Statues, synagogues and schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The river’s secret

‘Orange River’s coming up!’
We took up our positions along the bank of windows in the corridor.
As the sashes dropped, a mix of soot and Karoo air rushed into the passageway. Half-a-dozen bolsters, the much mocked plastic cylinders of rail travel and the only item of furniture not nailed down, were pitched through open windows, their intended destination anywhere outside the train but preferably the muddy waters a few hundred metres below.
As I made to position the missile on the window ledge, it snagged my wallet.
‘I won’t be buying you another one.’ There had been no sympathy from my mother.

On the other side of the river and another 110 kilometres up the track lies the town of Kimberley. The longest I’d ever spent there was the half hour allotted to this stop between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Just long enough to walk the platform and swig a bottle of the locally made ginger beer. In February 1965, I would extend that length of time by a few days.

Kimberley is, of course, known for diamonds. The first gemstone was found on the banks of the Orange River in 1866; five years later another discovery on a small hill launched the town of New Rush. Thousands of prospectors flattened the hill in a frenzy of digging, picking away at the landscape until a gaping hole appeared.  This was the Kimberley Mine, affectionately known as the Big Hole.

The diamond fields lie in the elbow of the confluence of the Orange and Vaal Rivers, within the natural borders of the Orange Free State. Four stakeholders claimed them:  the Cape Colony, the South African and Orange Free State republics, and the local Griqua tribe whose leader, Nikolaas Waterboer, fancied that his interests would be best served by placing them under British protection. The area became known as Griqualand West, transitioning through Crown Colony status and then to incorporation within the Cape Colony in 1877. With their asset gone, Waterboer and his people lost influence. Their lands were progressively bought up by prospectors and it wasn’t long before licences to mine or deal in diamonds were the privilege of whites only.

But I hadn’t come to Kimberley for diamonds. My primary purpose was to compete in a national schools swimming tournament; specifically, the girls under fourteen 110 yards backstroke. And there would be tough competition from the hometown girl, Karen Muir, who’d shown impressive form in recent outings.

On that summer afternoon in February, I took my position behind the block a few lanes away from Karen, heart pounding as it always does in the moments before the start of an event. At the sound of the whistle I jumped in feet first, turned around to face the wall and gripped the handle on the block. I lined my feet up against the wall, one foot slightly higher than the other, toes just below the water level. This is my technique for mitigating the backstroker’s worst nightmare: sliding down the wall at the sound of the gun.
‘Take your  marks.’
I tensed my buttocks and lifted my body higher out of the water, pulling myself towards the wall to allow for maximum thrust. The gun popped.  We were off and racing. Or rather, Karen was. A quarter of a minute separated us at the finish. She’d clipped two seconds off her personal best time; I’d added at least that much to mine. My backstroke career was on the skids.

A few months later, Karen would break the world record over the same distance in Blackpool, making her the youngest swimmer ever, at 12, to achieve such a feat in any stroke and distance. Over the next five years, she lowered world marks in every backstroke event, the only honour denied her an Olympic Games medal. In December 1967, Karen handed a note to the American gold medallist Don Schollander, as he was about to board a flight in Cape Town towards the end of his tour of South Africa.  The message implored him to do anything possible to enable South Africa to compete in the Mexico Olympics the following year.  This was all she’d lived and trained for, she said, a chance to prove herself in Olympic competition.  The International Olympic Committee briefly flirted with this idea, but after several African nations threatened a boycott it was quickly scuttled. I wonder what she could have achieved, given the opportunity.

The last time I saw Karen compete was at an intervarsity competition in Durban in 1971. She’d retired from elite swimming; the whippet-like physique had given way to a more rounded figure and cellulite had started to dimple her thighs. At the starter’s whistle the competitors bent down on the blocks, Karen the last to go down. The other competitors and spectators waited patiently.  Then she toppled off the block. According to today’s rules, that would be grounds for instant disqualification; back then, there were two more chances. Again we waited politely as she emerged from the pool to prepare for the second start. As if in slow motion, she went down on the block, but this time managed to hold her balance. This was not how I wished to remember the great Karen Muir.

I often wonder what happened to the myriad bolsters that we pitched from the train. If they’d made it to the river mouth a thousand kilometres west, they would have had an eventful journey; through the desert region of the Northern Cape, bumping down the cascades of the Augrabies Falls, passing the point where the Orange River defines the border between South Africa and Namibia, and floating gently towards the alluvial banks that open to the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve kayaked a stretch of the river that borders Namibia and it is truly a spectacular landscape.

Or were there grateful hands on the banks below the bridge, waiting to catch the gifts showered from above? Hands that belonged to people as familiar with the Orange River ritual as we were? Which may have caught my wallet?

What tales the river could tell.