Martin Plaut, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, remembers Dr Abdullah Abdurahman, a leading political voice among South Africa’s ‘coloured’ community whose passionate advocacy changed the course of the country’s legislation and history. 

On 19 December 1925, Lord Reading, the British Viceroy to India, received a delegation unlike any he had met before. They were South African Indians who had come to him seeking justice. The man who led their delegation was even more remarkable. Dr Abdullah Abdurahman was the first person of colour to be elected to any South African office. In 1904, he had won a seat on the Cape Town city council, a position he held for 36 years. He was also Provincial Councillor for the Cape.

The delegation represented the best and the brightest of the South African Indian Congress who, faced with a tide of increasingly racist legislation, had turned to Abdurahman in desperation. Although the doctor (a graduate of the University of Glasgow) was a longstanding and influential friend of the Indian community, he was not an Indian himself. The descendant of slaves (some of whom may have come from Bengal), he was a member of Cape Town’s Malay community, who were drawn from across the Indian Ocean and beyond.

The fate of South African Indians should have been settled by a 1914 deal between Gandhi and the Afrikaner leader, Jan Smuts. But as white governments drifted to the right, the restrictions on the community became increasingly onerous, limiting Indian rights of residence and trade. In 1924, the government initiated a scheme to repatriate Indians to India. Issuing a statement pointing out that Smuts had promised him that no future anti-Indian legislation would be enacted, Gandhi added that his ‘compromise’ with Smuts was reached with the full knowledge and approval of the Indian and Imperial governments and that the proposed Bill would violate their agreement. PK Naidoo, secretary of the Transvaal British Indian Association (who had worked closely with Gandhi during his time in South African), wrote to the Indian National Congress requesting that they send Sarojini Naidu to South Africa to assist Indians in fighting the Bill.

Naidu was an excellent choice. On being informed that Smuts was a powerful opponent, she replied that: ‘undoubtedly General Smuts is a strong man, but he will be confronted by a woman who is not afraid because she has the support of a united India behind her.’

Arriving in South Africa in March 1924, Naidu went from public meeting to meeting, calling on Indians to ‘fight the unjust position. Don’t accept a position of inferiority.’ Naidu said she hoped that it would not be “necessary to remind the people of the lessons of passive resistance”.

Despite her appeals, and those of others, the South African government pressed on with its legislation. In late 1925, at the end of their tether, the South African Indian Congress decided to send a delegation to India to appeal to the viceroy against their treatment. They argued that the Gandhi-Smuts deal had been ‘arrived at with the knowledge and concurrence of the Imperial and the Indian governments’ — and the viceroy, therefore, had a role.

The viceroy attempted to head this off. The South African Indian Congress refused to back down and turned to Abdurahman to lead the delegation. So it was that he headed to India, to put their plight before the people and the authorities. Reading told London that this placed him in an excruciatingly difficult position, caught between his responsibilities to India and his place within the Imperial system. He described the problem as ‘one of the most embarrassing and difficult problems before us’.

When the delegation met Lord Reading, Abdurahman made it clear that if the relationship between India and the British Empire was submissive and the empire allowed her ‘sons to suffer’ he hoped the relationship would be changed: ‘so that India can speak, as she ought to speak, like a free man and say we will not allow our sons to be humiliated any longer because we have got the power to say so.’

The viceroy was deeply impressed by the doctor and his case. He wrote to London: ‘Dr Rahaman [sic] put forward powerful and well-argued statements of disabilities of humiliating description in social, political and economic life which have been imposed on Indians by legislation in Union (of South Africa) and of apprehension not without ground that contemplated Asiatic legislation will render positions of Indians wholly impossible….Much stress was laid by Dr Rahaman on favourable treatment of white element in population composed in many cases of races not born in or loyal to British Empire at expense of Indians born in and loyal to British connection…I found the position very difficult. I am deeply impressed by the humiliations to which Indians in South Africa are subjected, and by the gravity of the implications of the projected legislation which will be hurried through the second reading stage in the new year.’

The South African delegation travelled widely — appealing to communities in Bombay, Madras, Delhi, Lahore and Calcutta, as well as addressing the 40th session of the Indian National Congress in Kanpur in December 1925. ‘Wherever Dr Rehman and his colleagues have been and by this time they have practically covered the length and breadth of the country they have met with unanimous warmth and welcome from the people of India’, wrote the Sunday Times on 31 January 1926.

Abdurahman’s address to Congress was explosive. According to an observer ‘He was bitterness personified. “If you had some battle-ships today”, he shouted as he banged the lone chair, “if you had your army, a little handful of so-called whites who were vomited forth on the shores of Africa from the slums of Europe would not have dared do what they are doing today.'”

The passionate advocacy of the Abdurahman delegation changed the course of South African legislation. The government agreed, reluctantly, to sit down with the Viceroy’s representatives, and in January 1927, an agreement was reached by all sides. Repatriation to India would be voluntary. South African Indians were promised improved housing, sanitation and education. ‘We venture to offer our hearty congratulations to the members of the round table and the governments of the Union of South Africa and India on the success that has attended the conference,’ declared The Servant of India, ‘even if it does not give us all we feel we are entitled to on the basis or justice and righteousness.’

It was a remarkable achievement to have extracted this much from a South African government that had been determined to send Indians packing. Many had played their part, but Abdurahman’s role was central. As the years went, by the Cape Town agreement was undermined and its provisions largely disregarded, but at the time it was rightly welcomed as a genuine step forward — one to which the doctor had done much to contribute.

Martin Plaut  is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), a member of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is a journalist specialising in the Horn of Africa and South Africa, and blogs at MartinPlaut

This is an edited extract from an article first published in the Indian Express.