Martin Plaut

Journalist specialising in the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa

History, South Africa

How Scotland helped forge South Africa’s first elected black politician

By David Leask

Chief Reporter, The Herald

Nellie and Abdullah Abdurahman

Nellie and Abdullah Abdurahman

THEY were just eighteen. She was a machinist from a family steeped in early Scottish socialism. He was a middle-class student with no history of politics, staying on his own in Govan digs.

Nellie James was campaigning in Glasgowwhen she was introduced to Abdullah Abdurahman, the grandson of Malay slaves who became her husband and the first non-white ever elected to public office in South Africa.

The young Scot was making history when she took the future Dr Abdurahman in to her family home to thrash out the issues of the day. Because this was 1891.

The young Abdurahmans, along with others, such as their friend Mahatma Gandhi, were among Mr Mandela’s pathfinders.

Dr Abdurahman – and his wife – spent decades fighting for equality in the Cape, not least to help young non-whites get an education. Their politics, however, might well have been made in Glasgow.


Historian and journalist Martin Plaut, who is researching a new book on the trailblazers, explained that Dr Abdurahman experienced a different life at Glasgow University than in the pre-Apartheid but still racially segregated Cape.

The politician and doctor, never, however, could quite understand why Britons treated him and Mr Gandhi, a solicitor, one way at home another way altogether in Africa.

Mr Plaut, a former BBC Africa editor, said: “Glasgow absolutely shaped Abdurahman’s liberal and social values. He never lost his belief in Britain, although he felt it let him down. Abdurahman kept seeing Britain in the way he had known it when he lived in Scotland.”

Dr Abdurahman who was elected as a city councillor in Cape Town and led the early equality group, the African Political Organisation.


Labourand African leaders’ signatures after a dinner in London in 1909. Keir Hardie and Dr Abdurahman’s names are together in the middle

Yet very little is known about his life and studies in Scotland.  Mr Plaut and his co-writer, Eve Wong, are desperate for anybody who can cast more light on how young Ms James and the future Dr Abdurahman spent their time together in Glasgow and then London. Dr Abdurahman graduated from Glasgow University in 1893 and returned to Cape Town in 1902.


The Abdurahmans at what is thought to be their wedding

The couple are thought to have married around 1894, in England. A picture, thought to be taken at their wedding, shows Mrs Abdurahman clutching flowersby her side in a black dress, her groom in a morning suit, bow tie and thin black tie.

The ceremony was Muslim, though Mrs Abdurahman never took her husband’s faith. Her Christian and democratic passions were different.

Ms Wong has discovered that the James family were passionate about workers’ education and had been involved in the Labour movement. That was something Mrs Abdurahman took to Africa.

Schooling was to become a problem for her two mixed-race daughters. One, Waradea, was to become a pioneering woman doctor in South Africa having graduated in 1927 from Glasgow University. Dr Abdurahman’s brother also studied at Glasgow.


Labour historian and campaigner Blair MacDougall stressed Glasgow’s history of campaigning for Africa. He said: “Hardie was met with a furious reaction when he travelled to South Africa to make the case for racial equality but on this, as with so much else, he was ahead of his time. Decades before Mandela Place the seeds of solidarity were being sown.”

Can you help fill in the gaps about Abdurahmans? 

Martin Plaut is looking to hear from anybody who knows about the the couple, the Abdurahman family or the James family. He can be reached at


Martin Plaut

Mr Plaut’s colleague Ms Wong has looked in the history of the two families. What follows is from her Cape Town Universitydissertion and may help spark some memories.

“His time in Glasgow seems to have been, at least at first, an isolated one. The 1891 census in April affirms Abdullah boarding alone at 14 Strone Terrace in Govan. Until one day, ‘while doing electioneering work for the Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, Helen James was introduced to young Abdurahman, a medical student, by a fellow student, another South African. They became friends, and in the home of the James family, Abdurahman was spared the loneliness of a stranger in a strange land’.

The James family

Helen ‘Nellie’ Potter James was born on 2 September 1872 in Greenock,  to John Cumming James, an accountant, and his wife Harriet (née Stout). John, born around 1829, was originally from Forfar, Forfarshire. Harriet, who was about ten years John’s junior, was originally from East Kilbride, Lanarkshire. The couple married in Milton, Glasgow on 15 November 1871. Together John and Harriet lived at 110 Moncur Street in the Glasgow Barony Parish in 1881 with their fourchildren: Nellie was the eldest at nine-years-old, followed by Arthur (8), William (5), and Robert (2).

It seems all of them survived to adulthood. Harriet’s activities beside motherhood are not known. Nellie seems to have had a close relationship with her paternal grandparents. In a 1948 interview, Nellie recalled, ‘As a young girl, she spent her summer holidays in Forfar [where her father was born], and played in the neighbouring gardens of Glamis, the home of the Earl and Countess Strathmore,  the parent of our Abdullah was listed under the mistranscribed name ‘Abdulloh Raahman’. He lodged with Jane Pollock and her daughter Mary, along with another boarder, a 32-year-old German engineering draughtsman named Otto R. Anbuhl. It is unknown what the relationship between the University of Glasgow and/or the Chancellor with the James family.

HeraldScotland: Rev Norman Shanks, below, says the closure of Govan Old Parish Church has angered and shocked people in the community

Govan Parish Church

Two years before Abdullah graduated from University, the 1891 census shows the James family resided at 31 Bank Street in Govan Parish, Lanarkshire with two lodgers; 58-year-old coachman John Carmack and 29-year old Jemima Milligan and her six-month-old son Alexander. Nellie, now eighteen, was listed as a machinist. John vanishes from the household, and there is no other record for him in the census. In all likelihood, John passed away sometime between 1881 and 1891.

John is said to have been affiliated with the Scottish Labour Party and worked securing free and compulsory education for Scottish children. In the Scottish Education Act of 1872, approximately 1,000 school boards formed in Scotland and, in contrast to England, the boards immediately utilised their new power to enforce school attendance. Scotland rejected poverty as a legitimate reason for evading compulsory education. Some assistance, supplied under the Poor Law, was administered by the SchoolAttendance Committee. The boards were therefore freed up to establish and build schools.


Glasgow University

Through the continuing petitions of activists, possibly including Nellie’s father, a standardised Leaving Certificate Examination was instituted in 1888 to ensure educational quality across the country and school fees were abolished in 1890. In its place was a universal, state-funded educational system with common leaving examinations that was, at least in conception, free for all.

Perhaps the success of education reform in Scotland made the failure in South Africa that much more of a graphic contrast for Nellie. Decades later in 1948, Nellie reflected on these early years in an interview, ‘What had impressed [her] on her arrival [in South Africa] was the fact that no secular public schools existed for Coloured children, who, if they did not attend Mission Schools, few in number, were deprived of the opportunity of attending school at all. Then, as the years passed, schooling for her own two daughters presented a problem’.

Abdullah’s history shows little activism before he met Nellie. His politicisation could have resulted from political debates and discussions in the James’ family home, particularly around education. Certainly, Nellie seems inspired by her father’s purported activities – she served on the board of several welfare and charity organisations at the Cape. But for Abdullah, locating the home as a site for education, debate, and political discussions could just as easily have come from his family background with informal madrasahs and other community meetings often taking place in private residences. If anything, the parallel between the James’ home and those more familiar to Abdullah functioning both as debate halls, education venues, and community gathering spaces must have struck him.

HeraldScotland: Green Dragon arrives in Cape Town. Photo: Oceansport

Cape Town

The Marriage of Abdullah and Nellie

The details of Abdullah and Nellie’s marriage and the couple’s movements between Abdullah’s graduation in July 1893 and his permanent resettlement in Cape Town in 1902 are murky. Nellie and Abdullah’s grandson, in an email read at the opening of the Cissie Gool Plaza at the University of Cape Town, reported that Abdullah took an internship in London after graduation. Abdullah’s obituary in the South African Medical Journal reports he held a house appointment for six months and then conducted postgraduate studies. But Abdullah does not seem to have practised medicine in London.

The assortment of the United Kingdom medical registers, college rolls, and directories between 1893 and 1897 do not list him. And although he passed his MRCS, as a member instead of a fellow of the Royal Collegeof Surgeons (RCS), he is excluded from their rolls. The ‘house appointment’ may allude to Abdullah studying for his MRCS examinations in London, not an appointment per se. Abdullah’s move to London from Glasgow after graduation was a natural choice. Abdul was already in London, and it seems Khadijah’s brother, Mohamed and his family, disembarked in London on 9 October 1893 to provide their children with education following the raising of the colour bar.


2 thoughts on “How Scotland helped forge South Africa’s first elected black politician

  1. I took note of dr. Abdurahman as a result of a program on the TV channel KykNet. He not only was a city councillor for about 33 years but apparently also was part of the Cape Province provincial council in the Union of SA after 1910 at one stage. For those who don’t know, the Cape Province still allowed black people to take part in politics until the 1930’s for “blacks” and the 1950’s for “coloureds”. This was eventually stopped due to the expansion and intensification of the apartheid system.

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