It was a year marked by the death of a pope, the assassination of an American president and the resignation of a British Secretary of War over his entanglement with a model.  Closer to home ten opponents of apartheid went on trial for treason, one of whom would later be elected as South Africa’s first black president in a multiracial parliament.

1963 was also the year I visited Pretoria, my presence a footnote to the annual national swim championship – Currie Cup – in which my brother was competing for Western Province.

With heats in the morning and finals at night, we saw little of Pretoria outside the Hillcrest Pool.  The meet organisers had thoughtfully laid on an invitation event for anyone too young to compete at senior level.  The 50 metre freestyle dash was my first taste of competition at inter-provincial level and, for my efforts, I placed third and was awarded a teaspoon.  I wish Mom had kept it.

I don’t recall much of Dad being there.  He was either back at the Culemborg Hotel chatting with Uncle Louis, a relative and the manager of what was then the place to stay in Pretoria.  Or more likely he was catching up on lost sleep leaving Mom, the swim coach to a few on the team, to deal with her charges and keep half-an-eye on me.

During the day I’d staked myself out on the lawn next to the grandstand, a sunny spot with a good view of the pool and a place to strategise.  In my sights was Maureen Ross, one of my mother’s main rivals for the role of women’s team chaperone.

Like Mom, Maureen was a swimming mother.  Her dark brown hair was always coiffed and the blonde highlights were way ahead of their time.  She had what Alexander McCall Smith, author of the wonderful No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series refers to, when describing his leading character, as a ‘traditional build’.  So did my mother, for that matter, but there was one important difference between the two women: my mother always wore a happy face.  I don’t know if I liked Maureen less for her permanent scowl or because anyone so apparently miserable could be preferred as team chaperone.

I lined up my target, maybe some eight feet away.  Already at ten years old I had an inkling that I’d inherited Mom’s aim, so getting in close was crucial.  Guided by the invisible hand of my mother, I held my breath and squeezed the trigger.  I think I hit Maureen on the knee.  She said nothing, but the corners of her mouth moved ever so slightly downwards.  The water pistol was taken away.

As a venue Pretoria did not come around again during my years as a competitive swimmer. Uncle Louis died in the late 1960s and his surviving family moved away, removing any reason for us to go there.  On the many trips back to South Africa post-migration, the thought of making the half-hour trip there from Johannesburg didn’t enter my mind.  That is, until I discovered I had a more personal connection with Pretoria than I could ever have imagined.

The Graduate

It took several days to empty the two-bedroom apartment of rusty nails, stacks of used plastic cartons, three sets of rusty garden shears and various other items whose value had long since expired.  Half-popped blister packs appeared from behind underwear, explaining all those urgent directives to ‘drop everything’ and go up to the chemist ‘because I have no pills left’.  Standing to attention on the floor of the walk-in robe was a row of shoes that had been taken to – possibly with the garden shears – in order to make them fit more comfortably.  As the deadline for clearing out my mother’s possessions loomed, I cursed her for the mess she had left behind.

A few pearls stood out.  Like Dad’s stinkwood card box with its inlay of playing suits.  The carved wooden Chinese scholar my parents had brought back from a trip to Asia; its companion piece – a trout fisherman – which had been the gift of a lonely British sailor whom Dad, feeling sorry for the young lad, had brought home from the Cape Town docks for a square meal and as company for his awkward teenage daughter.  Of themselves, the items were worthless; for the stories they could tell, they were priceless.

When I saw the boxes of old photographs, I forgave Mom everything.  I took them home and on the floor of the middle bedroom – our own ‘junk room’ – pored over black and white images of my parents as children, young adults, and on their wedding day.  There were my cousins on Muizenberg beach with the wind in their hair, and me as a toddler screwing up my eyes against the sun.  My maternal grandparents in the prime of their life, Gertie with a heart-shaped locket around her neck and Gershon in his smart suit next to her.  Their parents, my great-grandparents: grim-faced Lithuanians whose men wore long beards and bowler hats, and whose women bore the sucked-in look that comes from lost teeth.  And then I came across this one.

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Apart from a five-digit number on the back, there was nothing to confirm the man’s identity.  Nor could I expect any help from Mom; by now she no longer remembered who Dad was.

I compared a photo of Gershon at a similar age.  He too had a moustache, but the shape of his eyebrows and the folds in the auriculae of his left ear were different to those of the unknown man.  Gershon also had brown eyes.  He was not the graduate.

I’ve learned enough about photography to know that this one is not a daguerreotype, those early photos whose defining characteristic was an appearance of floating in space and which – by the 1860’s – had been replaced with more modern methods of portraiture.  Using Roger Vaughan’s toolkit[i] on classifying late Victorian and early Edwardian-era photos, I decided that mine fell into the category of ‘non-standard studio portrait’, a catch-all for the misfits of portrait photography between the mid-1800’s and early 1900’s.  Armed with a strong hunch about my subject, I asked Roger if he could narrow down the time frame.
‘There are no real clues here, but his shirt collar is c.1900, (and) the way it’s mounted[ii] looks more 1900ish, the pose is deliberately old-fashioned.  My gut feeling is that this is your 1898 photo.’

The academic regalia was, of course, another clue.  Ammi Ryke, an archivist at the University of South Africa – which succeeded the University of the Cape of Good Hope – sent me this extract on dress protocol from the University’s 1898 calendar:

The gown for all graduates of the University shall be of the same pattern as that of a Bachelor of Arts of the University of London.  The cap for all graduates shall be a black cloth academic cap with black silk tassel.  The hood of the BA degree – black silk, edged with orange-brown silk.

So far, so good.

Facial hair was a common feature of the Victorian era and waxing moustaches into elaborate shapes became a popular art form and a symbol of masculinity, as accepted in the colonies as it was in Britain.  If my thinking was correct, I wonder how long it would have taken Harry to coax the ends of his moustache into the upturned handlebars in the photograph.  And keep them in place.

This photograph was kept for a reason; I only wish I’d known about it much earlier.  And I really need to do something about my middle bedroom.


[i]               http://freepages.family.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~victorianphotographs/

[ii]               Detachable collars were a common feature on men’s shirts from the mid-nineteenth century, with single collars reserved for more formal purposes.  They were intended as a labour-saving device, the idea being to present a clean appearance without having to launder the whole shirt.


The debater


I sat on the stone bench eating my packed lunch, near where Benny Kaplinski used to recite Winston Churchill’s speeches – complete with grainy tones and the accompanying hum of the recording – and cast my mind back to the time when the Virginia creeper came into leaf.  They used to say that if you hadn’t started swotting for finals by the time this happened, then it was too late.  Had the cladding on the buildings always sprouted greenery as early as the first day of October?  Or was my memory playing tricks on me?

Other changes were more obvious.  The colour of the student cohort was more in step with the pattern of the general community.  Removal of cars from the central section of University Avenue had transformed this area into a pedestrian friendly environment, a marked improvement on the car-dominated thoroughfare that it was 35 years before.   Apart from a few people gathered at Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters’ stand, this creature of the new South Africa didn’t rate a second glance.  Unlike those of us who grew up with apartheid, the country’s Born Free generation[i] is oblivious to colour.

Earlier that day, I’d lugged several boxes of microfilm from the Kaplan Centre – which had no reader – to Special Collections in the Jagger Library – which did.  ‘No bags’, she’d said.  I opened up my backpack to show the ground floor check-in lady that I was on legitimate business.  She was having none of it.  I pulled out my phone and called Clive Kirkwood, the archivist in charge.  A few minutes later I was upstairs in the reading room.

Some months earlier I’d found three manuscripts in UCT’s Special Collections and Archives Section.  One was an archive of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation.  The other two were collections of the South African College: a scrapbook and notes from a Students Debating Society in 1896.  By the time I requested these of Clive, with whom I’d been corresponding from Sydney, I’d added to the list several volumes of the Cape Times and The Argus.  I was still hoping that my ancestors’ voyage to South Africa would show up in shipping movements recorded in these dailies.  Among others.

As I looked around what was once the main library’s entry vestibule with its soaring ceilings, majestic columns and delicate balconies, two things came to mind: how beautiful the 1930’s interior – now restored to its original condition and with period furniture to match – looked without the intrusion of unsympathetic walkways and steel supports.  The other was that anyone with acrophobia would have a hard time painting those ceilings.

At the reference desk were 56 boxes of microfilm; these were in addition to the several reels of the Jewish Chronicle and Zionist Record I’d brought from the Kaplan Centre.  I didn’t need Clive’s pained look to tell me that I wouldn’t get through a half of it.

I loaded an 1881 edition of the Cape Times into the only working microfilm reader.  And then another.  And another.  I paused only to reset the machine which, every 30 or so turns, gave out a grunt and faded to a blur.  After cranking through six months’ worth of tiny print, I sensed that I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for.  The Jewish Chronicle and Zionist Record proved as unyielding.

I moved to one of the solid timber desks and laid out the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation Archive.  Buried in the minutes of meetings and various other administrative minutiae was a birth date for John Albert Edelman, 30 December 1882. With nothing of interest in the South African College scrapbook I turned my attention to the Students Debating Society collection.

The SAC Student Debating Society was formed on 21 April 1865 with early meetings supervised by the janitor.  Topics included the executions of Charles 1 and Mary Queen of Scots, and whether the pen was mightier than the sword.  Meetings were held on Friday evenings, later transferring to Saturday mornings to accommodate outside students.  By the first session of 1896, they were held at 8 pm on Thursday evenings in the SAC Hall.

The Society’s motto, Fare Quae Sentias, encouraged students to speak freely.  This may have been a contributing factor in the Society’s banning during 1882 ‘owing to some disorder connected from its meetings.’  The janitor at that time was described as ‘a bit of a martinet,’ who ‘occasionally let his temper run away with his discretion’; on one occasion he locked the Society out of the hall and refused to light the lamps because he felt that he hadn’t been paid enough.

In the 1890’s women were allowed to join the Society and in 1896 the first inter-collegiate debates were held and medals given out.  Heckling time was also introduced around then and, according to the source from which this history [ii] is drawn, ‘hat nights were apparently very popular.’

On the front cover of the 1896 collection was written:

Gift of Lt Col Rice, 1967.
Illuminated address to E W Rice from the Students’ Debating Society, [South African College]. Oct 1896.
Syllabus of the Students’ Debating Society, 1st session, 1896.
Group photograph of the Students’ Debating Society, 1896.

I passed over the address to EW Rice and went to the syllabus for the first session of 1896.  The new year had thrown up plenty of controversy.  The raid on the South African Republic led by British colonial statesman, Leander Starr Jameson, had come to an ignominious end on 2 January.  Four days later Rhodes, who had played a leading part in the raid, resigned as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony.  If that wasn’t enough there was always the dismal state of South African cricket; on 14 February the home team were all out for 30 in the first game against England in Port Elizabeth, the lowest score in test match history.  Whatever topics were listed for this session, as my eye came to rest on the name of the opposer on 12 March 1896, I wondered if the adversarial nature of debating was what had sparked Harry’s interest in the law.IMG_8757


A few pages on was the group photograph of that year.IMG_8758

I ruled out the 10 women and looked for anyone who was small, pale-eyed and around 20 years old.  The eye colour was a punt – Dad had green eyes – but the rest I knew to be true.  I took a photo, blew it up on my camera and scanned the features of the remaining candidates.  I was left with the man standing behind a hatless woman.IMG_8759

If he was there, this could have been Harry.

A few weeks ago I had another look at the address to EW Rice.IMG_8754

It was tempting to associate this EW Rice with the one of General Electric fame.  The outgoing president of the SAC Debating Society was lauded for innovation, a progressive approach and business acumen, attributes shared by the American electrical pioneer.  But could the man who helped transform GE into an international brand have also presided over a debating society in Cape Town?  I have found no African connections for him in 1896 or at all during his lifetime.  It seems that the President of the SAC Debating Society was someone else.  As the short man in the back row of the group photograph may also have been.


[i]               Born since the country’s first fully democratic elections in 1994, they have grown up without apartheid and the struggles of South Africa’s older generation.  They account for almost half of current population.
[ii]             http://www.uctdebatingunion.org/about/history