White lies and mistaken identity

With the fall of their capital towns and the annexation of the Orange Free State and ZAR, British expectations were running high that the war would soon end.  The Boer leadership had other ideas.  Switching from pitched battle to the use of small and mobile military units, they were able to capture supplies, disrupt communications and carry out raids on British troops.  They were also very good at not getting caught.

After Lord Roberts returned to England in November 1900, Kitchener became Commander-in-chief of the British forces in South Africa.  Frustrated by the protracted nature of the war, on 21 December he issued a memorandum stating that the quickest way to end it was by interning all women, children and men unfit for military duty, as well as blacks living on Boer farms.

In September, ‘refugee’ camps had been established in Bloemfontein and Pretoria to provide protection for burghers who had surrendered voluntarily and their families.  By the end of the year, with increasing numbers of displaced people squashed into their confines, they had become concentration camps.  Black men deemed fit were sent to work on the gold mines and their families sequestered in separate camps.

On 24 January 1901 the British welfare campaigner Emily Hobhouse visited the Bloemfontein camp, by now home to 1,800 people.  She was appalled at what she saw.

The shelter was totally insufficient.  When the 8, 10 or 12 persons who occupied a bell-tent were all packed into it, either to escape from the fierceness of the sun or dust or rainstorms, there was no room to move, and the atmosphere was indescribable, even with duly lifted flaps.  There was no soap provided.  The water supplied would not go round.  No kartels (bedsteads) or mattresses were to be had.  Those, and they were the majority, who could not buy these things must go without.  Fuel was scanty…The ration was sufficiently small, but when…the actual amount did not come up to the scale, it became a starvation rate.[1]

There was a pecking order in the camps, with the families of neutral, non-combatant or burghers who had surrendered enjoying better accommodation and food than those whose menfolk were out on commando.  At first meat was not included in the rations given to the latter group; this was both a money saver and an inducement to the men to turn themselves in.  Rations were improved after Hobhouse’s visit, but they were still meagre.  There were no vegetables, jam, or fresh milk for babies and children.  The daily allotment was a pound of meal and about half-a-pound of meat a day, with a few grains of sugar and coffee.  It was much worse than what the British soldiers in barracks were fed or the official diet of the troops on campaign.  It was a diet so poor as to allow the rapid spread of disease.[2]

These ‘incentives’ did nothing to break the deadlock and in early March, Kitchener settled on a more radical solution.   Taking his cue from Czar Alexander 1 against Napoleon and General Sherman in the American South, he gave orders to destroy or burn Boer farms, towns, crops and livestock.  About 30,000 farmhouses and more than 40 towns were destroyed, along with livestock and horses.[3]  More concentrations camps were built to house the thousands of women and children left destitute.

A few weeks after Kitchener embarked on his ‘scorched earth’ policy, Harry applied to the Military Governor in Transvaal for a permit to return, describing himself ‘as the only Jewish lawyer in Pretoria.’

The outbreak of war had caused a mass exodus of Jews from the ZAR, with about 10,000 out of an estimated 12,000 having fled the republic.  Some left South Africa permanently while the rest were dispersed mainly in coastal towns, waiting for the opportunity to return and resume their lives.  For many the prolonged exile became an uncomfortable and impoverishing experience.  After 18 months without regular or perhaps any income, being flexible with the truth may have seemed like the card Harry could play.



This telegram, sent from Cape Town, suggests that Harry – in line with Dad’s account – made his way to the Cape during the war, albeit with a Bloemfontein stopover.  Dad never mentioned the concentration camps and I’ve often wondered if Harry had known and kept it to himself.  It is possible that he was still in Bloemfontein during the time frame.  But it is equally likely that, stuck out in the veld on the shady side of a koppie, the camp was as invisible to the local townsfolk as Buchenwald would be to the citizens of Weimar during World War Two.

If the Cape Town authorities took Harry’s claim at face value, the Transvaal Military Government was obliged to do its homework.  On 2 April a Detective Moodie in the Criminal Justice Department was instructed ‘to obtain any information about this man.’  Four days later he presented his report.

By what information I can gather from the residents of Pretoria, mostly British subjects, of this man, he appears to be an old and respected resident, as well as a staunch British subject and was compelled to leave this country by the Boers through his loyalty.  He had a good practice and business in Pretorius Street, which is at present closed.

Either the ‘residents of Pretoria’ had been primed by the 24-year-old law agent or they were savvy enough to know how to pull the wool over the investigating detective’s eyes.  Those higher up the chain of command were less easily persuaded.  A footnote to Moodie’s report acknowledged that the subject of inquiry was ‘an admitted law-agent (but) he is not the only Jewish lawyer in Pretoria.’  It didn’t seem to matter; on 13 April the Military Governor’s office issued the  necessary permit even if it saw ‘no particular reason for it.’

On re-examining the telegram I’d noticed the name Parwana in the sender’s box.  I’d assumed that he – given the era it must surely have been a ‘he’? – had sent the telegram on Harry’s behalf.  As I delved into Parwana’s identity I discovered that others hadn’t been treated as favourably.




The above telegram was sent to Parwana from Durban on 25 March.  On the same day, another was sent to the Private Secretary to the High Commissioner in Johannesburg.



Stumbling upon this evidence of racial discrimination shows how one seemingly innocuous inquiry can lead to a significant other revelation.  If I hadn’t been curious about Parwana’s identity, I may never have learned that the new government in the Transvaal was a worse master than the previous incumbent, including in respect of its own citizens.

I found what I was looking for in the second volume of S.A.I. Tirmizi’s Indian Sources for African History.  I may have left it there if not for the context having referenced Gandhi’s correspondence of 25 March. [5]  ‘Parwana’ was the code address of the Permit Secretary to the High Commissioner in Cape Town. Nothing more.

[1]               Quoted in Pakenham, T. The Boer War 1979, p 506

[2]               Pakenham, op cit p 494

[3]               http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/war#sthash.nWGw8Ead.dpuf http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/war

[4]               The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 3, 1901 – 1903.

[5]               P 157.

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.

2016-08-11 22.37.05

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

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.