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.

The Brothers from another planet

I.G.[1]   Bro. J.W. there is a report
J.W.       R.W.M. there is a report
R.W.M. Enquire who seeks admission, Bro. J.W.
J.W.       See who seeks admission, Bro. I.G.
I.G.         (Goes out and receives T’s report).  How does he hope to obtain these privileges?  (Receives reply, and inspects the candidate to see that he is properly prepared).  Wait, please, till I report to the R.W.M.
R.W.M. at the door of the L. stands Mr. K.L., a poor candidate in a state of darkness who has been well and worthily recommended, regularly proposed, balloted for and approved in open L. who now comes forward of his own free will and accord, properly prepared, humbly soliciting to be admitted to the mysteries and privileges of ancient F.M.
R.W.M. By virtue of what qualifications does he hope to obtain these great and glorious privileges?
L.G.        Being a man, free born, sound in body and mind, able and willing to earn his daily bread should it be required of him so to do.  Come this way: do you, Bro. I.G. vouch that L. is properly prepared?  That by putting his trust in A.G. and being duly vouched for by the worthy B.B. of this L.
R.W.M. These indeed are all necessary qualifications for all who (incomplete sentence)
I.G.         I do.
R.W.M. Then let him be admitted in due form.
I.G.         Enter this L. in the name of T.G.A.O.T.U. (applies the S.I).  As this is a torture to your flesh at the present time, so may the recollection of it be to your mind and conscience in all time coming should you ever be about to improperly disclose the secrets of F.W.
R.W.M. Mr K.L. as no person other than a mason unless he is of mature age, I demand of you, are you the full age of twenty-one years?
Cand.    I am.
R.W.M. Thus assured I will thank you to kneel on both knees (or be covered) while the blessing of heaven is invoked on our proceedings.
Chap.    We supplicate Thine and Almighty God, Thou G.A.O.T.U. on this our present convention.  Do Thou grant that this candidate for F.M. may so dedicate and devote his life to Thy service as to become a true and faithful Bro. among us.  Endow him with a competency of Thy divine wisdom, so that assisted by the secrets of our masonic art he may the better be enabled to display the beauties of true godliness to the honour and glory of Thy most holy name.
Onmes  S.M.I.B.
R.W.M. In all cases of doubt, difficulty and danger in whom do you place your trust?
Cand.    In G.
R.W.M. Right glad am I to find your faith well founded.  Relying on such sure support you may safely arise (be uncovered) and follow your enlightened guide with a firm but humble confidence for where that great name is invoked we trust no danger can or will ensue. 

Whoever Mr K.L. was, he was judged to be of sufficiently high morals and good character to be admitted as a Freemason to the Zion Lodge, a lodge of the District Grand Lodge of the Transvaal.  As part of his initiation, he was brought before a meeting of the lodge, blindfolded at first, and guided through a ritual journey to ‘Masonic light’.  He knelt at an altar and placed his hands on a scripture of the religion he practised, taking a binding oath or ‘obligation’.  He was sworn to secrecy, and taught certain lessons about Freemasonry and its symbols, including the moral and social virtues that are the foundation stones of the Masonic fraternity.  Finally, he was appraised of things he would need to know as a lodge member.

Freemasonry is the world’s oldest and largest fraternity, whose members strive to live by the principles of truth, morality and brotherly love.  It provides members with an opportunity for public service and involvement in charitable and community affairs, in an environment devoid of religious, political or social barriers.  While the digital age has made the inner workings of the organisation more accessible to outsiders, one of the defining features of the American and British Commonwealth form is that access to women is still denied.  Which makes it especially sweet to have had a cache of early twentieth century Freemason ephemera fall into my hands.

On 5 August 1914, Harry paid a fee of two pounds, eighteen shillings and six pence – roughly £80 in today’s money – to join the Zion Lodge.  This included a joining fee, lodge dues and subscription for six months; a discount of one guinea (21 shillings) was applied for payment in the second half of the year.  Another receipt for renewal of subscription, dated 19 November 1917, also incurred a discount for late payment.

The receipts and minutes of meetings were tucked inside the by-laws of the Zion Lodge which, in turn, was slotted into the by-laws of the District Grand Lodge of the Transvaal.  Insightful as these documents and their interpretation are, they are overshadowed by another item: a Freemason’s apron.


As the Zion lodge’s colour was dark blue, I know that this apron belonged to Harry.  While the bib and tassels are in good condition, the flap is brittle and every time I handle the garment, bits of dark blue fall off it.  Each time I scoop these up – those that aren’t pulverised, that is – and replace the lot in a plastic bag, waiting for some future time when I can find someone who can restore the apron.

Like everything masonic, the apron’s design is based on complex symbolism.  The one in the photo was a Fellow Craft apron, signifying that its wearer had attained a certain level of wisdom.  The two rosettes stress the dual nature of man and are a reference to the two Pillars.  They also show that the wearer is not yet a full Freemason, having yet to acquire a third rosette to form a triangle.  Either there was another apron that failed to survive or Harry did not progress beyond a state of budding spirituality.

The District Grand Lodge of the Transvaal had been founded in 1896 as a means of linking the various lodges of the ZAR.  In 1946, the Orange Free State was incorporated into the Lodge and in 1979 the Northern Cape followed to form the District Grand Lodge of the Transvaal, Orange Free State and Northern Cape.  It was around this time that I asked my father, who was also a Freemason, about the business of the organisation.  All I got was a half-smile.

I guess that towards the end of his life Dad had more important things on his mind than the onward journey of Harry’s freemasonry regalia and paperwork.  Likewise if my mother knew anything of their provenance, she did not share it with me.  At some point, I’ll need to decide who I can pass them on to.  One thing is certain: gender won’t be a deciding factor.

[1]              Notes to acronyms: I.G. – Inspector general; Bro – Brother; J.W. – junior warden; R.W.M. – Right Worshipful Master; T – Treasurer; L – Lodge; A.G. – Almighty God; T.G.A.O.T.U – The Great (or Grand) Architect of the Universe; F.M. – freemason; S.M.I.B. – so mote it be; G. – God.



I’d been running to catch up with the elderly man before he passed through the security gate of his house.  He was wearing a yarmulke, and tzitzit were hanging out of his shirt.
‘Sorry, I’m trying to find the Lions Shul.  I believe it’s somewhere around here.’
The deer-caught-in-the headlights look faded a little.  He pointed to the south.
‘It’s two miles down Harrow Road and it no longer operates.’

Doornfontein’s Lions Synagogue, a candidate venue for my grandparents’ wedding, had been an optional extra.  I’d really wanted to see 45a Beit Street.  From an earlier encounter with Google Street View, I’d known what to expect: a three-storey brick warehouse with roller shutters at street level and wire mesh to its first-floor windows, with a sign proclaiming the address mounted over a pair of white double doors and another – JDF – painted in bold black capitals against a white background on an upper parapet.  From the building’s style, I could see that it had been there for several decades, way past the time when the site was occupied by a dwelling: my father’s birthplace and the first evidence of a street address – other than the Pretoria Gaol – that I have for Harry.

Doornfontein – or ‘thorn fountain’ – is a suburb immediately to the east of Johannesburg’s town centre.  It was laid out in 1889 and its streets planted to blue gum and cypress trees, giving the area a wooded atmosphere.  By 1892 its population was estimated at around 2,000[1], at a time when new immigrants were establishing themselves within the Reef’s economy.

In the decades that followed, Doornfontein, which had the added attraction of its own reservoir – a luxury in a thirsty landscape – became a ‘posh’ suburb sought out by reasonably well-off western European Jews.  Beit Street – named after the gold and diamond magnate – became its main shopping street.  A horse and buggy system provided ready access for residents to their businesses in the town centre, another reason for its popularity.[2]

As the community grew and consolidated, so did the threshold for ethno-specific facilities and services.  Schools, kosher butchers, delis and synagogues followed the march of middle-class, middle-income Jewish families to suburbs to the east and north of Johannesburg’s centre.  The period immediately after Union saw Doornfontein consolidate its position as the centre of middle-class Jewish life in Johannesburg, with the addition of new kosher facilities and several institutions that catered to the needs of disadvantaged members of the community.[3]  It prompted the diarist, H.W. Wedcliffe, who had come from an assimilated Edinburgh community, to remark that, ‘…for the first time in my life I see in Beit Street what a long Jewish business street is like.  Above each shop the placard of the owner is in Yiddish.  I hear Yiddish spoken wherever I go.  The situation is not what I am accustomed to from childhood: to be a Jew at home and a man abroad.  Here in an area now so close to me I experience the thrill of being a Jew anywhere and at any time.’[4]

Today’s Beit Street and the building that sits on the site of my father’s first home bear little resemblance to the charming streetscape of the early twentieth century.

During the Great Depression, much of Doornfontein was bought up by property speculators who turned it into slum housing for black workers.  After this population was relocated to the urban fringe, the slums were cleared and, in the mid 1930s, replaced with the industrial buildings one finds there today.  If black people have since returned to the area, the Jewish community has resolutely stayed away.  Which made my stumbling on the frightened man all the more extraordinary.  I wondered if he was the last of his kind in Doornfontein.

Perhaps the latest Census return could tell me.  I went onto Statistics South Africa’s website with high hopes.  I clicked on the ‘Find Statistics’ tab and put ‘City of Johannesburg’ into the ‘Search Municipality’ dialog box.  I drilled down to ‘Johannesburg’, having noted that Doornfontein was included in this wider area.  I clicked on ‘People’ and scrolled down the page expecting – as I would of the Australian Census – a table on ethnicity.  There wasn’t one.

I didn’t find the Lions synagogue either although I’m reliably informed it’s still there. I’m also told that there is more than one Jewish person still living in Doornfontein.

[1]              Cripps, E.A. Provisioning Johannesburg, 1886 – 1906 University of South Africa, 2012, p102.

[2]              Rubin, M. The Jewish Community of Johannesburg, 1886 – 1939: landscapes of reality and imagination, University of Pretoria 2004, pp 49-51.

[3]              Ibid. pp95, 99, 107.

[4]              Ibid, p97.

Anatomy of a name

Botha’s government lost no time in putting its stamp on race relations.  Within a year of the formation of Union preliminary drafts of the Natives’ Land Act, whose most grievous provision was to define less than 10% of the country where black people could buy or hire land, were being debated in the parliament.  In the same year – 1911 – the Mine Works Act was passed, which reserved certain jobs for white workers in mining and on the railways.

These laws, coming on the back of Union and numerous protocols that already restricted their movements and labour rights, were a further affront to black South Africans.  They did not go unnoticed.  On 8 January 1912, the South African Native National Congress[1] was formed in Bloemfontein, its charter to end apartheid and restore the franchise to black and mixed-race South Africans.  Among its leadership were Pixley ka Isaka Seme, a Columbia and Oxford-educated lawyer who had been called to the bar at Middle Temple in London before returning to South Africa on the eve of Union; and the author, Solomon Plaatje, whose observation of the siege of Mafeking was immortalised in The Boer War diary of Sol T Plaatje.

1912 was marked by significant improvements to railway infrastructure across South Africa, the naming of a small Free State farming town in honour of Emily Hobhouse – the welfare campaigner who had brought the plight of concentration camp internees to the British public – and the birth on 18 May of Walter Sisulu, a future founding member of the ANC Youth League and Secretary-General of the ANC, who would serve 26 years for treason on Robben Island.

On 4 November, Harry and Rose became parents to a boy, Philip Bernard Leopold.  My father used to make much of the fact that his first name meant ‘lover of horses’ – the stems of the Greek Philippos are philos (lover) and hippos (horse) – and, while he loved all forms of gambling, it was his patronage of two Cape Town turf clubs that I associate most with his betting on anything that moved.  If Dad’s first name was something of a departure from tradition – I am not aware of an ancestor named for the father of Alexander the Great or one of Christ’s apostles – his second name was more conventional.  Bernard, or Baruch in Hebrew, means ‘blessed’; the hoped-for son and heir, I daresay.  Leopold’s roots are Germanic, from the old German liut, meaning people, and bald, meaning brave: thus ‘bold among the people.’  In folklore, the first stem is attributed to the Latin, leo, or lion; this is an unlikely explanation as the Germanic people had no word for the king of the jungle.  The way I see it, my father was either named for a blessed horse-loving bold leader, or one who would be brave as a lion.  In defence of the latter, he did have a soft spot for cats.

The etymology of names aside, Dad’s birth – or more precisely, his birth certificate – gave me something I had hitherto not had: a street address for Harry.

[1]              In 1923 it would be rebranded as the African National Congress.


The granting of self-government to the former Boer republics was the launching pad for a united South Africa, assisted in no mean part by Botha’s pro-British attitude.  One of his first acts as Premier of the Transvaal was to present the Cullinan diamond to King Edward VII on the occasion of his 66th birthday in November 1907.  The largest gem-quality rough diamond ever found was given to the King as a symbol of appreciation and friendship.

Botha’s tendency to consider the greater good also made him look, at times, more like a servant of the Crown than his own people.  Self-government had brought renewed expectations from within the former Boer states, and particularly the Free State, that British interlopers would be expunged from civil administrations and the old order restored.  When a deputation of farmers approached Botha with a request to repatriate Milner’s director of agriculture, F.B. Smith, the Premier replied, ‘wait till he has got rid of the cattle plague, then I may see about it.’[1]

More pressing was the need rationalise different rules and regulations across the four administrations.  At an inter-colonial conference in May 1908 attended by representatives of the four colonies, Botha moved a series of resolutions, the first of which was that ‘…in the opinion of this Conference, the best interests and the permanent prosperity of South Africa can only be secured by an early Union, under the Crown of Great Britain, of the several self-governing Colonies.’[2]  The resolutions were carried and representatives agreed to hold a Convention to decide on the form of government, eligibility for the franchise, how to draw electoral divisions, and the status of English and Dutch.[3]

The Convention that met in Cape Town in October 1908 was attended by an all-white delegation from the four colonies.  In May 1909, a draft constitution that became known as the South Africa Bill emerged from their efforts.  It modelled the future government of the country on the Westminster system, providing for a unitary state in which political power would be won by a simple majority and in which the parliament would be sovereign.  The question of voting rights for blacks would be left to each of the colonies to decide, and both English and Dutch would be official languages.  Because no agreement could be reached on the site of the capital, a compromise was struck making Cape Town the seat of parliament, Pretoria the administrative capital and Bloemfontein the judicial capital.  South Africa was to become the only country in the world with three capitals.

The Bill’s implicit denial of voting rights to black South Africans did not go unopposed.  In 1909, the South African Native Convention, which was attended by black representatives from the four colonies, agreed to send a delegation to London to campaign for the amendment of the Bill to extend the franchise to all South Africans.  The delegation included prominent black leaders and was led by William Schreiner, a former Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, who feared that Union would lead to removal of black voters from the existing franchise in the Cape.[4]  The mission failed and on 20 September, 1909, the South Africa Act passed through the British Parliament.  On 31 May 1910, South Africa became a unified country, exactly eight years to the day after the Treaty of Vereeniging had brought the second Anglo-Boer War to an end.  Louis Botha became South Africa’s first Prime Minister with Jan Smuts as his deputy.  It would not be long before Schreiner’s worst fears were realised.

In October 1910, Harry applied for admission as an attorney, notary public and conveyancer in the Transvaal Supreme Court.  The documentation tabled at the hearing on 25 November chronicled his career progression, including the periods of inactivity due to the Anglo-Boer War and the criminal conviction of 1904.  It noted that he was not now under any order of suspension and that he had passed the Transvaal Law Certificate Examination.  On that day, he was sworn in as an attorney of the Court.  He was now a fully fledged lawyer.

[1]              Williams, B., Botha, Smuts and South Africa Hodder & Stoughton London 1946, p59.

[2]              Fairbridge, D, A history of South Africa OUP London 1918, p309

[3]              Afrikaans would not be recognised as a language until 1925.

[4]              The only colony that permitted voting rights by (property-owning) black people.


Named after Paul Kruger’s deputy – Christiaan Johannes Joubert – Johannesburg was the town that grew like Topsy.  Ten years after the discovery of a gold outcrop on the farm Langlaagte in February 1886, more than 100,000 fortune-seeking Europeans and a burgeoning black mine worker force had been drawn to the town, like pins to a magnet.  By the turn of the century, gold had catapulted the Witwatersrand[1] into one of the largest, wealthiest and fastest-growing markets south of the Sahara, with production from its reefs accounting for more than one-quarter of the world’s output.[2]

By then, the bare ridge on which the city fathers had created their settlement had been transformed from one of the ‘…bleakest and most elevated spots in the Transvaal, where land for agricultural or pastoral purposes was of so little value that farms changed hands sometimes for the value of a team of oxen…’ to a ‘…town crowded with gums, trees, big, healthy trees which would never strike the onlooker as being youthful Uitlanders.’[3]  The eucalypts, a fast-growing species that was also useful for providing mine props, had travelled all the way from Australia.

While the gold-bearing strata of the Rand were extensive, the percentage of gold contained within them was very small.  Extensive plant was required to crush, grind and drill the ore, and a skilled workforce to operate it.  This workforce was augmented by a phalanx of accountants, hotel-keepers, teachers, lawyers, doctors etc., most of whom were imported from Britain, Europe and the Cape; due to poor education standards in the Transvaal, there were few suitably qualified contenders from within the ranks of the local population.[4]

The growth of the city was accompanied by a proliferation of gambling dens, liquor outlets and prostitutes.  In 1895, there were 97 brothels in central Johannesburg with more than one-third being of French ‘nationality’.  In the same year, it was estimated that between 750 to 1,000 liquor canteens could be found on the Rand. [5]

For almost the entire duration of the Anglo-Boer War mining production was suspended, causing losses of £25 million.  Even when restrictions were lifted in December 1901, having to mine high-grade ore at greater depths with a reduced cheap black labour force mitigated against restoring output to pre-war levels.  In an attempt to arrest the industry’s decline, tens of thousands of indentured Chinese mine workers began to arrive from 1904; it would take another two years before their efforts sparked the industry’s recovery.

While Pretoria and Johannesburg had been connected by road and rail since 1893, the logistics of commuting between the two towns was a far cry from the 40 minutes it takes to get from Johannesburg’s Park Station to Pretoria Station by Gautrain today.[6]  Writing at the turn of the century, Mackenzie refers to ‘…the general practice of (travellers wanting to alight where no stations existed) is simply to jump off the moving train into the red dust of the veld.  Of course, the trains do not move extremely rapid.’[7]  The 32-mile road trip allegedly took anything up to two days by ox wagon.[8]

Perhaps this was the trigger, or family pressures, or the lure of opportunity, or something I haven’t thought of.  For whatever reason, in June 1907 Harry transferred his business from Pretoria to Johannesburg.  In the same month, he was admitted and enrolled as a law agent in the Court of the Resident Magistrate at Johannesburg.  His arrival in Johannesburg coincided with a period of heightened political activity in the Transvaal.

On 12 January, Britain had granted responsible government to the territory, an outcome influenced by Winston Churchill in his role as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies.  On 26 February, Louis Botha’s Het Volk Party won a majority in the new parliament and on 2 March, Botha became Premier of the Transvaal with Jan Smuts as Minister of Education and Colonial Secretary.

One of the first decisions of the new government was to pass the Asiatic Law Amendment Act on 22 March.  Identical to an Ordinance passed by the colonial government in 1906, this Act required all male Asians to register and be finger printed, and carry ‘passes’ at all times.  It mobilised Indians to  Gandhi’s Satyagraha[9] campaign which, over the next seven years, protested the Act’s requirements and argued, both at home and abroad, for their repeal.

In June, the government sent 50,000 Chinese mine workers home.  By now, with increasing numbers of black workers being recruited to the mines through the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association, the labour shortage had eased.  The repatriation of Chinese workers was backed by the new Liberal Government in Britain whose supporters had been unhappy about inadequate living conditions and low wages paid to these workers which, coincidentally, had driven down black workers’ wages. [10]

In July, the Immigration Restriction Bill provided education tests to be imposed on all future immigrants to the Transvaal and established the Immigration Department to check illegal Asiatic entries.  While framed with these targets in mind, this law was widely used by the Transvaal police to start deporting pimps, prostitutes and other unsavoury characters from the Rand.  The gap was filled by working-class Afrikaner and black women, desperate to make ends meet at a time when opportunities for regular employment were scarce or paid too little.[11]

In the same month, the Orange River Colony was granted self-government, cementing the road to a unified South Africa.  Botha’s Het Volk would take a lead role in this process.  While ostensibly an Afrikaner political party, it preached conciliation between Afrikaners and English-speakers.  In the Transvaal, Botha had taken two English-speakers into his six-man government and been careful not to replace too many English-speaking civil servants with Afrikaners.  Smuts’ education legislation provided for the progressive introduction of English into the curriculum and mandated that it become the medium of instruction by the sixth school year, bar two subjects that could be taken in Dutch.[12]  To many Afrikaners, these moves were a betrayal of all they had fought for, and would take another 40 years to set right.

[1]      Also known as the Rand.

[2]              Charles van Onselen Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand 1886 – 1914 Volume 1 New Babylon Ravan Press Johannesburg p1.

[3]              W. Douglas Mackenzie South Africa: its history, heroes and wars Horace Marshall & Son London p364.

[4]              Frank Welsh A history of South Africa Harper Collins 2000 p302.

[5]              Van Onselen, p112, p57.


[7]              Mackenzie, pp364-5.

[8]              Celia Joy Martins Fire and Ashes, Iron and Clay 2015, p233.

[9]              Loosely translated means, ‘insistence on truth’.

[10]             Luli Callinicos Gold and Workers 1886 – 1924 Ravan Press, Johannesburg 1980.  Chapter 14

[11]             Van Onselen p105, pp145-6.

[12]             Hermann Giliomee The Afrikaners: biography of a people Hurst & Co, London.  Pp272-3.


‘You lily-livered, knock-kneed, yellow-bellied, flat-footed, flaznaggled, bog-trotting ape.  You are a university student and your mind’s a blank.’[1]

Cecil Colwin was as well-known for his repertoire of insults as his ability to produce swimming champions.  South Africa’s first full-time swim coach, Cecil’s career spanned three continents and almost 70 years, during which he trained Olympic medallists and a world record holder.  He wrote numerous texts on swimming technique and is regarded as a pioneer of the sport.[2]

During the winters of 1957-1959, my siblings worked out with Cecil’s squad at Johannesburg’s Hillbrow pool.  He became a peer to my mother, giving her training schedules to use back home.  She would go on to coach her own squad in Cape Town.







Cecil was not without his critics.  I remember an incident at Hillbrow, circa 1957.  He was barking at my sister.  I walked up to the great man, pointed a finger at him and famously uttered the words, ‘you don’t tell.’  I’m told that he had the grace to smile.

Hillbrow pool was a subterranean venue at the bottom of a flight of stairs and, for many years, Johannesburg’s only winter training venue.  It was 25 yards long by about 20 yards wide, a configuration no doubt dictated by the available space.  I learned to swim there in a small open-topped ‘cage’ which had been hitched to one side of the pool.  The cage had netting on three sides and on its floor, allowing a view to the bottom of the pool but with the security of knowing that one couldn’t sink below the level of the net.  Flo Elliott, a learn-to swim-instructor whose son trained in Cecil’s squad, gave me the confidence to let go of the net and take my first freestyle strokes in that cage.  I was four years’ old.

In 1966 Cecil set up a summer swim camp at Bethlehem, a Free State town with an outdoor 50-metre pool.  The accommodation was a row of self-contained villa units set on Loch Athlone, a recreational lake which was also the town’s water supply.  A cement replica of the Athlone Castle, a passenger liner in the Union Castle fleet, was permanently moored on the lake; the ‘ship’ had a number of restaurants and cafés, and a ‘gangplank’ connecting it to land.  I attended two of these camps and remember them for Cecil’s constant reference to Newton’s Third Law of Motion – ‘for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction’ – to demonstrate the hand recovery in backstroke; and the tireless efforts of his wife, Margaret, in providing wholesome food to a bunch of kids who would rather have had burgers from the Athlone Castle.  I don’t remember ever having been sworn at, which I take to have meant that I’d been assessed as non-champion material.

Cecil left South Africa in 1971.  He spent two years coaching in Australia before being headhunted to a top swimming position in Canada in 1973.  He remained there until his death in 2012, aged 85.  His son, Robert, whom I remember as a tousle-haired toddler from the Bethlehem camp days, described how he sat with his close-to-death father in an Ottawa hospice and watched as ‘…(he) raised up (his arm) from under the covers and started to practice a freestyle entry!  I must tell you it was still flawless.’[3]

As more suitable indoor pools were built in Johannesburg, Hillbrow fell out of fashion as a squad training venue.   For a while it was used by the Summit Club, the first multiracial strip club in South Africa.  A photo taken in 1971, from the Club’s all-white period, is the last record of Hillbrow pool I’ve been able to find.


Goldblatt, D. 2010. TJ: Johannesburg photographs 1948-2010.











The pool’s fate is something of a mystery.  It is not mentioned among the venues listed on the Summit Club’s website.  My Johannesburg contacts don’t know what’s become of it.  Last week I fired off a query to the three communications and marketing contacts listed on Johannesburg City Council’s website; if I ever hear from any of them, I’ll update this post.

I became a good, but not a great swimmer.  I put my ordinariness down to a combination of some talent and not nearly enough fire in the belly.  But I’ve never regretted the training, the trips and the lifelong friendships forged through swimming.  Or the self-discipline that the sport gave me.

[1]              Thanks to my friend, Marissa Rollnick, for expanding this list.

[2]    ;



She was born on 27 November 1906, the year in which the British Labour Party was founded, Alfred Dreyfus was exonerated, and the International Radiotelegraph Conference agreed on “SOS” as the global standard distress signal.  In South Africa, Gandhi led the Indian community in the first passive resistance march against social injustice, the African National Congress sent a delegation to Britain protesting new legislation in the Orange Free State that had stripped blacks of legally acquired land, and tuberculosis reached epidemic proportions.

Early photos of Julia show a child who was dressed in the height of fashion and wore the latest accessories.  To the extent that a comfortable life can be inferred from such details, it came to an abrupt halt when Harry died.  The fourteen-year-old Julia was taken out of school and sent to work to support her mother and my then eight-year-old father.  I’d hear that a young man would later claim a special place in her heart, but due to her reduced circumstances or his family’s subsequent redirection of his affections elsewhere – perhaps both – that relationship did not progress.  When she married Issy, a Latvian-born dealer in bathroom accessories, she was 28.  Old for the times.

Julia was the aunt to whom I was despatched as a toddler, too young to travel overseas with my parents and siblings.  I spent three months in Johannesburg with her and Issy, and their daughters, Hilarye and Rosalind.  I celebrated my second birthday with them, the occasion recorded in a photo of me blowing out candles on a birthday cake, flanked by my smiling cousins.

The single-level house at 75 Louis Botha Avenue in Houghton – where Nelson Mandela would one day occupy a grand mansion – became synonymous with holidays in Johannesburg.  It was small compared with the double-storey home of my childhood, but it did boast several things that ours didn’t, including a tennis court and two bathrooms.  There were also burglar bars on every window, reinforcing the perception that Johannesburg was a much more dangerous place than Cape Town.  And, of course, it was.  While lying in bed one afternoon, Issy noticed a fishing rod poking through the bars of an open window.  He watched as the rod advanced towards the dumb valet where his jacket was hung, flipping open the left front.  By the time he understood the purpose of this exercise, the rod, which was liberally covered in razor blades, had retreated from view with his wallet.

My aunt was a short version of my father, but with brown eyes and more hair.  They had the same crinkly – and slightly mischievous – smiles which seemed to start at the corners of their eyes and travel down to their mouths.  Julia’s most distinctive feature, however, was at the other end of her body.  During the day, her feet would rise like loaves of bread in a warm oven, their skyward progress accentuated by the unyielding toes of her shoes.  I was endlessly fascinated by her swollen feet and hoped that this condition was not genetic.

Julia’s house was populated with dogs, always German shepherds, and good food.  Every morning bulkes – yeast buns – would emerge from the oven, hot on the heels of a cooked breakfast.  There was delicious yogurt in glass pots, stopped with a disc of cardboard under which a layer of cream lurked.  Julia’s Danish herring, with its sweet tomato base, was more approachable to my child’s palate than the vinegary tang of Mom’s pickled herring.  In the pantry, a jar of glacé cherries was regularly topped up to indulge my love of crystallised fruit.

When my turn came to travel overseas, Julia gave me a diary.  At the time, it seemed like doing homework and I was resentful of such a thoughtless gift.  But I dutifully scribbled in it, letting go of the discipline only in the last week of the trip.  No further diaries were pressed upon me and, without the prod, I kept no records of subsequent travel.  But a seed had been sown.  It would take 35 years for it to germinate and, since 1999, I have made notes on every overseas trip I’ve undertaken and of many local ones too; my only regret is that I didn’t pick up the habit earlier.  It appears I was not the first journal keeper in the family.  Among the various items we found when packing up my mother’s apartment in the early noughties were my father’s travel diaries and some of Mom’s jottings.

Julia was habitually late for everything.  Even when she was ready to go out, she would find some excuse not to leave on time.  I remember an occasion in the 1960s when we were preparing to go to the new Cinerama[1] where How the West Was Won was showing.  I was bursting with excitement about seeing a movie projected onto three[2] screens, wondering how they would achieve the curved effect and whether I would see the joins.  We were going nowhere, however, until Julia had finished combing the knots out of her granddaughter’s hair.

I saw Julia less often during the 1970s.  The family dynamic had changed and I now had the choice of staying with my brother, who had relocated to Johannesburg in 1972.  Issy died in 1974, the end of his life spent in a dementia care facility.  Four years later we were rocked by the news that Rosalind had committed suicide in London.  I can’t imagine the grief Julia must have suffered, and the questions that would never be answered.

On a return visit to South Africa in 1986, I rang to arrange a time to visit.  Julia was still living at the house on Louis Botha Avenue, with the two domestic servants I remembered from the 1960s.  She was almost blind and her feet were still rising up in her shoes.  There were no dogs nor the smell of freshly baked bulkes.  I was ushered into the formal reception room where my surviving cousin and her daughter, on account of whose knotted hair we’d been late for the movies twenty years ago, were seated.  Julia was cool, the others belligerent.  There was a grievance held by another party, they said, as they  looked in my direction.  I was shocked and hurt, but mostly I was dismayed by their misrepresentation of the facts.

It was the last time I saw Julia.  She died on 5 May 1997.  Four days earlier, Tony Blair’s New Labour had been swept to victory in Britain with the largest margin in its history.  In South Africa, a newly emancipated Nelson Mandela was negotiating a transition to majority rule with the then Nationalist government.  The incidence of TB was about to soar once again.[3]

On a visit to Johannesburg in 2014, I decided to look for Julia’s grave.  We drove out to Westpark Cemetery, a sprawling multi-denominational burial ground, with a printout of the plot location tucked into my handbag.  The office at the main gate was unattended, but a passing official gave us directions to the Jewish section.  ‘Go out the gate, turn left, pass five gates and you’ll see it.  You won’t miss it, darling,’ she said.  We drove through the fifth gate and parked near a function centre where a funeral service had just concluded.  Friends and family of the deceased were spilling onto the steps, a black man in a yarmulke an incongruity in the all-white crowd.  I approached an elderly man and asked where P Section was.  ‘Ten minutes on foot’, he said, pointing toward a clump of trees in the distance, his breath reeking of stale cigarette smoke and bad dentition.  Over at P Section I showed the printout to one of the attendants.  He nodded and set off at a trot, stopping at the end of a row.  He made a show of pulling weeds from the grave – there were barely any – then hurled a bucket of water at the tombstone, buffing up the lettering with a cloth.  I gave him 20 Rands, took a few snaps and left.

Julia and Issy had always intended to lie side-by-side at Westpark.  After Rosalind’s death, Julia offered up her plot so that her daughter could be interred alongside her father.  With no room left in the row, my aunt was squeezed into the grass verge between the last grave and a roadway.

Time is a great provider of perspective.  Despite the unfortunate circumstances of our last encounter, I remember Julia with fondness.   The three months of care was an extraordinary gift, even if I don’t remember any of it.  Whenever I stayed with her she looked after me with the responsibility and affection of a parent.  I should also give her credit for having influenced my writing career.  Without that first diary, I may never have taken up the habit in later life.


[2]              The early system required shooting three synchronised cameras that shared a single shutter, giving a 146-degree field of view.  The ‘joins’ between the screens were clearly visible.

[3]              ‘The increasing burden of tuberculosis in rural South Africa – impact of the HIV epidemic’ South African Medical Journal vol. 87, 4, April 1997.

One last crack at a marriage record

‘What we have are the Jewish Orthodox marriage application records, divorce, conversion and adoption records for the Johannesburg area and the surrounding towns/areas…If you want to search under any of the above categories that we do keep, you will need to provide me with full names and surnames of the people, the full date of marriage and shul of marriage…Please also be aware that there are UOS (Union of Orthodox Synagogues) admin fees that apply to cover the searching as well as manual and electronic archival retrieval and scanning of documents etc. These fees can range from R300- to R800 and sometimes more than that; it all depends on the extent of the search…’

It was as if I’d been dismissed from class.  I was less put out by the open-ended nature of the fee quote – although I don’t like entering into such arrangements – than that Nirit Selbst, custodian of archival records at the Johannesburg Beth Din[1], had asked for the very details I was trying to establish: the date and synagogue of my grandparents’ marriage.

I tucked the response into an email folder and mentally closed the file.  That was in September 2012.  Two years later, finding myself in Johannesburg and bruised from the year-long Home Affairs encounter, I reconsidered.  I offered to come into the Beth Din’s office and do the research myself.  And I’d pay whatever fees were involved.

It was one of those hot dry days that precede the set-your-clock-by-the-4pm-storm that is so typical of a Highveld summer.  For the sake of decorum, I donned trousers – the black and white jazzy pair I’d picked up at a pop-art shop in Sydney’s Darlinghurst district – and teamed them up with a plain short-sleeve shirt and sandals.

I was buzzed in through a security gate at the street entrance.  There was another check at the entrance to the administration office and a third one at the staff door where Nirit was waiting to meet me.  Her manner was friendly, a nice contrast to the long-distance exchange of 2012.  Barely five-foot tall, I guessed her to be in the late thirties.  She was wearing dark trousers and a long-sleeve top.  My gaze came to rest on her too-perfect hair; from the parting, I could tell that it was a sheitel.[2]

We walked to a small anteroom which opened into a vault where the records were kept, its entrance secured by a thick door like one you would find in a bank.  Against each wall were floor-to-ceiling shelves randomly packed with boxes, books and folders.

Nirit pointed to the stacks which held records for my period of interest.  I started pulling out books, getting onto my knees to reach the lower shelves.  I piled the books on the small wooden desk in the anteroom and started working my way through them.  A man in a black frock coat and yarmulke – I assumed he was a rabbi – came into the anteroom to look for something.  I read into his sideways glance a flicker of distaste.  Perhaps it was my uncovered arms.  Or my imagination.

After an hour, I wandered over to the accounts section to make a donation.  When she heard where I came from, the woman handling the transaction started talking about her son who lived in Bondi.  She had visited Australia twelve times, she said.  Despite this, I detected a singularly Eastern Suburbs-centric view of Sydney which tends to form in people who don’t stray far from the Bondi bubble.

The conversation drifted to the topic of Sydney’s property prices.  The woman told me that her son resented ‘all the Chinese buying up property because it was preventing him from getting into the market.’  I wondered if I should tell her about the investment rules that limit non-resident foreign nationals to buying property ‘off-the-plan’; and that such development occurs mostly in suburbs remote from Bondi.  That in looking for something to buy, her son was most likely competing with cashed-up locals or other migrants – including South Africans – with the same rights to residency as he had.  There was a lot I could say about a myth rooted in the type of prejudice that she and I had grown up with.  Instead, I gave a sympathetic nod and waited for my receipt.

There was no record of marriage application in the Beth Din archives.  I might have known.

[1]              An ecclesiastical court that presides over, among others, kosher certification of restaurants and food manufacturers, conversion to Judaism, bills of divorce, questions relating to burial practice, authorising who can carry out circumcisions, adjudicating technical points of Jewish law, etc.  In Orthodox Judaism, it consists of three observant Jewish men who are often rabbis.

[2]              Yiddish word for the wig worn by some Jewish Orthodox married women to comply with the requirement of Jewish law to cover their hair.