notoriously the Pact Government's Civilised Labour Policy. In the latter half of the 1930s his trenchant criticism of its segregationist policies as a member of the Wilcox commission of enquiry into the socio-economic condition of the Coloured population was ignored by government. And Abdurahman's strategy during elections of supporting the party most likely to serve Coloured interests paid few dividends because parties differed only in the degree to which they advocated white supremacism and the Coloured vote was of marginal significance especially after only white women were enfranchised in 1930.
While he had little success in arresting the tide of segregation Abdurahman did bequeath an enduring legacy in the field of education. Given the segregated and vastly inferior system of church schools available to Coloured people it was self-evident that educational reform was essential for their future welfare. The improvement of educational facilities was thus one of the most important foci of Abdurahman's political striving. In 1913 he initiated the establishment of the Teachers' League of South Africa (TLSA), the first Coloured teachers' association, which still exists today. The TLSA played a key role in mobilizing the Coloured teaching profession behind the drive to reform Coloured education. Abdurahman also took the lead in establishing the Trafalgar High School in 1911, the first institution in the country to offer secondary education to Coloured students. He was also behind the founding in 1934 of the Livingstone High School, only the second such school in Cape Town. Abdurahman, in addition, spear-headed the movement to set up primary schools to provide secular education for Muslim children. The Rahmaniyeh Institute, founded in 1913, was the first of fifteen such schools established by the mid-1940s.
Given the ineluctable racial divisions of South African society, Abdurahman's main efforts were of necessity directed at the advancement of the Coloured community. He, however, as early as 1907 recognized the need for black unity in the fight against white supremacism. He thus supported all attempts at inter-ethnic cooperation often against the wishes of supporters. Abdurahman's thinking was well ahead of its time in this respect. It is thus not surprising that between 1927 and 1934 he convened a series of four Non-European Conferences of black political organisations jointly with D. D. T. Jabavuto formulate a co-ordinated black response to segregation. Although he was unable to turn this loose coalition into a permanent body because of organisational rivalries and personal jealousies, it is nevertheless significant as the first initiative at forming a united black political front.
In the latter half of the 1920s Abdurahman also became involved in the politics of the South African Indian community. Though not an Indian himself, such was his reputation that in 1925 he was asked by the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) to lead a delegation to request that the Indian government intervene in the anti-Asiatic legislation about to be tabled by the Union government. This move was partly responsible for a series of round-table conferences between the two governments over the next two years and also the position of Indians in South Africa improving until the 1930s.
Abdurahman was an enormously talented person with a seemingly inexhaustible drive to work for the betterment of his community. Yet his tangible achievements are modest. This is a direct result of him representing a marginal community, one that formed only nine percent of the population and lacked significant economic or political power. Also, Abdurahman confronted a state that was bent on implementing white supremacist policies and had few scruples about infringing the rights of black people. His accomplishment thus lies less in a concrete moulding of society and its institutions than in the degree to which he was able to embody the aspirations of virtually an entire social class and unite them behind him in a principled stand against racism and autocracy over nearly four decades.
As the struggle against white supremacism within the Coloured community intensified from the late 1930s onwards and as the centre of gravity of extra-parliamentary opposition shifted to the left, Abdullah Abdurahman and other moderate political leaders suffered increasing criticism for their adherence to liberal values and the ineffectiveness of their methods in the face of an intransigent ruling minority. Whatever their shortcomings, it needs to be recognized that people such as Dr. Abdurahman were pioneers in the fight against racial oppression and that their struggle was in many senses a necessary antecedant to later, more effective forms of resistance. It is at the very least a partial vindication of Abdurahman's political legacy that the constitution of the ‘new' South Africa is founded on essentially those liberal values of personal freedom and non-racial democracy he espoused rather than the contending ideologies of Marxism, black nationalism or white supremacism. It is thus fitting that in June 1999 Nelson Mandela, in one of his last official acts as president, posthumously honoured Dr. Abdurahman by awarding him the Order for Meritorious Service: Class I (Gold) for his contribution to the making of a united, democratic South Africa. His daughter, Cissy Gool, also became prominent in Cape Town and served as a city council until her death in 1963.
Dr. Abdullah Abdurahman's political legacy is today a matter of controversy. There are those, usually of liberal persuasion, who revere him as the most distinguished political leader yet to have represented the Coloured community while there are others, mainly adherents of one of the radical political traditions, who dismiss him as an opportunist and a collaborator. Whatever ones ideological position there can be little argument 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.