And so it goes…

During the 1966 summer swim camp I noticed that one of the boys – let’s call him Adam – was looking a bit bloated. He continued training, but was sluggish in the water. Out of the pool he was listless. One day after a morning session I saw him lying on his back, clutching his knees and rocking from side to side. A doctor was summoned and a decision made to send Adam home. He did not return to camp, but we heard later that he’d recovered and would be resuming swim training soon. He’d had a bout of nephritis.

Nephritis[1] describes a group of diseases that cause swelling or inflammation of the glomerulus – a cluster of nerve endings, spores or small blood vessels around the end of a kidney tubule – that reduces the kidney’s ability to filter waste from the blood. Most types of nephritis are caused by the body’s immune system responding to an ‘insult’ of some sort; a drug or poison, an infection or a change in the way the body responds to one of the substances in its tissue.  In responding to this insult the body’s antibodies often damage the kidneys and, in some cases, our immune system attacks the filters causing swelling and scarring.

Nephritis can vary from a mild, non‐damaging condition to a serious one leading to kidney failure. It comes in various forms and most people who present with it will have at least one of blood or protein in the urine, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, reduced kidney function, swelling to face, feet, legs and hands, or fatigue.

Modern-day diagnostic and treatment measures – at least in the developed world – have been responsible for bringing conditions like nephritis under control. In 1907 it was among the top ten causes of death in Australia, accounting for 4.1% of all deaths; by 2000 it was off the list.[2]  In its heyday it had caused the deaths of many well-known people, among them the writer Emily Dickinson, Emperor Alexander III and geneticist Gregor Mendel. It also claimed my grandfather.

Harry died on 19 January 1921, three months’ short of his 45th birthday. His death notice reveals his last address, the house at 73 Alexandra Street; the names, status and residence of surviving kin – my grandmother Rose, aunt Julia and father Phil, as well as my paternal great-grandmother Sarah, curiously referred to by the surname of her first husband Israel who had died more than 44 years earlier; and a little, but not enough information to draw any useful conclusion about my grandparents’ marriage.

The death notice also sheds light on Harry’s affairs. The progress of winding up his estate makes for entertaining reading, with a patient Master of the Supreme Court witness to delays arising from incomplete forms, misdirected documents and a hospitalised bookkeeper. By August 1921, a clear picture had emerged. Harry died owing £2,700 – somewhere in the vicinity of £100,000 in today’s money – to the law firm of which he was a partner. After accounting for his equity in the firm, the amount was reduced to £900. A further £200 was claimed by the Department of Inland Revenue, presumably for unpaid taxes. With no assets to cover the debt, the estate was declared insolvent and the amount owing to Inland Revenue written off.

After Harry died – this snippet from my mother – Rose started making regular pilgrimages to Braamfontein cemetery where she’d sit on her husband’s grave, have a cry, and ‘ask advice’. It wasn’t her fault that all she knew was how to keep house.

According to the family oral history Harry left Rose a legacy, part or all of which may have been sourced from the £2,700 debt owing to his law firm. According to my mother, ‘Rosa had enough to buy a fish shop. She ran it for about two years and then it went bang. There was enough money left over for her to “mooch about”.’

Mom was correct. Sometime in 1921 Rose bought a fish shop in downtown Johannesburg. Unfortunately her business partner had a proclivity towards racking up debt. Two years later Townhall Fisheries was declared bankrupt.

Whatever my mother meant by Rose having enough over to mooch about, it wasn’t sufficient to keep the household running. Julia left school to go and work in a factory. A friend of Harry’s covered my father’s tuition fees through school and university in Johannesburg, and later in London.

Dad came home in 1937 and joined a medical practice in Cape Town. It was not long after that Howard Florey’s team performed one of the most important medical experiments in history. I remember Dad once saying to me, ‘Before penicillin, all I could do was sit there and hold the patient’s hand.’ What a long way we’ve come since then.

Three years ago I spent an evening in Johannesburg with my cousin, Natalie, and her extended family. At 83, she is the ‘senior’ cousin and grandmother to five adult children. Most of them were at dinner that night and some, while obviously fond of Natalie, were a bit impatient with her deafness. I told them to be grateful to have her, to treasure her and to listen to her stories. That one day they would wake up and find her no longer there. They giggled awkwardly, not sure how to respond to a blow in from the other side of the planet. I understood and was sympathetic; in my twenties, I gave as little thought to where my place in the world was and how I fitted into it, as they did. That kind of reflection and introspection only comes after a life more than half-lived. At which point we realise how little we know.


[1] Notes on nephritis are from Kidney Health Australia.

[2] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Table 5.1


Lost and found in Berea

The tail end of a fire smouldered in the middle of Lily Avenue, whose surface hadn’t seen a maintenance crew in years. As the Merc negotiated crevasses and stop signs, I took in my surroundings; satellite dishes hanging off the balconies of fading apartment blocks, cavernous grocery stores that discouraged further inspection, and a backlog of rubbish waiting to be taken away. A pall of neglect hung over the area like a temperature inversion in need of a stiff wind.

Earlier in the day my brother-in-law, whose car we were using, had waved away our concern about any risk to the Merc. ‘They won’t be interested in it. You’d be more vulnerable driving a newish four-door Golf in a place like that.’

That place was Berea, where today – a Monday – the street scene oozed idle time. I scanned the quantum of humanity leaning against low walls, chatting in small groups, or just staring at nothing in particular. Those who crossed the road seemed to be moving in slow motion. Most were men. They are not from here, I’d thought.

The inner Johannesburg suburb of Berea was subdivided for housing in the 1890s, its proximity to transport links, the city centre and job opportunities making it a desirable place to live. An aspirant Jewish middle class moved in during the early twentieth century at a time when detached dwellings were the predominant housing form. It stayed that way until new zoning laws in the 1960s opened up the area to high rise. Apartment blocks started to creep in among the low rise, creating a bar-chart landscape of residential development.

While many had moved out to larger and leafier properties, a core group of the Jewish community remained, anchored by the familiar props of family life: the school and the place of worship. They were joined by an influx of European immigrants, a cohort accustomed to renting and high density living. These artisan dwellers added a flourish to the cosmopolitan culture that would make the adjacent suburb of Hillbrow the entertainment magnet for white Johannesburg in the sixties and seventies.

Towards the close of the 1970s the inner city’s demography started to change. The vacancy created by Europeans and white investors moving out of suburbs like Berea was filled by a steady stream of coloured, Indian and then black people. With this shift came predatory landlords, rent hikes, and overcrowding; and a cavalier attitude towards building and infrastructure maintenance.

Twenty years later a new rush of immigrants – this time from outside South Africa – arrived on Berea’s doorstep. It was these people I’d seen on the streets: Zimbabweans, Congolese, Nigerians, Somalis, drawn to South Africa and the city of gold – eGoli – by the promise of political and economic salvation. Many came without papers. It didn’t matter that South Africa’s unemployment rate – anywhere up to 40% depending on whom you speak to – meant that the best step up they could hope for was a rung on the informal sector ladder.

I reminded myself that I didn’t really need to be here. At my Sydney desktop a few weeks earlier, I’d keyed 73 Alexandra Street into Google Maps. The Street View image had shown a pale pink stucco façade where once naked brick looked out to the street. The original iron roof had vacated for an expanse of dull brown concrete tiles and I saw that the capping on the western ridge line terminated a few feet short of the gutter.

Several decades ago someone had knocked out the timber window frame in the front bedroom and installed two steel-framed casement windows on either side of a central fixed pane. The whole lot was guarded by an alternating pattern of criss-cross and grid-like bars, behind which one of those thin lace curtains – the kind that allows undetected surveillance from within – was loosely drawn across the width of the windows.

In place of the mesh front gate was a two-level metal ‘barrier’ with rectangular gap at eye level, fortified by another metal grid that conjured up Hannibal Lecter’s mask in Silence of the Lambs. Whitewashed walls flanked the gate; they could have done with a lick of paint.

The only remnant that dated the house was the front gable. Even this had been tinkered with; a panel of vertical slats had been installed above the stucco wall with its inverted widow’s peak, a design feature that didn’t quite pull off the intended symmetry with the gable’s form. One of the fascia boards was missing, revealing an interlocking network of roof tiles. The other hung on forlornly, as if knowing it would soon suffer the same fate.

I’m cheating a little. I have a photograph of the house that was my grandfather’s last address in Johannesburg. And while this image from almost a hundred years ago doesn’t show the front of that house, it does show the one next door.

I love this blemished and scratched photograph as much for the story it tells as the fact that it is the only one I have of Harry’s little family together. They are standing in the front yard of the house at 73 Alexandra Street, squinting into the afternoon sun. Opposite them I imagine a photographer peering through the lens of one of those foldaway cameras. I’ve dated the photograph at around 1920.

They have dressed up for the occasion. My aunt Julia, barely a teenager, has embraced the knee-high fashion of the post-war period, while my grandmother is more comfortable in a long-sleeve blouse and ankle-length skirt. Harry, who stands several inches shorter than his wife, is in a work suit with a handkerchief peeking out from a breast pocket. His face is creased with worry; I wonder if it is a financial problem or the nephritis that would have by now colonised his kidneys? My father, a flop-haired boy of seven or eight, wears the hint of a smile, providing some relief to a portrait of an otherwise sombre family. In Dad’s arms is a shaggy dog that could pass for one of those hybrids people pay a small fortune for today.

I felt the pressure of my seatbelt as the Merc misjudged a rut in the road. We turned left into Alexandra Street, a one-way going east. I counted the numbers from the intersection, the Street View etched in my memory. I hadn’t anticipated that number 73 would look worse than it did when the Google Maps camera went past in 2010. ‘No photo necessary. Let’s get out of here!’ This place had been humiliated enough without having me add to its shame.

We crossed a freeway named after Joe Slovo and double backed over it into a one-way street bearing Barney Barnato’s name. Both Jewish, I’d thought, and yet so different; a communist hero of the apartheid struggle and future minister in the Mandela government, and a British entrepreneur who made a fortune out of diamonds and gold, and then lost it. Both had humble beginnings. Perhaps not so different.

We turned back onto Lily Avenue. The smouldering fire had dwindled and, if anything, so had the humanity engaged in their daily ritual of passing time. I totted up the stop streets as we approached Louis Botha Avenue, a permeable thoroughfare that would transition us out of this world and into its polar opposite. Six stop streets for a 500-metre stretch of pitted and potholed roadway. They hardly seemed worth it.

I’ll confess something else: I lifted the title of this post from a book I read a year or two ago. I would have liked to have called it Lost and Found in Johannesburg, but Mark Gevisser got there first with his poetic and, at times, melancholy memoir about the city of his youth. Our respective journeys intersect in many ways. We both grew up in apartheid South Africa, children of comfortable Jewish families. Each of us had a grandmother called Gertie; his was one of the key catalysts for Mark’s interest in why Johannesburg  developed the way it did. Both of us left to go and live somewhere else. Neither of us has let go of the country we once called home.

While Berea has fallen from grace, the value of land close to city centres dictates that it won’t be that way forever. Urban renewal may take years or decades to fruit, but it will happen. Green shoots are already visible in the Maboneng district, a few kilometres to the south. With its funky cafés, slick art galleries and recycled containers, Maboneng is a sign of things that may be to come for suburbs like Berea. Repairing urban infrastructure and giving new life to ailing buildings is the tonic that makes people want to go there for work, to live or just for a coffee. In such transformations the incumbent population is almost always forced to look elsewhere for shelter. This is one of the less benevolent byproducts of gentrification. I’ve seen it happen before.

Unlike my Federation-era Sydney house and street, protected by a swag of conversation controls that are at the same time both a blessing and a curse, there is nothing that should prevent the eventual demise of 73 Alexandra Street and the houses around it. Other than as a nod to the precinct’s social history, they possess no intrinsic physical qualities that warrant their preservation. I am reconciled with the fact that I may have seen the house where my grandfather – and father – once lived, for the last time. And I prefer to remember it thus.