From the book: Say It out Loud by Mohamed Adhikari

The 1910 Presidential Address, Port Elizabeth, Cape 1

The present Congress of the A.P.O. is undoubtedly one of the most important that has ever met. It is important not only on account of the various items that appear on the agenda paper, but because of its being the last occasion on which we shall meet as representatives of Colonies. In future we meet as representative inhabitants ­ some of us citizens with somewhat curtailed political rights ­ of the Union of South Africa. Such a thought suggests a feature of our Organisation, which is worthy of remark. The African Political Organisation has throughout its history been truly South African. Its sphere as regards territory has always embraced all the Colonies. Its operations have not been restricted to the Cape, but delegates from the various Colonies have joined in our deliberations. The Organisation has therefore never been parochial or provincial. It actually had its national aims and national character prior to the assembling of any Union Convention or the drafting of any South African Constitution. In that I think we may justly take pride, while at the same time deeply regretting the fact that that unrestricted citizenship which we enjoyed under the Cape Constitution, and which our people "never besmirched by word or deed has not been granted to us under the Union Act, and that the door to political freedom has been somewhat rudely slammed in the faces of our brethren of the other Colonies. No one who cherishes the true ideals of British liberty can fail to regard the colour-restrictive clauses of the Union Act with any feeling other than that of regret. The introduction of a colour line infringes the principles of humanity. It is opposed to the principle which Anglo-Saxons the world over proudly boast of, vis., that of British freedom "slowly broadening down from precedent to precedent". It must, therefore, be our constant and ever watchful care to prove by our conduct, individually and collectively, that a grave error has been committed. There is a mighty mass of prejudice against us, which we must do our best to remove. We must convince the people of South Africa that we are not only as men entitled to political rights, but that we are just as well qualified to exercise these rights as are those of the privileged class. We must prove to the world that character and conduct are not the exclusive possessions of white-skinned people, but that these qualities are independent of the colour of a man's skin and based on other foundations. We must demonstrate the truth of that contention so forcefully as to prevent any illiberal statesmanship from refusing us full political enfranchisement.


I have therefore resolved on confining my remarks on this occasion to the question of character and character building, because the importance of sound character is too often lost sight of by public men and statesmen. Good character is the most invulnerable armour we can put on for the fight we have to wage; and if you one and all aim at the cultivation of sound moral character, we need feel no cause for apprehension, and for looking to the future with anxiety. It is therefore the first duty of the leaders to see the Coloured people of South Africa exhibiting such moral qualities, and rigid integrity that even their enemies may be driven to admiration. You all know that the statement is frequently made by newspaper and magazine writers, and even by those public men who patronise us blandly, that the whites are heirs to a civilisation, which is the growth of centuries, and which the Coloured races cannot hope to act up to. Of course these writers and glib orators never pause to examine the justice of such a statement. I doubt very much, whether one in ten of them have the intellectual training or ability to constitute him a qualified investigator of such important assertions. The majority of those whom we meet use such statements without inquiring into their truth. They have read them in some newspaper or heard them from some public platform. That they have seen anything in print or heard it stated in public is sufficient warrant for their acceptance and repetition of it as true. After hearing it and repeating it a number of times, they actually believe it true, and think themselves justified in their attempt to persuade others to accept it as a truism. They appear to ignore the good old advice, "Try all things", and further forget that mere acquiescence in the views of the majority always implies perverted judgment. But that is not at all surprising. Human minds are as a rule prone to laziness. Few take the trouble to inquire into the truth of the stock phrases that even govern the world socially, economically or politically. They swallow these catch phrases like some people swallow medicine ­ holus bolus. It is because of the existence of large numbers of these people that chemists put so often on their medicine bottles, "To be well shaken before taken. "If men would apply that sage principle to opinions before swallowing them as true, if they would make a true critical valuation of every belief before accepting it, politics would be saner and progress would be steadier. Whole communities, not only individuals, are for years and even centuries slaves to these so-called "truisms" which exercise a galling tyranny over their minds. I might instance for you the old belief in the astronomical world, that the earth was the centre of the Solar system. This was believed for more than 2,000 years until some great thinker proved that it was a false theory. I might instance in the social world the belief in the justice ­ nay even the religious sanction ­ of slavery, which was for so long regarded as a divinely ordained institution. In the economic world I could cite as an illustration the tenacity with which certain sections of the community cling to the belief that Cobdenism and its shibboleths have some divine element of truth. It is just the same then with regard to all this vague talk about the inability of a Coloured race to adopt the civilisation of the whites. This statement contains in it an element of truth, but its application is so widely generalised that the truth is lost in the immensity of the errors committed. Its truth is in Gratiano's language like two grains of wheat hid in a bushel of chaff. To enable us to arrive at the element of truth it contains, and so to learn the lessons it should convey to us, it is necessary for me to make a little digression into the history of one or two common words.


I will begin by taking that good old word " Character " . It means primarily a mark that is as it were engraved or dug into one's mind. It is an old Greek word, and I like taking the history of a Greek word, for the Greeks were lovers of freedom; and Greece was the home of freedom until she came into contact with a people whom she enslaved. Had the Greek continued to cherish the ideals of Plato and Socrates and the earlier philosophers, who preached the value of the individual soul and its completeness, they would never have sunk to the level of slave-owners, and Byron would never have sung of the Isles of Greece: " Eternal summer gilds them yet, But all except their sun is set. "

" Character " , then, as I said, means marks. To drive the full meaning of that home into your minds, I might illustrate it thus. When anyone attempts to learn, say a poem by heart, he repeats it several times. His mind goes as it were through the succession of ideas that it contains again and again. This from a physiological point of view means that certain particles of the grey matter of the brain put themselves into certain fixed directions repeatedly, until they have a tendency to run as it were in the same direction again, readily if required. They put themselves as it were into a rut. A mark is as it were made; so too is it with morals. An action that is repeated becomes a habit. The second performance of an act is easier that the first, and the third are easier again than the second, and so on. It is by the repetition of certain actions or lines of conduct that character is formed. If that be so, you can all see how essential it is that character should be formed on right actions. To put it in other words, it is absolutely essential if you wish to be men of good character, that you should see that the actions you practise, and which become habitual with you, should be founded on what is right or good. Everything becomes easier the oftener it is practised. See to it then, that you abstain from repeating any bad act, which you may inadvertently chance to do. An old Roman poet once said, "Nemo fit repente turpissimus", which means practically that no man becomes an out-and-out blackguard or scoundrel at once; but another Roman poet put an opposite or rather supplementary view in the words "Facilis descensus Averno", which might be well translated, "It is easy to go to hell". The pathway thereto is an open one, you may think, but even in the language of Mr. Sauer ­ the other path ­ the way of truth pays best even in politics.


I want to urge you, therefore, to shun all evil practices. You will find probably that the formation of upright habits of sound character is difficult. I don't wish to minimise the difficulty. The slightest thought will convince you of the rapidity with which evil spreads as compared with good. You might convince yourselves of this by thinking over such a homely illustration as the following. Put a rotten apple into a bag containing a number of sounds once. The rottenness soon spreads to the sound ones. Reverse the operation, and put a sound one with a number of rotten ones, and the soundness has not the power of clearing out the rottenness of the rest. You might further illustrate the truth of this moral principle by imagining a small-pox patient let loose into this room at the present time. Your health would not cure his disease, but the contary would happen. If you reverse the condition, and any one of you imagine himself among a number of people infected with small-pox, he would rather dread infection than hope that his virtue would be a healing power to the infected victims.

The principle, therefore, prevails in the moral world that evil is much more rapidly extensible than good. Hence it is urgently important that your surroundings should be conducive to, or at least compatible with the exercise of goodness and virtue, and as far as possible inimical to the growth of evil. This is essential especially during the early years of life, when the mind is so impressionable and plastic. It is during one's early years that habits that last for a life-time are acquired. It is your duty, therefore, to do your best to make your homes happy for your children, and to live lives that your children may well follow as examples. Here is the real point at which you may see what people mean when they talk about character depending on environment. They mean in plain language that a man's character is largely determined by his surroundings; and this is peculiarly true as regards those habitual tendencies, that one acquires during his infancy and youth.


Having made such progress with our investigation as to the meaning of character, we should now be in a position to grasp the amount of truth that is contained in that hoary platitude of white people ­ that the black races cannot for centuries even hope to attain to their civilisation. You see they assume that they are on the top of some sun-kissed moral heights, where we can never hope to tread. Now, from what I have already said, you can see that the truth is that this civilisation is their environment, their wrappage, and their surroundings. It is the moral atmosphere in which they live from their infancy. It is from this that they acquire the knowledge of what is to them their standard of moral right, and so learn what is a right and a wrong action in their moral code. Many Coloured people live in this same atmosphere, and are enveloped in the same wrappings, have the same environment: and they give proof that they can and do practise the same morality, have the same ethical code, and live the same life. Whether the proportion of Coloured people to their whole number who live up to the standard thus set is as high as is the proportion of whites who do so to their whole number is a question for statisticians, and they would on forming any inference on the matter allow for the lower material standard of comfort among the Coloured people. But granted the same general standard of material welfare among both, I am convinced that the results would be practically identical. Hence we see that this old assertion is only true to this extent. The impossibility of living up, to the alleged demands of this civilisation, is in exact ratio to the difference of the general material comforts that surround the two sections of the community. Give all the same environment, the same surroundings the same moral atmosphere in their early years, and the same morality would be attained, no matter what the colouring of the skin. The assertion then of our inability to adopt the civilisation of the Europeans is purely an assumption. Morality is not based on any hereditary, unalterable faculty. There is no innate standard of morality, no inborn consciousness of morality or of any code of morals. It is largely, if not wholly, a product of environment.

Now, it is impossible to give all the native races of South Africa the same surroundings as enswathe the white races from their infancy. It is, perhaps, undesirable to attempt to do so. I question very much whether any sane sociologist would dream of attempting to force twentieth century European civilisation on all the Coloured races of South Africa; but I am absolutely certain that no two philosophers would agree as to whether the twentieth century civilisation of England and America is superior to that, say, of the eighteenth century. That would all depend on his conception of what is the measure of superiority. It is, however, certain that the leaders of the black races do not affect any deep love or admiration for many of the social, political, and economic factors and tendencies of European civilisation as it presents itself to their minds. The whites need not fear any attempt of the blacks to mingle in their social world. The whole question was well put by Bishop F.W. Lampton, of Louisiana: "I believe," said he, "that there is a future for my people, but it must be through separation along social lines. I do not seek admission into the parlour of any white man, nor do I invite him into my parlour in a social way. I want only for my people protection under the law, and we will make our own social circles, will entertain our own men and women, and will build up our race. But let me remind you that there is much you can do. You must stop throwing away so much money and good time, and invest more in land. Every negro should have a family, and should own his own land."


That puts the matter fairly. The black races must be allowed to develop in their own way. Their views of improved civilisation may not agree with European standards. But as we, however, meet as an organisation of the Coloured people only of South Africa, the discussion of that point is somewhat outside my province. We have a deep interest in the native races of South Africa, and the Union Act of South Africa puts us all into one fold: but it is my duty as President of the A. P.O., on the present occasion, to deal with the rights and duties of the Coloured people of South Africa, as distinguished from the native races. I have shown you the importance of attending to the building up of sound moral character. Yourselves leading well-conducted lives will best do by your making your homes comfortable and happy, and that I have endeavoured to prove. Let me go one step further with this address, which has taken the tone of a moral dissertation. The strength of a chain depends on the strength of each link. If there be one weak link the whole chain is weak. So are the people. Its strength of character, its moral force, depends on the character of each individual. If, then, one and all of you will individually do his best, there need be no fear of our future. We must therefore cultivate true family and home life, and in that work the women can play a most important part. Numberless instances of the influence of mothers in determining the lives of great men might be cited from history. A mother's influence is incalculable. The character of children is far more dependent on that of the mother than that of the father. The home is the best nursery of character, and the mother is the queen of the home and the best instructor. But just as homes may be the best nurseries, so they may be the worst. Hence, I must urge you women to cherish a high sense of duty. Avoid idleness, vice, and slatternliness. Keep your homes and yourselves pure and clean. Make them such that what I may call their homeliness may induce your husbands to regard their homes as their haven of rest and peace and comfort after their day's work. If you do so, your lives will be blessed as well as theirs, by the spectacle of children happy, content, and developing uprightness and sound character. If your homes are not clean and restful, your children will be morally dwarfed and deformed.


Just let me recall a few instances of the mother's influence. Napoleon Bonaparte used to say that "the future good or bad conduct of a child depended entirely upon the mother," and according to a well-known writer he attributed his rise in life in a great measure to the framing of his will, his energy, and his self-control by his mother at home. "Nobody had any command over him," says one of his biographers, "except his mother, who found means, by a mixture of tenderness, severity, and justice, to make him love, respect, and obey her; from her he learnt the virtue of obedience." To take another instance, nearer home, I might cite the case of the first Governor-General of South Africa. There is no one who has not read of the great devotion of the late Mrs. W.E. Gladstone to her wifely and motherly duties. Her life was a long sacrifice to the good of her husband and children. Both as wife and mother her name will live in history, and in both capacities you women should emulate such lives and endeavour to mould your lives in your respective spheres, however humble they may be. Maintain a high sense of duty, forbearance, courage, truthfulness, patience, and you will have your reward in seeing the same qualities growing and strengthening in the characters of your children. A noble example is that of the mother of George Washington. He was but eleven years old when his father died. He was the oldest of five children. His mother was "a woman of rare excellence ­ full of resources, a good woman of business, an excellent manager, and possessed of much strength of character. She had her children to bring up and educate, a large household to govern, and extensive estates to manage, all of which she accomplished with complete success. Her good sense, assiduity, tenderness, industry, and vigilance enabled her to overcome every obstacle; and as the richest reward of her solicitude and toil, she had the happiness of seeing all her children come forward with a fair promise into life, filling the spheres allotted to them in a manner equally honourable to themselves, and to the parent who had been the only guide of their principles, conduct, and habits."

Probably some of you have heard of the famous Roman matron named Cornelia, the mother of the illustrious brothers known in history as the Gracchi. When a wealthy Roman lady was talking to Cornelia of jewels and gaudy dress ­ the vanities of the wealthy ­ Cornelia's two sons happened to come into the room; Cornelia pointed them out to her visitor as her proudest jewels; and she lived to glory in the fact that both her sons sacrificed their lives in the cause of freedom, and so won an imperishable name in history. Every one of you who have the upbringing of children should so live that you, Cornelia like, may see in your offspring your proudest jewels. If such aims guide your actions and control your conduct, the Coloured people of South Africa will become strong and enduring, and worthy of a proud position in the annals of the world. A woman's heart and life "centred in the sphere of common duties," are an ornament to the nation, and if she instills into her children a love of work, and an overpowering sense of the dignity of labour, a love of duty, reverence for truth and virtue, and courage, she will have won the crown which never fades.


The tablet in the church The tablet in the church

The Essau Memorial Anglican Church in Calvinia, demolished in the 1970s under the Group Areas Act The Essau Memorial Anglican Church in Calvinia, demolished in the 1970s under the Group Areas Act

Now the great and good men of history are the beacon lights of humanity. They are the life-blood of the people to which they belong. They elevate, uphold, and fortify a nation. But this goodness does not demand a high position in which to display it. The humble sphere of Esau of Calvinia was enlarged and glorified by the conspicuous merit of his life and his unshrinking devotion to truth. His conduct made him great, and has given him a name that will be ever remembered by the Coloured people of South Africa. Further, it is not great men only that go to make a nation. It is the character of the people as a whole which determines the qualities of a nation; and in democratic communities in which constitutional power is invested in the many, national character will depend more on the moral qualities that pervade the community than upon those of a few. What I have therefore said of the importance of sound character building for the individual applies to all, and not to any one individual, or to any sex, or age, or rank. Truth, honesty, virtue, patience, courage, love of duty, and respect for age, self-respect ­ these must be made the armour of all our people. We must learn to know our weaknesses and ourselves. In this country there is a kind of tendency to inertness, which is largely attributable to climatic influences. The white people feel the force of that to a great extent, if one may judge from the almost nauseating iteration of the advice that their leaders give them of the necessity for their recognising the dignity of labour, the honesty of toil. It is seldom that one sees in the larger towns any manual labour being done by whites. The only physical effort or strain they indulge in is that which a few of them take on the football field, while thousands shiver in the cold as they gaze at the few players, or seek to warm themselves by the wildly enthusiastic applause with which they greet any clever movement. There is also some danger of the Coloured people of the country falling a prey to this kind of exercise, and turning all their energy in such channels; and the danger is already perceptible in towns. And I would like even at this early stage of our history to counsel our young people against the seductive influence of sport. If it were followed as a means of physical recreation in its true sense, and when such is necessary, it is a positive advantage; but sport should never be made an end or aim in it. I would far sooner see the leisure hours of our young people devoted to a study of politics than to an over-indulgence in sport. We have, as I have always maintained, an uphill fight to secure our just political rights, or to regain that inheritance whose limits have been somewhat restricted by the Union Act.


I have not referred to that other tremendous danger to our people ­ the drink evil, the drink curse. On other occasions I have spoken on that subject, and you all know what my views are. I cannot do better than express my conviction that drink is the greatest curse that can afflict any people who are endeavouring to rise in the scale of civilisation, and we as an organisation should stem every effort that has a tendency to weaken the restrictions on the sale of liquor.

In conclusion, therefore, let me remind you that people get just the government for which they are adapted. Governments are not better than the people governed. It is therefore imperative that you should show by leading honest, moral lives that you are entitled to the fullest political freedom. The only barrier against further invasion of our political rights, and the only safe way to regain that portion of which we have been deprived, and which has been denied to our brethren in the other Colonies, is the maintenance by us of high personal character. Without that there can be no vigorous manhood, no enduring political freedom. We may have to suffer much before we gain full personal and political freedom, but trial and suffering nobly borne will compel the powers that be to grant us our undoubted human birthright, and there is no surer foundation on which to build the power by which trials and tribulations are endured than that of a firm, resolute moral character.

At the conclusion of the address a vote of thanks was moved by Mr. Daly and seconded by Mr. Adriaanse ­ the president of the local branch of the Association, and, in putting the resolution, Mr. E.H. Walton said it gave him great pleasure to add his congratulations to those of the previous speakers, to the President, Dr Abdurahman, on the wise and eloquent address which they had heard that night. It was wise not only for what it said, but for what it left unsaid, and he had no hesitation in saying that Dr Abdurahman was wise in the restraint of his own language and in the restraint he recommended to the Coloured people of South Africa on entering Union. For himself, Mr. Walton had no fear for the future of the Coloured people, no fear that the political barrier which was one of the blots of the Act of Union would be a permanent barrier. The strength of a nation depended upon its citizens and upon their patriotic support of all its citizens whatever their colour. A man's qualifications for full citizenship were not the colour of his skin, but his willingness and ability to share the full burdens of citizenship with his fellow citizens. It remained for the Coloured people of South Africa to prove to the Union Parliament that the political rights enjoyed in the Cape Colony were exercised by the Coloured people not only to their own advantage, but to the advantage of the Colony and of South Africa; and he trusted that it would not be long before every Coloured man who had the qualification of the full burden of citizenship also enjoyed the full political rights of citizenship throughout the whole Union. (Cheers.)


Delivered in the Oddfellows Hall, Port Elizabeth, on Monday, 4th April 1910.