Remembering a lionhearted friend

13626405_160511671019245_6888735082524876778_nI had a dream the other night about my close friend Darren Serebro, who passed away on July 27, 1997 from leukemia. We were both 23.

I was working as a camp counselor in Mid-west America near Milwaukee when he died in a Johannesburg hospital after an incredibly brave two year battle with the horrendous disease. At the time, he was awaiting a bone marrow transplant that might have saved his life.

Incredibly, just over a week before he died, on July 19, I received a long, letter from Darren via fax. Hand written in his neat, compact style, it ran to eight beautiful pages.

I still have the letter. It has survived numerous overseas trips and relocations to London, Sydney, Brisbane and now Melbourne, and miraculously, a water spillage, that turned the pages brown. (I have since scanned it and saved a digital copy.)

I thought, after all these years, I might share some of what Darren wrote and pay tribute to a lionhearted friend whom I have never forgotten.

From the confines of his isolation ward, because his cancer was no longer in remission, Darren began by apologising for the delay in writing back to me:

Dear La

I do apologise for not writing sooner. I am aware that this is an extremely cliched expression with which to start a piece of correspondence and can comprehend that while time is pretty much the same for us, you life has been altered radically for the moment and more regular correspondence from S.A. would be re-assuring.

Of course this was the kind of man Darren was. Even gravely ill, he could put himself in someone else’s shoes. (Studying law at the time, he would have made a brilliant lawyer in the Atticus Finch mold).

As for my life being “altered radically” it was nothing in comparison to the challenges he had faced everyday since learning of his cruel diagnosis, about two years prior.

Darren was softly-spoken (except after a few glasses of good whiskey), but also someone who laughed easily. He was extremely polite but equally capable of being cheeky, hilarious and crude.

He was quite brilliant, a straight A student. I remember he had an amazing ability to absorb and retain information , was intensely curious and interested in other people and places, loved travelling and eating out at good restaurants and was generous to the point of always putting others’ needs before himself. He was a true “Mensch“.

In the first few pages of the letter, Darren describes his current medical situation, the two treatment options available to him and his decision to undergo a bone marrow transplant.

The other option, he writes, of receiving small doses of chemotherapy would “inevitably result in my death within approximately two years”.

His candidness about his own mortality is painful to read now.

I try to picture him back then, in his isolation ward, no doubt feeling awful and yet writing in a concentrated manner. Perhaps from time to time he looks out the window, at the leafy northern suburbs of Jo’burg or pauses to think about how best to describe things to me.

Darren had a brilliant mind and intellect. This he put to full use to explain complex medical terms and procedures in relation to his illness he had sadly become an expert on. He goes into great detail explaining the procedure for undergoing a bone marrow transplant, enumerating the risks like ‘Graft versus Host’ disease and the treatments that would follow. He ends this part of the letter by saying:

Hopefully, a realistic and hopeful outlook on my part, combined with God’s will, will see me survive and will carry me through this trying time, into a long, healthy, happy and successful future.

The rest of the letter is full of wit, charm and lashings of wicked humour as he describes the ‘goings on’ among the Jo’burg scene and his limited interactions with hospital visitors.

A hilarious part of the letter is when Darren dutifully lists all the experiences, he believed I was going through, thousands of miles away at Summer Camp in Wisconsin.

These he believed included meeting some international students of similar age, some of of whom are “extremely attractive”. He adds, in brackets a succinct description: “6 foot tall, 34 inch bust, great legs, pretty face”.

He also reminds me:

“You have seen more of the state of Wisconsin than any Jewish Jo’burger knew exists. The average kugel or bagel tour through the States never comprehended ‘such far off places’

(For those not of Joburg Jewish descent, a ‘kugel’ refers to a Jewish princess, while a ‘bagel’ is the male equivalent.)

Later, he talks about how some of our friends are making a long weekend of the following weekend and going to the Game Reserve. Some of the guys have girlfriends, other not. Darren writes:

Paul says he has told Craig to dress up in drag because neither of them is going steady with a girl at the moment. HA HA. Join the club!

These jokes take me back to the numerous cups of coffee we – Darren, myself and our third musketeer, Jason – would share at ‘Carlos’, the Italian cafe on Grant Avenue, Norwood (also the preferred place for first dates) where we would talk about our lack of girlfriends, the latest arty movie we had seen in Rosebank, discuss politics, art and music interspersed with lashing of local Jo’burg gossip, personal slights and other social faux pas.

Some of the humour in the letter is decidedly black, but who could blame Darren, given his situation.

Talking about a girl he liked and who had visited him a number of times he remarks that wearing a mask is “not conducive to long, wet kisses. HA! HA!”.

Also, he remarks after not hearing from her for a few days: “She knows where to find me.Unfortunately, I have more critical life issues to deal with at the moment.”

I had no idea this letter would be the last I would here from him – or maybe being so far away I pushed the idea to the furthest corner of my mind. It was certainly difficult to comprehend Darren’s passing, thousands of miles a way among people who did not know him.

Many months later, when I returned to South Africa and visited Darren’s family, it came as a profound shock that he did not come down the stairs to greet me.

The saddest part of his letter, is that I missed his last birthday on May 25th by a single day. I wish I had been there. Darren writes:

About 30 people came over for coffee – it was the day after your left. (Thank you for the present by the way).

He ends the letter:


Rest in peace my friend. You remind me never to take life for granted and to actually count my blessings, of which there have been many.

I only wish you had had that “long, healthy, happy and successful future” you hoped for and deserved.



Sins of the father: reviewing “The Blood on My Hands” by Shannon O’Leary

front-cover-676x1024The Blood on My Hands is a self-published account of how Shannon O’Leary survived a horrific childhood on a rural holding in Hornsby on the outskirts of Sydney and later Port Macquarie in the 1960s and 1970s.

It recounts the abuse – mental, physical and sexual – O’Leary and her family suffered at the hands of their father, Patrick, a psychopath with multiple personalities (The Devil, The Baby, The Games Man and others) who she witnessed murder numerous people.

O’Leary describes one horrific scene after the other (in one her father hacks a woman’s head off in full view of the author and kicks it like a soccer ball, in another he leads the author and a young woman to an isolated spot near a train station and strangles her with guitar string and then drives a rail spike through her mouth) with only brief moments of domestic normality when her father was either away or not psychotic. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have survived even a fraction of what the author and her family endured year after year.

Dad said he “knew the devil and God” and I realised that they had somehow gotten inside him and they popped out when no one else was around. I didn’t know how they had gotten inside him; I wondered if my father had eaten them at church.

But survive it she did raising a family of five children, obtaining numerous degrees and post-graduate degrees according to her Facebook profile, which notes also that she is an “author of several books of poetry and children’s stories, and has won many awards for song-writing.

It goes on to say: “O’Leary has acted and directed on the stage and on Australian national TV, and she runs her own production company. …and lives with her longtime partner in Sydney, Australia.”

Shannon O’Leary is not her real name. She told me in an email that she adopted a pseudonym at her family’s request.

She adds: “I self published because I was afraid of rejection and wanted to protect myself from criticism. It was psychologically easier for me to press the publish button than wait for some one to say they liked or disliked the book.”

As for her murderous serial killer father, Patrick died on May 16, 2009 a free man, never charged for a single crime.

Of his death when it finally came she writes: “It was as if the bell jar shattered and the clawing, scrambling mouse was free.”

The Blood on My Hands is well written, particularly for a self-published work which has not been professionally edited. It’s a raw, extremely brave memoir with the author sharing in graphic details all the horrendous ordeals, many of them in the creepy, rickety house built by their father. As a reader, I was glad to get to the end which ends at least with the author able to live without fear.

I lived for about six months on a farm near Hornsby, so I can well imagine the rugged wilderness she brings to life with its long grass, deep valleys, caves and venomous snakes.

Even when I lived there, in 2010, it was semi-rural – peppered with small hobby farms and without street lights – so I can well imagine it being almost deserted bushland when the O’Leary family lived there in the Sixties and Seventies, providing the isolation necessary for the evil acts of Patrick O’Leary to go undetected.

Just how much of it is actually true is hard to say. Because of the use of pseudonyms its impossible to research the story in any way while its hard to ignore the fact that the author was a small child, as young as four or five when some of these horrific events occurred.

Based on the memoir, Patrick O’Leary would have killed at least a dozen people all of whom disappeared without a trace.

A note at the end of the book by a “C. MacKenzie” who accompanied O’Leary in 2007 to one of the murder sites she remembered from her childhood and attempted to find evidence of some of the crimes she recalled remarks: “All my efforts to identify possible victims to support the author’s story have so far been fruitless”.

But MacKenzie also highlights the poor record keeping of the police during those times and notes a page one headline in the Sun newspaper from November 1974 that between 1968 and 1972, “299 girls under the age of 16 were missing and never found”.

While memory is never perfect, especially what we remember as children, if even 20 per cent of this book were true (and I believe that figure to be much higher) it would be a truly incredible feat of bravery, courage and triumph of the human spirit to survive it and live as productive a life as O’Leary has.

And so I salute Shannon O’Leary, whoever she may be.

(And many thanks to Kelsey Butts from Book Publicity Services for sending me a review copy)

‘One of These Things First’: the joy of reading Steven Gaines’s bittersweet childhood memoir

one-of-these-things-first-360x544My introduction to the New York writer and journalist Steven Gaines came through a review copy I was sent of his newly published memoir, “One of These Things First”.

Beautifully written, with equal measures of tenderness, sadness, cheeky humour and a big dollop of nostalgia, it’s the story of his difficult Brooklyn childhood and the time he spent in the Payne Whitney psychiatric hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1962, aged just 15.

Being a gay, Jewish boy in Brooklyn in the 1960s did not make life easy for Gaines, who, fearing his “dick and balls might be cut off” because of his homosexuality, kept his predilection for the naked chested lawn-mower boy and Warren Beatty’s topless scene in Splendour in the Grass to himself.

I promised myself that I would not let myself think homo thoughts, yet I could think of nothing else. I was haywire with hormones. I spent most of the time walking around in a semi-hunch trying to hide an erection that wouldn’t subside.

Keeping a dark secret manifested itself in an obssession with stealing strange objects and then an obssessive compulsive counting disorder, culminating in his suicide attempt –  punching his fists through glass in a door at the back of his grandparent’s ladies shop, Rose’s Bras Girdles Sportswear – and his commital to a mental hospital.

Luckily for Gaines, he had a wealthy and loving grandfather – “Gog” whom the book is part-dedicated too – who paid for his stay at the expensive clinic (most famous as having treated Marilyn Monroe). Otherwise he would have ended up in the Hillside Hospital in Queens with its cold bars on the window and air of despair and hopelessness.

As it turned out, Gaines’s stay at Payne Whitney became a turning point in what up until then had been a very unhappy and lonely childhood, with constant reminders that he would come to “no good” and a difficult (to put it mildly) father who referred to his son as a “nut job”.

Gaines emerged from Payne Whitney with a degree of self-acceptance and self-worth that must surely have saved his life, and also inspired his career as a writer and journalist.

Here he found acceptance and friendship among the other “crazies” including the film and theatre critic Richard Halliday, who turns out to be the husband of Broadway star Mary Martin, one of Gaines’s childhood idols.

Even his Freudian therapy with the kindly and good-intentioned Dr Myers who attempted to ‘cure him’ of his homosexuality, ultimately proved beneficial because for the first time there was someone who “seemed interested in what I had to say”.

Gaines has an endearing obsession with movies and the book is peppered with references to his favourite films – Gone with Wind, Lust for Life, Gaslight and Marty and trivia about which actor or actress received an Oscar nomination or Academy Award.

He tells Dr Myers his favourite film is Splendour in the Grass, starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, which he saw 11 times – not because he related to Natalie Wood’s character who has a nervous breakdown, but because he got to see Warren Beatty with his shirt off.

The book is full of these painfully honest and darkly funny insights into himself as a yong man. It’s also full of the colourful characters – both good and bad – that shaped his young Jewish life for the better and for the worse, set among Borough Park, “the cognac of Brooklyn, the potent and flavorful essence” a ghetto-like place of immigrant Jews that no longer exists

Reading “One of These Things First”reminded me why I loved movies like Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, Woody Allen movies, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm with their quasi-tragic Jewish humour and quintessentially Jewish characters: the overbearing mother, the neurotic, the obsessive personality, the self-made man, the kids bound for decades of “strict Freudian analysis”.

Oh Brooklyn, my Brooklyn. Life could offer no richer lesson than to simply grow up there. I wouldn’t have it any other way, not for any suburban childhood or silver-spoon, Upper East Side private school education.

Reading about his life, I felt a connection with Steven Gaines that encompassed our  Jewishness, our capacity for mental disintegration (I suffered for a time from debilitating anxiety attacks and thought I was literally going mad), shared love of movie trivia and nostalgia for the people and places from our childhood.

Gaines-HIFF3After finishing the book, I had a peak around Gaines personal website. He is a prolific writer, the author of dozens of books including  biographies of the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Alice Cooper and who has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the New York Times.

I especially like his website photo. It shows Gaines, middle-aged but still youthful with a cherub like grin, and suggests a man of warmth, intelligence, kindness and cheekiness, character traits which were also part of the make-up of the 15-year-old boy in his memoir, who came of age during his stay at Payne Whitney.

Deep inside Jo’burg: a review of ‘Lost and Found in Johannesburg’ by Mark Gevisser

lost and found in johannesburgLost and Found in Johannesburg: a Memoir‘ by South African journalist and political writer Mark Gevisser is one of the most engrossing and exciting books I have read about my home town, Johannesburg.

It is a vivid memoir of growing up in Johannesburg as a white, Jewish, gay man during the very darkest days of apartheid.

The memoir begins with Gevisser’s remembrance of his childhood in Sandton, one of Johannesburg’s elite northern suburbs and his obsession with maps.

Sitting in his father’s Mercedes Benz, he would play a game called ‘dispatcher’ where he would randomly look up someone in the Johannesburg phone directory and then using the Holmden’s Street Map of Greater Johannesburg, the map book of the time,  navigate an imaginary courier to their address.

On one occasion, he tries to navigate to Alexandra, the impoverished, densely populated black township neighbouring Sandton and finds that using the Holmden “there was simply no way through”:

Even now, I can recall my frustration at trying to get my courier to his destination in Alexandra: there was no way of steering him from page 77 across into page 75. Sandton simply ended at its eastern boundary, the Sandspruit stream, with no indication of how one might cross it, or even that page 75 was just on the other side.

This illogical and deliberate attempt by the map makers to separate white Johannesburg from its enslaved black population becomes the starting point for Gevisser to explore the artificial boundaries, restrictions and cruelties created by apartheid – and also how they were broken down.

One of the great pleasures of reading Lost and Found in Johannesburg is Gevisser’s inclusion of dozens of fascinating photographs, some from family albums, but also images of a lesser known side of Johannesburg (for people like me anyway, who had such sheltered childhoods).

A photo that stands out strongly is that taken in the 1960s of the suburban backyard swimming pool of Bram Fisher, the Afrikaner lawyer who would represent Nelson Mandela at his Treason Trial.

In it, we see a group of kids, both black and white “splashing about the pool, as one does in the suburbs on a summer’s afternoon”. This was of course during a time when the races were strictly segregated and yet Fischer and other liberal types flagrantly flouted these rules. Gevisser writes:

Through this poignant idealism, [Bram Fischer] seemed to be trying to reconcile being a white pool-owning South African with the egalitarian ideology to which he had given his life.

Other images depict that familiar, yet never-quite-understood relationship between white people and their black domestic workers. Gevisser includes a photo of himself as a boy in the arms of a black lady who stares back serenely as white children play around her. In another, taken on his parent’s wedding day, he describes the black man in the photograph, the chauffeur who stands to attention, only his cap and uniform visible among the celebrations.

These pictures depict the everyday divisions between master and servant we accepted as children, but hardly thought to question.

Who were these black people who took care of us as children, drove us around town and cooked our meals? What were their lives like? In his memoir, Gevisser seeks answers.

Reading the book and studying the photographs, I remember well, the  pungent smells of meat and mieliepap and the exotic aromas of balms and lotions that came from the rooms of our own domestic workers across the yard when I would visit occasionaly.

It’s one of many vivid memories Gevisser’s memoir stirred up.

Indeed, I spent much of the book, enveloped in a warm, but painful feeling of deep nostalgia, a credit to the quality of Gevisser’s prose, which flows mostly effortlessly throughout the book mixing memoir with history and geography and storytelling with journalism.

braamfonteing cemetery

The Old Cemetery at Braamfontein

But, Gevisser also describes places I never knew existed like the eerie underground archives at the Johannesburg Library, where Gevisser writes about the old underground mining maps that crumble in his hands, or the Old Cemetery at Braamfontein, where he is “seduced by the voluptuous beauty” of its paved pathways, low stone walls and mossy tombstones reminiscent of famous cemeteries like Highgate in London or Pere Lachaise in Paris.

It came as shock to me when I realised the Old Cemetery was across the road from where I parked my car almost every day, whilst attending Wits University in the 1990s.

the wilds

The Wilds, in the heart of Jo’burg

The other important place Gevisser explores (which I have never set foot in) is ‘The Wilds’ a 40 acre indigenous botanical gardens  wonderland plonked in the middle of the city that sadly became a no-go zone because of its reputation as the hideout of criminal gangs.

For Gevisser  it takes on a deeply personal and terrifying meaning, because it is from The Wilds that three men climb a fence on a summer’s evening in January 2012, and enter a fourth-floor apartment building where he is watching  television with his friends. Then a brutal, but all too familar attack unfolds at gunpoint.

He writes of the ordeal:

Something seemingly irrevocable changed that night in my relationship to Johannesburg, my home town, the place I lived for four decades, the place of this book.

It could easily have turned Gevisser, as such incidents have done to many other white and black South Africans who have been victims of its appalling crime rate, into a hater, and his memoir, a journey into bitterness.

But, it does not. In fact it does the opposite.

Gevisser’s journey to understand the elusive city of his birth – from its earliest foundations as a gold mining bonanza, through its decades of segregation, cruelty and political activism to its status as place of economic opportunity  – is a deeply compassionate one.


For more on what’s interesting about Jo’burg, read my blog post: Why you should drop the fear and visit Johannesburg



There is no place in Judaism for intolerance

As far as being Jewish goes, I am no great role model: I don’t keep  kosher, I don’t observe the Sabbath, I don’t fast on Yom Kippur and I have married outside my religion.

But I consider myself Jewish in my upbringing, cultural connections, appreciation of Jewish food, jokes and more deeply a sense simply of always, no matter what, being a Jew.

Then of course there is just being a decent human being: fair, just, kind, compassionate, empathetic. These too I consider very Jewish values (and ones that I try to uphold), though they are also the values of good and decent Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists.

For me they have always been more important than going to synagogue, observing the high holy days, not mixing milk and meat or wearing a kippah on my head.

Which is why I have always believed so strongly that intolerance has no place in Judaism or Jewish life and why I reacted so strongly when I read a letter, published  recently in the Australian Financial Review, written by a fellow Jew, Michael Burd of Toorak, Melbourne.

Written soon after the Australian government had agreed to take in an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees and amidst the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, Mr Burd’s contribution to the debate was not to naturally as a Jew, identify with the persecuted, tortured, and frightened people fleeing genocide, but argue against compassion and call for the protection of the Jewish community in Australia – one of the most privileged minorities in one of the world’s most prosperous countries.

In his letter, Mr Burd wrote of the threats to Jewish schools from Muslim extremists (never mind that the greatest threat to Jewish kids comes from the paedophiles that work in these schools) and other Jewish institutions, ending his indignant letter by saying:

With 12,000 Syrian asylum seekers  coming to Australia our government is playing Russian roulette with Jewish community safety.

Jewish refugee children arriving in London from Nazi Germany in 1939

Jewish refugee children arriving in London from Nazi Germany in 1939

It appalls me that an educated Jewish man, who probably lost relatives in Europe during the Holocaust, and would well know the long history of Jewish flight from persecution to set up new lives as refugees in countries like South Africa and Australia, should hold such intolerant beliefs and paint modern day refugees in such a negative light, particularly given current events in Europe, and around the world.

But it does not surprise me at all.

So many of the memories of my very Jewish upbringing (I had a Bar Mitzvah, attended a Jewish Day School, went to synagogue on the Sabbath) in South Africa are darkened by intolerance.

Here’s a phrase I remember well: ” Shiksas are good for sleeping with, just so long as you don’t marry them.”

A Shiksa, for those who don’t know is a non-Jewish woman.  Another word used constantly for non-Jew was ‘Yok’.

Then there were the constant references to the ‘schvartze‘ – a derogatory Yiddish word referring to a black person.

When I was growing up in South Africa, the schvartze was the black domestic worker toiling silently in the kitchen or the garden ‘boy’ (in fact a grown man) raking up the leaves from the swimming pool.

Words like shiksa and schvartze was said all the time by the very people who should have been my role models: my peers, older relatives and even those observant, ultra-religous Jews with their disapproving judgements of non-religous Jewish life.

Of course there have been many heroic Jews around the world who have fought for human rights and justice, who would be equally appalled at Mr Burd’s letter.

In South Africa, people like anti-apartheid heros Joe Slovo and Albie Sachs  and war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone spring to mind. Indeed, there is my own cousin Henry Brown,  who represented Nelson Mandela as a young lawyer in the 1960s.

But it is the intolerance within the Jewish community that has seen me drift further and further away from my faith.

Instead, i see my Jewishness, purely through cultural references and reminscences: the comedy and witticism of Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, the mournful hymns we use to sing in the beautiful old Germiston Synagogue on Saturday mornings, the lavish meals of chopped liver, marrow bones on challah, mock crayfish, matzoh ball soup, roast meats, potato kugel and parve chocolate mousse served for dessert.

In praise of my illustrious alma mater, the University of the Witwatersrand

Most people can’t even pronounce it and few outside of South Africa would have heard of “The University of the Witwatersand” – until recently.

Wits University's east campus with the imposing Great Hall at the centre

The imposing Great Hall at the heart of Wits University

‘Witwatersrand’, an Afrikaans word pronounced gutterally ‘vit-varters-rand’, and meaning “ridge of white waters” (referring to the ridge of ancient white rock running east to west across Johannesburg) appeared in every major news outlet around the world this month when archeologists and paleontologists from the University of the Witwatersrand  revealed that in caves near the Cradle of Mankind world heritage site, outside Johannesburg they had unearthed one of the most significant fossil finds of all time: the remains of a new human-like species. since named Homo Naledi.

Fossil remains of Homo Naledi

Fossil remains of Homo Naledi

Reading all about the Homo Naledi discovery brought back so many vivid memories of my six years spent at Wits University in the 1990s, where I mostly traipsed around its lively, liberal arts East Campus in Braamfontein from lecture to lecture. It’s the oldest part of the university, dominated by the imposing Greek-columned Great Hall with pretty gardens, sports fields and a mix of old and modern architecture.

It was in the Great Hall that I graduated in 1997 with a Bachelor of Arts Degree and in 1999, with a post-graduate business management diploma. Before that, I tried architecture for a year and building science for another, before finally  finding my feet in an English and Psychology degree with a bit of Film and Drama and Economics thrown in, much to the relief of my exasperated parents.


The lawns on East Campus

While Wits may not have an ounce of the global clout or fame of legendary universities like Harvard, Stanford, Oxford or  Cambridge, in South Africa, its reputation is immense.

It occupies a special place in the country’s psyche, firstly as a centre of learning and research and secondly, as a hotbed of left-wing political activism that helped shake off the shackles of apartheid.

Since its founding in 1922 (originally it was a mining school dating back to 1905), Wits has produced a veritable who’s who of the country’s best writers, lawyers, thinkers, architects, doctors, business leaders and political players.

Graduates include three Nobel prize winners, among them anti-apartheid scribe Nadine Gordimer, who won for Literature in 1991, the lawyer George Bizos who defended Mandela at the Rivonia Trial, Oscar winner, Gavin Hood, who directed the movie Tsotsi, musicians Manfred Mann and Johnny Clegg and political satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys (South Africa’s equivalent of Dame Edna). Former Westpac boss Gail Kelly and Glencore mining boss Ivan Glasenberg are also Wits graduates.

Among my many memories of Wits, is walking into a library one late summer afternoon and noticing a glamorous-looking black lady huddled over her books, surrounded by a posse of body guards. It was Winnie Mandela, then still married to Nelson Mandela, and who was – I believe – enrolled in political science degree. It would only have been a year or two after Winnie and her ‘Mandela Football Club’ thugs had been implicated in the brutal slaying of Stompie Moeketsi, a 14-year-old boy, accused of being a police informer.

Speaking of the police, they were an unwelcome presence on campus from time to time when various left-wing student unions would protest about things like fee hikes and threats to expel students with unpaid and overdue fees.

Not everyone on campus supported the protests: I remember that some students took it upon themselves to print and sell t-shirts with “The Police: Their Greatest Hits” printed on the front, a parody of the rock band’s very popular ‘Best Of’ album  except with a policeman bashing a students head in with a truncheon. On the back, instead of concert dates and venues, was a list of police clashes on campus.

More pleasing are my memories of discussions with novelist and short story writer David Medalie, whose passionate lectures inspired my many re-reading of E.M. Forster’s brilliant novel, A Passage to India. Internationally acclaimed artist William Kentridge was a guest lecturer in my Film and Drama classes in the basement of Senate House, where he showed some of his incredible hand sketched short films, including one I recall vividly for its pathos and utter sadness, Felix in Exile.

It was in those Film and Drama classes that I was also introduced to classic Italian and French movies like the Bicycle Thieves and The 400 Blows, and where we discussed Pulp Fiction, then just released.

Also, I recall vividly going to a university production, where the female drama students from my Film and Drama class disrobed and pranced around the stage in the nude. It was a very pleasant shock.

In my psychology classes I discovered Freud and Jung for the first time and learnt about Maslow’s hieracy of needs. In English lectures I immersed myself in the writings of Margaret Atwood, Thomas Pynchon, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, the poems of Keats, Wordsworth and EE Cummings and the plays of Athol Fugard, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill.

In the canteen, between lectures, I got fat on sugary Chelsea buns and pap and wors, drowned in gravy. Attempts at exercise at the  university’s squash courts did not help much.

There were of course friendships struck in lecture halls and mostly disastrous attempts at romance. For a brief time I wrote heavily parodied (by my friends) film reviews and bits and pieces for the student newspaper and recall enrolling in the photography club for a while.

I wrote my essays out by hand at first before we finally got a computer at home. It was at Wits that I used email for the first time.

I also remember the archeology building, where the Homo Naledi fossils are presumably now stored and catalogued.  It was and is still called the Bernard Price Institute or BPI for short.

I remember its windows lined with jars and specimens and inside, a big airy foyer filled with the strange and interesting exhibits.

A bit like my 41-year-old self: a strange and somewhat interesting ‘exhibit’ and product of that same institution, the University of the Witwatersrand.

Why do I delay my citizenship application?

IMG_0072I’ve been eligible for Australian citizenship for over four years and yet I still I haven’t applied. In fact, I haven’t done a thing.

This seems odd. Doesn’t the whole world want to move over here? Aren’t people jumping aboard rickety boats, making perilous journeys across choppy seas for the chance – faint though it now may be – to call themselves ‘Aussies’?

Seven years ago, I got taste for it when I attended my wife’s citizenship ceremony in the Sydney Town Hall. There we were seated in a room packed with would-be Aussies of every denomination, ethnicity, faith and sexual persuasion, all full of joyous anticipation.

My principle memory of that day is not of my wife’s beaming smile as she received her certificate from Lord Mayor Clover Moore, but of  a middle-aged, Middle Eastern-looking man who leaped up weeping with joy as his name was called out, completely overcome with emotion.

There were tears in everyone’s eyes as this humble man-made his way to the stage, embraced the diminutive Lord Mayor, yelping and hooting and proclaiming with joy: I am an Australian.

I can only begin to imagine the journey he had made from a life of struggle, possibly horror and brutality, to sit in a wood panelled room above George Street in the middle of one of the world’s friendliest, safest cities and take his place among the 23 million privileged citizens of this Great Southern Land.

I was jealous. Not even a permanent resident back then, living on a 457 work visa, I longed for the time when I would hear my own name being called.

Time has passed. I am now, through marriage, a permanent resident and have been eligible since about April or May of 2011 for citizenship and an Australian passport.

But apart from printing out the booklet that you’re supposed to read before doing your citizenship test, I’ve done nothing about actually applying.

Perhaps, I’m just addicted to those colourful visa stickers that have filled up my South African passport for more than 20 years.


Indeed, I almost wept with joy when I found by chance after more than two years of looking, an old South African passport of mine that I had given up as lost.

It was the one I used on a round-the-world trip backpacking trip I made with my wife in 2010  (a trip I faithfully recorded in a blog called the BEEG Adventure) The passport with the coat of arms long since faded was buried between the pages of a car manual in the glove compartment of our Ford stationwagon. I found it in February, when we were trading in our car.


It’s jam-packed with colourful visa stamps from Europe, the USA, Morocco, India, Egypt, Turkey and Thailand, tracing the journey we took over the course of a year, a fine souvenir.


It eventually became so full of visa stamps that I ran out of blank pages and I had to get a new one.

My nostalgia aside, becoming an Australian citizen would entitle me to an Australian passport and my visa application days would be a thing of the past.

I would also be proud to be an Australian having put down roots here for more than a decade, gotten married, had Australian kids and forged a career and a good life.

But the paperwork, form-filling and document gathering required (I must also apply to the South African government if i wish to be a dual citizen) put me off time and time again.

Perhaps, also, on some subconscious level I feel uneasy about becoming an Australia . For I feel revulsion at our refugee policies and those poor, desperate asylum seekers locked away in secret and in miserable conditions with little hope to cling to.  Perhaps, they are more deserving then I of that coveted citizenship? Perhaps this is some form of protest?

Maybe this is not the greatest country in the world after all, despite what those liveability surveys may say.