The Jewel of District Six

Cissie Gool was a woman of action who walked the talk in taking up the struggle. Her podium was often the back of a truck, or a street corner. Many times she would be found leading a throng of marchers as she encouraged people to stand up and claim what was rightfully theirs. She once said; “Don’t watch the experiment; join the struggle; it’s yours, it’s mine; it’s ours. We shall resist.” From her childhood she had been exposed to politics and she was not one to back down from a fight, especially if it was in the cause of justice.

Zainunnisa ‘Cissie’ Gool’s early introduction to politics was through her mother Nellie James, a Scottish socialist as well as her father, Dr Abdullah Abdurahman who was born in Wellington in the Cape. He was a medical doctor who graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1893. Dr Abdurahman was a founding member and president of the African Political Organisation (APO) formed in 1902. The APO made an outstanding contribution to South African politics of resistance. Nellie Abdurahman was the founder and president of the APO Women’s Guild. The Kimberley African League in the 1880s and the APO in 1902, were the first political organisations to use the term African to describe themselves and their members who were mostly the descendants of slaves, migrants and indigene Khoena, whom colonial bureaucrats labelled as ‘Coloured’.

In 1904 Dr Abdurahman became the first black person to be elected to the Cape Town City Council, at a time when some white councilors were reluctant to even sit next to ‘coloured’ people. He remained a city councilor up to the time of his death when black people still had limited franchise.

Leading the Next Generation

Dr Abdurahman was also a member of the Cape Provincial Council from 1914 until his death in 1940. He championed the interests of the poor working people of Cape Town and opposed segregation, white domination and racism. But Dr Abdurahman’s style of politics faded in the face of a younger and more forceful generation who went beyond gentlemanly sparring, campaigning and petitioning within the confines of the colonial political framework. At the head of this generation was Dr Abdurahman’s daughter Zainunissa Abdurahman, fondly known by all as ‘Cissie’ or ‘Onse Cissie’ (Our Sister). Cissie Abdurahman had Indian, Southeast Asian and Scottish roots. In the 1950s she once told a journalist that she celebrated her diverse roots:

It has enriched me. If my father had not had the opportunity of meeting my mother, I would not be here to answer your question.

The statement was also recognition of the powerful influence of her mother in her life. Many simplistically saw her as her father’s daughter. She was proud of her multiple roots.

Cissie’s grandfather, Abdul Rahman, was able to be sent by her great-grandfather Abdul Jamalee and her great-grandmother Betsy to study theology at Al Azhar University in Cairo, one of the most prestigious centres of learning at the time. Abdul Rahman returned to Cape Town to settle in Wellington and he married Khadija Dollie and had five children. Abdul also had a few other children outside of the marriage to Khadija. Abdullah was one of three sons of Abdul and Khadija who practiced medicine.

Cissie’s great-grandparents had been slaves. Her great-grandfather Abdul Jamalee did extra paid work on the side and saved his money so that he could purchase both his and his wife Betsy’s freedom from slavery. The couple subsequently worked hard to establish a small business together. It was a shop at the corner of Roeland and Hope Streets in Cape Town. The business had very humble beginnings in a converted house. Above the door, painted on the back of a tin tray, was the name ‘Betsy Fruiterers’.

From being slaves Abdul and Betsy were able to become very successful fresh produce business owners. It was through this enterprise that the next two generations of Abdurahmans were able to get the best education. Abdullah studied first at the Dutch Reformed Mission Church School, the Pauw Gedenkskool in Wellington, then at Marist Brothers, a private Roman Catholic School. He went on to matriculate at the prestigious South African College School (SACS), which was the origins of the University of Cape Town.

When Cissie’s father went to Glasgow and graduated as a doctor in 1893 and returned to Cape Town in 1895 he set up a medical practice which continued until 1930. It was in Scotland that Adbdullah met Cissie’s mother, Helen Potter James, known as Nellie. She was the daughter of Mr John Cumming James, a Glasgow solicitor who played a remarkable political role in Scotland where he had worked to secure free and compulsory education for children. Nellie James, a socialist, carried this same sense of social responsibility. This attracted the attention of Abdullah. In South Africa, Nellie Abdurahman became a campaigner for the rights of the underprivileged alongside her husband. The young couple settled in a house off Mount Street, at Castle Bridge in District Six.

Cissie as a leading light of the next generation, was the first black woman to gain a Master’s degree at the University of Cape Town.

Many Female Mentors

Zainunnisa ‘Cissie’ and Waradea ‘Rosie’ were the two daughters born of the marriage between Abdullah and Nellie before their marriage ended in divorce in 1923. Dr Abdurahman married again, to Margaret Stansfield in 1925, and they moved to Kloof Street in Cape Town. Cissie was married and studying at university by that time. Abdullah and Margaret had three children; a daughter Begum, and two sons, Abdullah jnr and Nizamodien.

Zainunnisa ‘Cissie’ Abdurahman was the younger daughter of Nellie and Abdullah born on 6 November in 1897. Their home in District Six, known as the Abdurahman Lodge, was always a hive of activity. Amongst the diverse leading political figures of the time to regularly visit her home were Hadji Ojer Ally, Ghandi, John Tobin, Clements Kadalie and Matthew Fredericks. These men played outstanding roles in the emergent APO. Some of them had roles in the early Congress Movement that would give birth to the South African Indian Congress and the African National Congress (ANC). White politicians such as J X Merriman and J H Hofmeyr also visited the Abdurahman home. Leading female political personalities of the day and her amazing mother, Nellie, were the most important mentoring figures in the lives of Cissie and Rosie. Amongst these women were the writer Olive Schreiner, Indian leader Sarojini Naidu and the young Latvian activist, Rachel Alexander.

When Dr Abdul Gool and Cissie were married, Sarojini Naidu was hosted by them in their home. The Gool home continued the tradition of holding regular Thursday evening political discussions and having an ‘open house’ for debate and exchange that first started in the Abdurahman house.

Nellie played a strong role in Cissie’s political development and it is from her mother that she received her early socialist development and mentorship. Her mother served on the Cape Town and Wynberg General Board of Aid, the Ratepayer’s Association, the Women’s Municipal Association, the Women’s Enfranchisement League and later on the National Liberation League Finance Committee. Nellie Abdurahman was passionate about equality in education and social justice.

Nellie Abdurahman was the founding President of the APO Women’s Guild in 1909 – a body overlooked by most historians. Within two years of Nellie Abdurahman starting the APO Women’s Guild in her home, it grew to have over 70 branches. Nellie was highly active in broader politics, particularly in the advancement of education and was nominated in 1928 to serve on the city council but was not elected. Nellie was also highly active in the women’s suffrage movement, with Olive Schreiner. It was thus her mother’s influence as a female activist and president of the APO Women’s Guild that led to Cissie associating herself with the APO in the 1920s and writing a women’s column for its newspaper.

UCT & Sam Kahn

After first registering at the University of Cape Town in 1917, Cissie spent a while navigating around different study programmes and also got involved the radical bohemian circles of the university. Here she met European socialists like Lancelot Hogben and the Trotskyite Frederick Bodmer and made first contact with communists. It was also here that she first met Sam Kahn a Jewish student doing law at UCT. He was president of the debating society, the law society and chair of the Jewish Students Association. In 1932 Sam Kahn joined the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) and later served as a City Councilor. In 1948 Sam Kahn was elected to Parliament as the communist representative for Africans. He was expelled from his seat in Parliament in 1952. Sam Kahn was to become a lifelong comrade and friend of Cissie, and later became her lover and campanero.

In later years Nellie, Cissie’s mother, became far more radical than her husband and embraced the emergent liberation politics of their children’s generation. It is from Nellie that Cissie developed her socialist leanings which led her to join the CPSA in 1933, after being introduced to it by Ray Alexander and Johnny Gomas. At a time when the CPSA was completely reshaped, she served on the Political Bureau (or Politburo) which was the executive committee of the CPSA. Cissie remained in the CPSA until its dissolution and when it re-emerged as an underground organisation she became a clandestine member of the redefined SACP. It is interesting to note that many popular biographical briefs attempt to completely airbrush out the script of this central element of her life, which defines her contribution to the liberation struggle.

In 1919 Cissie married Dr Abdul Hamid Gool, then active in South African Indian politics and also a member of the APO. Abdul and Cissie had three children in their 14-year marriage – Rustum, Marcina, and Shaheen. Throughout her marriage and motherhood Cissie persevered with her studies and in 1933 Cissie became the first black woman to obtain a master’s degree in psychology at UCT. Three years later, in 1936, Cissie Gool separated from Dr Abdul Gool, leaving him to cohabit with Sam Kahn, a move that many saw as scandalous. The Gools formally divorced in 1942.

District Six – A Political Hotbed

While they were married, the Gool’s house in Searle Street, District Six, hosted weekly meetings of left politicos and trades union activists and fellow travelers. Those who attended talks and get- togethers, whether as speakers or audience, cut across the divide of liberal, Marxist-Leninist, Trotskyite, Stalinist, et al. Present at the Searle Street gatherings were artists like Gregoire Boozaaier and painters like Frieda Locke brushing shoulders with political protagonists Sam Kahn, IB Tabata and Moses Kotane who often, like Cissie, crossed swords with the grand old liberal Dr Abdurahman in the living room. They also joined spirited trades unionists like Ray Alexander and Eddie Roux in evaluating the role of organised labour in the struggle. It was in this spirit and climate that Cissie Gool developed her ability to work closely with others of different political persuasions, particularly on the far left of the political spectrum.

Indeed Cissie Gool became a major force in united front politics. But this did not mean that she did not engaged in a deep critique of the ideological rigidity of the far left.

Dr Abdul Gool was highly and passionately involved in the politics of the South African Indian Congress (SAIC). Cissie’s brother-in-law Goolam Gool and Jainab Gool were leading proponents of the Trotskyite Workers Party of South Africa and although it was tough going, Cissie engaged in cooperative political endeavours with them between 1935 and 1942, based on her passionate belief in forwarding a united front.

With the emergence of the Non-European Unity Movement with Goolam Gool, Jane Gool and IB Tabata leading its thrust, Cissie Gool parted ways with their narrower concept of ‘ideological purism as being the only basis for unity’. She believed this approach was schismatic and divisive in terms of

Cissie’s strategy to unite a broad front, not on ideological grounds, but on a broad common-interest focus.

Building A United Front

In the disenchantment and swing away from the Cape Liberal paternalistic political tradition a trend began in Cape politics which has continued since. Radicalism became an end in itself and a bizarre competitiveness emerged where each proponent wanted to postulate as more radical and purer in their beliefs.

In contrast, Cissie Gool’s political standard was to build unity and focus on key issues of concern to the majority of black working people and to extend this unity to include other class forces and formations which shared an interest in halting the progress of the neo-Nazi path down which the South African government was rapidly going. The ultra-radical and schismatic approach of some of her initial allies dogged her every move. Cissie however became adept at disarming this tendency and still managed to draw in diverse opponents of South Africa’s ‘new right’. It however, left her open to criticism of ‘ideological incorrectness’ and being ‘tainted’ from both the vociferous Workers Party of South Africa and sometimes from some in her own South African Communist Party or SACP.

Cissie Gool went through three graduations to come into her own as a formidable politician. She first had to throw off the powerful Abdurahman brand of her father and effectively moved on when she married Dr Gool. But her husband and his broader family’s politics also smothered Cissie who rapidly outgrew its narrow confines. Both of these were graduations of a sort – from the patriarchy of the men in her life. Then there was the graduation from the boxed-in world of the University of Cape Town which offered an exceptional education, but which came with other shackles of Cape paternal liberalism and colonialism which restricted the free thinking of an anti-colonialist.

Cissie Gool found that she had a public voice which appealed to the people, after her first major address on women’s enfranchisement in 1930. She was protesting the fact that only white women had secured the right to vote. What made Cissie different to many others was first demonstrated at this meeting. She got to a point in her speech when she said; ‘talk was not good enough’ and urging the people to follow her, she immediately led them in an impromptu march to parliament to confront Hertzog and his ministers.

Cissie Gool, her mother Nellie and a young communist Latvian immigrant whom Cissie had befriended, Ray Alexander, a trades unionist, participated in many public meetings following that march to parliament, demanding the vote for all women.

Meeting Ray Alexander

Cissie was introduced to the feisty 17-year-old communist immigrant when Alexander stood up in the audience of a meeting at the Cape Town City Hall in 1930. The focus was the racist exclusion of black women from the franchise. Alexander said she thought the speaker had erred by omission. The speaker on the platform was none other than Sarojini Naidu, a renowned leader in the Indian National Congress of India. Cissie was chairing the meeting to which Alexander had been brought by Johnny Gomas and was so impressed with the young woman that she invited Ray Alexander to join her on the platform and later at her home.

Nellie Abdurahman allowed young Ray Alexander to use her home for meetings and to put up many a comrade who was ‘just passing through’, engaged in union or party work. Dr Abdul Gool in turn became Alexander’s doctor and soon young Ray was bringing him a constant stream of workers and trades union and party activists for various ‘pro-bono’ medical attention.

‘Aunty’ Ray as she would later be called by one and all, went on to become one of the most well known and loved trades unionists in South Africa, laying the foundations for almost every modern trade union organisation that exists today. She outlived Cissie by over 40 years and often spoke about their work together. Ray and Cissie had a tremendous influence on each other even although at times they too

disagreed passionately. The camaraderie of the various women in her life was most instrumental in moulding Cissie Gool as she blossomed in the mid 1930s.

By 1933 Cissy Gool had formally joined the Communist Party of South Africa into which she had been inducted over the previous three years by Johnny Gomas, and through the inspirational influence of Ray Alexander. By 1938 the CPSA took a decision to temporarily move its executive to Cape Town and by that time Cissie Gool along with Ray Alexander, Jack Simons, Sam Kahn, Johnny Gomas, and James la Guma were on the executive known as the Political Bureau, along with Bill Andrews as Chairman and Moses Kotane as general secretary. Effectively the seat of the CPSA executive thereafter never moved away from Cape Town right through to the banning of the CPSA. When one looks at the CPSA documents which came out of the Political Bureau at this time, one sees a qualitative change and Cissie’s united front against fascism and for land, equality and freedom shines through strongly.

Communist Allies

In 1935 Cissie Gool worked closely with a group of communists including two who had what can be called an ‘early black consciousness’ orientation – Johnny Gomas and James la Guma. On 1 December 1935, Emancipation from Slavery day, Cissie Gool launched the National Liberation League (NLL) and became its first president. The NLL was a united front movement which called for a political alliance of all the oppressed against the common enemy, the ‘white capitalist imperialist’. It adopted as its emblem a black slave with severed chains, holding aloft a flaming torch, with the slogan, ‘For equality, land and freedom’. This was the first and only time that the slavery roots of the people of Cape Town was used in a significant manner and it was a proud moment in that this was one of the most important formations in South African history.

This moment built on the foundation of the 1808 Slave Revolt led by Louis van Mauritius and Abraham van der Kaap which ended with South Africa’s largest treason trial ever and the execution of Louis and the other leaders. Twenty years later the second largest treason trial occurred in our history, and 156 activists were put on trial. The symbolism of the NLL in drawing on liberation from slavery and giving it greater meaning in the broader liberation struggle was powerful. Cissie Gool was instrumental in the NLL foundation and she was elected as president of the National Liberation League for the cause of land, equality and freedom.

The NLL was a clear break with the moderate liberal traditional framework which until then had dominated resistance politics in the Cape. This changed the political paradigm of resistance politics in the Western Cape and eclipsed the ICU and APO as the previous dominant forces which were now in rapid decline. With the rising spectre of fascism in Europe, the civil war in Spain and the knock-on influence of this around the globe, Cissie Gool, Dr Abdul Gool, Johnny Gomas, James la Guma, Sam Kahn and others had also taken the lead in establishing the Anti-Fascist League in the same year as a precursor in February to the launch of the NLL.

The National Liberation League, although with a strong communist party leadership, was a broadly left organisation which included left liberals, individual social democrats, Garveyists, Trotskyites of the Workers Party of South Africa led by Goolam Gool, and anyone dedicated to the cause of land, equality and freedom. Inevitably this would lead to internal conflicts particularly between WPSA Trotskyites and the others, but also between the very strong ‘black consciousness’ members and those who still had a strong belief that the white working class had a pivotal role to play in the struggle for a liberated

South Africa. The emphasis, it was argued, should be on class struggle rather than black liberation. On these matters even the leading communist party members were also divided and up to this point there were serious schisms within the CPSA leading to expulsions and even collapse in some regions. Cissie Gool had her work cut out for her in trying to hold all of the different tendencies and complex relationships together in the United Front around the three key focus issues – land, equality and freedom.

Organisations like the APO and the ICU, which had recently ejected communists and other left orientated members from its ranks, were now being eclipsed by the NLL and the new industrial unions and its umbrella body the 158,000 strong Council of Non-European Trades Unions. The petitioning and softly-softly approach to resistance was transformed fundamentally by the NLL platform which first introduced the political notion of a national liberation movement onto the South African scene, as different to the reform movement which had dominated the political terrain until this point. This was a major turning point in South African history and Cissie Gool was at the helm. It would set the path for the next 60 years of the national liberation struggle. These unfolding events deeply influenced the CPSA across the country and it impacted on the African National Congress whose Youth League in 1949 radically transformed the organisation.

A second turning point in South African politics that has already been raised and which also had Cissie Gool at its centre as a driving force, was the introduction of the political concept of an ‘Alliance’ or ‘United Front’. The united front concept arose in the Spanish resistance and more sharply in Nazi Germany and the European countries most threatened by German expansion and found its clearest articulation through the ideas of Georgi Dimitriov. At the 7th Comintern in Moscow in 1935 Dimitriov expounded on the need for a global united anti-fascist front and this became official party policy. The CPSA was to put maximum effort into the NLL, the All-African Convention and the ANC with the aim of building a broad united front. This concept would play a major role in the 1950s and again in the 1980s and would remain a dominant feature in South African politics right into the 21st century. In 1938, Cissy Gool was elected as president of the Non-European United Front, formed to coordinate organisations into an anti-imperialist liberation front that brought a range of organisations together. These groups sought to bring ‘Coloured’, Indian and indigene African political formations under a common umbrella. In 1943 Cissy Gool became a national executive member of the Anti-Coloured Affairs Department Organisation (anti-CAD). The CAD was a hated apartheid government department. Thereafter she served on the leadership of the Cape Passive Resistance Council and later in the 1950s on the Franchise Action Council.

Cissie Gool, despite the criticism from some on the right and from those on the WPSA left, worked tirelessly as the president of the United Front to hold the different forces together and to focus on action. Standing together were the African National Congress, the APO, the Cape ICU, the CPSA, the emergent industrial trades union movement, the WPSA and any other progressive organisation which threw their weight behind the strikes, boycotts and mass demonstration action under the United Front Campaign. In the mid 1930s there was a strong focus against the Hertzog Bills which was a concerted effort to remove even the very small vestiges of political rights of black South Africans. These bills established the first foundations of the Apartheid system which was introduced in 1948 after the National Party came to power.

Cissie and many of her comrades across the left could see that the South African state was following the same path as fascist Spain, Italy and Germany. The NEUF, formed in 1938, was a broad front which should not be confused with the Non-European Unity Movement formed five years later. The NEUM formed in 1943 as a federal body with a ten-point programme and was closely associated with one faction within the Anti-Coloured Affairs Department organisation, the All-African Convention and the Anti-Segregation Council. While Cissie Gool also played an executive leadership role in the Anti-CAD, she and many others were opposed to the factional approach by Trotskyites in the organisation which had a narrow ideological view towards organisation of opposition voices. The anti-CAD organisation went on to become the anti-Coloured Advisory Council (anti-CAC) and was eclipsed by the NEUM.

Political Infighting

The original attempt at a new united front in the form of the NEUM in which Goolam Gool’s WPSA played a leading role, went down a path of again splitting into two groups based on more narrow divergent ideological variants, leading first to dysfunction and then to some limited revival as the Unity Movement, in later years. Even later, the trend emerged again in the 1990s as the Workers Organisation for Socialist action with a similar platform to the WPSA fifty years earlier. But the NEUM story is a story in its own right.

It is however, important to note that following the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950 which had a devastating effect on the lives of communists like Cissie Gool, the government in 1951 introduced the Separate Representation of Voters Bill intended to remove coloured voters from the voters’ roll. The Franchise Action Committee (FRAC) was established to oppose the government’s new move and drew together a cross-section of civil society organisations including white supporters such as the anti- fascist ex-servicemen of the Torch Commando, the Springbok Legion which organised left-wing servicemen and the Civil Rights League. Leading communists such as Cissie Gool, Johnny Gomas, Reg September, and Sam Kahn together with others from the left ex-servicemen’s organisation the Springbok Legion were at the forefront of the campaign.

Mass Rallies

The moderate-liberal and pro United Party (UP) organisation, the Coloured Peoples National Union also participated in the FRAC campaign against the disenfranchisement of ‘coloured’ voters. Huge rallies of over 10 000 people and dramatic marches took place together with signature campaigns and days of ‘stay-away’ from work. There had never before been such a successful mobilisation of a cross- section of South African society on a broad anti-government political platform.

The NEUM took a very narrow anti-collaboration approach which attacked this unique broad front and forwarded an aggressive and derogatory critique of the ANC and the by now outlawed communists as being ‘opportunist’ for cooperating or collaborating with moderate ‘coloured’ organisations such as the Coloured Peoples National Union and white liberal organisations.

Cissie Gool, the tactician, was dismayed at the immaturity in the NEUM and its failure to see their attacks as playing into the hands of a government that had just banned and isolated communists and that now had the ANC, the trades unions and allied organisational formations in its sites. The lessons of the defeat of the left republic by the fascists in Spain and the rise of the Nazis had not been grasped as Trotskyites and Anarchists in South Africa acted out the same disastrous path as their European counterparts. For Reg, theirs was pretty much an import of discredited and failed European political ideas embraced as a trendy radicalism among middle class intellectual elements.

The disenfranchisement of the ‘coloured’ voters was preceded by the Suppression of Communism Act which would lead to decades of a reign of terror by the Apartheid police state on left and national liberation formations and individuals. The hard work put into the broad united front campaign of FRAC had fizzled out by 1953 and this type of broad front would only reappear again in the 1980s in the form of the United Democratic Front and the Mass Democratic movement. A powerful alliance of like- minded organisations, rather than a ‘Front’, was able to come together in 1955 as the Congress of the People, and the Freedom Charter was adopted.

City Councilor

The CPSA reconstituted as the underground South African Communist Party in 1953 but decided not to make any public statements and rather work through other formations and fronts. Only in 1960 did it once more start making public statements.

With one foot in the most progressive formations of her day, Cissy Gool had her other foot in mainstream electoral politics too and was elected to the Cape Town City Council, as Woodstock Ward 7 councilor in 1938. She was the first black woman to become a City Councilor and served until her death in 1963. For this too, the radical far left criticised her and labelled her as a ‘reformist’.

Reg September, one of the founders of the South African Coloured People’s Congress, elaborated on how Cissie Gool firmly believed in using any political space which afforded an opportunity to win gains for working people. She also rejected the sometimes religious style of armchair revolutionary intellectual arguments that were popular in the radical chic middle-class bohemian circles where people often invoked the words ‘working class’ with much revolutionary rhetoric but had no real meaningful contact with working people, the unemployed, and the poor. Cissie Gool often spoke about engaging in action rather than talk. She urged people to ‘walk the talk’ and became irritated with the text-book revolutionaries who never outgrew the politics of her student days. She instead turned to organic revolutionaries who emerged from the working classes and the dispossessed poor, that were coming to the fore in the trades union movement and through the CPSA structures and night schools.