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Abdurahman, Abdullah (1872–1940), political leader and physician, was born on 18 December 1872 in Wellington, a country town in south-western Cape Colony, the eldest son of the nine children of Abdul Arraman (also known as Rahman), small trader and civic figure, who was a patron of Cape Muslim welfare and burial societies, and his only wife, Kadija Dollie, seamstress. His parents were Cape Muslims or Cape Malays, and his grandparents were imported Dutch East India Company slaves Abdul and Betsy Jemalee, who had managed to buy their freedom and also, following the British occupation, benefited from the friendship and generosity of Lady Duff Gordon.

Abdurahman was educated at a small Calvinist mission school in Wellington (1877–80), at the Catholic Marist Brothers College, Cape Town (1881–4), and at the South African College, Cape Town (1884–7), where he was the first ‘Cape coloured’ pupil. Born into a house filled with the optimism of education and belief in the value of British culture, in 1888 he was sent to study medicine at the University of Glasgow, qualifying as a doctor (MB, CM) in 1893. After practical training in London, in 1895 he returned to South Africa, where he established and ran until the late 1930s a flourishing multiracial private medical practice in Cape Town. He was a particularly wealthy member of the tiny urban coloured élite which he embodied so well, his income enabling him to accumulate a large house, expensive cars, a yacht, and a holiday cottage. Abdurahman was a fine vindication of those who believed in the assimilation of respectable, English-speaking coloured people into a common middle-class society, thereby diluting a white-dominated South Africa.

Abdurahman was made richer by his marriages. The first, on 22 May 1894, to the British Helen (Nellie) Potter James (1877–1953), whom he met when a student in Glasgow, produced two daughters before ending in divorce on 17 August 1923. Their younger daughter, Zainunissa (Cissy) Abdurahman (1900–1963), married a Cape Town Indian doctor, A. H. Gool, and became an imposing political figure, devoting most of her life to fighting racial discrimination and poverty as a municipal councillor in Cape Town. Abdurahman's second marriage, on 16 November 1925, was to Margaret May Stansfield; they had two daughters and a son. His widow, like some other coloureds, emigrated to Canada in the 1960s to escape apartheid.

Abdurahman, the gentleman professional, came to public prominence in September 1904 when he was elected the first non-European Cape Town city councillor, a position he held (except for two years, 1913–15) until he died. He rapidly acquired a reputation as a lucid orator and watchful administrator, and became influential in local government through chairing public health, public works, streets and drainage, and numerous other council committees between 1923 and 1937. His exceptional political reach in municipal affairs not only gave him a steady grip on his personal coloured electorate but assured him of attention from white councillors, particularly those from wards with a substantial proportion of coloured voters. Throughout his tenure he pushed for various forms of municipal improvement and welfare intervention to improve living conditions for the Cape Town poor. His expansive legislative presence was buttressed further when, in March 1914, he became the first coloured man elected to the Cape provincial council, a position which he held until his death. In provincial politics he devoted himself to the advocacy of coloured needs in health provision and, especially, schooling.

The importance of education was central to Abdurahman's thinking and to much of his public work because he believed that improving school facilities and standards would enable coloured people to improve their economic and social circumstances in a segregationist order. He worked with Dr A. H. Gool to launch the first secular schooling for Muslim children, and was instrumental in setting up the first two coloured secondary schools in Cape Town, Trafalgar High School in 1911, and Livingstone High School in 1934. Concerned to nourish a political environment of community improvement, in 1913 he spearheaded the formation of the professional Teachers' League of South Africa to mobilize coloured teachers behind a low-key but dogged campaign to reform the segregated education system. While this accomplished little, if anything, Abdurahman's legacy of educational activity was both large and enduring.

Abdurahman's greatest political mark by far came through his involvement in the coloured political organization the African Political (later, Peoples') Organisation (APO), founded in September 1902 in the mood of post-war disillusionment to oppose racial segregation and press Britain to safeguard non-European rights in South Africa after its victory in the South African War. Joining the APO in 1903, Abdurahman was elected president in April 1905, unifying its factions around his forceful personality and dominating the organization during his thirty-five-year presidency. While the APO grew into a national body with thousands of members and hundreds of branches, Abdurahman's reputation was such that it became popularly known as Abdurahman's Political Organisation.

The APO was a coloured pressure group, and Abdurahman and the APO initially differentiated between coloureds and Africans: Abdurahman on occasion referred to ‘barbarous natives’ (Odendaal, 98). In 1906, with the new British Liberal government preparing to grant ‘Europeans only’ responsible government to the Transvaal and Orange River Colony, Abdurahman campaigned to enfranchise coloureds there. In 1906 he led a delegation to London and argued, against the Liberal ministers' insistence that they were bound by article 8 of the treaty of Vereeniging, that its term ‘native’ did not apply to coloureds. Their mission failed. From the Queenstown conference (November 1907) Abdurahman co-operated to varying degrees with African politicians. The British Liberal government, continuing its policy of conciliating the Boers, prepared to establish a self-governing union of South Africa, and the national convention (1908–9) there drafted a constitution which the colonial parliaments approved (June 1909). Although the Cape's non-racial franchise was entrenched, the draft constitution contained crucial colour-bar restrictions. From the start Abdurahman and the APO—in co-operation with William Philip Schreiner and other Cape liberals and with African politicians—campaigned against it. Abdurahman denounced it as ‘unjust [and] un-British’ (Thompson, 326). Having failed in South Africa, they attempted to persuade the British government and parliament. Abdurahman and other APO leaders joined the ‘Coloured and Native Delegation’—called the ‘nigger deputation’ in the hostile South African press—led by Schreiner which arrived in England in July 1909. They were supported by Sir Charles Dilke and by Labour Party leaders, the London Missionary Society, and the Aborigines Protection Society, but failed to persuade the government. Abdurahman was active in the lobbying and propaganda, and warned, rightly, that the provisions for changing the constitution would lead to the disfranchisement of Cape non-Europeans. The delegates attended the parliamentary debates on the bill: Abdurahman wrote that the archbishop of Canterbury's speech was ‘the most hypocritical piece of humbug I ever listened to’ (Odendaal, 221). In South Africa the agitation against the proposed legislation rallied many more to the APO. From May 1909 it published a fortnightly paper, A.P.O., edited, partly written, and latterly subsidized by Abdurahman.

Abdurahman's British education, cultured manner, and liberal beliefs in merit and equality of citizenship for all within modern Western civilization lay at the centre of communal coloured political organization for decades, while his patronage of clubs and musical and debating societies helped to mesh the common interests of English- and Afrikaans-speaking Muslim, Christian, and Indian élites. Under his direction the APO ventured beyond ethnic coloured mobilization against segregation, between 1927 and 1934 attempting to negotiate a united black political front in collaboration with African leaders such as Davison Don Tengo Jabavu. This came to nothing, and Abdurahman ended as he had started, a sectional leader obliged by circumstances to press for the advancement of his subordinated community. Although he was not the only coloured leader—his rivals included John Tobin—Abdurahman's reputation with the coloured electorate—significant in Cape politics—enabled him to attempt to influence the main political parties, though he never became a member of any of them. In 1904 he was supported by the Afrikaner Bond, but in 1908 he supported the Progressive Party, and after union the Unionist Party and its successors, the South African and United parties.

Abdurahman's moderate tactics of bargaining, compromise, and negotiation with sympathetic white liberal interests brought derisory political dividends, and by the later 1930s a younger generation of radicals in groups such as the left-wing National Liberation League were denouncing him for favouring middle-class coloured rights at the expense of working-class struggle and black unity. But he retained his personal popularity among his coloured constituency, and it was only after his sudden death that the APO went into serious decline.

Abdurahman died of cardiac arrest at his home, 60 Lower Kloof Street, Cape Town, on 2 February 1940, and was buried on 3 February at Maitland cemetery, Cape Town. His funeral attracted over 30,000 mourners, with Cape Town city council providing a guard of honour. He remains the single most prominent personality in coloured South African politics, a stature underlined in 1999 when President Nelson Mandela awarded him a posthumous order for meritorious service, class 1 (gold), for his contribution to the struggle against racial oppression.

Bill Nasson


DSAB · M. Adhikari, ‘Abdullah Abdurahman’, They shaped our century: the most influential South Africans of the twentieth century (1999), 437–41 · G. Lewis, Between the wire and the wall: a history of South African ‘coloured’ politics (1987) · I. Goldin, Making race: the politics and economics of coloured identity in South Africa (1987) · A. Odendaal, Vukani Bantu! The beginnings of black protest politics in South Africa to 1912 (1984) · R. E. van der Ross, The rise and decline of apartheid: a study of political movements among the coloured people of South Africa, 1880–1985 (1986) · G. M. Gerhart and T. Karis, eds., From protest to challenge: a documentary history of African politics in South Africa, 4: Political profiles, 1882–1964 (1977) · S. Trapido, ‘The origin and development of the African Political Organisation’, The societies of southern Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, 1 (1970), 89–111 · Cape Times (20 Feb 1940) · Cape Argus (20 Feb 1940) · Die Burger (21 Feb 1940) · The Sun [Cape Town] (23 Feb 1940) · Indian Opinion (23 Feb 1940) · Cape Standard (27 Feb 1940) · South African Medical Journal (9 March 1940) · W. I. Addison, A roll of graduates of the University of Glasgow from 31st December 1727 to 31st December 1897 (1898) · J. H. Raynard, ‘Dr Abdullah Abdurahman: the man and his work’, The Sun [Cape Town] (1 March–21 June 1940) [ser. of sixteen articles] · L. M. Thompson, The unification of South Africa, 1902–1910 (1960) · R. Hyam, Elgin and Churchill at the colonial office, 1905–1908 (1968)


priv. coll., papers · U. Lond., Institute of Commonwealth Studies, corresp. and papers · University of South Africa, Pretoria, Documentation Centre for African Studies, family papers |  University of Cape Town, Waradia Abdurahman's collection, papers


C. Marston, oils, 1910, Trafalgar High School, Roeland Street, Cape Town, South Africa