Ottoman descendants from South Africa apply for ancestral Turkish citizenship after 150 years

Ottoman descendants from South Africa apply for ancestral Turkish citizenship after 150 years

Families of Ottoman origin in South Africa have decided to apply for Turkish citizenship after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan showed interest in Africa’s Ottoman legacy. More than a hundred family members with the surnames Effendi, Pasha, Patel, Amjadi and Remzi Bey have already applied for Turkish citizenship. In the Ottoman era, their great grandfathers such as Abu Bakr Effendi and some other envoys were sent to South Africa as diplomats or religious guides to educate local Muslims at the tip of Southern Africa.

Who is Abu Bakr Effendi?

The first religious guide sent to South Africa was Professor Abu Bakr Effendi from Erzurum. Abu Bakr Effendi came to South Africa in 1863 and established a religious school at the Cape of Good Hope. As a multilingual scholar, he easily learned English and Afrikaans to communicate with the local inhabitants.

He was married twice in Cape Town, first with Rukiye Maker, then, after his divorce in 1866, with Tahora Saban (née Cook), who was from the well-known family of Captain James Cook. Abu Bakr Effendi had one son from Rukiye Maker, Ahmet Ataullah, who became the first Muslim politician in South Africa. Ahmet Ataullah educated his nephew Dr Abdullah Abdurrahman before leaving South Africa for Turkey. Ahmet Ataullah was appointed as the first Ottoman Consul-General in Singapore and died there. His son Rushdi Ataullah became the first colored aviator and his daughter Havva Khayrunnisa became the first Muslim medical doctor in the history of South Africa. Abu Bakr Effendi’s second marriage with Tahora was a fruitful one, and they had 5 children; one daughter and four sons. Tahora became the headmistress the first Islamic school for girls opened by Effendi in Cape Town. She is known to have been one of the first female teachers in the history of South Africa. This serves as evidence that Abu Bakr Effendi also educated his wife and appointed her as a teacher at the school. When Abu Bakr Effendi died in 29th of June 1880, he left considerable estates to his children.

The Legacy of Abu Bakr Effendi in South Africa

Theologian Abu Bakr Effendi played a crucial role in the development of the Muslim identity in the South African Islamic Society. Abu Bakr Effendi introduced the Ottoman fez for Muslim males and the hijab for Muslim females in South Africa.

Effendi’s religious book entitled “Beyan ud Din” is regarded as one of the first Arabic-Afrikaans books in the history of South Africa. His contribution to Cape Afrikaans is well preserved in the Afrikaans Taal Museum in Paarl and in the Huguenot Museum in Franschhoek. Historian Ahmed Davids stated that, “No doubt, Abu Bakr Effendi was an exceptional linguist.”

One of his students, Abdulrakip Abdulrauf, became the Imam of the Nurul Islam Masjid in Bo-Kaap. His other student, Muhammed Dollie, established a mosque in London. According to local newspapers in South Africa, many students of Abu Bakr Effendi became professors of Islamic Studies in Mecca around the 1890s.

Another Ottoman Scholar: Mahmud Fakih Effendi

To continue these educational activities in South Africa, the Ottoman Empire subsequently sent other scholars to South Africa to educate people. One student of Abu Bakr Effendi, Mahmud Fakih Effendi, who became a professor of Islam and taught thousands of students, not only at his school in Castle Street, but also in his residence in 71 Wale Street until his death 1913.  His house is now the Bo-Kaap Museum. The museum, at 71 Wale Street, is a Cape Town cultural landmark and is housed in the oldest building in the Bo-Kaap.

Dr Halim Gençoĝlu (African Studies) spent months in the Turkish and Cape’s archives to set the historical record straight about the rightful owners of 71 Wale Street, now home to the Bo-Kaap Museum.

The legacy of Abu Bakr Effendi also catalyzed solidarity between Turkey and South Africa. In 1912, while the Ottoman army was trying to protect Libya against Italy, South African Muslims gathered donations to support the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, some South African Muslim leaders offered to join the Ottoman army in Libya.

During the First World War, his grandchildren left South Africa for Turkey and fought against the British Empire in the Ottoman army in Gallipoli, Damascus and Kut al Amara. After the war they went back to South Africa where they were born and lived as Ottoman descendants.

South African local newspapers from 1913 mention the First Colored Pilot, Rushdi Ataullah. They also include news about South African Muslims donating money to the Ottoman army in Libya.

Even long after the decline of the Ottoman Empire, South African Muslims sent donations to the Republic of Turkey for the victims of an earthquake in the city of Erzincan in 1939. The esteem and amicable relations between both territories could in part be attributed to the legacy that Abu Bakr Effendi bequeathed in Southern Africa.

Ottoman Families in South Africa Trace Back to Their Ancestral Heritage

There are many academics, writers, judges, medical doctors and politicians among the Ottoman families. They would like to strengthen the relationships between Turkey and South Africa. The Minister of Economic Development in South Africa, Ebrahim Patel, is one of the great grandsons of Abu Bakr Effendi. As inhabitants in South Africa and Ottoman descendants, they wish to revive the legacy in both countries. Hesham Neamatollah Effendi says that “it is my dream to go to Turkey with the Turkish passport, the crescent moon and star on.” Another great grandson of Abu Bakr Effendi, Rustu Guven Atala, said: “I am very excited to take back my Turkish heritage.” According to some of the family members, their intention is not to migrate to Turkey 150 years after their forefathers moved to the African continent, but rather to renew and catalyze the good relations between Turkey and South Africa.

Halim Gençoğlu
Historian Halim Gençoğlu is the author of four books and several articles in African Studies. He was born in Turkey in 1981. After his Bachelor's degree in Historical Studies, he completed his second Master’s degree in Religious Studies and Doctoral Studies in Hebrew Language and Literature at the University of Cape Town. Dr Gençoğlu continues his academic research as a postdoctoral fellow in Afro-Asian Studies and contract staff in African Studies at the University of Cape Town.

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