My unbrilliant career

My high school grades were good enough to secure a place in medicine at UCT.  But I didn’t want to be a doctor.  Nor an engineer or a scientist.  A BA was too soft an option and law meant another year of Latin.  Architecture required skills in drawing I did not possess.  That left a Bachelor of Business Science degree.

With lectures from 8.30 am to 1 pm and practicals or tutorials most afternoons, the first six months of my program were full on.   I would have finished classes at noon if the Maths lecturer assigned to the course – a PhD who taught at breakneck speed – hadn’t lost me after a week.  I’d heard about another lecturer, a lesser qualified person but with a good reputation for teaching.  So every day I pitched up at Dr Becker’s class to sign the attendance register and a few hours later joined Mr Strong’s to learn calculus.

Unfettered by school uniforms, rules and regulations, I started to experiment.   After tipping a bottle of peroxide over my head I waited to see if there was any truth in the notion that gentlemen preferred blondes.  It wasn’t long before my roots started to show and I had to decide between topping up the colour or abandoning my research.  Over the four months that it took the dye to grow out, I lived with the ignominy of two-tone hair.

It seemed that all the cool people lit up.  As I joined their ranks, I learnt how to blow rings and flick ash like a pro.  Smoking didn’t make any difference to my popularity so before the year was out I gave up my five-a-day habit.

Most lunch times I spent at the main canteen in the Otto Beit Building, a cavern-like space with dark wood panelling that reverberated to the sound of the latest pop hits.  The menu would have made a dietitian’s liver quiver.  The outcomes included letting out a notch in my pants’ waist and adding another to the totem pole of my dwindling self-esteem.

The canteen was also where I started to form bonds with students on my course.  Like the joke-cracking Boris Savvas who, due to an error in registering his birth name, was officially known as Voris.  His laconic mate Dimitri Coutras, the always grinning Eli Rabinowitz and his lanky pal Phillip Levy, and the sweet Vicki Palte who invited me to her wedding.  There were others I admired from a distance, like June Rabinowitz who not only excelled at Economics, but had a slim figure, long straight hair and a boyfriend.

On the first day of class the Economics lecturer, Myra Mark, had said, ‘look to the left, look to the right; one of you will not pass at the end of the year’.  As I struggled to understand the theory of the firm and that countries could spend themselves out of trouble, I saw myself becoming one of the 133 students who would not progress to Economics 2.  Feedback on early assignments reinforced this.  Half way through the year I approached a final-year student for help; in the space of a few sessions, Laurence Tyfield did what my lecturers and tut masters couldn’t: he unlocked the door on understanding.  My grades improved, along with my self-esteem.  By the end of the year my marks were into the 70 per cent range and when I saw the questions on the exam paper, I was confident that I would pass.

I was at an inter-varsity swimming competition in Durban when the results started to trickle in.  In June I’d scraped over the line in the Maths.  Statistics, which replaced it in the second half of the year, was a complete mystery.  The fail was a fait accompli but as long as I got through the rest, I would still be on the course.   Three more results came in, all passes.  On the drive back to Cape Town – I think we were somewhere between East London and Port Elizabeth – I phoned home to get my Economics results.  I don’t remember who it was that broke the news.  I was devastated.

I went to see Brian Kantor, then a senior lecturer in the School of Economics.  The conversation went something like this.
‘Could you please tell me where I went wrong in the exam, so that I can focus on areas of weakness’, I asked.
‘I am sorry, but the rules do not allow me to tell you that’, he said.
‘So can you tell me what my mark was?’
‘No, I can’t do that.’
‘Was it a long way off a pass?’
‘Below 40 per cent?’
‘Uh hm.’

Mom offered to use influence with the Dean, Leonidas Kritzinger, whose two sons she had mentored in swimming.  Even if this could have kept me on the course, I didn’t want the burden of expectation that would come with it.  Besides which, I felt that the system had betrayed me.

The following year I switched to a BA and completed it and an honours year without incident.  In the last year of my Masters in planning, I failed another subject which – like Economics six years before – came with no advance warning.   I was given the opportunity to redeem myself by completing a six-month project,  overseen by a lecturer who communicated solely by mail.  The notes were savage and, a few months into the project, one of them declared that I was going to fail.  As the prospect of a career slipped from my grasp, I was ready for my mother to use influence.

A little while back I pulled out my UCT academic transcripts.  There were a few grades in the 60 to 69% range, but more were in the range below.  I see this as a reflection of prevailing teaching methods and my level of maturity.  Indeed, later study has confirmed that I was capable of doing better.  But who cares?  Beyond establishing that I am degree-qualified, capable of doing the work and easy to get along with, no employer has ever asked for a dissection of my university results.  I would be concerned if they did.



View of the western half of UCTs first campus

Western half of UCT’s first campus (Walker, The SA College and the University of Cape Town: 1829-1929)



As I approached the security door of Meulenhof in January 2013, I took a deep breath.  It had taken three months and a fair amount of prodding to get a response from Lionel Smidt, the archivist in charge of UCT’s administrative records.  Ten days before I was due to board a flight to South Africa, he let me know that he’d set aside the class registers in which Harry’s name appeared.  I could view these at the Main Road, Mowbray location anytime during office hours.

The previous September, his manager had given me a precis of the records.  So I already knew that they did not line up with what Dad had told me.


South Africa’s oldest university started life in 1829 as the South African College, a private high school for boys.  Located in Orange Street next to the South African Museum and the old Company Gardens, the College had a small tertiary education facility which, for the first few decades of its existence, struggled to find its feet.

In 1873 the Cape Government established the first university in the subcontinent, the University of the Cape of Good Hope, headquartered in Cape Town.  This body was limited to setting examinations and awarding degrees; the business of teaching and preparing students for exams was left to colleges like the SAC.

In 1874 the SAC was separated into the College – which was to become the University of Cape Town – and the College school, the forerunner of the South African College Schools or SACS.

The discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and gold on the Witwatersrand provided the impetus for more substantial growth of the SAC from 1880.  With government support and private funding, it evolved into a fully fledged university during the last 20 years of the nineteenth century.  Science laboratories were built and the Departments of Mineralogy and Geology created to address the demand for skilled people in the diamond and gold fields.

In 1886, four women were admitted into the SAC’s chemistry class on a trial basis.  The following year, in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, it was decided to admit women students permanently.  In the same year the first residence for male students, College House, was opened.

In 1890, law classes were re-instituted – the first Professor of Law, JH Brand, had left his post in 1863 to become President of the Orange Free State – and over the next six years Chairs in Applied Mathematics, Physics, Mineralogy and Geology, and Hebrew were established.  By 1900 more than 200 students were taking university courses at the SAC.

The SAC continued to grow after the turn of the century and, by the end of 1905, there was a push to raise it to full university status so that it could set exams and confer degrees in its own right.  This may have happened sooner if not for the political unification of South Africa in 1910, which shifted the focus on the SAC’s future status from a regional to a national one.  It was Rhodes who, in 1891, had first flagged the idea of establishing a single, national university on his estate at Groote Schuur where English and Afrikaans speakers could mix during their student years, creating the basis for future co-operation.  Two of his former associates, German-born financiers Otto Beit and Sir Julius Wernher, had agreed to redirect the late Alfred Beit’s[i] bequest of £200,000 for a university in Johannesburg to this national project, together with a further £300,000.  The funding was conditional on the university being residential in character, open to English and Dutch speakers, and having a launch date of 1916.  The South African College was formally incorporated into the University of Cape Town on 2 April 1918 and 10 years later the bulk of its facilities relocated to the university’s current site on the slopes of Devils Peak.


To get to the front door of Meulenhof I first had to pass through the sliding steel gate of the Forest Hill apartment complex.  This six-building development went up in the 1960s, replacing a brickworks that had included an old Dutch kiln.  The only memory of that time is a mural etched into the front façade of the building; in my quest to find the records office, I walked past without noticing it.

Lionel had gone to some trouble on my account.  On a large timber table were laid out the original SAC class registers from 1892-1898, tagged at the relevant pages.  He had also assembled a few history books for me, including Eric Walker’s excellent The SA College and the University of Cape Town: 1829-1929 upon which I’ve relied for the history of the SAC.

The registers were bound in hard cover, and the 1897 version was held together by a leather spine.  The covers showed the effects of handling and storage, their edges frayed and front faces pockmarked with holes, ink stains and blotches; one looked as if it had suffered fire damage.  I inquired about gloves and was told that there were none.  I pulled out my camera, eased open the first register and started clicking.

The pages were divided into rows and columns with neat, handwritten entries by student name and subjects taken.  Every so often a female stood out, marked by the word ‘miss’ or her first name.  Also included were addresses of next of kin.  While I was disappointed to see a post office box number for Sarah Edleman, it did tell me that somewhere in the preceding three years the family had left Kimberley for Johannesburg.

Harry’s core subjects were Latin, Greek, English and Dutch; it would be more than 20 years before Afrikaans was recognised as an official language.  While these subjects may have contributed to a career in the law, they were not part of a law degree: when he graduated in 1898, it was with a BA Literature.  A qualification in law would come later.

[i]               Older brother of Otto Beit, gold and diamond magnate in South Africa, and a major donor to university education and research.


Among the multi-coloured houses in Wale Street, we’re looking for one painted blue.  From the kitchen of this house in Cape Town’s Bo-kaap district, Gamidah Jacobs runs cooking classes on the food of her people.  On this warm day in January 2013, she is wearing a sleeveless dress whose colours are as vivid as the exterior of her house; a blue scarf wound loosely around her head makes a half-hearted attempt to conceal her hair.  For the next three hours, she will lead us through a few Cape Malay favourites.  I grew up with all of them.


The handful of blocks wedged between Cape Town’s central business district and the upper slopes of Signal Hill are defined by narrow streets and buildings that borrow from Dutch and Georgian architecture; they form the largest intact collection of buildings in South Africa dating from the early 1700s.  The people who live there are descended from a mix of Indonesians, Sri Lankans, Indians and Malaysians, brought by force to the Cape as skilled labour by the Dutch-East India Company in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  The area formerly known as the Malay Quarter became the traditional home of Cape Town’s Muslim population, surviving the push of apartheid that saw so many communities shunted off to other parts of the city.

A large east-facing sash window lets light into the kitchen.  Implements and ingredients have been set up on the counter top next to twin sinks.  A few weeks ago, I’d made a long-distance request for samoosas to be on the list of dishes.  If there is anything I miss about living abroad – apart from friends and family – it is the Cape samoosa: a triangle of crisp fried pastry stuffed with spiced chicken, meat or vegetable filling.  Today we will learn how to make one of the most important – and difficult – components of this dish: the pastry.


I came by my first real job the hard way.  Having refused my mother’s offer to use ‘influence’ at the Cape Town City Council, I soon discovered what it was like to find work in an economic downturn.  Once the possibilities ran out I looked for diversions, one of which was scouring the peninsula for bargains.  My most memorable acquisition was a hand-operated coffee grinder I’d picked up at an antique shop in Muizenberg; it was a beautiful piece – all cast iron and curves – but its blades had seen better days.  When Mom offered me relief work at one of Dad’s consulting rooms, I didn’t resist.  For ten weeks, I fielded calls, mixed up medicines and batched pills; in between, I made tea and small talk with patients.  It was the first – and last – time the practice employed an office assistant with a master’s degree in town planning.

In the interim, I’d become aware of a three-month opportunity at the Divisional Council of the Cape.  The office was in Wale Street, a couple of blocks down the hill from the Malay Quarter, and a twenty-minute walk from our Tamboers Kloof apartment.  The pay was the equivalent of one-twentieth of what salaried town planners were starting on, but it was a foot in the door.  Every week I collected my $42.50 in a sealed envelope, bank notes stapled to the inside and coins jingling at the bottom.  Later on a permanent position became available and I worked there until we left South Africa in early 1981.

One of the staff, Maggie – short for Magodien – offered to give me his recipe for a traditional Cape Malay curry.  ‘You make it from scratch,’ he said, ‘and you can get all the spices at Atlas Trading Company.’


This family-owned business has been at 104 Wale Street since 1946.  Around the time that it opened its doors, a group of prominent citizens had started to campaign for the protection of the Malay Quarter.  Fifteen houses were restored with support from the Historical Monuments Commission and the City Council; in an odd twist the latter, which had bought up most of the land in the area, opposed preserving the district as a whole.  It was only after pressure from the Commission and public that the Council changed its mind and by the late 1970’s, restoration was well under way.

With Maggie’s recipe in my hand, I walked up to Atlas Trading Company in my lunch hour.  I picked up raw ginger and fresh chillies, spices and garlic.  That night I measured out quantities for two people.  I chopped, mixed, stirred and watched.  As the curry bubbled away, aromas filled our small kitchen.

The first mouthful was an explosion of flavours, the spices combining with the meat to produce a taste sensation that no ready-mix curry could replicate.  The second and third mouthfuls were as sublime.  By the fourth, tears were streaming down our faces and by the fifth we could take no more.  Yogurt and coconut did nothing to soothe our seared mouths and water only made things worse.

A few months later, I asked Maggie if he always ate such spicy food.  He laughed.  ‘Yes, I do,’ he said.   He also admitted to a stomach ulcer.  I played around with the recipe until I was satisfied with the balance between flavour and heat.  I still use it today, at around one-third of its original strength.


Mix two cups of plain flour with a pinch of salt and enough water to make a pliable dough.  Divided it into eight to ten portions the size of a tennis ball.  Roll each one flat to the size of a large side plate.  Sprinkle with oil and dust with a bit of flour, then cover it with the next ball that has been rolled flat.  Repeat the process until all the balls have been used up, making sure that there is no overlapping.  Roll the stack into a square the thickness of a pancake, turn and pull it into an oblong and roll to about 30 cm by 15 Place on a non-stick baking sheet – do not grease it – and bake at 180C for two minutes on either side.  Remove from the oven and separate the sheets while still hot.  Cut into strips about two fingers in width.  Take a strip and fold one end over until it forms a pocket.  Insert the filling of your choice into the pocket and continue folding until you reach the other end.  Secure the ends with a little flour mixed with water, repeat with the remaining strips and filling, and deep fry the samoosas until golden.




Statues, synagogues and schools

From its perch on Rugby Road, the statue looked out across the playing fields towards the Hottentots Holland Mountains. Behind it on the lower slopes of Devils Peak, rose up the elegant buildings of the University of Cape Town; the twin residences of Smuts and Fuller Halls, and behind them the Arts and Maths buildings, divided by a set of stairs that preserved a view to the temple-like Jameson Hall. The original bronze cast of the statue had faded to green, but the features of the seated man – his chin resting on his right hand – were unmistakable. Cecil John Rhodes’ gift of land had made possible the modern-day campus of the university, one of most magnificent sites in the world for a place of tertiary education.

Rhodes was as well-known for his philanthropy as his role in laying the groundwork for apartheid. More than a hundred years after his death the statue had become a festering sore, a symbol of the university’s Eurocentric focus as well as a reminder of inequality across the nation.  Faeces was thrown at it.  In the end it went, and the forces that campaigned for its removal sent waves of discontent across the Atlantic, one of which fetched up at the feet of Rhodes’ statue in front of Oriel College at Oxford, his alma mater. Oriel’s  Governing Body went the other way, qualifying its decision by saying that a clear historical context was needed to ‘draw attention to history, do justice to the complexity of the debate, and be true to our educational mission.’

It was on the diamond fields of Kimberley where Rhodes made his fortune. From 1871, he started buying up smaller diamond digging claims with his brother, Herbert, persuading local owners to part with their holdings through a series of treaties, concessions and charters. In 1888 these were amalgamated to form De Beers Consolidated Mines – destined to become the dominant player in the market for raw diamonds – with Rhodes at the helm. The following year the Rudd Concession gave Rhodes’ British South Africa Company exclusive mining rights in territories that would become known as Rhodesia – today’s Zambia and Zimbabwe – and the rest, as they say, is history.

In 1889 Harry – I use that name to avoid confusion with his stepfather, but also because it’s the name my grandfather was affectionately known by – acquired another brother. Reuben was the sixth son born to Sarah who, at that point, may have been forgiven for wondering if she would ever produce a girl. This was also the year in which Harry celebrated the Jewish male’s coming-of-age, his barmitzvah. Both events occurred in Kimberley.

The diamond fields were a magnet for adventurers from South Africa as well as abroad, including many of Jewish background like Barney Barnato, Alfred Beit, Isaac Lewis and Sammy Marks. Some made – and lost – their fortunes from diamond trading, while others serviced the diamond-mining community through retail, transport, entertainment, sport and gambling. By 1871, their numbers were sufficient to form a temporary congregation.  A foundation stone was laid in 1875 and a year later Kimberley’s  first Jewish marriage was celebrated in the newly built synagogue. It was some time, however, before a reliable minister could be attracted to the diamond fields. According to Louis Herrman’s A History of Jews in South Africa, there was:

an unscrupulous self-styled rabbi, engaged in the earlier years of the community’s existence, who had to be dismissed for behaviour not becoming his profession, and who revenged himself by sitting at the door of his tin habitation near the synagogue and publicly desecrating the Day of Atonement by eating forbidden food in the sight of the congregation, what time he jeered at the scandalised worshippers.

The Memorial Road Synagogue is where Kimberley’s Jewish faithful gather to worship. Like many such non-metropolitan South African communities, this one’s glory days are long gone. Today the congregation numbers a handful of families and its president, Barney Horwitz, was disinclined to engage with a stranger on the other side of the world seeking information on nineteenth-century barmitzvah records.

Bernice Nagel, the very patient librarian at Kimberley’s Africana Research Library, pointed out that the Memorial Road Synagogue was not where Harry would have celebrated his barmitzvah. The latter, she said, had been an unpretentious galvanised iron structure with a capacity for 250 worshippers, built at a cost of £3,000 on land granted by the British and South African Exploration Company.  It was on Dutoitspan Road, more than a kilometre away. After Rhodes’s death in 1902, the De Beers Company approached the congregation to give up the site in exchange for another in Memorial Road on which they could build a new synagogue. The iron building was demolished and five years later its replacement was unveiled: a 72-ton bronze statue of Rhodes, slightly hunched, astride a horse with a map of Africa in his hands.

Harry finished school in Kimberley. He was sixteen years old, no mean feat for someone who had lived in two countries and four towns. The Cape Colony Government Gazette of 29 July 1892 shows that he matriculated in the ‘pass’ grade; a corresponding calendar of the University of the Cape of Good Hope – the governing body at the time – reveals below average scores for ‘swot subjects’ like history, English and modern literature. He did well at Latin, as I did; unlike me, he had a talent for maths.

The Government Gazette also provides details of schools and towns for the two hundred or so matriculants on the list.  With one exception.  Instead of a school name, Harry is credited with ‘Priv. St’. The archivist who supplied the information thought that ‘privately schooled’ was a probable explanation, but only after I’d suggested it. I’ve been tempted to draw a parallel with my expulsion from kindergarten for the pine-cone throwing incident. But I know I shouldn’t.