She was the young bride whose photo stood on a dresser in what was euphemistically referred to as the ‘homework room’.  The dress was white and I recall some lace, but if you were to ask me to describe what the woman looked like, the best I could do would be to say that she had dark hair and brown eyes.  This was because whenever I looked at that photo my eye went straight to the flowers she was holding below her waist.  The triangle-shaped bouquet seemed to sprout directly from the woman’s pelvic region.  I didn’t understand how my parents allowed such a rude photo to be on public display.

Rose Kantor was born circa 1876 in the Lithuanian town of Šiauliai – or Shavel in Yiddish.  Located on a major road and railway intersection, Shavel was Lithuania’s third-largest town at the turn of the century and well-known for its leather industry.  It was also predominantly Jewish with more than half of its population representative of that faith.

Rose left before the persecution began.  It started in 1915 when Tsar Nicholas II expelled Shavel’s entire Jewish community as reprisal for Russian losses at the hands of German troops advancing on the Eastern Front[1]; in 1941 it was almost permanently obliterated when 8,000 Jews were killed by the Germans.[2]

In a conversation I had with my mother in 1997, she described Rose as the ‘youngest of 16 children from Lithuania.  She came from a rich family who sent her to South Africa to get married.’  I have tempered this anecdote with the knowledge that Mom often reinterpreted the facts and that while the diagnosis of dementia was still to come, it is possible my mother’s memory was already playing tricks when we had this chat. The public record shows that Rose was one of three children, which is likely to be closer to the truth.  I recall only ever hearing about two of Rose’ siblings: an older sister Charlotta, who also emigrated to South Africa, and a brother Gabriel whose last known whereabouts was a ship bound for America.  My middle name is a nod to his existence.

If there was one thing Harry would have been impressed with on meeting Rose, it was her height: she was close to six feet tall and, in the family photo I have, she towers over him.  A combination of genes and good diet, no doubt.  I know that she was a competent cook because my mother never tired of telling me about the potato salad recipe Rose gave her, having assumed that boiling the spuds first was understood.

All I know is that they married in Johannesburg.  Assuming that Harry met Rose after he emerged from gaol and that theirs wasn’t a shotgun wedding, there is an approximate eighteen-month window during which the marriage could have taken place.  If at such time Family Search adds civil registration records for Johannesburg that extend beyond 1900, I may find out the precise details.

Of course, deep in the bowels of South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs is a copy of Harry and Rose’ marriage certificate.  This has proved as easy to retrieve as it is to remove gold bullion from Fort Knox.  Every now and again I have notions of driving to the South African Embassy in Canberra and starting the process anew.  Then I remind myself how a researcher in South Africa spent 12 months doing just that and got nowhere.  I remember my brother-in-law’s frustrated attempts to procure  a vault copy of his birth certificate.  I continue to read about the experiences of others who have run into the brick wall that calls itself Home Affairs.  And I satisfy myself that Rose and Harry said ‘I do’ in a synagogue somewhere in Johannesburg between 1904 and 1906.

The wedding photo did not survive my parents’ move.  I wouldn’t mind having it now.

[1]              Many returned in the 1920s.



A gap year

Towards the end of his prison term, Harry received a summons to appear in the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court.  The wording was clear and concise: to show why his name should not be removed from the list of law agents allowed to practise in the Transvaal.  Explicit mention was made of the bribery conviction.

On 7 October 1904, having been appraised of the content of Rex versus Saltman and Schapiro, Henry Rose Innes – Pretoria’s Resident Magistrate – handed down his decision.

I was curious to see if this Rose Innes was connected to the judge, James, who had presided at Harry’s criminal trial.  The trail led me to the marriage of Henry to Mary Elizabeth Hazlehurst in July 1894; in December of the same year her sister, Emma Eliza Hazlehurst, married a James Rose Innes (not the judge, I’ve found).  The men were both attorneys and may have been brothers.  Just to round off this incidence of coincidence, both marriages took place in Barberton, a small town near the Swaziland border.   Illuminating as this digression was, I still don’t know if the judge who put my ancestor behind bars was related to the magistrate who would then strip him of his livelihood.

Henry Rose Innes extended Harry’s time in the wilderness by a year.  This was his second eighteen-month period of unemployment, but whereas the first had been thrust upon him by the Anglo-Boer War, he had only himself to blame for the next one. A third of it had passed in gaol; but what was he to do with another 12 months of forced inactivity?

To have more than one career is almost a given these days.  Even doctors, whose trajectories seem so assured, don’t always stick with the trade; thirty-five years after having completed his residency at Sydney’s St Vincent’s hospital, George Miller was holding the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for the movie Happy Feet.   Lawyers are famous for reinventing themselves; John Cleese, Gerard Butler and Andrea Bocelli are good examples in the entertainment world.  Within my own circle, I have known people to have swapped the law for non-profits, digital marketing or coffee shops; one of them now writes children’s books.

In early 1905, Harry pulled out a sheet of letterhead, crossed out the words ‘at law’ after ‘agent’ and wrote to the Colonial Secretary asking for application forms to register as a dental student.

The mere mention of the word, dentist, triggers childhood memories of fear and terror.  I grew up at a time when fluoride was unheard of and fillings were the bread and butter of South African practitioners.  Drills were Heath Robinson affairs and shots were given only if a tooth was to be pulled.  From the expression on his face, the cavities in my teeth were to the family dentist what the Big Hole is to Kimberley.  For two years I contrived to stay away, ‘forgetting’ to remind my mother that I was due for a check-up.  It took at least two sessions to deal with the fallout.

A reply was swift.  There were no forms to be completed, but everything one needed to know about becoming a dentist could be found at Section 27 of the Medical, Dental and Pharmacy Ordinance.  Harry either had second thoughts or – more likely – was prevailed upon by whomever was supporting him this time around, to wait out the 12-month suspension and do something productive with the time.  A part of me is sorry that he never became a dentist; I’m sure the collective family choppers would have been much better off if he had.

In November 1905 Harry was reinstated as a practising law agent in Pretoria.  Around that time, there was another development.  He’d met someone.  Her name was Rose.



Time out

At 6 a.m. the prisoners were allowed out into the yard, where they had the option of exercising throughout the day. The lavatories and bathing arrangements consisted of a tap in the yard and an open furrow through which the town water ran, the lower end of which was used as a wash-place by prisoners, white and black alike. Within a foot or two of the furrow where alone washing of the person or of clothing was allowed stood the gaol urinals. There was neither adequate provision in this department nor any attempt at proper supervision, the result being that…the ground on both sides of the water-furrow for six or eight yards was horribly stained and saturated by leakage…there were at that time over 250 prisoners, about 100 of whom were white. There were three closets and six buckets for the accommodation of all, and removals took place sometimes once a day, sometimes once in every four days. Nothing but the horror of such conditions, and the fact that they prevail still in Pretoria Gaol, and presumably in other gaols more removed from critical supervision, could warrant allusions to such a disgusting state of affairs. At 6.15 breakfast was served. A number of tin dishes, containing one pound of mealiemeal porridge (ground maize) each were placed in a row on the ground in the yard in the same manner as a dog’s food might be set out. A bucket nearby contained some coarse salt in the condition in which it was collected in the natural salt pans, the cubes varying from the size of peas to the size of acorns. No sugar, milk, tea, or coffee, was allowed. In order to utilize the salt the prisoners were obliged to crush it with rough stones on the cement steps…To those who had not tasted it before in the course of prospecting or up-country travelling where conditions are sometimes very hard, it was no more possible to swallow it than to eat sawdust.  Dinner was at twelve o’clock, and it consisted of coarse meat boiled to that degree which was calculated to qualify the water in which it was boiled to be called soup, without depriving the meat of all title to be considered a separate dish. With this meal was also served half a pound of bread. Supper, which was provided at five o’clock, was exactly the same as breakfast.[1]

These were the conditions that greeted four Uitlander reformers in the wake of the failed 1896 Jameson raid, as reported by James Percy Fitzpatrick.  Better known as the author of Jock of the Bushveld, Fitzpatrick was a South African politician, mining financier and farmer, as well as an advocate for English-speaking Uitlanders in the ZAR. He reserved his harshest criticism for the judge who had initially sentenced the four, one of whom was Colonel Frank Rhodes – brother of Cecil – to death.  In describing Reinhold Gregorowski, Fitzpatrick referred to  ‘…the peculiar severity of his sentences on all except Boers.  He had moreover expressed openly in Bloemfontein his wish that he might have the trying of “those reformers; he would give them what for.”’[2]  The Uitlanders‘ sentences were subsequently commuted to 15 years in prison, but they were released within a few months on payment of a fine.

Constructed in 1873, Pretoria’s second gaol accommodated prisoners of all races.  It had a yard and wardens’ accommodation on site, and a gallows in the garden where public executions were carried out on Saturdays.  A couple of photos survive (Source:






Walking past the gaol one Saturday in 1896, Jan de Veer made the following observations:

‘Around the old jail a thick stone wall had been built and on top of this was a lot of broken glass to prevent the convicts from escaping. One morning, when we went to the station at quarter to six, the whole area was surrounded by armed police on horseback. We enquired what was going on and were given the answer that six murderers were to be hung and if we went to the other side of the street and stood on the big rock we would be able to see them being hung. From there we could see the gallows, the murderers coming with a bag over their head. The noose was placed around the neck and suddenly they fell down and we saw nothing more than a moving rope.’[3]

The gaol continued to host prisoners during the Anglo-Boer War.  After being taken there on 21 February 1902, Lieutenant George Witton had this to say about it.

‘…This was the first time I had ever been inside a civil prison. My first impressions were anything but encouraging; the warders appeared most uncivil. The first one we met told us in a domineering manner to “face the wall,” then commenced to order us about. On being taken to the reception room, we were stripped and our clothing carefully searched; we were then examined, and a complete description for identification purposes taken. Our own clothes were returned to us, and we were then taken to separate cells and locked up–in the quarters where Dr. Jameson and his followers had been confined after his disastrous and abortive raid on the Boer Republic a few years previous.’[4]

The British Army had charged Witton, together with Lieutenants Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and Peter Handcock[5], with the shooting of eight Boer prisoners in a vengeance killing in the Northern Transvaal in 1901.  Morant and Handcock were also charged with the separate murder of three Boers, and Handcock with the murder of a German missionary and one of his own troopers.  Witton petitioned Kitchener, and his sentence was commuted to 15 years in prison, of which he served two, most of it in England.  Morant and Handcock – whose story is immortalised in Peter Weir’s film, Breaker Morant – weren’t as fortunate.  They were executed on 27 February 1902, less than a week after having set foot inside Pretoria Gaol.  It was a Thursday.

The prison was not well fortified and several escapes occurred during its lifetime.  In August 1903, 500 black convicts tried to break out.  One of the prisoners dashed his plate of porridge into the face of a warder, a signal for the others to follow suit.  In the confusion that followed they tried to rush the gates, but were pushed back by the warders ‘after a fierce and exciting struggle.’[6]   Also around this time, six black prisoners escaped by ‘cutting their way out of the gaol with a tin opener.’[7]

By May 1904, Pretoria Gaol had become home to Harry and an accomplice, Simon Schapiro.  Their six-month sentences provided plenty of opportunity to reflect on the events that had put them in there.

On 3 December 1903, Harry met with Daniel Donavan, a liquor traffic inspector.  A client, Herman Hamburg, had applied for a liquor licence to the Liquor Licensing Court and Harry made Donavan aware that if he would guarantee safe passage of the application through the Court, then Hamburg would give the inspector £500.  The day before the Court was due to decide the matter, the offer was repeated to Donavan, this time by Schapiro.

Both Harry and Schapiro were indicted at the Pretoria Criminal Sessions on charges of bribery and being guilty of knowingly committing a crime on behalf of another person.  Arguments on question of law raised the matter for consideration before the Transvaal Supreme Court.  It was heard on 23 April, the day after Harry turned 28.

On opposite sides of the bench were counsel for the accused, Reinhold Gregorowski – who after the War had resumed practice at the bar – and his successor as Chief Justice of the Transvaal Court, James Rose Innes.  The latter, whose resumé included a parliamentary career in the Cape Colony and leadership of the Cape bar, had been critical of Kruger’s Uitlander policy in the lead up to the War.  In 1896, the British government decided to send him to observe – on behalf of British, American and Belgian subjects – the trial of Uitlander reformers associated with the Jameson Raid.  The then ZAR government objected to Fitzpatrick’s involvement in the trial, and his participation was limited to sitting at the counsels’ table and consulting and advising with the Pretoria barristers employed to defend the prisoners.[8]  At that time, Gregorowski was a judge of the ZAR High Court.

It would be impossible to intuit whether old antipathies had any bearing on the outcome of Harry’s and Schapiro’s trial.  From available accounts Innes was a skilled lawyer and an honourable man who earned respect across the different language groups and races; he would go on to become Chief Justice of a united South Africa. In delivering judgment, he found the accused guilty of

‘…wrongfully and unlawfully promis(ing) to the said Daniel Donavan, being…in the service of the colony of the Transvaal, that if he…would in conflict with his duty…recommend the granting by the Liquor Licensing Court…of a liquor licence to Herman Hamburg,…, he,…Daniel Donavan, would receive the sum of five hundred pounds sterling.’[9]

and sentenced the two men to six months prison without hard labour, ordering them to pay a fine of £400 pounds each.  The fine was set aside after Harry and Schapiro declared that they had no funds, and no goods could be found to an equal value.

By early October, Harry was due for release from Pretoria Gaol.  But the courts weren’t finished with him yet.

[1]              Fitzpatrick, J.P. The Transvaal from within: a private record of public affairs 1899 pp204-5

[2]              Ibid page 245.

[3]              De Veer, Jan Memoirs Historical papers, Wits University A.D. van Doornum, 2013.  Page 24.

[4]              Witton, G. Scapegoats of the Empire: the true story of Breaker Morant’s Bushveldt Carbineers 1907, page 68.

[5]              At the time the three were serving with the Bushveldt Carbineers, an irregular unit based in the northern Transvaal during the Anglo-Boer War.

[6]              Report syndicated to various overseas press e.g. The Ballarat Star 1 September 1903.

[7]              Reported in The Johannesburg Star, syndicated to various overseas press e.g. The Lithgow Mercury, 4 September 1903.

[8]              Fitzpatrick, op.cit. pages181-2.

[9]              Rex v Saltman & Schapiro, 355, Transvaal Supreme Court May 2,3 1904.  Innes, C.J., and Solomon and Curlewis, J.J.


I saw that she had viewed my LinkedIn profile.  On the other side of the Indian Ocean, I was busy digging up whatever the Internet had to offer on Rentia Landman.

I’d networked my way to Rentia while searching for information; when I mentioned the possibility of a visit to Pretoria in September 2014, she offered to be our host for a day.  All we had to do was get ourselves to the suburb of Centurion – train from Johannesburg would be best – and the rest would be in her hands.

An arm waved through the window of a grey sedan; we needed to come quickly because Rentia was in a restricted parking zone.  We hopped in and I appraised our host: tall, lean and immaculately groomed.  If I hadn’t known better, I’d have put her in her late fifties; she was seventy.  From my investigations, I knew that she had a PhD in Education, was active in the Freedom Front Plus Party – a collection of conservative groups whose core aim is to protect Afrikaner culture, education and values – and had represented this party on the Tswhane Metropolitan Council.[1]  I’d also read that she’d been assaulted in front of her house, tied up and dragged inside while the robbers looked for cash and valuables.  While she’d feared for her life, her main concern was the mess her blood-stained body would make on the carpet and that her husband would find her.[2]

Rentia was candid about her political leanings, saving me having to tiptoe around what can be a delicate issue.  She admitted that her happiest times were when preparing policies for the education minister under the previous government.  1994 changed all that.
‘We were never able to get work again.’
It was said with no bitterness but must have been hard at the time.

Sometime later, after having presented a paper on educational funding allocation at a conference, she was approached by an eager African National Congress delegation.
‘Did they want to offer you work?’ I asked.
‘Oh no, they only wanted my ideas.’  She laughed.

She talked at length of the history of the Afrikaner people and risks to their future in a country subject to majority rule.  I was surprised to hear that her maternal grandfather was a Scot, until she mentioned that a Scottish contingent had fought with the Boer forces during the Second Anglo-Boer War.

As we drove past the Union Buildings[3], I noticed a bronze statue of a rider in its grounds.  I asked who he was.
‘That’s Louis Botha.  We don’t like him.  Too close to the English’.
Prior to the war, Botha – who would become a united South Africa’s first Prime Minister in 1910 – had taken a soft stand on Uitlander voting rights in the ZAR Volksraad.  Despite having led the guerrilla warfare phase of the conflict, he was regardede by many Afrikaners as having sold his countrymen short when negotiating the terms of peace.

Rentia was equally dismissive of Jan Smuts, state attorney under Kruger and a general in the Boer forces.  Smuts[4] is probably best known for his role in drafting the constitution of the League of Nations and served twice as Prime Minister of South Africa.  His decision to bring the country into the Second World War on the side of Britain offended many Afrikaners on both sides of the political divide.

The streets leading into the centre of Pretoria were being torn up to make way for a rapid bus transit lane, slowing the traffic almost to a standstill.  At the mention of the Culemborg Hotel, I pressed my face against the passenger window.  Now trading as the Pretoria Hof Hotel, it was shabby and dated.  Its ground floor shops were boarded up and a large sign mounted on the first-floor exterior advertised flats to rent.  I’d seen enough.

Rentia parked the car near Church Square.  Drawing inspiration from Trafalgar Square and the Place de la Concorde, the civic heart of Pretoria is surrounded by imposing buildings and its central park is dominated by a hero’s statue.  The hero is Paul Kruger and the statue was gifted by his great friend, Sammy Marks, a Lithuanian Jew whose path of travel to South Africa included a spell in Sheffield.  Marks, who made his fortune from the ZAR’s mines, donated the statue in gratitude for being allowed to build Pretoria’s first synagogue.img_8696

Most of the park visitors seemed not to notice the statue, perhaps because they’d walked past it so often or they simply didn’t care; almost all the people upon whom Kruger was fixing his stern gaze were from the group for whom he had the greatest contempt.  The pigeons were more attentive, one pecking at Kruger’s left foot while others looked for a perch on the base of the plinth.  img_8694

Many of Church Square’s buildings date back to the early days of the city.  The Palace of Justice, one of a pair of Italian Renaissance-style buildings that eye off each other from opposite ends of the square[5], is where in 1964 Nelson Mandela proclaimed from the dock that he was prepared to die for his ideal of democracy.  More recently, Pretoria’s High Court hosted the trial of paralympian, Oscar Pistorius, for the alleged murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

The churches after which the square was named have long since disappeared.  The last of them, the Toringkerk, was referred to by Mackenzie – perhaps a little harshly – as ‘a dreadfully ugly Dutch church, which deserves nothing better than to be pulled down and destroyed utterly,’.[6]   When it was demolished in 1904, some of its doors and windows were harvested for the Café Riche which opened on the western side of the square the following year.   img_8701

Rentia had suggested this café, Pretoria’s oldest, as our lunch spot.  ‘Your grandfather may have taken meals here.  Lots of lawyers did,’ she’d said.

Inside the double doors was a chic twenty-first century eatery with high tables, bar stools, beer on tap and a cake-filled bar fridge.  While we were working our way through our salads, a black man in a pinstripe suit walked into the café and threw his arms around Rentia.  She introduced her former Council colleague, a lawyer, and they continued a conversation in Afrikaans.  I gathered that they were commiserating over how long it took for the Council to make decisions.img_8715

After lunch, we walked the couple of blocks to Sammy Marks’ synagogue on Paul Kruger Street, last used for public worship in 1952 and as a venue for the inquest into the death of anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko, in 1977.[7]  It was secured by one of South Africa’s favourite fortifications, a cyclone fence topped with barbed wire.  Several years’ growth of gravity-defying weeds clung to the fence; behind it, the forlorn Byzantine façade of the synagogue peered out at the street, bare brick layers exposed by flaking paint.  It would have broken Marks’ heart to see it like this, a heritage order the only barrier between his beloved synagogue and oblivion.

Rentia walked so fast I was almost at a trot trying to keep up.  After a few wrong turns, we located the magistrate’s court on Pretorius Street, a one-way thoroughfare jammed with cars and buses.  The war-era building was unremarkable but for the fact that its third floor had been gutted by fire.  That happened in 2010.  According to the billboard in the grounds, repairs had been commissioned.

Opposite the court, where Harry’s office would have been, was a police depot behind a high brick wall.  An iron-railing gate slid open soundlessly to let us in, revealing a car park and a few sheds in need of maintenance.  Rentia asked the guard on duty if he knew anything about the building that occupied the site in the early twentieth century.  He didn’t.

In a week or two the jacarandas lining the route to the Hillcrest Pool would be awash in forests of purple, refreshing Pretoria’s tag as the Jacaranda City.  A female voice delivered instructions in Afrikaans from the GPS on the car’s windscreen.
Hilda Straat draai effens na links en word Duxbury Straat’.  Hilda Street turns slightly left and becomes Duxbury Street.  I wondered how far I’d get trying to sustain a conversation with Rentia in her first language.

The pool’s red-brick-and-turquoise-trim entry vestibule, with its tunnel opening into the main pool area, was little changed.  In addition to English and Afrikaans, standard caveats about the rights of admission and use of the facilities were provided in what could have been any of Setswana, Sepedi, Sesotho, Xitsonga or isiZulu.

The spectator stand and grassy patch were still there, even if my memory had inverted their positions and given the lawn a pitch to match that of the grandstand.  On it I saw the ghosts of Maureen Ross with her turned-down mouth and my mother wearing the self-satisfied smirk she reserved for those she’d skewered.

Despite 20 years of equal opportunity, there was little evidence to challenge the perception that swimming remains predominantly a white sport in South Africa.  I counted four black swimmers in the public lanes and none in the school squad being put through its paces in the off-limits area.  But my purpose was more than one simply of observation.  Over the twenty or so minutes it took me to churn through 20 laps, Pretoria’s altitude dragging on my progress, I mulled over the events of the day.  I knew that insight would come later and not all at once.


[1]              Which includes Pretoria and a host of surrounding suburbs.


[3]              Seat of the government.

[4]              Smuts served as Prime Minister from 1919 – 1924, and again from 1939 – 1948.

[5]              The other is the old Raadzaal, now Tshwane City Hall.

[6]              South Africa: its history, heroes and wars.  Horace Marshall & Son, 1900.  P395.

[7]              It was also the venue for the treason trials of Mandela, Walter Sisulu and 26 others between 1958 and 1963.


‘If it had been up to me, I would not have approved your application.’  It was April 1981 and we had just been interviewed by a consular official – we’ll call him Barry – at Australia House in London.

A month earlier, our bags had been stolen while we were travelling with a friend in Israel.  In them were our round-the-world flight tickets, $10,000 worth of travellers’ cheques and passports with tourist visas for Canada and the US, as well as our Australian permanent residency visas.  It was a shattering experience and I remember crying for the first couple of days.  While still in Israel we managed to replace the passports, flight tickets and most of the cheques.  We decided to leave the visas until we got to the UK.  To smooth the way with the Australian High Commission, my mother had cabled ahead authority for our residency visas previously issued by the Consulate in Cape Town.

A native of Adelaide whose ruddy complexion hinted at a drinking habit, Barry had kept us waiting for four weeks.  Part of that time we’d spent travelling around England and Scotland, calling up every few days – as he had suggested – for an update on what should have been an open-and-shut case.  Each inquiry was met with a ‘not yet’ and peppered with Barry’s unique brand of vindictiveness.  ‘Why are you wasting time driving around the UK when you should be in Australia looking for work?’ he’d say.  For Barry, in want of someone to kick in the wake of Malcolm Fraser’s cuts to public sector staffing levels, we were manna from heaven.


When war broke out in 1899, the Transvaal gold mines were shut down.  Even after the British occupied the Transvaal, it was almost a year before the first of them, the Meyer and Charlton gold mine on the outskirts of Johannesburg, reopened in May 1901.  Having overcome the threat of sabotage – some Boer leaders wanted to destroy the mines rather than have them fall into enemy hands – Britain had had to turn its attention to a more immediate reality.  With civilian administrations in the new colonies racking up debt and the cost of the war running to £2 ½ million per month, finding new sources of funds was imperative.[1]

On the occupation of Pretoria in June 1900, Colonel J.G. Maxwell was appointed Military Governor of the Transvaal with, among others, oversight of the concentration camps included in his duties.  A graduate of Sandhurst Royal Military College, Maxwell served in Egypt with Kitchener, and then in the Sudan before leading a division on Lord Roberts’ march to Pretoria.  His second-in-command, Major J Weston Peters, also a graduate of Sandhurst, served in India and then South Africa where he occupied various positions as well as seeing action in the Orange Free State and at Johannesburg.

These men either had no aptitude for or much interest in the daily tedium of government.  Roberts left behind a muddled transport system and endless hospital red tape in Bloemfontein[2] while Kitchener was easily bored with administrative problems.[3]  For his own part, Maxwell had little empathy for humanitarian issues arising in the camps, remarking to Kitchener in May 1901 that ‘…the death rate amongst the children is higher than it should be owing to the crass stupidity and neglect by the mothers themselves.’[4]  Under the military administration, mortality rates in the camps achieved new heights for most of 1901; in an attempt to reduce them, responsibility for management of the camps was transferred to civilian authorities in November.

A report filed by the Sydney Morning Herald’s special correspondent around this time described Pretoria as a place where ‘most of the business places, as well as the public buildings, have been renovated.  Though martial law still rules, its restrictions are not severely felt, and life there passes quietly and indeed monotonously.  The business people still complain of the difficulty in bringing up supplies from the coast, but…the shops are surprisingly well stocked with necessities, the prices of which, regulated by the military authorities, are exceedingly reasonable compared with those ruling at Cape Town or Durban.’

Despite Pretoria’s agreeable character, anyone wanting news of the outside world was unlikely to find it in the Transvaal capital. ”We know absolutely nothing of what is going on,” the correspondent was told, “beyond what we learn from an occasional official summary which Lord Kitchener allows to be pasted up, and from Natal and English journals whose news, of course, is somewhat old by the time it reaches us.”[5]

At this time, Harry approached the Military Governor’s office on a business matter of an unspecified nature.


a-025If I’d been treated like that, I’d have complained too!  Although something in me does wonder, not about the content of this rather long-winded letter, but about what may deliberately have been left unsaid.

The last thing Mr Burns – a dour Scot steeped in the etiquette of late-Victorian Britain – needed was someone bursting into his office and demanding instant attention.  He had enough of his own work to do without having to field Major Peters’ rejects.  They were all the same, these impatient young South Africans with their sense of entitlement.  Whatever this man’s business was, he didn’t want to know about it.  Not today, anyway.  Hailing an office boy, Mr Burns gestured towards the door.  The lad placed a hand on Harry’s elbow and led him away.

In the interests of providing balance, I thought it fair to include Mr Burns’ point of view.  And as he doesn’t have a public profile, I’ve fashioned one for him and constructed a scene around his imagined outburst.  I had fun doing it.  So having both parties’ perspectives and putting to one side any familial obligation, who did I decide was the aggrieved party?  I didn’t.


After handing over our passports Barry, not content just to wave us goodbye, had some words of advice.  ‘I hope that you realise that when you get to Australia, you’re likely to be unemployed for a year or more.  Or at least one of you will be.’  Those words still ring in my ears.

We arrived in Australia on 21 June 1981.  Before the week was out, we’d landed contract work.  Both of us.  After three months we had permanent jobs.  While we’d thought about it, we didn’t write a letter complaining about Barry.  It was enough to know that he had been wrong about us.

Several years later I made friends with someone who had worked at Australia House in London during the early 1980s.  I asked if she’d known Barry.  She said that she had.  After I told her how badly he’d treated us she became defensive, noting that the High Commission had been inundated with residency and other applications, and that the pressure to get through them all with reduced staffing was intense.  Ah, yes, I said, but we already had an approval issued in Cape Town; Barry knew it, he just wanted to have fun at our expense.  She conceded that we had a valid point and then volunteered something else.
‘You know, Barry used to sneak off into the bond store in the basement and help himself to a drink.’
We both laughed.

[1]              Pakenham, T.  The Boer War Abacus London 1979 p495.
[2]              Pakenham, p384
[3]              Pakenham, p494
[4]              Schaffer, G. (ed) Racializing the Soldier Routledge Oxford 2013, p59.
[5]              Sydney Morning Herald, 12 November 1901.

Taxation without representation…

There seems to be a general idea that Pretoria is a raw and unpleasing frontier town, with all the objectionable features of the Boer embodied in its buildings and general layout.  Such is very far from the truth, thanks to the energetic and progressive uitlanders who have settled here and done much to beautify the place.  It is a town of trees and hedges and flowers.  It has wide avenues and good buildings and can boast of the modernity of electric lights.  [Los Angeles Herald, 30 October 1899]

At the time of the filing of the article from which this extract was taken, the South African Republic (Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek – ZAR) and Orange Free State had been at war with Britain for nineteen days.  At the centre of the conflict was a failure to resolve the Uitlander – or foreigner – question.

Formed in 1852, the territory to the north of the Vaal River was initially occupied by around 40,000 Boer people and governed by a Volksraad (parliament) of 24; Pretoria became its capital in 1860.  The early years of the republic’s existence were marked by uncertainty, mismanagement and threats of a Zulu invasion.  In March 1877, a bankrupt ZAR agreed to being rescued by Britain and was henceforth known as the ‘Transvaal Territory’.  Among those in favour of annexation, and who accepted a salaried post under the British administration, was one Paul Kruger.

Not all Transvalers were happy about this deal and on 13 December 1880, a triumvirate of Boer leaders spearheaded by Kruger proclaimed restoration of the Transvaal Republic, at the same time providing the catalyst for the First Anglo-Boer War.  The few British troops stationed in the territory were no match for the combined forces of the Transvaal and Orange Free State and, after an ignominious defeat at Majuba, Britain – in August 1881 – granted the territory ‘complete self-government, subject to the suzerainty of Her Majesty Queen Victoria’.  Three years later the name, ZAR, was restored.

With its newfound control over internal affairs, the ZAR government put in place a requirement that Uitlanders could only vote in the Volksraad if they had resided in the country for at least five years.  Kruger, now President, saw the ZAR as being intricately bound up with the language, customs and attitudes of his people; anyone who did not manifest those attributes had no right to a share in the government of his country.

In 1886 gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand, a 56-kilometre ridge coterminous with modern-day metropolitan Johannesburg.  Within a few years the region, some 40 miles from Pretoria, became the single largest gold producer in the world, filling the coffers of the Boer republics and making the ZAR a major player in international finance.  It was quickly populated with mining camps and townships, and prospectors streamed to the goldfields from all corners of the globe.  Many were Englishmen.

The discovery of gold made Kruger even more skittish about the presence of foreigners in his country.  In 1890 the ZAR government raised the restriction on full voting rights to ten years’ residency but agreed to give rights in a second Volksraad to those foreigners who had lived in the country for seven years and had been naturalised for two.  The scope of this parliament’s dealings was limited to local matters in Johannesburg and on the mines, and its bills could only be passed if endorsed by the first Volksraad.  The perception of the second Volksraad was that it was ‘really of no account and can only submit suggestions on certain industrial and commercial matters to the First Volksraad, which suggestions are generally disregarded.’[1]

This new restriction not only caused tension between the ZAR and British governments, it upset Uitlanders who felt that their contribution to exploiting the ZAR’s wealth entitled them to a say in how the country’s affairs were run; more so because they were also paying the bulk of the taxes.  In 1892 the Transvaal National Union, formed to advocate for Uitlanders, petitioned the ZAR government for equal rights for all citizens of the state.  To a deputation of seven Union delegates Kruger said, ‘Go back and tell your people that I shall never give them anything.  I shall never change my policy.’[2]  Two years later a law was passed that prohibited any foreigner from obtaining the franchise until he had lived in the ZAR for 14 years.  Subsequent Uitlander petitions were met with a similar rebuttal.

In the wings, Cecil Rhodes had his eye on the main prize.  With the imperialist Joseph Chamberlain now installed as Colonial Secretary, Rhodes watched and waited for an opportunity to strike at the resource-rich republic.  It came in the form of a railway line.

In 1895, at roughly the time the landlocked ZAR was building a line to Delagoa Bay in Mozambique, the Cape Colony government completed a railway line between the Cape and Johannesburg, offering competitive rates as a means of capturing as much of the ZAR traffic as possible.  Kruger promptly slapped a prohibitive tariff on the 40 miles of railway that ran through the ZAR.  Keen to circumvent the tariff, merchants in Johannesburg used ox wagons to bring goods from the southern bank of the Vaal River through the drifts – there was no road bridge – and on to Johannesburg at low rates.  Kruger responded by blocking access to the ZAR side in what became known as the Drifts Crisis.

The crisis passed but the resentment it caused was used by the British government – with the tacit support of Rhodes – to try to force the ZAR into the colonial fold.  Towards the end of 1895, an uprising of Uitlanders in Johannesburg was planned to coincide with an invasion of the ZAR led by Dr Leander Starr Jameson, a British doctor with a practice in Kimberley and friends in high places across the political spectrum.  The plan unravelled after the Uitlanders failed to reach agreement about a future form of government, and Rhodes’ instructions that the raid be aborted were ignored.  Jameson and his men were swiftly despatched by Kruger’s forces and the incident forced Rhodes to resign as premier of the Cape Colony.

In 1896 Chamberlain, bent on achieving a South African union, invited Kruger to London for talks on the Uitlander franchise.  The President declined and the following year Chamberlain sent Sir Alfred Milner to become high commissioner in South Africa and governor of the Cape Colony.  After Kruger was re-elected President in 1898 Milner continued to press for equal representation for foreigners in the ZAR.  Attempts to mediate a solution in Bloemfontein the following year broke down and in September 1899, Chamberlain sent an ultimatum to Kruger demanding full equality for British residents in the republic.  At the same time, Kruger issued a demand that British troops withdraw from the ZAR’s borders within 48 hours, otherwise his country and the Orange Free State would declare war.  11 October 1899 marked the start of the Second Anglo-Boer War.

Six months earlier Harry, having passed the examination for admission and being enrolled to practise as a law agent in the ZAR, took premises opposite the Landdroskantoor (Magistrates Courts) in Pretorius Street, a couple of blocks from Church Square, Pretoria’s civic heart.


Rentia Landman, a Pretoria genealogist, sent me this photo of the Landdroskantoor as it would have appeared at the timeKnowing its location, I can see that the building’s western elevation is captured in morning light, and that the people congregated on the footpath were most likely waiting for the doors to open. The front facade has a lovely symmetry, with its twin gables and ‘mini-me’ counterparts above the doors, and its cascading window recesses.  I wonder if the covered verandah and canvas awnings were an afterthought.

The Legislative Chambers and Law Courts were a central focus of activity in Pretoria.  Mackenzie remarks that there was ‘never any lack of work’ in the law courts ‘because the gold fields of the Rand ensure endless litigation.  There are very many lawyers in Pretoria, and one whole street, known as Dasvogelsnest (Vulture’s Nest), is filled with their offices.  Many of these lawyers are British colonists, and nearly all have been in England to receive their training.  This legal element forms the most cultivated and leading section of society not but that the leading Dutch families also supply well-educated representatives from their younger generation.’  The Africanisation of Pretoria’s street names has since wiped Dasvogelsnest off the map although I expect that it wasn’t far from the hub of legal business around Church Square.

Apparently even after the failed Jameson raid, feeling against Britons was much less marked in Pretoria than it was in Johannesburg.  The capital had an English flavour to it, thanks to its many English residents and two English-language newspapers.  It was a natural magnet for freshly minted English-speaking graduates wanting to make their fortune.  The outbreak of hostilities between the ZAR and Britain put an end to all that.  Before the month of October was out, Harry left Pretoria and the ZAR.

[1]              South Africa, its history, heroes and wars.  Professor Douglas W Mackenzie, assisted by Alfred Stead, Horace Marshall & Son, London 1900

[2]               A History of South Africa, Dorothea Fairbridge, Oxford University Press 1918.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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