Damon Galgut, the power of nostalgia and ‘dark love’ for South Africa

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian newspaper in December 2021, Damon Galgut, South Africa’s latest literary star, winner of the 2021 Booker Prize for The Promise, a novel about the disintegration of a white family amid the collapse of apartheid, said he had originally intended to call the book “Dark Love”.

Galgut said it was an “abstract allusion” to the family’s youngest daughter Amor Swart, whose affection for their long-suffering black domestic servant Salome is a central theme of the book.

“But,” says Galgut, “I wanted to tie it in with a parallel sense that if one loves South Africa it has to be a dark kind of love”.

This “dark love” is apparent in the two Galgut novels I read back-to-back, The Good Doctor and The Promise, and is something I can relate too deeply, even though I left South Africa 22 years ago.

Dr Waters: trying to “make a difference”

A beautiful, but troubled land, South Africa gets under your skin and in your bones: if you’ve grown up there, you never really leave – even if you do physically.

Galgut’s gift is to draw from that dark well of South African history, culture and experience, and build an engrossing story with deeply South African characters, and to unsettle and enthrall the reader.

“Galgut has mined his novel with small but powerful explosive charges, wrote the writer Christopher Hope in his review of The Good Doctor in 2003 (written for the Guardian).

“Damon Galgut has written a lovely, lethal, disturbing novel,”

The story of The Good Doctor takes place in a crumbling, ill-equipped rural hospital next to a backwater town in what was once a Black “homeland” – one of a series of puppet states created by the white nationalist apartheid regime to separate blacks from whites – but is now forgotten, left to decay in the new South Africa.

The title of the book refers to Dr. Laurence Waters, an idealistic medical school graduate who comes to the dysfunctional hospital hoping to “make a difference” as part of his year of compulsory, post-graduate community work.

His arrival and subsequent stay at the hospital is narrated by Dr. Frank Eloff a disillusioned and bitter veteran physician, one of just a handful of staff that keep the medical facility barely functioning under the management of its administrator and head surgeon Dr Ngema.

So ill-equipped is the hospital, that patients with more serious injuries have to be transported to the big city hospital, a long drive through the veld.

The hospital’s small band of staff include the Satanders – a doctor couple from Cuba who quarrel a lot about staying in South Africa – and a troubled black orderly called Tehogo, who is symbolic of that “lost generation” of unskilled Black South Africans, left on the margins of society after the fall of apartheid.

In some kind of precarious and delicate balancing act, the hospital has maintained it place in the natural order of things, keeping its distance from the chaos beyond its boundaries, until idealistic Dr Waters arrives and shatters its island status.

“It’s like something terrible happened here,” Laurence said. “That’s how it feels.

“Ja, but the opposite is true. Nothing has ever happened here. Nothing ever will, that’s the problem.”

The Good Doctor

Written in 2003 (and shortlisted for the Booker Prize) The Good Doctor reads like a parable of the collapse of the idea of the Rainbow Nation that briefly flourished after the 1994 democratic elections that installed Nelson Mandela as president, followed by the historic 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph.

Race relations, the juxtaposition of wealth and extreme poverty, the battle for power in the new South Africa and the naivety of those who think they can change things are all meshed together in Galgut’s novel with devastating and mesmerising effect.

Galgut also has a way of conjuring up a strange kind of nostalgia (though that may be the wrong word) among those readers who lived through those historical times.

Reading of a decaying hospital in a half-forgotten Homeland town, took me back to family holidays at the Mmbatho Sun (now called the Mmbatho Palms), an oasis of palm trees, sparkling blue swimming pools and gambling, set amid the dry and dusty veldt of the impoverished homeland of Bophuthatswana.

Hanging on the wall in the hotel foyer (I remember this so well) was a portrait of stern-faced Lucas Mangope in all his official puppet-state pomp and regalia, staring down on us wealthy whites, as we arrived for our luxury holidays and a roll of the dice at the roulette table.

It was of course absurd that we (well-off white South Africans) should enjoy our luxurious buffet breakfasts, sip cola-tonics and lemonades poolside and pull the handles of slot machines, all whilst being waited on hand and foot by an army of underpaid black servants.

Equally, it is absurd that young white graduate doctor – Galgut’s Dr Laurence Waters – working in a backwater hospital should think that he can “make a difference”; that he should be so naïve, reflects perhaps that unrealistic feeling we all had, standing to vote in the first elections in 1994, that the past could simply be swept under the rug.

While The Good Doctor confines itself to a relatively short period of narrative time, as well as a specific era in South Africa – the birth of the new democratic country – Galgut’s The Promise starts in 1986, during the State of Emergency, and spans 30 years. Over that time, and set against the backdrop of famous historical events in the evolution of the country towards democratic rule, it tells the tragic story of the Swart family and their haunting farm set amongst the stony koppies and veldt outside Pretoria.

The story is told through eyes and deaths of four members of the Swart family: Rachel Swart or “Ma”, her husband Herman “Manie” Swart (whose post-funeral gathering occurs during the momentous 1995 Rugby World Cup Final), Anton, their first child and only son, and Astrid, the middle daughter.

Connecting them all together is Amor, the youngest child, who carries the family’s guilt – a white person’s guilt for the things done to black South Africans under the apartheid system – and who is determined to fulfil her mother’s dying wishes that their faithful and long-suffering black servant Salome, be granted the deed to the crumbling house, that has been her home all the years she has served the family.

Galgut has a real gift for capturing the feeling of a place and time: for example that deep-seated resentment old Afrikaaners felt about the ending of apartheid and having to share the country with black people, but also their supreme and undying love of rugby.

At the farmhouse, following Manie’s funeral (he died from a poisonous snakebite at the reptile park he ran) the television is switched on in the build up to the World Cup Final.

While some family members are unhappy that the television is playing during what is meant to be a solemn gathering, Ockie, the unloved husband of Manie’s sister Marina has a “warm glow only partly due to Klipdrift” (a famous South African brandy enjoyed with Coke).

“…and God knows he took the new South Africa hard. But he has to admit, it’s nice to be able to play international sport again. Gives us a chance to donner people from faraway lands, and man we really fucked up those Samoan floppies a couple of weeks ago”.

The Promise

In another episode, Galgut writes how Anton, a white child, suckled on the nipple of Salome, such was the motherly bond despite the rules of apartheid forbidding such behaviour. While this may sound extreme to some readers, it was common, even when I was growing up, for black domestic workers (who we called “maids” or “nannies”) to care for white children as if they were their own, to bathe, clothe, feed and nurture them.

In an interview with the podcast 5X15, Galgut says Salome was was “mentally modelled on a Nanny I had”.

“My first nanny was a kind of substitute mother for me when I was really little…I’m talking the age of 2,3,4. Her name was Salome and I named the character after her, partly in tribute to her.”

“As you can imagine,” Galgut says later, “quite meaningful and intimate bonds can spring up in an artificial relationship like that”.

Drawing on the greats that have come before him – Athol Fugard, JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and others – Galgut is the latest gifted writer to explore the complexities of South Africa’s dark history, its often paradoxical race relations, and its troubled democratic rebirth.

He does so, in my opinion, with less literary pretention than those who have come before him. His writing style is more direct and accessible (you could say “modern”) but still poetic. That’s even the case when he’s writing about Joel Stransky kicking that magical drop goal, while an Afrikaaner family cheers him on, but refuses to embrace the New South Africa that allowed that moment to happen.

Farewell South Africa, love the Schlesingers

On April 10, 2021, my parents Ian and Cecile boarded a special repatriation flight from Johannesburg non-stop to Darwin to join two of their children and five grandchildren in the modern diaspora for South African Jews – Australia.

When they stepped on that plane at O.R. Tambo International Airport in preparation for a 17-hour flight to the top of Australia it was a quietly momentous moment in the history of my family, ending 155 years and five generations of physical connection with the beautiful, but troubled country at the bottom of Africa.

My parents’ departure from the Johannesburg Highveld, the place of spectacular summer thunderstorms and crisp, smoky winter days, of giant shopping malls and high-fenced suburbia – that great African metropolis and melting pot – was the final chapter in the Schlesinger’s South African adventure which  started all the way back in 1866.

Isidor and Emma Schlesinger

In that year, adventurous 24-year-old Isidor Schlesinger journeyed from Silesia, a region in Central Europe that no longer exists (It’s now mostly part of Poland with bits in German and Czech Republic.) to seek and make his fortune on the goldfields of the Witwatersrand.

Silesia or Schlesien as it appears in German is the origin of our family name (and a fairly common Jewish surname). It’s the one affixed at the end of the names of my children – first generation Australians living in the tranquil Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.

My great-great grandfather Isidor Schlesinger with his dog, taken in Klerksdorp (circa early 1900s)

According to a book about my great grandfather Bruno Schlesinger written by his daughter Helga and grandson Keith, Isidor was born on the 10th March, 1842 either in Kempeny, a tiny hamlet 86.3 miles west of Vilnius, the present day capital of Lithuania, or somewhere in the province of Posen, in western Poland.

Travelling by ox-wagon, Isidor made his way across the “veld” to Pilgrim’s Rest in the Eastern Transvaal (now called Mpumalanga) to join a rush of prospectors at what was the region’s second major gold exploration site.

Isidor travelled to Pilgrim’s Rest to seek and make his fortune.

Whether it was in Pilgrim’s Rest (now a preserved museum town I visited as a child)  or later at the Kimberley Diamond Mines in the Northern Cape (home to the famous Kimberley mine “Big Hole”) where Isidor made his fortune, it appears undisputed that he returned to Europe seven or eight years later, a rich man. He then married “tall, elegant” Emma Fasal in Bielsko (now called Bielsko-Biala) about 90 kilometres west of Krakow, Poland in 1874. Bielsko at the time had a thriving Jewish community that traced its roots back to the Middle Ages.

Isidor and Emma stayed in Eastern Europe, first in Katowice, Poland and later Troppau – now called Opava – in what is now the Czech Republic, where they set up a saw mill.

My great-great grandmother Emma Schlesinger

They also had three children: my great aunt and uncles Valeria and Feodor and my great grandfather Bruno Schlesinger, who born on the 22nd of March in 1879.

Later in 1889, in Budapest or Vienna, they had a fourth child, a daughter they named Leontine who became quite famous (she has a Wikipedia page) as the actress, writer and filmmaker Leontine Sagan.

Leontine is most famous for directing the ground-breaking 1931 movie Madchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform) about a girl at an all-girls boarding school who falls in love with her female teacher. It doesn’t sound that risqué now, but imagine making such a film 90 years ago!

Returning to the adventures of Isidore, my great-great grandfather’s Czech sawmill venture was not successful and after moving to Budapest following the birth of Leontine, he dreamed again of the “wide open spaces” of South Africa.

My great grandfather Bruno Schlesinger remained in Europe, at the School of Mines in Leoben, Austria to complete his studies.

“Father never liked Europe, and the wish to get back to his beloved South Africa grew so strong that he decided to return alone,” wrote Leontine in her autobiography, Lights and Shadows

“When he had retrieved his financial losses, he would come back to us, or we could follow him.

Isidor returned to the South African goldfields in 1891 to reclaim his fortune. His family joined him eight years later.

Leontine writes that the family travelled to a “little corrugated iron house in the veld” that was the Kroonstadt railway station (now a large town between Bloemfontein and Welkom in the Free State Province) where they met their father again. The family then travelled to Klerksdorp, a small Afrikaans town in what is now the North West Province where gold was discovered in 1885 (and with a surprisingly rich Jewish history). Here Isidor owned the bar at the Freemason Lodge.

Isidor Schlesinger’s gravestone in Braamfontein cemetery, Johannesburg

It was at the time of the First Boer War between the British Empire and the Boer or Dutch colonies, but it spared the German and Austrian immigrants, who were considered neutral outsiders.

Writes Leontine of her father: “One could not have imagined a man less suited to his job. He was a dreamer by nature, cared little about wealth, and felt happiest when he could sit with his pipe by the open veld-fire or with a book on the stoep. His friends included Afrikaners, Englishmen, and a few Germans, who had lived in the country for many years and who shared both his love for South Africa and his indifference to Europe. Their conversations circled around their business, the share-market in Johannesburg, politics, and that soft, gentle gossip which is a feature of every small town.”

Bruno and Else Schlesinger

My great grandfather Bruno, who had by then joined his family in Klerksdorp, married Else Gimkewitz (born in Berlin in 1882) after a whirlwind courtship in November 1907. He’d also by then secured a position at one of the Witwatersrand gold mines.

Their daughter Helga, my great aunt, was born nine months later in 1908. I had the great pleasure of meeting Helga a few times in the 1980s and 1990s. I remember her as a charming and fiercely intelligent woman with a shock of white hair. (Helga died in 1998).

According to a story narrated by Helga in the book she co-authored about her father titled “Man of Tempered Steel”, Bruno, my great grandfather, stopped a Chinese mine labourer from stabbing him with a knife. “Bruno knocked it out his hand. None of the underground workers ever rebelled again.”

What provoked this attack is unclear, but this vignette of a swashbuckling, fearless figure is matched by photos of my great grandfather, who looks handsome and tough.

A swashbuckling adventurer: my great grandfather Bruno

A few years later, the Schlesinger clan moved to the wilds of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to prospect for gold. Here they lived in primitive thatched round huts or “rondavels” as they were called by the locals.

In another perhaps apocryphal tale told by Helga, Bruno lost his way in the bush on his way home one day and had to sleep tied to a branch in a tree after being stalked by a lion. He awoke in the morning to find the lion resting at the base of the tree. He managed to scare the lion off (or it got bored) and he made it home alive.

In a primary school project I created about my family called “My family roots” I wrote that Bruno “loved the natural life and was not very fond of towns and cities. He used to go for long walks through the countryside and often took his family for picnics in forests and woodlands”.

In September 1909, my grandfather Rolf was born at the Queen Victoria Nursing Home in Johannesburg. Less than a year later, in August 1910, Isidor died of an unknown cause and was buried in the old Braamfontein Jewish Cemetery, not far from where I and my sister Deena attended university at the mighty Wits (University of the Witwatersrand). Had I known my great grandfather was buried nearby, I would have sought his gravestone out.

Three generations of Schlesingers (L – R): My great grandmother Else, great-great grandmother Emma, great grandfather Bruno. Seated: My grandfather Rolf

My great, great grandmother Emma died thirty years after Isidor in August 1940 at the Florence Nightingale Nursing Home in inner city Hillbrow. This is very near to the Florence Nightingale maternity hospital where I was born on the December 6, 1973, my sister Deena on March 19, 1976 and my brother Dan on September 3, 1978.

When World War 1 broke out, my great grandfather Bruno, being Austrian, was sent to an internment camp at Fort Napier in Pietermaritzburg in the Natal province (now KwaZulu-Natal). He was later released on parole after a bout of serious illness.

He then fled to  Lourenço Marques (now Maputo, Mozambique) while Helga and my grandfather Rolf, who were still small children, moved in with their grandparents, the Gimkewitzes, who lived in a small house in Hillbrow. A once thriving cosmopolitan suburb on the fringe of the Johannesburg city centre – a kind of Greenwich Village in the 1960s and 1970s I am told – Hillbrow had sadly, by the time I was 12 or 13, deteriorated into melting pot of drugs, violent crime and immigrants living in slum-like conditions after decades of neglect.

There are more Indiana Jones-like tales about my great grandfather Bruno, who during the First World War made his way on foot from Mozambique back to Hillbrow to his family, crossing rivers and swamps, and hiding in bushes to make the scarcely believable journey of 550 kilometres.

My great aunt, the film-maker Leontine Sagan

Despite his skills as a geologist and his toughness and resilience, Bruno was also prone to bouts of depression. While playful with his children, he was also a strict, authoritarian father, easily angered when they did not sit up straight at the dinner table, or did not use their knife and fork correctly.

In contrast, his wife, Else was more gentle with her children, according to Helga and Keith’s memoir.

In that same primary school project I wrote that Else studied literature and various languages at the University of Prague, and that later, when the family were struggling, she gave private French lessons at Kingsmead School, a girls-only school in Melrose in Johannesburg’s affluent inner northern suburbs.

“My great aunt [Helga] said that Elsa was resourceful, courageous and a dynamic lady who stood by her husband during times of need and was a very strong spirited lady.” I wrote.

My uncle Colin (Rolf’s oldest song) remembers that Else spoke with a thick German accent and loved singing German songs to him as a small boy.

“But I would always say: Granny, granny, you must speak English,” recalls Colin.

Despite his intelligence, academic qualifications and strong physique, Bruno was a poor businessman, naively lending money to the likes of Hans Merensky, a famed geologist and prospector who never repaid my great grandfather’s generosity. Bruno also invested in business ventures that failed.

“He was one of the guys with Hans Merensky who discovered platinum,” says Colin.

After lending money to Merensky, he received nothing in return when Merensky eventually made his fortune after discovering diamond deposits in Namaqualand, and vast platinum and chrome reefs at LydenburgRustenburg and Potgietersrus,

Bruno also became heavily involved in the late 1920s diamond rush centred around Lichtenburg north west of Johannesburg and Grasfontein (near Pretoria) which became one of the biggest in the world. It drew in people like Sir Ernest Oppenheimer who founded mining giant Anglo American and whose family later took control of the world’s biggest diamond company De Beers.

“He made and lost money several times, that was a big part of [Bruno’s] life,” says Colin.

Despite his personal struggles, Bruno was highly respected and rose to the top of his profession. He headed up mining projects, and travelling to Portugal in 1927 to advise its president on silver mine projects in Lisbon. In that same year he appeared in the eminent, annual business publication of the day “Who’s Who South Africa”.

(Of course all this success should be set within the context of white privilege, where poorly paid black labourers dug out the gold and diamonds from the mines to make fortunes for the likes of the Oppenheimers and many others.)

Instead of investing sensibly in blue-chip stocks, Bruno played the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and duly lost all his money in the 1930 crash. He was forced to sell his grand home in at 49 St Patrick’s Road in Houghton Estate (now one of the city’s most exclusive addresses, where Nelson Mandela had a home) and rented for the rest of his life, a curse he seems to have passed down to me.

After experiencing heart problems in 1943, my great grandfather died in Muizenberg, Cape Town in January 1945, aged just 65. His wife, my great grandmother Else died 17 years later in Johannesburg.

Rolf and Nella Schlesinger

I have written a lengthy story (which you can read here) about my softly spoken grandfather Rolf and my glamourous grandmother Nella, detailing the breakdown of their marriage, after Rolf had an affair so I won’t repeat it here.

Nella and Rolf got married in Johannesburg in 1938. Nella was 30 at the time, and a year older than my grandfather.

She was one of five children born to Lithuanian’s Joseph and Chana Grevler (originally the family name was Grevleris). The Grevlers like other Eastern European Jewish families came to Johannesburg in search of wealth and prosperity on the mines.

Nella and Rolf: as a young married couple in 1935

Rolf and Nella had two children, my Uncle Colin who was born on the 18th December in 1939 and my father Ian, who was born on the 4th June in 1943 – both in Johannesburg.

Colin recalls that the family first lived in a house in Sandown, now an affluent northern suburb (home to Johannesburg’s shopping extravaganza, Sandton City) but that back in the 1940s was “out in the sticks, way beyond the northern suburbs”.

“Then we moved to a house at 18 Winslow Road, Parkwood. We lived in that house for a while, including when Ian was born.” Colin tells me.

After that, the Schlesingers moved just a few streets down to a house at 14 Rutland Road, just a street away from the sporting fields above Johannesburg’s Zoo Lake (an iconic outdoor leisure spot for most Joburgers).

“It was an old house, with a corrugated iron roof that made tremendous noise when it hailed. I loved lying in bed listening to hail banging on the roof,” says Colin.

Out front was a garden and a tall oak tree, the kind that line many streets of “leafy” Parkwood and neighbouring Saxonwold, two of Johannesburg’s oldest and most desirable suburbs.

When their parents split up in about 1950, my dad and my uncle remained at the Rutland Road house with my grandmother for many years. My grandfather moved into a flat where he had something akin to a nervous breakdown, and later rebirth as kinder, more loving version of himself (again you can read more about this in my earlier blog post).

Rolf with Colin (left) and Ian) – taken in East London, 1947

My dad, who excelled at sports, especially swimming, cricket, soccer and rugby left the Rutland Road house when he went to study veterinary science at the University of Pretoria’s Onderstepoort campus, an hour’s drive to the north. Being an Afrikaans speaking university, my dad became fluent in the language.

After he graduated in 1969, he spent two years in England completing his apprenticeship. My uncle stayed at home with my grandmother while he completed his undergraduate in chemical engineering at Wits University.

Colin left home after completing his masters and marrying Sheila Cobrin in 1962. The young couple lived in a flat in Joubert Park, in the middle of the Johannesburg CBD. After that they headed overseas first to London, where Colin spent two years at Imperial College and then a year at Rice University in Houston obtaining his doctorate in chemical engineering.  They then returned to Johannesburg, where Colin worked for African Explosives (AECI).

Having originally intended to stay in South Africa for just three years, Colin and Sheila ended up staying for 17 years in Johannesburg, during which time my cousins Ruth and David were born in 1968 and 1970.

They lived in a house in Parkmore, in the northern suburbs, across from a big, sloping field with enormous grey electricity poles. I remember many family gatherings, including Shabbat dinners at their home and playing in the backyard and swimming in the pool, where a little black poodle named Jet, would bark at us playfully. They are very happy memories.

The first Schlesingers to leave

Eventually, after rising up the ranks at both AECI and in the chemical engineering sector (my uncle was President of the Institute of Chemical Engineers) Colin decided in the early 1980s that it was time to leave South Africa. He was offered a job at petroleum giant Chevron and emigrated in 1983 (when he was 43) to Walnut Creek, a small city in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Nine years old at the time, I remember waving goodbye to my uncle, aunt and my dear cousins at what was then Jan Smuts Airport and saying “last touch” as our fingers touched through the glass partition in the departures corridor.

My dad, Umhlanga bird park, some time in the 1980s

“It was really hard, we basically left our family behind,” says Colin.

“My mom came several times, but my dad never came to visit. I saw him in South Africa. That was the price you paid when you separate yourself from your family.

“Our families have been separated by time, by distance. It’s a big price to pay.”

In December 1987, when my parents were on the cusp of emigrating to Toronto, my mom and I visited Colin at his home in Walnut Creek as part of trip to Canada and London (my first ever overseas jaunt at the ripe old age of 14). There’s a great photo I have somewhere of my cousin David and I sitting opposite each other on the train with big greens on our faces after we’d had a meal in Chinatown in San Francisco. It was quite an adventure for a young lad like me.

Thinking of emigrating: My mom, me and my Uncle Colin on a trip to San Francisco in 1988

Later, in 1994 when I travelled to the US as part of a 21st birthday present I hung out a lot with Ruth at her place in Downtown San Francisco, where she was worked part-time as a bike messenger.

Ruth now has two girls – Lily and Tula – and lives in Sebastopol, a semi-rural town about an hour north of San Francisco, with her husband Ross and a menagerie of farm animals. Ruth has built up a thriving Chinese medicine practice in Sebastopol, a profession well suited to her empathetic and warm nature. In November 2019, before the pandemic, Ruth and Tula came to Australia, and got to know my children, as we explored the local sites of the Macedon Ranges.

We have remained close despite the tyranny of distance and the long gaps between seeing each other.

My cousin David, who I have not seen since I stayed with him in Los Angeles in 1997 (among other things, he took me to Hawthorne Grill, which he featured in the opening and closing scenes of Pulp Fiction and we went to see the movie Con Air) lives in Corona, a suburb of LA near Ontario Airport.

Armed with a business degree from the University of Southern California and an auto-technician’s diploma from Wyoming Tech, David has risen up the ranks at engineering contractor and infrastructure giant Parson and is a project manager in its rail division.

A big grinner: David and I (circa 1994)

He is married to Flor and has four children, a stepson James, David Jr (who I met as a small baby at my Uncle’s wedding to Cecile in 1997), Shaina and Ethan. His eldest son James, has two children of his own, making David a grandfather! While we have lost touch, I have very warm memories of David, especially his big smile and ability to make me laugh and I hope to re-establish our relationship.

Larry joins the emigration train

It would be another 17 years before the next Schlesinger left South Africa, that being me.

But before I get to that I should talk a little about my parents, my family and my childhood, which was a happy and secure one.

My dad, after completing two years in England working as a country vet (enjoying a life akin to the covers of those James Herriot books I like to imagine) returned to South Africa in the early 1970s and shortly thereafter met my beautiful mom in 1972.

Their meeting came about when my dad visited his friend David Berstein, a fellow vet.

Here he was asked if he’d like to meet a gorgeous, young pharmacist from Benoni by the name of Cecile Ann Hyton. My mom was the daughter of Harry (my Zaida) a devoutly religious, and somewhat reserved man who instilled in me (alongside his son, my Uncle Yoel who taught me my Bar Mitzah torah reading), a deep appreciation of my Jewish heritage and its customs. My Zaida was one of 10 children, born in 1903 in Lithuania to cheesemakers, Zuzza and Zippa.

The chubby funster: My mom and I in 1974

I sadly never got to meet his wife, my Bobba Lily who passed away suddenly in 1971, two years before I was born. Lily (her maiden name was Brown) was born in Willowmore in the Eastern Cape, but moved to Benoni when she was young.

Returning to my parent’s matchmaking. Their happy fates were sealed by my mom’s Benoni High School chum Lena Berman and her husband Ron (who now live in Toronto with half the former Benoni Jewry of that era).

“After our first meeting, Ian came to our house to check on our dog, who was sick – I think the dog might have died. I’m not sure,” Cecile recalls.

Despite this early mishap, the dashing couple were soon engaged and married in a joyous celebration at the Benoni Town Hall, where my dad’s good friend and another fellow vet Brian Romberg was his best man.

I arrived on the scene soon on the 6 December 1973. My birth card says it was 7.40am in the morning when I made my first appearance in the nursing ward of the Florence Nightingale Maternity Hospital in Hillbrow.

My favourite story of my birth is the one my mom tells about her cousin Temmy Lipschitz.

“Temmy couldn’t remember if I was now Cecile Schlesinger, Cecile Rothschild or Cecile Oppenheimer, so she guessed and sent a congratulation card to ‘Cecile Oppenheimer”. If only!

My parents who had been living in a flat across from Germiston Lake, in the small mining metropolis of Germiston, bought a small brick house on Doak Street in the suburb of Hazel Park, where I spent my first few years.

Brothers: my Dad and Colin in the 1990s taken at Germiston Veterinary Hospital

The strongest memory I have of those early years, apart from lots of cuddles and kisses, was getting my head stuck in the bars of the small gate put in front of the steps leading up to the living room. Oh, and there was also the minor incident of a fire in my bedroom – caused by the heater setting the curtains alight – that almost brought about my premature demise.

With my cute-as-a-button freckly sister Deena coming on the scene a few years later (March 19, 1976) and my equally adorable baby brother Dan arriving on September 4, 1979, the Schlesingers need a larger pad and so we moved into a much bigger house with a large backyard and swimming pool at 25 Grace Avenue in Parkhill Gardens.

The street was lined with Jewish families. My best friend Jonathan Bennett andhis family lived just a few doors down (my first sleep over at their house was notable for me forgetting, one important item…my pajamas) while at one end of the street were close family friends the Stupels and the Freinkels. In between there were the Friedmans and at the other of the street were the Saffers.

Germiston at the time had a thriving Jewish community and grand old Moorish-style synagogue on the edge of the city centre. I was a regular Saturday morning Shabbat attendee for much of my childhood, where the brunch spread after the prayer service of kichel (a sugar-encrusted large yellow cracker) topped with even sweeter chopped herring was worth the effort of sitting through the synagogue service.

Often Jonathan and I would walk into town after brunch, where we stop to visit his father Dicky who worked on Saturdays in the local hardware store. The store had for some reason an enormous bag of monkey nuts (peanuts in shells) that we would plunder. On a number of occasions we went to see a movie at the 21st Century cinema, a classic old place in town. The first movie we saw on our own was Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Last Ark.

Back at home on Grace Avenue, we were a close knit family, celebrating our birthdays together (all three of us got presents no matter whose actual birthday it was). My mom would also bake a cake creatively decorated in the theme of our choosing.

All three of us attended Colin Mann primary, a whites-only government school where the Jewish kids were exempt from the Christian Morning Prayer service and instead hung out in the library. All of us were prefects.

I ended my primary school years doing a comedy skit in the school hall with Jonathan Bennett about journalists who were struggling to get a scoop for the local paper (who would have guessed, I’d end up with a newspaper career!).

In the skit, one of the journalists jumped off the building to his death and either I or Jonathan remarked: “Great, now I finally have a story for paper!” What were we thinking?

With Ruth in Umhlanga, mid 1980s.

Our childhood was full of family holidays, mostly to Umhlanga Beach near Durban on the Natal north coast, where most of the Germiston Jews went for their seaside holidays.  The Umhlanga Sand hotel was the place to be in the 1980s, whether it was ordering Cola Tonics and Lemonade at the pool, playing ten pin bowling or piling our plates at night at the legendary hotel buffet. I remember that hotel so well as I do the beach, where I would swim for hours in the rough surf, and head to the rock pools to search for fish and crabs. In the afternoon, we’d return to our holiday apartment, me with a bright red sunburnt face. I remember the African ladies selling their traditional beaded jewelry on blankets spread out along the walkway above the beach (black people were of course banned from actually sitting on the beach back then) and the ice cream vendors that walked up and down selling frozen granadilla ice lollies and other delights.

All of us attended King David Linksfield, the main Jewish day school in Johannesburg, where I studied Hebrew and Afrikaans.

In 1991, after I’d finished High School and started out at Wits University, we moved from Germiston to a five-bedroom house on Club Street, below Linksfield Ridge, where we were again surrounded by Jewish families and friends.

I started off studying architecture, but, after a number of false starts, ended up with a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in English and Psychology and completed in 1996.

In 1997, the year both my grandmother Nella and my close friend Darren Serebro passed away, I abandoned plans to work part time (I lasted a day at CD Warehouse, a legendary music shop opposite the Rosebank Mall), and romantically write a novel, and instead scampered off to the US to work as a camp counsellor. I was employed for two months at Bnai Brith Beber Camp in Mukwonago, Wisconsin as an assistant art teacher, and was frequently hungover from visits to the local tavern. After completing my one and only dalliance with the world of teaching, I bought an Amtrak pass and railed it around the US  visiting places like New Orleans and Boca Raton, where I stayed with friends I had made at summer camp.

The Schlesinger family, taken some time in the late 1990s

I returned to Johannesburg in 1998 to study a one-year diploma in business management at Wits Business School, worked for a year for an online media company called I-Net Bridge and then became the second of the Schlesingers to leave the leafy Joburg suburbs for London on a two year UK working holiday visa, that turned into an unexpected permanent migration overseas.

It started with four years in London where I scribbled away for a weekly Accountancy industry magazine on Broadwick Street, Soho in the heart of the West End, drank lots of lager in smoky pubs and made frequent excursions to Europe with my best mate Jason Lurie. I lived for most of that time in Hendon, near the end of the Northern Line, in a flat above a kebab shop.

How I ended up in Australia is a story full of details I won’t bore you with. It suffices to say it was in pursuit of a disastrous relationship forged at an evening creative writing class in Holborn.

That had a fairytale ending though when one evening I met my beautiful and talented wife Larna, in Sydney at the Lord Nelson Hotel at The Rocks, a historic maritime quarter next to the CBD one evening in 2006. We moved in together soon after and were married in 2010 in Clyde, a small town on the South Island of New Zealand about an hour or so from Queenstown.  Our red-headed sweetheart Edith (Edie) was born at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne on April 19, 2012. Our darling son Rafferty was still born at full-term on February 1 2014 (the saddest moment in our lives). Aubin, our handsome little tyke was born in Melbourne on the 19th June 2015 and gorgeous little Gwen made her appearance on July 30, 2018 – at the Sunshine Hospital in suburban Melbourne.

My sister Deena, having obtained her Law degree at Wits University married Larren in Johannesburg in a lavish wedding in 2001 and became a “Sher”. The newlyweds moved to London that same year – a year after me – but stayed in the British capital for decade forging successful careers and had two children there, a cherubic daughter Keira (born on November 29, 2008) and a very sweet son Jamie (March 28, 2011).

The three of us in the 1980s – Deena, Dan and me

The Shers moved to Sydney, Australia in 2011, soon after Larna and I had returned from a round-the-world backpacking trip in 2010 (read all about it here if you’re keen) to settle in Melbourne, and later the “village in the valley” – Gisborne – about an hour to the north.

My brother Dan, who studied Business Science at the University of Cape Town and always beat me soundly at chess, won an unexpected US Green Card in the Green Card lottery. He moved to New York City in October 2006, where he lived on the Upper East Side with his girlfriend Courtney, a Floridian from Boca Raton. They married at a fancy five-star resort in Miami in December 2010 and then two children – a daughter Lexi born in 2014 and a son Ari, born in 2016. They New York Schlesinger clan quit the Big Smoke a few years ago, and bought a house in Rye Brook, a village in Westchester County, about an hour north of Manhattan.

The departure of my brother left my parents Ian and Cecile as the last of the Schlesingers in South Africa. Now empty nesters, they happily carried on with their careers and busy social lives with their huge circle of friends, trading in their big home on Club Street for a compact townhouse with a small garden in nearby Senderwood.

Over the next two decades, my parents were frequent overseas travellers, making annual pilgrimages to London, New York, Sydney and Melbourne to see their children and grandchildren. When not physically there, they kept in regular contact via phone calls, Skype video chats and text messages. Never has a birthday, anniversary or important event in our lives been missed. None of us could have asked for more devoted or unconditionally loving parents, a commitment demonstrated when they temporarily moved to New York for about six months in 2011 when my brother was battling Leukemia, a disease he overcame with great courage and bravery.

As they grew older, and our families larger, Ian and Cecile made the decision about five years ago to apply to become permanent residents of Australia, a costly, exhausting and lengthy process involving lawyers and migration agents, and mountains of paperwork.

When they did eventually become permanent residents, and were beginning the process of selling their home, and making the move to Sydney, the pandemic struck, confining them to their townhouse. To our great relief and theirs, they avoided getting COVID and passed the time happily, it seems, in each other’s exclusive company.

Amid the stress of worrying about their safety, and knowing we would not able to go to them if they fell ill, it was my sister who managed to get them on that special flight from Johannesburg to Darwin. In what seemed like a snap decision, they were on the plane, and heading for a new life in their early and mid-70s, the last of the Schlesingers to leave South Africa.

They touched down in Darwin on the morning of April 11 and after a two week compulsory stay at the Howard Springs quarantine facility, flew down to Sydney to be with my sister and her family.

Never ones to look back, though they miss South Africa and their life-long friends dearly, my parents have made new lives in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney.

“We moved here to be with our family,” is my mom’s simple, but poignant view on things.

That they have adapted so well to a new country is still remarkable to me. Though they have been here just over a year, it feels in a way as if they have always been here. They have a huge circle of friends and lead busy social lives (a contributing factor no doubt to them both getting COVID a few months ago)

About a month ago, they got in their white Kia hatchback and headed south over two days through the NSW hinterland, passing scenery not entirely dissimilar to the rugged South African countryside, to visit us in Gisborne. My sister and her family also made the journey by car a week a bit later, and all of us – my parents, two of their children and five grandchildren – spent five wonderful days together.

My mom will say that was the whole point of them saying goodbye to South Africa, the country we all still love deep in our hearts, where Isidore Schlesinger sought his fortune all those years ago.

It’s about family: My parents with grandkids Jamie, Aubin, Edie, Gwen and Keira

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

The bitter aftertaste of the ‘democracy sausage’ (or ‘Becoming an Aussie’ Part 2)

Ballot-boxesHaving blogged – to mild interest – about my 14-year ‘odyssey’ to becoming an Aussie, I thought a few words on the by-product of my newly established dual citizenship status – VOTING – should follow.

Funnily enough, shortly after I arrived in Australia in September 2004 at the start of my odyssey, a Federal Election was called, (won comfortably by John Howard’s Liberals) and which I still recall through the imagery of opposition leader Mark Latham’s very vigorous up close and personal concessionary handshake with his diminutive opponent.

I also distinctly remember sitting outside a school somewhere nearby Canberra like an unwelcome outcast (still on a tourist visa), whilst my then girlfriend went inside to cast her ballot. No doubt it was for John Howard (she was quite the fan I later discovered); and not surprisingly we parted ways soon after.

I’ve actually voted twice since taking the pledge at Kyneton Town Hall in October and receiving the customary native pot plant ( a wattle still surviving in the garden).

First there was the Victorian state election in November, where I apparently made the fundamental novice error of voting “above the line” for candidates in the state’s upper house, and then more recently at last weekend’s Federal Election.

I’ve apparently also committed a double un-Australian transgression by voting early on both occasions, rather then on election day, thus missing out on the final pitches for my vote by the competing parties and perhaps more importantly, not taking a literal bite of the ‘democracy sausage’.

For those non-Australian readers out there, it is customary to chomp on the simple pleasure of a barbequed sausage in white bread whilst waiting to fill out your ballot.

While I defend my decision to vote early as prudent (no queues, less hassling from party zealots) perhaps I did miss out on some of the circus-like atmosphere of election day, not least of all the sounds and smells of fatty sausages grilling away and the banter and chatter of this very Aussie ritual.

I did though correct my other ‘error’ – voting above the line – by going ‘below the line’ and giving all 12 of my required preferences to Labor and Greens candidates in the Federal election, six each in the pattern of Labor, Green, Labor, Green etc etc.

(Yes, I am a progressive voter, no mystery there. You’d probably have to hold a gun to my head to make me vote for a Conservative party.)

Of the experience of voting itself, it was quite odd.

While I found the process of casting my ballot about as thrilling as mailing a letter at the Post Office, I closely followed, with some excitement, the results as they flowed in, and was surprisingly elated when Labor won the state election in a landslide.

Similarly voting federally in a vacant shop in a mall in Sunbury was rather uninspiring (I dealt with the zealots and their pamphlet waving with a firm “I’ve already made up my mind’ and purposeful stride into the voting room).

But again, my emotions took hold as the results came in and it became clear the Liberals had surged to a Trump-style victory against the odds. As such a mild depression set in on Sunday at the realisation that another three more years of conservative policies, further neglect of the environment and inaction on climate change would follow.

Wasn’t this supposed to be an election about climate action?

By Monday, I was thankfully back to my cheerfully cynical self, joining in the banter about ‘ScoMo and Albo’ with my work colleagues and coming to terms with our ‘miraculously’ re-elected PM, the so-called #messiahfromtheshire ( Or if you prefer, the #liarfromtheshire,)

Both Aussie voting experiences were quite a contrast to the last time I voted in a national election, 25 years ago, when the emotion of simply casting one’s ballot that day was overwhelmingly wonderful and I cared very little for the outcome, knowing it was basically a fait accompli.

That was in 1994, when a free and democratic South Africa voted as one, with all creeds and colours forming joyous lines that snaked for miles in city suburbs and country hillsides, in a momentous (and remarkably peaceful) day for the country and the world.

Of course, back then there were true political leaders to admire, most notably the global statesman and freedom warrior Nelson Mandela, who went on to become the Rainbow Nation’s first democratically elected leader when his African National Congress (ANC) swept to power.

Compare the stature of the great ‘Madiba’ and all that he stood for with the mendacious, spiteful and dishonest grab for power that categorised this Federal Election, on both sides of the political divide, and it’s surprising I cared at all about the final outcome.

Truly, I must be an Aussie now!

One Nation, many cultures: why we should be proud of our multiculturalism and embarrassed by Pauline Hanson

img-7292-2An unremarkable thing occurred on the train last week. A young Asian lady nearly fainted in the crowded, airless rush hour carriage.

Her face had turned pale and it was obvious her legs would give way at any moment.

Immediately, people sprung into action.

The young Australian man standing opposite her offered her his arm to steady herself and calls went out for someone to offer up their seat. An Indian man obliged.

Then, as the train pulled into Kensington station everyone in the train carriage – all of us strangers – seemed to agree that it was best if the young lady get off the train and get some fresh air.

An older man, perhaps in his sixties or seventies, carrying a bag of groceries, said he was getting off at the station and volunteered to help her off the train. We all looked on with relief as she made her way out the train, resting her hand on the old man’s arm, to sit on a bench on the station platform and regain her strength.

As the train doors closed, I suddenly felt this immense sense of community with those people around me, people of as diverse backgrounds as it seemed possible in such a small, confined space. Pride in my fellow Melburnians, my fellow Australians, this multi-cultural fledgling nation.

I say it was unremarkable incident because these sorts of things, these acts of basic decency and kindness by complete strangers happen all the time in Melbourne as they do in Sydney and Brisbane, and as I recall them happening in London and in Johannesburg.

We should be incredibly proud of our multi-cultural nation. It is far from perfect, but it still a community and most of the time we do more than just get along.

All of which means we should be even more vigilant as we face the unfortunate prospective of a divisive figure like Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party, given a voice in the Australian Senate.

The “Australian values” which Ms Hanson and One Nation claim to represent are none that any decent Australian believes in or aspires to make part of their belief system; they are the views of someone who has probably never known a person of colour, or spoken to a Muslim or spend time with a refugee.

These are views derived from fear and ignorance, passed down from others or just lifted piece-meal and selectively from the internet.

We can laugh Ms Hanson off as a pantomime villain – as most South Africans did when the White Supremist Eugene Terreblanche rode into town on his horse, and then promptly fell off it – or we can pity someone so ignorant, but we should certainly be vigilant.

As American society fractures into a broken mess – where police offices shoot people of colour on a daily basis in a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach – as Britain abandons Europe to the sheer horror of its young folk,  we should be ever vigilant of forces like One Nation, the Australian Liberty Alliance and other ironically titled organisations, who seek to divide Australia into an ‘Us’ vs ‘Them’.

We are not strangers on a train, suspicious of our fellow travellers because they don’t look just like us. We are a proud, successful society of many races, creeds and colours. We are a great and glorious, yet imperfect melting pot.

Let’s not break it.

For more on our great nation of many cultures, read these:

Australia’s cultural diversity: www.racismnoway.com.au/about-racism/population/

Our people: www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/our-country/our-people

One Nation, Many Cultures: www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/one-nation-many-cultures-20090317-911y.html

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

 

 

Remembering Clive Rice and why you never truly forget your childhood sporting heroes

clive rice bowling

Clive Rice and his distinctive bowling style

It was with great sadness tinged with a palpable nostalgia that I learned of the passing of South African cricket all-rounder Clive Rice.

The sadness was understandable – Clive Rice was one of the country’s all time sporting heroes.

But the nostalgia caught me by surprise.

The truth is I’d not thought about Clive Rice or indeed any other of those “great” players from my childhood for a very long time.

To be honest, I didn’t even know that Clive Rice had been so unwell and for such a long time.

But his passing at the relatively young age of 66, brought back a flood of memories both personal and sporting.

In my memories of growing up in Johannesburg as a privileged white kid, Clive Rice, with his handle bar moustache, balding head, unflappable demeanour and larrikin nature looms larger than a life, a sporting hero during a time when we were isolated from the world game.

I remember him as both a fearsome all-rounder – able to rescue a middle order collapse with his batting or destroy the opposition with his fast bowling, in particular those deadly in-swinging yorkers. He was also a formidable leader of province (Transvaal), county (Nottinghamshire) and country (South Africa during the rebel cricket tours) and could – I believe – have guided South Africa to that elusive World Cup had we been allowed to compete.

Sadly, despite his sporting talents, Clive Rice was denied the opportunity to prove himself on the world stage because nearly all of his long career – he retired in his early forties – coincided with South Africa’s banishment from world cricket. Indeed he was picked for the South African tour to Australia in the early 1970s that was later cancelled, heralding our sporting isolation for two decades.

He played just three one day internationals and no official test matches, captaining South Africa on their historic return to world cricket in India in 1991.

His first class playing record speaks for itself. Twenty-six thousand odd runs at an average of 40 and nearly 1000 wickets at average of just 22.

Not many modern-day cricketers can boast a record like that. Rice, had he played a full international career, would have been comparable to the best in the game: Imran Khan, Ian Botham, Richard Hadlee and Jacques Kallis.

Captaining South Africa against India in 1991

Captaining South Africa against India in 1991

As I read the numerous articles of tribute to Clive Rice – and deservedly there were many like this great piece by South African journalist Luke Alfred for espncricinfo.com – I found my mind drifting back more than twenty years.

I am 13 or so years old. A nervous, awkward kid in owl-shaped glasses and a dorky t-shirt.

It’s Saturday. A gorgeous Johannesburg summer morning. A light breeze is blowing and there’s clear blue skies, about 22 degrees. I am sitting with my dad in the old wooden bleachers at the Wanderers stadium – long before they were replaced them with bucket seats.

We eating our homemade sandwiches and taking turns with the binoculars.  I’m thumbing my way through the match day program studying the player profiles while my dad reads the Citizen newspaper and sips from a can of TAB.

Clive Rice is there of course, commanding his troops on the field as fearsome West Indies quick Sylvester Clarke or Spook Hanley or Neal Radford steam into bowl for Transvaal, the unbeatable ‘Mean Machine’.

Or perhaps he’s in the dressing room as Jimmy Cook, Graeme Pollock or Alvin Kallicharran bat us into a commanding position.

At the lunch time break we walk onto the field to inspect the pitch (these were the days when you could still do that) as informal games of cricket are played against the advertising boards. Then we stroll around the ground – my dad and I, perhaps both wearing denim shorts – as the smell of boerewors and steak waft into the highveld air from smokey braais.

A thrill for me: spotting some of the players as they stroll past us on their way to lunch in their cricket whites, gentleman warriors from a tribe of sporting gladiators.

Other sporting memories crowd in:  Afternoons watching Currie Cup rugby on the sofa eating biltong and naartjies (Mandarins). Getting into arguments with my younger brother as Spurs lose again to Man United.  Trying to study for exams while Wimbledon tennis is on TV. Watching the rebel cricket tours. Watching Australia thrash England in the Ashes again.

And then Clive Rice returns again to my thoughts.

To those momentous days in November 2001, Mandela a free man, the country on a shaky path to freedom as he leads an awed team of old and new players back from the sporting wilderness in front of those huge, adoring crowds in India.

Though he hopes to play in the 1992 World Cup in Australia, these are the final days of his great career.

There he is with the handle bar moustache, the suavity, the grin and almost completely bald head, but just as cool as I remember him from those days when he was one of my sporting idols.

Rest in peace Clive. Thanks for the memories, both yours and mine.

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!

South Africa, cricket, the World Cup and the impossibility of victory

The coveted but elusive ICC Cricket World Cup trophy

The coveted but elusive ICC Cricket World Cup trophy

If South Africa beat Sri Lanka on Wednesday in their cricket World Cup quarterfinal, it would be our maiden knock-out victory in the game’s show piece tournament since we first competed in Australia in 1992.

I suppose most fellow South African cricket fanatics know that miserable little fact already.

The closest we have come to winning a knockout game is the heart-breaking semi-final tie with Australia in 1999, a game we should have won  but where we lost our heads completely instead.

It’s arguably the worst moment in South African sport since re-admission in the early 1990s, and not in my humble view the greatest one day game of all time (Mine would be the record-breaker in 2006).

In truth, the cricket team has borne the brunt of the nation’s on-field sporting disasters (rugby, soccer, golf, athletics, swimming even rowing have all produced champion teams and athletes). Our World Cup cricket teams have promised so much, but delivering so little.

In fairness, it hasn’t all been about choking in knock-out games, South Africa’s run at World Cups has been ended by a mixture of bad luck and a lack of big match temperament.

brian mcmillan

Losing in the first of many cruel fashions in 1992 against England

Perhaps if the rain had not intervened in the semi-final loss in 1992 to England (when a possible 22 runs off 13 balls became a silly 22 runs off 1 ball) we might have gone on to win the tournament on our first try. What a fairy tale win that would have been! And who knows how it might have changed our fortunes in later tournaments.

Instead, the ‘choker tag’ has steadily gained weight from the quarter-final loss to the West Indies in 1996 (after we were unbeaten in the group stages), the1999 tie/loss to Australia, the 2003 exit at the pool stages after miscalculating the run chase in our Sri Lankan game affected by rain), the 2007 big choke against Australia in the semi-finals and 2011 loss to a weak New Zealand team.

So here we are again – at the crossroads – ready to wear the choker tag again if we fail against a good but easily beatable Sri Lankan side, who are already playing up their superior psychological mindset through their coach, Marvan Atapattu:

“[Our better records in World Cups] is something that will work in their minds.”

Even if we do pull off a maiden knockout win, there’s still two more games and unbelievable pressure – the kind in which Australia, Sri Lanka and India have thrived but we have succumbed too like a mismatched boxing opponent.

South African captain AB De Villiers – arguably the best one day player in the world – has been boasting of the team’s status as the favourites – despite two bad performances against India and Pakistan in the group stage. He told ESPNCricinfo:

“I 100% believe we are the best team in the tournament here.Those two losses in the group stage did hurt us a bit but we are past that now. We know where we could have won those games and we weren’t that far off. We know we are very close… three games away from taking that World Cup home.”

Does he believe that? And more importantly does the team?

I have my doubts, this is a team peppered with great players (De Villiers, Dale Steyn, Hashim Amla to name three)  but it’s not played like a great side…well not yet anyway.

I would love to be proved wrong. Nothing would give me more satisfaction than watching the Proteas lift the coveted trophy – it would make up for a lot of years of hurt.

But my gut says otherwise. I’d be surprised if we beat Sri Lanka on Wednesday and even more surprised if we go all the way.

(My final prediction: Australia v New Zealand, Australia to win)

How to win cricket world cups: win the toss, bat first

ICC-Cricket-World-Cup-Trophy-2011

The illusive ICC World Cup Trophy

I never stayed till the end of the India v South Africa game on a steamy night at the MCG.

As the sixth wicket fell and the sea of orange, white and green Indian flags waved triumphantly in the packed arena, and as we (meaning South Africa) began our all familiar world cup capitulation, I got up and left.

India had scored over 300 and we were about 150/6 with 20 overs remaining. It was a hopeless situation, one South African fans are all too familiar with at world cups, particularly at the knock-out stages.

In five world cup knockout games South Africa have played since their debut in 1992, they have lost four and tied one (THAT game against Australia we should have won in 1999 before the greatest choke in the history of sport).

1999: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

1999: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

To win world cups is a mixture of skill, luck and nerve: we have plenty of the former and not much of the other two.

But if South Africa do – as expected – make the quarterfinals and then somehow win their way through to the final, this is the surest way to win the competition:

One
Win the toss

Two
Bat first

Three
Score at least 250

(If we lose the toss, bowl them out for under 150 or less)

Winning the toss is important, but only if you take advantage of it by choosing to bat.

In the 10 world cups played to date, seven have been won by the team batting first.

This is not all that surprising. Cricket is a game of nerves, of who blinks first.The pressure is so much greater batting second. Recovery is so much harder if you get off to a poor start, and if it’s a day/night game, conditions are usually tougher batting second under the lights.

That’s unless you’ve got only a small total to chase.

In 1996 Sri Lanka chased down 240 odd against Australia and in 1999, Australia only had to score 132 against Pakistan.

The only time a team has chased down a sizeable total and won the world cup was in 2011, when India chased down 274 set by Sri Lanka, winning with 10 balls to spare thanks to an MS Dhoni special.

The cardinal error though is to win the toss and choose to field. Only one team has done that and ended up on the winning side: Sri Lanka against Australia in 1996.

In the first three world cup finals won by West Indies twice and then Australia, on each occasion, the team that won the toss chose to field and lost the game. It happened again in 2003 when India won the toss, chose to field and Australia amassed 359/2.

So my message to AB De Villiers, if we somehow start playing well enough and make it through to the final is simple:

Make sure you win the bloody toss and for heaven’s sake, BAT FIRST (and then post 300 plus!)

I know, I know…

But, we are allowed to dream, aren’t we?