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.

Grimsby – definitely not a Grim town

On telling people we were going to visit Grimsby, we were asked “Why do you want to go there? It’s rather grim, not much to do.” Well, I was going to follow up a World War 1 Africa link – more in due course about that – which was well worth the visit, and yes, Grimbsy was quiet, but definitely not grim.

Apart from my WW1 discovery, we were directed to dinner at Papas, named ‘the UK’s No 1 Fish and Chips’ in 2018. This accolade follows the 2015 one naming Papas the ‘World’s Largest Fish and Chip Shop’ and boy is it deceptively large. Good fish was to be had though. And did you know there is a National Fish and Chip Museum in York? According to the publicity newspaper you get with your menu at the restaurant, there is a note about Churchill exempting the restaurant from rationing during World War 2. What is not stated, and not surprisingly, is that fish from South Africa was imported – snoek, by all accounts an acquired taste as I’ve not yet found anyone of the post-war years who likes it as much as I do. In fact, most turn their noses up at it. Perhaps it’s got to do with the way it’s prepared. While our visit to a fish market in Ghana was made memorable by the aroma of fish drying outside, there wasn’t any such hint in Grimsby, perhaps because fish is no longer the main source of income it used to be? The fish braai/barbeque on Zanzibar was more appealing. And in Mongolia, we witnessed fish drying from the wing mirror of trucks.

But the highlight of our visit to Grimsby, apart from my WW1 excursion, was the Grismby Fishing Heritage Centre. Here in one go, you get an overview of a time past, how the town was centred around fishing and an insight into the dangerous work the men undertook. Not to be forgotten was the life of those, particularly wives, who stayed behind and how the whole community was involved in the industry. Talking to one of the volunteers at the museum, he’d spent time working on a fishing vessel off Namibia in the 1980s, the traditions of the water have changed very little. Having read many diaries of soldiers and others sailing between South Africa and Britain, and East Africa, during World War 1, their accounts of crossing the equator was no different to our volunteer. Although the museum focuses on life in the 1950s, apart from technological changes, I imagine it was not much different in earlier years, although seeing the town today, it is hard, without prompting by this museum, to imagine what life was like when fishing was the industrial force it was. The museum also owns the last diesel side trawler in the UK, the Ross Tiger which we were told requires additional funding to allow an overhaul and refurbishment to remain part of the living history experience. This is one of the best museums I’ve seen in a long time – carefully thought through to give as realistic an experience as possible, meeting the needs of young and old, and clearly created and managed with love. My South African equivalent is the Distict Six Museum in Cape Town.

Old Haunts

This week marks 20 years of my close relationship with the UK, and how things have changed in that time. Having left South Africa as part of a work transfer in 1996 we were unsure of when we would next see ‘home’, but lo and behold we were back in August for a wedding. It proved how small the world is and how travel had changed. Since then we have been privileged enough to return home every year and witness the changes South Africa has undergone since the end of Apartheid.

I’m not going to go into those now but I’ve always looked forward to going home and seeing what has changed (also challenging perceptions on both sides of the equator – it’s incredible how when you dig down, there are so many similarities irrespective of colour or gender but more of that another day). The one thing I have struggled with understanding is people’s reluctance to ‘go back’ and visit old haunts.

One striking feature for me concerning South Africa is how much safer the country has become – I enjoy walking through Cape Town’s old District Six area and despite warnings from friends and colleagues, walking areas of Pretoria from the Gautrain station is rather pleasant providing lots of time for reflection (time which will be lost when the SANDF archive moves to its new home in Irene this year). Similarly, we enjoy hiring a car and just driving through the country-side seeing how beautiful the land is, particularly areas whites were discouraged from travelling through during Apartheid (and sad to say, since too).

But this month, I got to experience why some people don’t want to go back somewhere – surprisingly, it was in London – more specifically Spitalfields Market. My early worklife in the UK was in the City of London and I used to visit the Spitalfields area when I could. The last time I visited the area was about 5 years ago to do a London walk and had heard that changes were underway. Taking the opportunity of a few hours to go AWOL, I wandered through street – Gun Street, Barrack Street, past Petticoat Lane and into the market area but all the old atmosphere had disappeared. New square glass buildings framed a roofed in area with similar styled restaurants in the middle. To its credit there were some stall holders selling their wares but what a disappointment. Spitalfields is no longer on my list for first-time visitors to London.

As a historian, it’s natural to visit ‘old haunts’, some of which we might only be visiting in person for the first time but know the place well (as well as one can) from reading about it and perhaps seeing photos. The challenge I have is showing appropriate reactions of remembrance and reflection when I’m feeling the exact opposite at having discovered that my perceptions and assumptions align with what I’m seeing. But I have witnessed the opposite too.

My recent trip to Senegal and Goree Island in particular reminded me of our first visit to West Africa, Ghana, in 2002. Going to the Elmina castle where slaves were kept before being transported across to the Americas we were reflecting on things when two young Black American women drew attention to themselves by arguing vehemently with the castle guide – they were just discovering that contrary to what they had been taught at school, namely that white people were all to blame for slavery and their being American, Blacks themselves had sold fellow country-men into slavery and had participated quite energetically in the trade. Our hearts went out to the girls – we knew what it was like to have your government lie and manipulate the story of the past. It would take some time and investigation but their visit to this ‘old haunt’ had set them on the path of myth-breaking. 14 years later and this incident is still vivid.

This coincided with some books I’ve recently read. One factual, Rwanda means universe, and four fictional – Harper Lee’s Go set a Watchman (the sequal to¬†To Kill a Mockingbird), Barbara Towell’s A little piece for mother which links London, Poland and Auschwitz, while the other two are due for publication later this year – Anna Ryland’s A second chance (also with a Polish and London link) and John Samson’s Powerless (post-Apartheid encounters).