If only I’d known

About 18 months ago I received an email from an Israeli relative. Ron was cleaning up old correspondence and wondered if I had the following information? I scrolled down to the grainy image below his signature, recalling the emotional rollercoaster of trying to find my grandparents’ marriage certificate. Now it had fallen off the back of a truck.

Ron had received this information from another member of the Israeli network, Paul, who is also a professional genealogist. I contacted him for a link to a higher-resolution image. I learned that it had been on Family Search all through the time another researcher was plugging away at Home Affairs and I was separately pursuing leads from inside and outside South Africa. If only I’d known.

This turn of events gave fresh impetus to thoughts of resolving the circumstances of my aunt Julia’s birth. Invariably this would involve some form of interaction with the Department of Home Affairs. In June 2018 I approached a new researcher, Mel[i],  to take on my case. She advised that third parties could no longer make representations to  Home Affairs on behalf of applicants, which went some way to explaining why the other researcher had run up against a brick wall. My best bet now, she said, was to apply for an unabridged birth certificate through the South African diplomatic mission in Australia. She recommended carrying out a deceased estate search first; this produced Julia’s identity number, key information I would need to complete Home Affairs’ paperwork.

Last July I lodged an application for an unabridged birth certificate with the South African High Commission in Canberra. Curiously, this is the sole option to which the Commission’s website directs applicants, to the point where an ‘X’ is marked in the relevant box on the form. I was advised to wait three months before inquiring about progress. The combined cost of the application fee, money order – the Commission does not accept credit cards, cash or personal cheques – postage, express paid envelopes, and Mel’s fee for the estate search, was around A$45; a modest outlay considering what I’d already spent in cash and equivalent person hours.

At the end of October, I rang for an update.
‘It can take up to a year!’ a female voice shrilled down the line.
‘Have you received the paperwork?’ I asked, swallowing a comment about the Commission’s advised time frames and that no receipt had been issued for the application.
‘I don’t know, I’ll have to check.’
I started mentally going through what I’d have to do in putting together a fresh application. Thank goodness I’d kept copies.
‘Yes, I have it. But because you put your aunt’s married name on the form, it had to be changed.’
So they’d received the forms. Fantastic.
‘What is your married name?’
‘Excuse me? Saltman.’
‘No, what is your married name?’
Oh god, what am I supposed to say?
‘Saltman. Look, I’m making application for my late aunt’s birth certificate. I’m not applying for one for me.’
There goes my $45, I thought. Well, I had to try.

A month later there was an email from the Commission. It verged on the abrupt, and was lacking in even the most basic form of accepted formal address. But none of that mattered in the face of what, to me, was a minor miracle. A certificate from Home Affairs had arrived in Canberra. A few days later it was in my letter box. It had taken four months to reach this point.

The A5 page with the Home Affairs logo was distinctive for how little information it provided, and most of it was already known to me. Was this as good as I was going to get? I shared my disappointment with Mel, enclosing a scan of what I’d been sent plus one of my father’s handwritten birth certificate which is far more forthcoming. I asked her how I would go about getting one like his.
‘You actually need a vault copy of the birth certificate – computerised ones are riddled with errors. Unfortunately, I don’t know off hand what the reference for the document is, but I think it’s just a tick in the right box on the same (form) as an ordinary one. Good luck.’
I flicked through the email chain to see if I’d misread Mel’s initial instructions. I hadn’t. It would take more than good luck to get rid of the misery I was feeling.

I steeled myself and dialled the Commission. Would it be possible to apply for a vault copy of Julia’s birth certificate?
‘Oh, yes,’ the officer said, ‘you can do that.’
I was speechless. Wasn’t this the same organisation that shoehorned overseas residents into applying for unabridged birth certificates?
‘Will the application fee be the same?’
I filed the new paperwork last November. I was not optimistic that a vault copy would materialise within a few months, or even at all. I did not follow up at the three-month mark. In fact, I tried to forget about the whole affair.

Last week I received an email from the Commission: a birth certificate had arrived. Due to the Easter and Anzac Day holiday break it didn’t land in my mail box until yesterday. As I tore open the envelope, the thoughts running through my mind were that Home Affairs had sent another copy of the unabridged certificate or a dud alternative. Then I saw Harry’s signature on the form.

[i]               Not her real name

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 http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=6442459701

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.



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.


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.

[2]              http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/shavli/shavli1.html



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.

My unbrilliant career

My high school grades were good enough to secure a place in medicine at UCT.  But I didn’t want to be a doctor.  Nor an engineer or a scientist.  A BA was too soft an option and law meant another year of Latin.  Architecture required skills in drawing I did not possess.  That left a Bachelor of Business Science degree.

With lectures from 8.30 am to 1 pm and practicals or tutorials most afternoons, the first six months of my program were full on.   I would have finished classes at noon if the Maths lecturer assigned to the course – a PhD who taught at breakneck speed – hadn’t lost me after a week.  I’d heard about another lecturer, a lesser qualified person but with a good reputation for teaching.  So every day I pitched up at Dr Becker’s class to sign the attendance register and a few hours later joined Mr Strong’s to learn calculus.

Unfettered by school uniforms, rules and regulations, I started to experiment.   After tipping a bottle of peroxide over my head I waited to see if there was any truth in the notion that gentlemen preferred blondes.  It wasn’t long before my roots started to show and I had to decide between topping up the colour or abandoning my research.  Over the four months that it took the dye to grow out, I lived with the ignominy of two-tone hair.

It seemed that all the cool people lit up.  As I joined their ranks, I learnt how to blow rings and flick ash like a pro.  Smoking didn’t make any difference to my popularity so before the year was out I gave up my five-a-day habit.

Most lunch times I spent at the main canteen in the Otto Beit Building, a cavern-like space with dark wood panelling that reverberated to the sound of the latest pop hits.  The menu would have made a dietitian’s liver quiver.  The outcomes included letting out a notch in my pants’ waist and adding another to the totem pole of my dwindling self-esteem.

The canteen was also where I started to form bonds with students on my course.  Like the joke-cracking Boris Savvas who, due to an error in registering his birth name, was officially known as Voris.  His laconic mate Dimitri Coutras, the always grinning Eli Rabinowitz and his lanky pal Phillip Levy, and the sweet Vicki Palte who invited me to her wedding.  There were others I admired from a distance, like June Rabinowitz who not only excelled at Economics, but had a slim figure, long straight hair and a boyfriend.

On the first day of class the Economics lecturer, Myra Mark, had said, ‘look to the left, look to the right; one of you will not pass at the end of the year’.  As I struggled to understand the theory of the firm and that countries could spend themselves out of trouble, I saw myself becoming one of the 133 students who would not progress to Economics 2.  Feedback on early assignments reinforced this.  Half way through the year I approached a final-year student for help; in the space of a few sessions, Laurence Tyfield did what my lecturers and tut masters couldn’t: he unlocked the door on understanding.  My grades improved, along with my self-esteem.  By the end of the year my marks were into the 70 per cent range and when I saw the questions on the exam paper, I was confident that I would pass.

I was at an inter-varsity swimming competition in Durban when the results started to trickle in.  In June I’d scraped over the line in the Maths.  Statistics, which replaced it in the second half of the year, was a complete mystery.  The fail was a fait accompli but as long as I got through the rest, I would still be on the course.   Three more results came in, all passes.  On the drive back to Cape Town – I think we were somewhere between East London and Port Elizabeth – I phoned home to get my Economics results.  I don’t remember who it was that broke the news.  I was devastated.

I went to see Brian Kantor, then a senior lecturer in the School of Economics.  The conversation went something like this.
‘Could you please tell me where I went wrong in the exam, so that I can focus on areas of weakness’, I asked.
‘I am sorry, but the rules do not allow me to tell you that’, he said.
‘So can you tell me what my mark was?’
‘No, I can’t do that.’
‘Was it a long way off a pass?’
‘Below 40 per cent?’
‘Uh hm.’

Mom offered to use influence with the Dean, Leonidas Kritzinger, whose two sons she had mentored in swimming.  Even if this could have kept me on the course, I didn’t want the burden of expectation that would come with it.  Besides which, I felt that the system had betrayed me.

The following year I switched to a BA and completed it and an honours year without incident.  In the last year of my Masters in planning, I failed another subject which – like Economics six years before – came with no advance warning.   I was given the opportunity to redeem myself by completing a six-month project,  overseen by a lecturer who communicated solely by mail.  The notes were savage and, a few months into the project, one of them declared that I was going to fail.  As the prospect of a career slipped from my grasp, I was ready for my mother to use influence.

A little while back I pulled out my UCT academic transcripts.  There were a few grades in the 60 to 69% range, but more were in the range below.  I see this as a reflection of prevailing teaching methods and my level of maturity.  Indeed, later study has confirmed that I was capable of doing better.  But who cares?  Beyond establishing that I am degree-qualified, capable of doing the work and easy to get along with, no employer has ever asked for a dissection of my university results.  I would be concerned if they did.



Among the multi-coloured houses in Wale Street, we’re looking for one painted blue.  From the kitchen of this house in Cape Town’s Bo-kaap district, Gamidah Jacobs runs cooking classes on the food of her people.  On this warm day in January 2013, she is wearing a sleeveless dress whose colours are as vivid as the exterior of her house; a blue scarf wound loosely around her head makes a half-hearted attempt to conceal her hair.  For the next three hours, she will lead us through a few Cape Malay favourites.  I grew up with all of them.


The handful of blocks wedged between Cape Town’s central business district and the upper slopes of Signal Hill are defined by narrow streets and buildings that borrow from Dutch and Georgian architecture; they form the largest intact collection of buildings in South Africa dating from the early 1700s.  The people who live there are descended from a mix of Indonesians, Sri Lankans, Indians and Malaysians, brought by force to the Cape as skilled labour by the Dutch-East India Company in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  The area formerly known as the Malay Quarter became the traditional home of Cape Town’s Muslim population, surviving the push of apartheid that saw so many communities shunted off to other parts of the city.

A large east-facing sash window lets light into the kitchen.  Implements and ingredients have been set up on the counter top next to twin sinks.  A few weeks ago, I’d made a long-distance request for samoosas to be on the list of dishes.  If there is anything I miss about living abroad – apart from friends and family – it is the Cape samoosa: a triangle of crisp fried pastry stuffed with spiced chicken, meat or vegetable filling.  Today we will learn how to make one of the most important – and difficult – components of this dish: the pastry.


I came by my first real job the hard way.  Having refused my mother’s offer to use ‘influence’ at the Cape Town City Council, I soon discovered what it was like to find work in an economic downturn.  Once the possibilities ran out I looked for diversions, one of which was scouring the peninsula for bargains.  My most memorable acquisition was a hand-operated coffee grinder I’d picked up at an antique shop in Muizenberg; it was a beautiful piece – all cast iron and curves – but its blades had seen better days.  When Mom offered me relief work at one of Dad’s consulting rooms, I didn’t resist.  For ten weeks, I fielded calls, mixed up medicines and batched pills; in between, I made tea and small talk with patients.  It was the first – and last – time the practice employed an office assistant with a master’s degree in town planning.

In the interim, I’d become aware of a three-month opportunity at the Divisional Council of the Cape.  The office was in Wale Street, a couple of blocks down the hill from the Malay Quarter, and a twenty-minute walk from our Tamboers Kloof apartment.  The pay was the equivalent of one-twentieth of what salaried town planners were starting on, but it was a foot in the door.  Every week I collected my $42.50 in a sealed envelope, bank notes stapled to the inside and coins jingling at the bottom.  Later on a permanent position became available and I worked there until we left South Africa in early 1981.

One of the staff, Maggie – short for Magodien – offered to give me his recipe for a traditional Cape Malay curry.  ‘You make it from scratch,’ he said, ‘and you can get all the spices at Atlas Trading Company.’


This family-owned business has been at 104 Wale Street since 1946.  Around the time that it opened its doors, a group of prominent citizens had started to campaign for the protection of the Malay Quarter.  Fifteen houses were restored with support from the Historical Monuments Commission and the City Council; in an odd twist the latter, which had bought up most of the land in the area, opposed preserving the district as a whole.  It was only after pressure from the Commission and public that the Council changed its mind and by the late 1970’s, restoration was well under way.

With Maggie’s recipe in my hand, I walked up to Atlas Trading Company in my lunch hour.  I picked up raw ginger and fresh chillies, spices and garlic.  That night I measured out quantities for two people.  I chopped, mixed, stirred and watched.  As the curry bubbled away, aromas filled our small kitchen.

The first mouthful was an explosion of flavours, the spices combining with the meat to produce a taste sensation that no ready-mix curry could replicate.  The second and third mouthfuls were as sublime.  By the fourth, tears were streaming down our faces and by the fifth we could take no more.  Yogurt and coconut did nothing to soothe our seared mouths and water only made things worse.

A few months later, I asked Maggie if he always ate such spicy food.  He laughed.  ‘Yes, I do,’ he said.   He also admitted to a stomach ulcer.  I played around with the recipe until I was satisfied with the balance between flavour and heat.  I still use it today, at around one-third of its original strength.


Mix two cups of plain flour with a pinch of salt and enough water to make a pliable dough.  Divided it into eight to ten portions the size of a tennis ball.  Roll each one flat to the size of a large side plate.  Sprinkle with oil and dust with a bit of flour, then cover it with the next ball that has been rolled flat.  Repeat the process until all the balls have been used up, making sure that there is no overlapping.  Roll the stack into a square the thickness of a pancake, turn and pull it into an oblong and roll to about 30 cm by 15 Place on a non-stick baking sheet – do not grease it – and bake at 180C for two minutes on either side.  Remove from the oven and separate the sheets while still hot.  Cut into strips about two fingers in width.  Take a strip and fold one end over until it forms a pocket.  Insert the filling of your choice into the pocket and continue folding until you reach the other end.  Secure the ends with a little flour mixed with water, repeat with the remaining strips and filling, and deep fry the samoosas until golden.