Review: Dr Abdullah Abdurahman – Martin Plaut

A biography on Dr Abdurahman has been a long time coming so it was with some keen anticipation that I was looking to get a copy of Dr Abdullah Abdurahman: South Africa’s First Elected Black Politician by Martin Plaut.

Abdurahman was one of the characters who has featured from quite early on in my research into South Africa’s involvement in the East Africa campaign of 1914-1918. Dr A was the man behind the formation of the Cape Corps which was to see two units serve in East Africa and later a contingent in Palestine. This in addition to the Cape Boys who provided labour in the various theatres where South Africans served. Dr A, leader of the African People’s Organisation, was a tenacious person – in a year he sent 32 letters to the Prime Minister and Minister of Defence encouraging them to employ the Cape Coloured in the war. Eventually writing to the Governor General, and a change in attitude to the war in Africa, the South African Union Government saw its way to recruit Cape Coloureds as Imperial troops. Martin touches on this but sadly from my perspective didn’t do more on Dr A and the Great War. Partly this is due to scarce material – finding out more about Dr A has been on my ‘to do’ list for 20+ years.

Martin’s book has therefore been welcome in putting the meat onto the bones of the man. This has been a challenge given the scarcity of material – as noted in the introduction, the late discovery of Dr A’s private papers yielded little as they were illegible. The focus of the book therefore falls into what has been available in the public domain resulting in a book which explores South Africa’s race relations and collaboration between cultural groups within South Africa, particularly those who were not white. This is a vital contribution in understanding or exploring the relationship between the ANC (formed 112 as the SANNC) and other political parties.

Apart from more on the First World War, there are two aspects of the book I felt a little challenged by – one being Dr A’s Muslim identity and the other the use of the term African. Dr A was a Muslim – his first wife, a Scot, was married under Islamic law in Britain. Martin mentions a second wife with no records being available. All indications are, given his continued relationship with Nellie, that his second marriage was also under Islamic law. This was acceptable in South Africa, although such marriages are still not legally accepted (despite the emphasis on human rights etc in the 1994 Constitution, 2000 legal comment; 2020 position). While perhaps not important for the question Martin was answering, for my work on WW1 in Africa, this is an important aspect. Research to date suggests that the rank and file enlisting in the Cape Corps had to renounce their Islamic faith – for dietary purposes. Yet, looking at medical registers of the time, patients note Islam under religion. How did they reconcile these positions? Dr A walked/lived life both as a Muslim and as a ‘Westerner’ achieving at the time what few others were able. How did he do this? What debates did he have with himself, friends, family etc in walking this tightrope of different cultures? And even more controversially at the time of the 1914 outbreak of war, how did he reconcile the British Empire being at war against the Ottoman Emperor of which by marriage he was linked? My quest continues… Few historians, if any, in South Africa are working on related topics making this a rich research field for anyone interested.

And then the term ‘African’. While Martin has gone some way to use terms interchangeably, namely black, Coloured, Indian, white, there is still an overwhelming tendency to refer to black South Africans as African. This is something I probably need to write a more considered paper on as the term (politically acceptable and promoted in Britain, the USA and Europe) encompasses so many cultural groups. The term Afrikaner translates to person of Africa aka African, the Coloured, Cape Coloured or Cape Malay (an accepted term in South Africa – interestingly even people born in the 1980s to mixed couples were officially registered as ‘Cape Coloured’) is African in origin culturally and ethnically. So while the term jars as a single group descriptor and gave me a roller-coaster of a read, Martin has gone some way to mediate the cultures he writes for and knows (South African and British) in mixing the terms.

I’ve noted the gaps above but these should not prevent you from exploring Dr Abdullah Abdurahman by Martin Plaut. A far greater window has been opened on the man which gave me the hook to explore Islamic marriages in SA (there are some very interesting legal papers on the issue for anyone interested in trawling the web). For anyone visiting Cape Town and District Six in particular, the book is definitely worth reading for background – and then visit the District Six Museum to experience some of the transformation of the area Dr A represented for so many years. A remarkable man with a remarkable wife and daughter to boot.

A film insight into South African culture

Over the last while, I’ve ended up watching a number of films covering life in South Africa from about the 1960s. All the films (except three) were released post-Apartheid and all, except three, were based on real events. What links them all together is their common story of humanity – discovering that the ‘other’ is human and have their own struggles to deal with on the road to recognition and acceptance. As someone who lived through much of this going through similar transitions, all these films resonated, including those events I was not aware of at the time. All credit to the actors and directors for the research they undertook to reflect the people they were representing as realistically as they did.

The Angel, the bicycle and the Chinaman’s finger (1992) – fiction (adapted from a theatre production which I saw at the time)

Beat the Drum (2003) – fiction

Cry Freedom (1987) – the Steve Biko and Donald Woods story

District 9 (2009) – science fiction (I saw this just before watching District Six – do the same, I need say no more)

District Six (2003) – fiction based on forced removals in Cape Town (film of theatre production which we saw when the stage show came to London; David Kramer is an incredible story teller and commentator on South African life) . A relook (Kanala) at the time was released in 2016 which is covered in the link.

Goodbye Bafana (2007) – Mandela’s prison guard’s conversion

In My Country (2004) – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Invictus (2009) – South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup win (and the poem) Sitting in the post-match traffic jam on our way somewhere, the atmosphere was something out of this world, leading me to think ‘South Africa is going to be all right’ – watching the film 11 years after its release made me realise how much Mandela and Louis Botha were similar personalities (although Jan Smuts and Mandela have more in common) and that South Africa lost two great leaders way before their work of reconciliation was done. Will we ever see such leaders again?

Katrina (1969) – The story of a Coloured woman having her true identity revealed and its consequences. Based on the novel Try for White by Basil Warner

Is this why colonisation happens?

I was intrigued to read in A letter to a Hindu by Tolstoy (1908) the following:

“You say that the English have enslaved your people and hold them in subjection because the latter have not resisted resolutely enough and have not met force by force.
But the case is just the opposite. If the English have enslaved the people of India it is just because the latter recognized, and still recognize, force as the fundamental principle of the social order. In accord with that principle they submitted to their little rajahs, and on their behalf struggled against one another, fought the Europeans, the English, and are now trying to fight with them again.
A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred million. Tell this to a man free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what these words mean. What does it mean that thirty thousand men, not athletes but rather weak and ordinary people, have subdued two hundred million vigorous, clever, capable, and freedom-loving people? Do not the figures make it clear that this is not the English who have enslaved the Indians, but the Indians who have enslaved themselves?”

Tolstoy continues with an analogy of drunkards complaining that ‘the spirit-dealers who have settled among them have enslaved them.’ When told to give up drinking, they refuse because they are so accustomed to it.

Tolstoy’s argument or case is rather simple. By loving one another and not giving into the superstitions that various religions have foisted upon us, we will all live in peace and harmony. He seems to forget some fundamentals about human nature although he does touch upon the issue of continuation through being ‘accustomed’.

Tolstoy’s descriptor of Indian colonisation can be applied to other societies too and across the centuries, as he notes. Looking at photos of the East Africa campaign, in particular those of the Lake Tanganyika expedition, I was struck by the notion that 28 white men could control 50-100 black men as easily as what they did, especially when the white men are otherwise occupied with no firearms in sight. Were there other armed forces keeping watch who were not captured on camera? There is suggestion that the Belgian Force Publique accompanied the expedition through the Congo. Similarly, there are the columns and columns of porters who are under the supervision of a few armed men – yes these men were at greater risk of being fired upon by those accompanying them than the Lake Tanganyika group, but there were still overwhelming numbers of unarmed men adhering to what a few armed men instructed.

This is not to move the responsibility for colonisation (being colonised) to the other side, but rather to raise questions about why we as people allow ourselves to get into situations which subjugate us on such a scale. We allow it too at a local level as expressed by Herman Charles Bosman in A Bekkersdal Marathon.

A day or so before reading Tolstoy’s response to MK Gandhi in this letter, I had read, in vol 1 of Creswicke’s South Africa and the Transvaal War, Alfred Milner’s conditions presented at the Bloemfontein Conference in 1899 to Paul Kruger which resulted in the Boer ultimatum being issued:

“15. The Civil Service shall be completely reorganised, and all corrupt officials shall be dismissed from office, and be ineligible for office in the future.”

This was the perception of the Transvaal administration – a corrupt government where again, a few held sway over thousands. Milner’s demand was a decade before Tolstoy’s letter. The Boer government naturally rejected the demand, but by all accounts the Reformers who had been involved in the Jameson Raid of 1896 had not wanted reform under the British flag but under the Transvaal flag. They were, so they said, prepared to remain under Boer control providing certain practices were changed. Again, this is simplified, but the question remains, how did the uitlanders or reformers who held economic power get themselves into this situation without doing something earlier?

A century after Tolstoy’s letter, in 2009 Wangari Maathai had The Challenge for Africa published. It’s a more sophisticated argument/case than Tolstoy’s as it addresses why people allow themselves to be controlled by others. And as with Tolstoy’s ‘simple’ solution, Maathai’s also seems to be too challenging for today’s generations across the globe. We seem to know what to do, but something keeps us from doing so… will historians examining the past ever discover what this obstacle is and if so, will we be able to overcome it?

Novelist: Alice Mabel Gibbs (Morrison) aka Joan Kennedy

Alice Mabel Gibbs (Morrison after she married) aka Joan Kennedy (1885-1965) published one of the earliest historical fiction accounts of the South West Africa campaign of 1914-1915. She has a prolific list of books, including autobiography Myself the Pilgrim (1952) suggesting that her book on the South West Africa campaign, Sun, Sand and Sin published in 1916 was her first.

1885, 12 April – Born
?? – married Hans Hamilton Morrison
1941 – Registered in Jersey, La Vieille Maison, St Aubin
1956 – Hans Hamilton Morrison dies in Le Quesne
1965 – dies in Le Quesne

The book was not favourably in South Africa at the time based on correspondence in the South African National Archives. It was mentioned in The Dominion newspaper of 7 December 1916 on page 4 under the heading “War Books of interest and value” while an synopsis is available at World Radio History.

Joan Kennedy never visited South Africa, in the foreword to the book she notes after giving a broad brush overview of how the men came to be in South West Africa: Thousands responded to the call and from one and another of these warriors who wore the green-lined helmets my tales have been garnered. Not all tell of privations – far from it. A man will rather confess to making an ass of himself than place on record his claim to the title of hero. So there is humour and nonsense, and it is only sometimes that tragedy peeps through. To the boys who told the tales, I dedicate this little collection.

World War 1 Africa Books

Sun, Sand and Sin (Botha’s War) (1916)


Identity issues

Identity is complex – and fascinating, and for readers who follow my work it’s something I keep coming back to in different ways.

This most recent excursion was stimulated by an article on Vikings based on results of DNA tests which had been undertaken. This followed on closely to the response I made (25 mins in) on The Journey to the Mayflower by Steven Tomkins. What struck me this round, as well as working through Africa North of the Limpopo is the almost constant movement of people, some more than others. But more than the movement of people, the intermingling of people and cultures which lead to constant revisions and tweaking of what was before. That being Viking is an identity rather than an ethnicity is an interesting distinction and one I can associate with – I’m a mongrel in terms of my heritage. I know the broad strands but I don’t know the details. It’s rather the culture(s) I associate with who define me at any particular time.

Whilst on Vikings or rather Scandinavia, I came upon this thesis by Eero Kuparinen who has researched Nordic migration to South Africa. By the outbreak of the 1899-1902 war there was around 2,000 Scandinavians (including Finnish) in the territory, the majority of around 1,500 in Johannesburg. The Boer Army consisted of Boers, “Dutch, German, French, American, Irish, Italian, Russian and Scandinavian volunteers” while on the British side they came from “British Isles, […] South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand”. (p186)

Most of the British armed forces were brought onto the African continent for the conflict, whilst those on the Boer side were predominantly resident in the Boer Republics, most likely the Transvaal. This is not to say that most settlers or residents took up arms. Many either left to return to Europe or other parts of the continent or if they remained in Boer territory took an oath of neutrality. What is significant here is the diversity of white nationality in the area and related issues of identity. Did those who remained see themselves as more African or South African/Boer? We see a similar diverse makeup in the First World War in Africa, although here numerous Scandinavians are professional soldiers/mercenaries serving in the Belgian forces. Trying to unravel a person’s identity is challenging – is it determined by place of birth? by residence? unit or force served with? how does the individual see themselves? Does association with a headman, minor chief or senior chief define identity?

More recently than the inspiration for the post on the issue of identity has been the film In My Country an adaptation of Antje Krog’s Country of my Skull.  The encounter between white Afrikaans Anna Malan and black American Langston Whitfield is poignant in so many respects, not least Anna’s statement that she would “die for Africa”. The other significant aspect to come out of the film is the mistake of assuming – assuming the background or ideals of another invariably leads to misconceptions and errors. It seems to me that the successful encounters of the diverse peoples coming together in whatever space has been a desire to understand the other for who they are and to work towards a common beneficial goal. This then begs the question: Is identity important?