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Abdullah Abdurahman

Bachelor of Medicine, Master of Surgery

Portrait of Abdullah Abdurahman

As President of the African Political (later People's) Organisation (1905-1940) Abdullah Abdurahman was a leading political voice among South Africa's 'coloured' community and a tireless campaigner against segregation. Though civil, social and political equality was not achieved in his lifetime, he made an important contribution to the case against white supremacism, and for improvements in education, the welfare of the Cape poor, and public health. A medical graduate of Glasgow University (MB CM 1893) he ran a successful multi-racial practice in Cape Town.

He was born in Wellington, Cape Colony on 18 December 1872. His father, Abdullah was a landowner and minor civic figure. His mother, Kadija, was a seamstress. His grandparents were former Malay slaves, brought to the Cape by the Dutch East India Company. Abdullah was educated at mission schools and the South African College, Cape Town where he was the first 'coloured' student. In 1888 he travelled to Glasgow to begin his studies in Medicine and graduated MB CM in July 1893. He married Scotswoman, Helen Potter, whom he met while studying. Two more members of his family are known to have studied at Glasgow. Ismail, his brother, graduated in 1915, while his daughter Waradea was a pioneering woman doctor in South Africa having graduated in 1927.

A successful doctor in Cape Town, it was primarily in politics that Abdullah Abdurahman left his mark. In 1904 he was elected to the Cape Town City Council, where he had to endure the hostility of the entirely white membership. This began his long involvement with municipal affairs. In 1914 he became the first 'Coloured' person to be elected to the Cape Provincial Council. By that time he had moved to national prominence after he was elected President of the African Political (People's) Organisation. He sometimes found criticism for his British liberalist opinions and urban, educated vision that assimilated non-whites, but perhaps insufficiently embraced the majority of black Africans. Though his goal of ending segregation and stemming the onward march of apartheid made no progress in his day, he did create a popular political base and fearlessly articulated what was for many years the lone voice of opposition. The African People's Organisation was ultimately eclipsed by more radical political organisations in the late 1930s. Dr Abdurahman died on 20 February, 1940. In 1999, President Nelson Mandela honoured his contribution to the new South Africa by posthumously awarding him the Order for Meritorious Service Class 1 (Gold).