Address to Returned Soldiers of the Cape Corps, c. 1919 1
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Dr. Abdurahman and the A. P.O. supported the government in going to war against Germany, and offered their assistance in recruiting Coloured soldiers. In all, some 6 000 men joined the 1st Cape Corps and 2 000 joined the 2nd Cape Corps. They saw service in South-West Africa, in Europe and in the Middle East. Although officially a non-combatant force, they bore arms outside the borders of the Union of South Africa. Their name is especially connected with the Battle of Square Hill, at which General Allenby took this position, approximately 100 miles north of Jerusalem, on 19th September 1918.
Dr. Abdurahman delivered the following address at a function to welcome returned soldiers of the Cape Corps.
It is with some diffidence and reluctance that I rise to respond to the toast, which has been so ably proposed by Mr. Abdurahman. This honour should have fallen to someone who has shared the sufferings and endured some of the hardships through which the men of the Cape Corps have passed, who could have done justice to the men whom we must always honour and respect.
Perhaps there are two reasons why I should reply to the toast. One is that men who have experienced the horrors of war and could know what it means are, as a rule, very reluctant to speak of it and consequently it is no doubt due to this reticence on their part that you have picked on me.
There is one other reason, which may not be known, to many. It is a sort of honour, which I have arrogated to that and that is myself in some way I regard myself as the father of the Cape Corps. It was on the 14th of August that England in the name of the Empire declared war on Germany. It was only one week later when in the name of the Coloured people I instructed the then Secretary, Mr. Matt J. Fredericks, to write to Gen. Botha and offer to raise a Corps of 5,000 men for services at home or abroad. I have also a clear recollection of the great demonstration that was held the next month in the City Hall. The enthusiasm with which the men and women received the speakers. All the speakers of that night are now dead having solved the great mystery of death. Perhaps it is due largely to my early association with the Cape Corps that the honour to respond to the toast has fallen to my lot.
I can only say that it will always be with reverence to the dead and with the greatest and sincerest respect for the Returned Soldier that I think of the Great War and especially on an occasion like this.
These men in offering the lay down their lives for their friends, humbly made the most stupendous offer any man can make, and all those of us who have remained behind, although we cannot express our feelings adequately experience a sense of pride for the men who belong to the Cape Corps. Of the deeds of valour they performed and the suffering they so patiently and uncomplainingly endured in the service of a cause they believed to be right, much has already been said, and in the distant days when there will be no longer any men of the Cape Corps alive, our children will still think of them with pride.
How the Coloured people forgot their own troubles, their petty differences and voluntarily offered to share the responsibilities of defending the Empire will always stand forth as an event in history worthy of the Cape Coloured people.
Today these men who went through the horrors of war to save us, hoping their sacrifice to establish a world soundly founded upon those ethical and philosophical principles by the practical application of which alone the efforts of all could be welded together in the production of a greater social and moral standard in the world must feel somewhat despondent. They fought for us for better conditions, for a better future, for the right to live a fuller and nobler life, and these men have the right to ask whether any of those ideals for which they have fought have been attained, and we should ask ourselves whether we have properly used the legacy of heroism, duty and sacrifice bequeathed to us by the Cape Corps whose comrades died that we might live.
If we take a cursory glance at the world then we find the same ominous signs, which heralded the Great War clearly evident everywhere. The golden sunrise for which the world so anxiously and hopefully waited for the last 20 year is as far off as ever.
I am glad to see that the Cape Corps now includes the various units and in that wise movement they have shown us another great example to which the rest of us so far turned a deaf ear. On the battlefield the men of all colours and of all political ideas and of different religions stood side by side and fought the common enemy, and today they have also succeeded in bringing into one fold all those whether they have actually been in the front of the fight or not, but who have voluntarily offered to lay down their lives in the same cause.
The stupendous folly of the Coloured people at the present time in not yet realizing their oneness and the strength of their united efforts to combat the social evils is disheartening to those who are able to read the writing on the wall and to those who do not turn a deaf ear to the warnings that have been uttered in recent weeks by narrow racialists in this country.
How to make South Africa a place in which there will be opportunities for the Coloureds to live a fuller and higher life according to their several endowments is not an insoluble problem. If we only had the will to do the right thing at the present time. Our men are out of work in a rich country like South Africa. Their earning capacity is gradually becoming smaller while civilization is continually increasing their wants. Frequently they have the wherewithal to satisfy the barest annual wants and are being tormented by loud and disgusting proclamations that their avenues of employment will in the future be curtailed. The tragic lessons of the past, the experiences of the Cape Corps, their sacrifices are all deliberately ignored. I can see disaster looming upon the horizon and we who are supposed to be the intellectual leaders of Coloured opinion were unable or unwilling to stand together at this critical juncture in the fight for the upliftment of our people.
With the Returned Soldier there were no pre-ordained superiors and inferiors. The simple duty of such was to do his part in a co-ordinated effort to preserve for the world all that he held most dear. He did not look at his black comrade askance for he knew, and he discovered beneath the black skin and the crinkly hair there beat a heart as stout as his own the heart of a valiant soldier and a man, a man like himself no matter what the blood that flowed in their veins the best Cape Corps were one on the field of battle.
We in civil life should regard the lowliest of our people and the blackest of them as forming an inseparable part of the whole of which we think we are the best. Perhaps we are the best but how should the lowliest also become the better and the best " Not God alone can make men best without best men to help him. "
The best among us, the elite and the intellectual from whom so much might have been expected, cannot and will not co-operate. They know, and if they do not know, they ought not to assume the role of leaders and spokesmen on behalf of the people, that we cannot achieve anything of an enduring nature in their ever-changing and uncertain age as long as the elite, the progressives, split themselves into bitterly irreconcilable camps expending all their powers actual and potential upon useless and futile controversy. We refuse to fight like one man as the Cape Corps did for the regeneration of our people and for their social upliftment and henceforth whatever suffering our people will endure in the distant future must be placed at the doors of these stiff-necked, proud Coloured people.
Source: Abdurahman Family Papers .