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

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)


A rich culture

It’s often said that “Africa is a country” – well, that’s how we refer to it. one homogeneous entity but those of us who live there or are from there know how diverse and rich a continent it is. Despite this, little discoveries are made which make this diversity even more remarkable and all added together over the years, decades and centuries which have gone by, aspects of each community making up the whole influence and impact the other making the sum of us greater than the individual parts.

One of these little encounters was the discovery that the oldest Mazaar (Islamic holy site) in South Africa suggests that Muslims settled in South Africa back in 1667 – that is not too long after the ‘discovery’ and the start of settlement by Jan van Riebeek and his crown (1654).

Another snippet, this coming out of the sad story of building being destroyed by fire, is that this destroyed building housed the first Afrikaans school, before the one better known in the Bo Kaap, a community linked with Islam. A publication by Achmat Davids in 2011, suggests that ‘the Afrikaans of the Cape Muslim’ dates from 1815. This accounts for the variations between mainstream Afrikaans and that spoken by the Cape Coloured community, a group of people who have given us the Kaapse Klopse, Malay dishes such as bobotie and koeksusters. While I might wonder where that leaves the monument in Oranje, it is suggested there is a difference between the two: all just adding to the rich culture that makes up the rainbow nation that is South Africa.

South African journalists

Having written about Solomon Tshekedi Plaatje, another journalist was brought to my attention around the same time. This was Samuel Edward Krune Loliwe Ngxekengxeke Mqhayi who became famous for his poem about the sinking of the SS Mendi and the recruitment of labour. It struck me that Mqhayi had been writing at home without having experienced the war outside of the home front.

While Plaatje was overseas lobbying for black rights, Mqhayi was in South Africa working as a school teacher and journalist for Imvo (edited by Dr JT Jabavu) becoming famous as a poet. What Plaatje was doing for Tswana, Mqhayi was doing for Xhosa and both through their writing provide an insight into the richness of African culture through African eyes.

Although he published pamphlets or books during the war years, he did not write about the war except in his poetry. His most famous book The Lawsuit of the Twins was published in 1914 looking at Xhosa customs. A new edition in 1915 was much longer. He made an impression, as recorded by Nelson Mandela.

Mqhayi wrote a short autobiography (click on the image to download the file) which unfortunately doesn’t give any particular insight into what he was doing during the 1914-18 war. Yet, it is the war which brought him to my attention and a translation of his Mendi poem by Thabo Mbeki in 2007 (scroll right down although you might want to see the other poets referred to, some of whom were also journalists at the time).

While I have issues with how we are remembering the Mendi today, Mqhayi was an eyewitness of the causes and impact of the loss, and one who can possibly tell us more about life on the home front with a little more digging.