The story of my grandparents’ secret

My happy Bar Mitzvah photographs, taken in 1987 in the foyer of the once grand Germiston synagogue on the East Rand near Johannesburg, captured a rare moment in time when my grandfather Rolf was in the same room as his ex-wife, my petite, and glamourous grandmother Nella.

I am in the middle, smiling like a cherub, my beaming parents (Ian and Cecile) on either side. On my left, wearing a white suit and a gentle smile is my grandfather, while in between my mother and my Zaida Harry, staring back rather demurely at the camera in a stylish outfit and black beret, is Nella.

I remember the day as a joyous and successful one, me singing my parashah from the Torah on the Bimah, while my family watched on proudly, then later, the sweets, as was tradition then, raining down from the women’s section of the synagogue above to celebrate my symbolic entrance into adulthood. A catered luncheon followed after in the hall at the back of the synagogue with all the South African Jewish delicacies on offer (mock crayfish, chopped herring, gefilte fish, bagels and lox). I made a half decent speech which got a few laughs, then came singing and dancing with my family and friends.

My Bar Mitzvah: From L-R: Rolf Schlesinger, my dad Ian, Me, my mom Cecile, Granny Nella and my Zaida, Harry Hyton

I was at the time, and for many years after, unaware that my grandmother had not spoken to my grandfather in over 30 years, after he divorced her to marry an Afrikaans lady called Elizabeth, with whom he’d had an affair.

There was an obvious clue to this secret – whenever my grandfather, whom we called “Grampie” came to visit us (armed always with a large bag of sweets and chocolates) my grandmother would hastily retreat to her bedroom and not come out until he had left.

This practice continued until my grandfather passed away suddenly in 1988, when I was 15.

He’d fallen in the rain, whilst doing a delivery for the charity Meals on Wheels in Johannesburg, been taken to hospital by my mother and passed away completely unexpectedly from suspected congenital heart failure, though the exact cause of his death remains something of a mystery.

He was cremated and his ashes placed in a wall of remembrance at West Park cemetery in Emmerentia in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. My grandmother Nella, who passed in 1997, is also buried at West Park.

My grandfather had met Elizabeth at the boiler suit-making factory in downtown Johannesburg that was owned by my grandmother’s wealthy family, the Grevlers. He was a director (courtesy of the largesse shown to him by “Big Uncle” Isaac Grevler) while Elizabeth, whose first name was actually Johanna, worked in the factory.

After he admitted his affair, divorced my grandmother and married Elizabeth, my grandmother never spoke to him again or forgave him for his betrayal. For the rest of her life she held onto that “terrible thing done to her”. A beautiful woman who in her younger days looked like a 1930s movie star, she dated other men after her divorce, but sadly never established a serious romantic relationship again.

My grandmother in her late 20s (circa 1935)

“I don’t blame my mom…she was a woman with very high self-esteem, and [the affair] completely dashed her. Nobody got divorced at that time. I was the only kid in my class whose parents got divorced,” my Uncle Colin (their older son) tells me on a Zoom call from his home in Alamo in California.

Growing up I never knew anything about this family saga; I had no idea my grandfather was married to someone else, and lived a life entirely outside the sphere of our fairly observant Jewish life with its festivals and Shabbat dinners.

I have strong and vivid memories of my grandmother, who lived with us for many years after giving up her flat on the edge of Hillbrow. She was a well-travelled woman of refined taste who loved her grandkids dearly. My memories of my grandfather are more fleeting as we saw him less frequently. Looking through old photos reminds me of his soft and sweet demeanour.

“He was pretty tough as a father. I think he tried to be like his dad (my adventuring great grandfather Bruno) who was a tough bloke,” recalls Colin.

Two of Colin’s strong memories of his father – before his parents got divorced – are of the very pleasant Sunday drives the family took to visit the many tea gardens in Johannesburg and, riding on his father’s back as a small boy when Rolf would get down on all fours.

Less pleasant, were memories of the whippings he received from his father’s cane.

Made out of “flexible material” Rolf had obtained it through his volunteer work for St John’s Brigade, known today as St John’s Ambulance.

One particular memory of that cane has long remained vivid in Colin’s memory.

“We had a huge oak tree outside our house at14 Rutland Road, Parkwood (a leafy, old inner Joburg suburb) and I used to love climbing trees.

“I don’t know what had happened, but something had happened and I knew that my father was going to punish me. So I climbed up the oak tree, right to the top where the branches were pretty thin. It was a big tree,” says Colin.

Happier days: Nella and Rolf as a married couple.

“My father was down below, and getting really quite agitated, telling me to come down, saying ‘you are going to fall. Don’t be silly’

“And I said to him” ‘I’m not coming down, because if I do, you are going to whip me with that cane.

“He said: ‘No, no, I won’t do that. Please come down.”

“So after saying that for a while, I did come down…and guess what happened?

What? I asked him, but guessing the answer: “He whipped me.” said Colin.

However, Colin says my grandfather’s toughness mellowed later in life, after having some kind of a quasi nervous breakdown, most likely to do with the guilt he felt about his affair and its impact on his family.

After about 16 years of no contact at all, my uncle re-established his relationship with my grandfather after returning from the UK and USA, where he’d completed his PhD in Chemical Engineering.

“When I cam back, I decided that if my mother did not want to talk to her ex-husband that was her business, but he was still my father and I wanted to have a relationship with him.

“I discovered that he had changed completely. I think he had either had a nervous breakdown or got very close to having one. It was caused by guilt. He felt enormously guilty that he had abandoned [my brother] Ian and me because of his behaviour.

“It was very strange, it was like our roles had been reversed, I was actually trying to reassure him.

“He liked to eat hot mielie meal for breakfast (cornmeal) and I would tell him. When you wake up at 4am, do something: make hot mielie meal, listen to the radio, read a book, don’t just lie in bed with all these negative thoughts.”

After a while – with the help of his eldest son – my grandfather pulled out of his depression, turning, according to Colin into “the kindest, sweetest guy you could imagine”.

“He was 180 degrees different from the way he had been growing up, and we became great friends.”

One of the things my grandfather and uncle did together, along with my cousin David (Colin’s son) was build a mirror dinghy, a small sailing boat, that I distinctly remember checking out when we visited our cousins at their home in Parkmore in the 1980s.

Colin and my grandfather Rolf (1987)
The inscription on the back of the photo.

“David, my dad and I would work on building this dinghy. And when it was finished, on the weekends, we would take it to various dams like Emmerentia Dam and sail it. It was a very nice bonding experience working on that boat together,” says Colin.

He also showed me a sign, that his dad made for him after he took a job as a salesman for a sign-making company.

“We’ were talking about procrastinating and doing things, and he made this sign for me, which I have on my desk,” says Colin.

Made out of bright yellow plastic with red letters, it says simply: “TODAY”.

The sign my grandfather made for Colin when he was working as a salesman for a sign-making company in Johannesburg (pictured here with Colin’s dog Lola)

My last memory of my grandfather Rolf is him sitting atop a hill watching me play in a school cricket match in Linksfield, Johannesburg, perhaps not long before he passed away. I remember distinctly his small figure in long pants and a dark blazer in the distance, and my sense of surprise and pleasure at seeing him there.

The last time I saw my grandmother was in July 1997, before I headed off to the USA for six months to work at a summer camp in Wisconsin.

By then she was in her late 80s and quite frail.

At the time she lived with us in our Linksfield home. Her bedroom was right next to mine at the back of the house and she would often call out in her quiet, wavering voice: “Larry” to ask a favour. I often drove her to and from visits to her friends in their apartments around Johannesburg. Though I sometimes complained about having to do these errands, I miss those trips and ferrying her around the suburbs. She was always very grateful; we had a close bond.

In her younger and more independent days, my grandmother had a flat in Killarney – an old Johannesburg suburb packed with apartment buildings (hers was a white Art Deco block called Daventry Court) and old Jewish people. I remember her flat filled with dainty trinkets and old, dark wooden furniture and there was a dark green Peugeot 404 (a gift from Colin) parked in her garage.

I distinctly remember riding up the old musty elevator, and walking along the outdoor passageway to her flat door, and her warmth and delight at seeing me and my brother and sister when we came to visit.

She died while I was in the USA in 1997 and like my grandfather’s passing I never attended her funeral.

Always elegant: My grandmother taken in the garden of house in Germiston circa 1985

Me (a very chubby baby) and my grandmother

Fear of flying

In December 1994, after I had just turned 21, I lost my wallet and about US$300 in cold, hard cash somewhere in the departure terminal at OR Tambo International airport (then called ‘Jan Smuts’) just hours before I boarded a flight for New York  and a dream solo adventure in the USA.

I remember saying goodbye to my parents, clearing passport control, and then while rummaging through my bulbous, black leather money belt, descending into a mad panic when I couldn’t find my wallet amongst my Thomas Cook travellers cheques and passport.

Heart beating feverishly, my anxiety building, I checked and re-checked my money belt, retraced my steps all the way back to the passport control kiosk I’d just passed through, but found nothing.

I was utterly forlorn. I would have wept, were it in my nature, but instead simply deflated quickly like a popped balloon.

The anticipated thrill of the trip – a birthday present I had chosen instead of having a party – and the excitement of traveling abroad had completely vanished, replaced instead with a dark cloud of guilt (what would I tell my parents?) and deep embarrassment (what a careless fool I was).

All that wasted money.

Later, as I sat dejectedly on the South African Airways jumbo jet waiting for take-off I realised what had most likely happened: I’d gone to a store in the airport to buy something to read on the plane (a South African Sports Illustrated magazine no doubt) and other nick nacks. After paying, instead of putting my wallet back into my money belt, I had mistakenly and carelessly slipped it between the money belt and my pants, where it had simply fallen to the ground.

Either that or it had been stolen by some brilliant pickpocket whose speciality was money belts. Either way, someone hit the jackpot at Jan Smuts that evening. I hope they spent it well.

After sitting forlornly on the plane for a number of hours, as it sped through the night sky on the long 18-hour journey to the ‘promised land’, I resolved that I couldn’t allow these unfortunate series of events to ruin a four week adventure. After all, they would mean wasting even more money.

Initially, I tried to work out a plan where I would somehow be so spend thrift on my travels that I would recoup the lost funds – this involved a journal of daily entries of savings made, drinking water instead of buying a Coke, that sort of thing- but that ‘brilliant idea’ did not last long.

Instead, I simply chose to forgive myself and went on my more or less merry way exploring the sights of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego – minus US$300 in cash.

My carelessness was not though confined to losing my wallet.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Arriving in the US in my jetlagged state, having forgotten about things like time zones, but eager to unburden myself, I’d rung my parents at some ungodly hour to tell them of my misfortune.

My father, fearing the worst when the telephone rang at that time, had sprinted down our passageway, forgetting in the dark there was a security door in the way  (a phenomenon of many Johannesburg homes, it separated the bedrooms from the rest of the house) and nearly knocked himself out trying to get to the phone in the entrance hall.

In the confusion of the corridor dash he’d presumably also forgotten that he might disturb a gang of burglars rifling through the display cabinets of my mother hand-me-down antiques and bric-a-brac. (We were, if my memory serves me true, actually burgled once while we slept in our beds snoring safely behind the locked security door).

Despite being on the receiving end of more stupidity on my part, my parents were exceedingly nice about all of their money I had lost and encouraged me to enjoy my holiday.

However, for years later I was reminded by my family, whenever I prepared to go overseas, to try not to lose all my money before even getting on the plane.

This long-running joke, that was never quite a joke, created I think, a kind of Pavlovian reaction in me: whenever I prepared to fly anywhere, an uncomfortable general anxiety surfaced in my gut accompanied by some irrational thoughts and somewhat obsessional behaviour.

Irrational – in that my anxiety about flying has manifested into a palpable fear of missing my flight.

To counter a myriad of possible, but unlikely scenarios that might befall me on the way to the airport – getting a flat tyre, getting stuck in traffic, the taxi I have booked not arriving, forgetting something and having to go back home – I like to leave for the airport many, many hours earlier than is necessary.

As I usually arrive, without incident, many, many hours earlier than necessary, this only feeds another nervous affectation – a need to constantly pat myself down, checking that I still have my wallet, passport, boarding pass and any other important documentation, and that they hadn’t dropped to the floor, been stolen or simply carelessly left behind.

You will at least be pleased to know (dear reader) that I have dispensed with the god-awful money belt. I prefer having my wallet and passport in the front pockets of my pants where I can reassuringly feel their presence.

As I have grown older and a bit more chilled, I have become a lot less anxious about the trip to the airport and departure lounges no longer generate quite as much stomach-churning action as they did in the past.

Somewhat wiser, or at least more experienced at life, I am able to acknowledge the irrational nature of my worries and doubt.

If anxiety does surface, I remind myself that if I miss my flight, the trip simply wasn’t meant to be or that the plane I never boarded will almost surely plummet into the ocean. It seems to work a treat.

Ironically, my wife and I backpacked around the world in 2010 and pretty much nothing went wrong.

We travelled through 26 or 27 countries, took dozens of flights, bus, train, ferry and boat trips and never missed any of them.

We never lost a single piece of luggage – our expensive Kathmandu backpacks always reappeared no matter whether they were thrown on the roofs of dusty buses in Marrakesh, loaded onto a plane in Delhi or squashed onto a boat in Kho Phi Phi – and we never lost a passport or wallet between us.

As for airports, we breezed through all of those without – miraculously – a penny unaccounted for.

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.

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

 

 

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.

Taking-a-break-on-the-lawns-Wits-University

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 you should drop the fear and visit Johannesburg

2212355983_74be3eec5f_zFor any ex-“Jo-burger” living in Melbourne, one can probably count the number of kind things said about Johannesburg on the palm of one’s hand, including comments from ex-South Africans.

For most it exists in the mind as crime-ridden, lawless place with rolling blackouts and road rage – and for those visiting South Africa, the only memory they may wish to have of Johannesburg will be of the ultra-modern airport and perhaps a short cab ride along the motorway – or via the Gautrain – to the safety of their hotel in the leafy suburbs of Rosebank or Sandton.

Most will no doubt wish to head straight out of “Jozi” or “eGoli” (as it is affectionately known by its six million plus residents) for Cape Town and its nearby wineries, the beaches and warm oceans of Kwazulu-Natal or the world-famous Kruger National Park Game Reserve. Anywhere, but hanging about in Jo’burg…

Not even die-hard Jo’burg fans such as myself would be foolish enough to argue that crime is not so bad – you only have to look at the ridiculously high walls and electrified cables which surround nearly all the homes or read the front page of any newspaper to know this is true.

But there is certainly a lot more to the city than tales drenched in blood.

The Johannesburg CBD skyline

The Johannesburg CBD skyline

The city, like South Africa itself is constantly changing and much is being done to shake off the cobwebs and re-energise Johannesburg in a very positive sense – meaning there is a lot to see for any tourists brave enough to venture beyond their hotel room.

The Apartheid Museum

Symbolic seperate black and white entrances to the Apartheid Musuem

Symbolic seperate black and white entrances to the Apartheid Musuem

First on any tourist itinerary should be a visit to the Apartheid Museum, situated just a short distance from the Gold Reef City Theme Park and Casino – (a gaudy monument to Johannesburg’s modern roots as site of the world’s biggest ever gold rush in 1886).

The museum was completed in 2001 and provides a totally exhaustive and engrossing history of the struggle to end what was a brutal, tyrannical and inhumane regime.

Upon entering the museum visitors are arbitrarily and symbolically classified as either “white” or “non-white”. Once classified, visitors may only enter the through the gates allocated to their race group. Much like the high, windowless concrete walls of Berlin’s holocaust memorial, such devices immediately transport one back into the dark day of Apartheid, setting the tone for the museum, which is designed to be as interactive as possible.

It’s an enormous exhibition full of photographs, video footage and installations detailing apartheid’s genesis, life under the regime, and the resistance struggle which took root in the 1960s and saw Nelson Mandela’s rise to power.

Give yourself at least four or five hours to explore – more if you are one of those people who likes to read every word and watch every video.

Constitutional Hill

Next stop on the political trail should be the Constitutional Hill complex near Hillbrow, seat of the Constitution Court, the highest court in the land, where South Africa’s constitution – considered the most democratic in the world – has its home.

The old prison cells - home to Ghandi and Mandela at one point at Constitution Hill

The old prison cells – home to Ghandi and Mandela at one point at Constitution Hill

The complex is built on the site of the Old Fort, the notorious prison built originally by Boer leader Paul Kruger in a vain attempt to defend Johannesburg from the British.

Visitors to Constitutional Hill should sign up for a guided walking tour to get a real feel for the place. Local guides take visitors through cell blocks which housed every famous political prisoner the country produced including Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi.

Mandela’s cell has been recreated and besides the video footage on display it contains original letters written by Mandela – a qualified lawyer – written in elegant curved freehand, detailing his numerous requests from prison authorities for access to books, legal counsel and to see his family.

On the way visitors bypass the now empty and incredibly eerie cellblocks – like everything under apartheid, divided into white and black sections.

As the guides explain and visitors can see for themselves, Apartheid’s reach was limitless. The walk takes one passed notice boards which detail meal rations for prisoners (more meat and extra coffee and sugar for white prisoners, less for Indian prisoners and virtually no luxuries for black inmates).

But constitutional hill is also an uplifting experience culminating in a visit to the Constitutional Court itself. Decorated with paintings and sculptures by some of the country’s finest artists (the nearby art gallery is a must) the building has literally taken what was once a symbol of oppression and turned into a symbol of freedom – an entire wall of the court building is made from the bricks of a section of the old prison.

Ancient histories

For history that predates the arrival of the first Dutch settlers who moored at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, say by a couple of hundred thousand years, another new permanent exhibition has sprung within an hours drive of the city. Called “Maropeng” or “The Cradle of Mankind” it remains one of the world’s great fossil sites and is rightly listed as a “World Heritage Site”.

Looking like a massive ant hill, and surrounded by ominous orange signs telling visitors to “Beware of snakes” (surely not likely to scare off any Australian tourist), the tour main walk way is lined with human and animal fossil finds which lead into the main building. Here a ride through an underground lake takes one to a massive exhibition hall where the “history of mankind” is put on display including some of its most famous fossil finds.

If that’s not enough, there is also an opportunity to visit the nearby cavernous Sterkfontein caves, complete with dripping “stalactites” and “stalagmites”.

Soweto

A painted old power silo near Soweto

A painted old power silo near Soweto

No visit to Johannesburg can ever be called complete without a visit to the adjacent township of Soweto. Gone are the days when no one ventured near the township unless they lived there, it’s now a major tourist magnet (and with good reason) with numerous tour companies offering full day tours.

For about $90 you can spend an entire day with a Soweto resident as he takes you in air-conditioned mini-bus on a dazzling tour of the South Western Townships.

Putting aside its significance as the centre of the anti-apartheid struggle, the following tidbit should be enough to pique your interest in paying Soweto a visit.

6268519080_0efa4845fe_zAll tours of the township will take you down Vilikazi Street, a dusty street, lined with mostly small, compact houses and unique in this aspect – it is the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners lived – the country’s greatest leader and former president, the late Nelson Mandela, winner of the prize in 1993  and the enigmatic, Desmond Tutu, the much-loved retired archbishop of Cape Town, who won the prize in 1984.

The tours include a walking tour through traditional African markets – complete with an African witch doctor who can give you a remedy for making anyone of the opposite sex swoon at your feet, outdoor butcheries and once illegal drinking taverns called “Shebeens” where you can sample South African curries and semolina pudding, commonly known as “pap”.

Those brave enough can try dried Mopani worms (similar to Wichita grubs) washed down with Amazi, the traditional African “sour” beer.

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The Hector Pieterson memorial in Soweto

You will also visit the site of the Soweto Uprising of 1976, when students protested against being forced to study in Afrikaans, and where Hector Pieterson a 13-year-old schoolboy was gunned down by police and whose dead body (famously photographed by Sam Nzima) became a symbol of the evils of apartheid.

Multi-cultural shopping and dining

Not all the things touristy in nature in Johannesburg are about history.

Given that one Australian dollar buys you around Nine South African “Rands”, shopping in eGoli can be a real spending spree. The city is littered with mega-malls stocking the latest local and international brands. For those on the hunt for modern finery and expensive African crafts, the ultra-chick Sandton City Mall and Hyde Park Shopping centre in the city’s North are enormous palaces to consumerism, while for sheer ridiculousness, the Monte Casino resort is worth visiting. Besides housing an enormous array of slot machines (pokies) and poker tables, the shopping and eating mall is designed as a fully enclosed Italian village, complete with washing hanging on the line, fake pigeons and a twinkling ceiling, where it’s forever nighttime.

Fake Italian: inside gaudy Monte Casino

Fake Italian: inside gaudy Monte Casino

There are many adventures to be had in the City of Gold, all of which can be done relatively safely, provided you stick to basic rules like not walking down quiet streets alone at night, leaving your expensive jewellery at home and keeping gadgets out of sight.

Most importantly keep in mind that Johannesburg is a friendly, multi-cultural place filled with some of the loveliest, most hospitable and zany people you will ever meet.

So go on, next time you’re flying into Jo’burg – spend a few nights and explore!

I dare you!

L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology founder, apartheid supporter and “neighbour”

L Ron Hubbard in 1950

L Ron Hubbard in 1950

I’ve always found Scientology, the “religion” founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard creepy. For one thing, there’s those people standing outside train stations and shopping centres offering free “stress” tests via a device called an “e-meter”.

Then there’s the wacko celebrity endorsement from devotees like Tom Cruise (who infamously claimed in 2005 in a television interview that neither psychology nor psychiatry “worked”) and the claim at the core of Scientology that through elimination of the “reactive mind” (the unconscious mind) devotees can increase intelligence, eliminate unwanted emotions and alleviate a wide range of illnesses (including asthma, arthritis and sexual deviance, which is deemed to include homosexuality).

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A Scientologist carries out a stress test using an e-meter

But did you also know that L. Ron Hubbard was a supporter of South Africa’s white supremest apartheid government during its darkest days?

I came across this little-known fact while reading a book about alleged ponzi scheme mastermind Barry Tannenbaum called “The Grand Scam” by investigative journalist Rob Rose.

I also discovered that in 1960, L. Ron Hubbard lived in a house on Linksfield Ridge, Johannesburg just a few minutes drive from where our family once lived, though of course, separated in time by more than three decades. In a sense, we were neighbours, and I never knew it.

L Ron Hubbard came to South Africa in September 1960 and made his home on Linksfield Ridge, an outcrop of grass and rock. rising up over Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, dotted with gated townhouse complexes and multi-storey mansions.

(During rugby practice, I remember having to run up a windy, steep road to the top of the ridge, all the blokes complaining as our calves and thighs burned.)

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Map showing L Ron Hubbard House, our family home at 50 Club Street and location of my high school, King David High School, Linksfield Ridge

The L Ron Hubbard House, Linksfield Ridge

The L Ron Hubbard House, Linksfield Ridge

The Scientology house on Hannaben Street, which has impressive views over the tree-lined northern suburbs towards upmarket Rosebank and Sandton, has been restored as a museum. Had I known I would surely have visited.

Of course the L. Ron Hubbard website, which has a special section devoted to Johannesburg, makes no mention of his admiration for former South African prime minister Dr Hendrik Verwoed, the architect of apartheid’s harshest laws.

A polished, sycophantic video confirms Hubbard arrived in Johannesburg in September 1960, but that the home was a place for him and others to discuss and send off letters to the South African government detailing “his plans for equality in South Africa”.

Quite, how he planned to do just that, cocooned in his luxurious castle in the heart of white Johannesburg is not explained though it does include the highly duplicitous claim that while there he delivered “Scientology spiritual counselling to the improve the lives of his African domestic staff”.

Clearly then, L Ron Hubbard, was content to not just to live in luxurious surroundings, far, far away from the liberation struggle, but he was also happy to enforce the master-servant relationship that existed between white South Africans and black domestic workers, in his own home. This irony is not noted on the website either.

Rob Rose writes: “What Scientologists don’t want you to know is exactly what was in those letters to the South African ministers. He continues:

They’ve gone out of their way to airbrush Hubbard’s craven fawning over the apartheid government, specifically, his gushing praise for the father of the racist ideology, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd.

Rose goes on to quote from a letter written by Hubbard to the Verwoerd government:

May I state that you have conceived and created in the Johannesburg townships what is probably the most impressive and adequate resettlement in existence. Any criticism of it could only be engaged upon by scoundrels or madmen, and I know now your enemies to be both.

For those wishing to verify this quote, you can find it here in a digital version of the Kotze Commission.  This was set up in 1970 to investigate Scientology, and which then banned it for two decades (one of the few intelligent things the government at the time did).

Of course, even if you dispute this transcript, it would take some distorted logic to understand why someone who claimed to believe in racial equality would choose to move to South Africa during the height of apartheid and live in an affluent white neighbourhood with black servants tending him hand and foot, rather than choose to live amongst African people in Soweto.

Sadly, many South Africans are unaware of this fawning over the apartheid regime or choose to ignore it.

According Rob Rose, since its unbanning in the 1990s, Scientology has gained 150,000 devotees in South Africa and earns about $10 million a year for L. Ron Hubbard’s church and estate.

My eight months without cinema: recollections and reflections of movie-going

Cinema watchingSo this weekend past I went to the cinema for the first time in eight months.

The last time I went to the movies was on Sunday, April 15. My wife was heavily pregnant at the time and about five days past her due date.

We went to the Nova on Lygon Street in Carlton and saw an exceptionally good French movie called “Le Havre” about an African refugee who is taken in by an old shoe-shine man, who helps him escape across the English channel.

In the cinema my wife started having light labour pains and a couple of days later – in the early hours of a Wednesday morning – Edith (Edie) was born.

She turned eight months old on Tuesday.

Fittingly, I broke my cinematic drought with another movie at the Nova.

11110702_logoI went to see “The Master” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, set just after the second world war and about a ex-navy man drifter called Freddy Quell (Phoenix) who falls under the spell of the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), an incarnation of Church of Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard. The film, directed by the much revered PT Anderson (Magnolia, Boogie Nights) is intense and interesting, brilliantly acted, but kind of leaves you wondering what the point was in the end. If you liked PT Anderson’s other agonising effort “There Will Be Blood” starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a brutal turn-of-the-century oil prospector, you will love “The Master”.

Still, it was something of an experience undertaking the ritual of going to the movies for the first time in so long.

Coke and popcorn purchased, I wandered into the cinema and found a seat. It was a small cinema – for some reason I had been given one of the double “love seats – and I stretched out, munching on my popcorn and sucking the fizzy ‘solo’ through a straw.

The cinema darkened, and just before the film began, a couple walked in and the guy next to me began tapping away on his iPhone.  Clearly he was ignoring the message that had just flashed on the screen: “Please turn off your phone?”

I whispered in his ear: “Can you turn your phone off?”
His reply: “It’s on silent.”

No shit, douche bag!

“Can you turn it off? The screen is bothering me.”
“OK, OK,” he muttered, as he slid the phone into his pocket.

Of course  I spent the first 10 minutes of the movie, wondering when next he was going to pull it out again and start tapping away. Thankfully, he never did, though I got the feeling he resented the crunchy sound I made as I munched my way through my jumbo-sized popcorn.

I kept munching anyway.

And half way through the movie, I stopped watching and looked around at all the people staring up, mesmerised by the screen. Have you ever done that? It’s like watching people who have been hypnotised.

Since then, I’ve been reflecting on childhood memories of movie going.

One of my first memories of the cinema, was going to see ‘The Wizard of Oz’. I remember it was somewhere in town (Johannesburg) and must have been the late 1970s – I would have been six or so.

It terrified me. I have memories of the strawman being set on fire (this I’ve checked does happen in the movie) and the tin man being stuck inside a giant sandwich-maker – but maybe I imagined that bit, because I can’t find any reference to it – I’ll have to watch the film again.

My best friend growing up was Jonathan. We were friends since babies and lived on the same street in Germiston – a city about 20 minutes from Johannesburg and site of the world’s biggest gold refinery (and not much else).

The 20th Century Cinema in Germiston

The 20th Century Cinema in Germiston

After synagogue on a Saturday, we used to walk into town and like good jewish boys, go to the movies. It was a large imposing building on Main Street, now I believe knocked down, called the 20th Century Cinema, with an art-deco sign and built in 1939. It had an old-fashioned ticket booth at the entrance and an imposing, cavernous lobby. The cinema could hold over 1,400 people (though it was never full when we went) with an upstairs section and a space for an orchestra to play in the pit in front of the screen. There was always a Bugs Bunny cartoon before the film started.

They don’t make cinemas like that anymore – at least not in the Western world.

The art deco Eros in Mumbai

The art deco Eros in Mumbai

In India we saw a movie in an enormous art-deco cinema called the Eros in Mumbai, where people got up to dance alongside the characters on screen, mobile phones rang, the ticket cost a few dollars and popcorn about 50 cents. Ironically it was a musical about Indians who move to Melbourne and then find themselves being racially abused along with songs and dancing and bad Australian accents.

But back to Germiston and the 20th Century cinema. I recall the great excitement Jonathan and I experienced going to see our first movie on our own.

It was ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, which came out in 1984 when we would have been 11.Temple-of-Doom1

I distinctly remember being terrified at the scenes where the evil sorcerer tears out the heart of his victims amidst the chanting and the lava, and of course the banquet with its monkey brain soup and enormous snake, which is cut open and all the baby snakes slither out.

What I also remember through the haze of time was the Ster Kinekor movie club, where you joined, got a special card and paid only one rand a movie. That would have been about 50 Australian cents in those days.

One rand for a movie. One large silver coin for two hours of escape, excitement and adventure.

My other distinct movie-going memory is heading into town (the centre of Jo’burg) when we were teenagers with Jonathan’s mom and some other friends and going to the cinema, while she went to work. It was very quiet (must have been the school holidays) and we’d buy one movie ticket and as the cinemas were all upstairs, we’d watch one movie and then sneak into another cinema and watch another movie for free and sometimes one more.  We thought we were pretty rebellious!

Apart from those early memories, I confess (with much embarrassment) that I recall crying bitterly in my seat when I went to watch E.T. at the Bedfordview Nu-Metro in 1982. I would have been nine years-old. I think it was when they had found E.T. and had him in the quarantined zone and everyone was walking around in plastic suits.

So what did it cost me to go the cinema this weekend?

One admission to The Master at Cinema Nova, Lygon Street: $18
Coke and popcorn combo: $10.50
Parking: $6.60
Hamburger at Gr’lled for dinner: $12
One Corona: $7

Total cost (excluding petrol, toll road): $54.10

Or around 481 Rand at current exchange rate – that would have bought a lot of movies back when I was a kid!