Tag Archives: Racism

The Jewish violinist

I was introduced to Ron by Audrey, my mother-in-law, at the aged care facility in Doncaster where she was living at the time. He was a psychologist who regularly visited the oldies to entertain them by performing with his violin. When Audrey discovered that Ron had grown up in South Africa like her son-in-law, she insisted on introducing us.

On meeting each other, Ron and I did the usual two-step that former South Africans in Australia do when they first meet. We skirted around in conversation until we had each established what kind of South African the other person was—cultural background, racist or anti-racist, economic or political migrant and suchlike. I learnt that Ron was Jewish and that, like me, he had no tolerance for racism. Once it had been clarified that we were both generally on the same page we compared experiences of growing up in South Africa during the Apartheid era with its legalised racism.

Ron told me that he had regularly played the violin in an orchestra in the early 1980s to earn some cash as a nineteen year old university student in Durban. On one occasion the orchestra had been engaged to perform in the town hall of a small town just outside Durban. The orchestra’s performance was paid for by the town Council and entry was free of charge to the public.

Ron had travelled to the venue by train. As the audience began arriving Ron noticed that the venue staff on duty were refusing entry to a family of coloured (mixed race) people that had come along to hear the orchestra performing. Ron walked to the entrance and asked a staff member why some people had been refused entry. He was told that the hall was a “Whites Only” venue and that the law forbade the races to mix at performance venues.

Ron was horrified. He immediately approached the conductor of the orchestra, a man of Afrikaner background in his fifties, and told him what he had witnessed. “This is outrageous” Ron declared. “We should cancel the performance.”

The conductor frowned and replied that it was the law of the land. “We are not here to dabble in politics, Ron. We are here merely to perform as an orchestra and that is what we are getting paid for.”

Ron took his violin out of its case to get ready for the performance, then hesitated and put it back. He went up to the conductor again. “Whether it is the law of the land or not, I really don’t think we should allow anyone coming to our performance to be humiliated like that. This is just disgusting and I feel very strongly that we should all just pack up and leave now.”

The conductor became visibly annoyed. “Listen to me, Ron,” he said, “just forget about the politics and get ready to do what you are getting paid for—to play the violin.” Ron returned to his seat, took his violin out again with shaking hands, but then put it back.

He went to confront the conductor once more and said, “I cannot in full conscience play in this hall after what has happened. Does it really take a Jew to tell a Christian how to behave like a Christian, sir?” Then he grabbed his violin case and angrily hurried off into the night.

The next few days Ron was racked by anxiety. He was convinced that he would be sacked from the orchestra because of his behaviour and with that his only source of income would be lost.

The next rehearsal was due a few days later. Ron was in two minds about attending, but he reluctantly decided to turn up and to have the matter over and done with. He anxiously wondered at what stage the issue would be raised and whether he would be held to account in front of the other members of the orchestra, or privately.

On arriving at the rehearsal neither the conductor nor any of the others made any reference to what had transpired. Once the rehearsal had finished Ron got up to leave, bracing himself for the conductor to call him aside. But the fellow simply picked up his things, said “Bye” with a slightly awkward smile in Ron’s direction and with a wave of his hand left the building.

Afterwards, the episode was never once mentioned by anyone, just as if it had never happened.



When I visited South Africa in 1992 after a prolonged absence I found that my brother Charel had changed into a different person during the intervening years. His job as a scientist with the Department of Water Affairs required him to spend about three months of every year in remote rural areas. We had both grown up as city boys, but he had morphed into a real bushie.

He invited me to go with him on a work trip to Zululand. On the way there he told me that the government had built a dam on the Phongolo River nineteen years earlier that had affected the ecology and the black villagers living along the flood plains downstream from the dam. During the wet season the river used to flood and the entire subsistence economy of the local Zulu villages had revolved around these floods. They had their cattle, but their main source of food was the maize, pumpkins and other vegetables that they would plant in the rich soil on the riverbank as the floods subsided.

The dam was constructed to provide irrigation for white farmers and recreational activities such as water skiing and fishing for white holiday-makers. In those days the needs of black people counted for nothing in the minds of the white government. The consequences of damming the river on the Zulu villagers downstream along the Phongolo River were completely ignored.

When the Phongolo River first attracted Charel’s attention as a limnologist he found that there were no roads that would allow him to get to the river and to the flood plains, so he asked a university in Durban to undertake a flight over the area and to take aerial photographs for him. He used the photos to locate cattle tracks along which he could drive his 4WD to get to the water. I was amazed at how easily this different version of my brother could find his way around in the remote bush.

“I’m going to show you the flood that I’ve just organised,” he told me. He said that he had discussed the absence of floods with the local Zulu chieftains, with Clive, an anthropologist friend who spoke Zulu fluently, acting as his interpreter. Clive had told him how outraged the chieftains were because the floods had stopped, with devastating effects on their crops.

Charel set up a water committee comprising himself and the local chieftains. At the first meeting of the committee he asked the chieftains when they would prefer a flood to occur. They negotiated a date that was acceptable to all of them. He told them that he would see what he could do about the floods.

Later, back in Pretoria at the Department of Water Affairs, Charel managed to convince his boss to allow him to arrange a flood by opening the sluice gates and letting water out of the dam for a limited period of time. The problems experienced by the Zulu villagers would not have swayed any white bureaucrat at the time, but he based his argument on the negative ecological effects downstream due to the lack of normal seasonal floods.

On the agreed date the sluice gates were opened and the first man-made flood on the Phongolo River occurred, to the amazement and delight of the Zulu chieftains downstream.


Charel and I arrived at a Zulu village along the river. There were no mod cons such as electricity or water taps. The women would peer around carefully for crocodiles before quickly filling their buckets from the river. Afterwards they would boil the water on their open fires to kill off any water-borne parasites before using it for drinking water and for washing.

We slept on old mattresses on the ground under a stretched canvas that Charel had rigged up. The nearest pit toilet had no door. I asked him what to do if someone approached while I was sitting on the toilet. “When you hear anyone coming, just clear your throat to let them know you are using the toilet and they’ll keep their distance until you’ve finished.”

He opened a large metal trunk in the boot of his vehicle. It contained a great variety of foodstuffs, including delicacies such as tins of smoked mussels. “Good grief,” I exclaimed, “this is amazing!”

Charel grinned and said, “Just because we are in the middle of the Zululand bush it doesn’t mean we have to eat like the bloody blacks.”

That night I could hear the beating of drums somewhere in the distance and smell the smoke from the villagers’ fires. I could hear the click sounds of the Zulu language as the villagers conversed with each other. The stars were incredibly bright in the night sky. My heart soared.

The following day we drove to the dam wall and watched as the sluice gates opened at the pre-arranged time. A deafening torrent of water escaped from the dam and thundered down the riverbed.

Charel had asked one of the villagers to take me out on the river in a canoe the following day. Early that morning we were dropped off downstream with the canoe and spent the whole day paddling back up to the village. Only the tops of some large trees protruded above the water, which had risen by at least seven metres because of the flood. At one stage I suggested that we should row towards the top of a tree that was protruding out of the swirling water to have a look, but the villager said, “Au, that’s not a good idea. Every snake in this whole area will be up in that bit of tree.” We eventually arrived at the village just on dusk.

My brother is an old-fashioned Afrikaner who still clings tightly to his people’s original racist views in a country that has been governed by the black majority for more than twenty years since the end of Apartheid. During a recent visit I was appalled to find that he still used the old offensive Afrikaans racist terms when referring to black or coloured people.

But then, one morning, I asked him if he had been back to Zululand in recent times. He said that he had recently visited the same village where I had stayed with him. “I’ve told my family that they must send some of my ashes up there after I’ve died,” he told me. “The chieftain insists that a part of me must be buried in their village, because I was the one who had brought the annual floods back.”

A chance encounter with the Primrose Rugby Club

Primrose Rugby Club 2

On a blustery day in September 2012 my wife and I were relaxing in our seats in the rear of a plane on the tarmac at Cape Town’s international airport on our way back to Australia, when a babble of excited voices filled the aircraft and a group of young boys, accompanied by some adults, made their way to where we were sitting. We quietly braced ourselves for a long and noisy flight.

The boys were all dark-skinned and clearly belonged to some sort of sporting club.

Whilst growing up in South Africa during the Apartheid era, I had never once played sport against, nor even sat next to anyone who was not white. Under the laws of the time everything relating to racial matters was separate or ‘apart’ – sport, public transport, park benches, churches, schools, toilets and even public parks.

Having been active in the Anti-Apartheid movement for many years, it was a novel and heart-warming experience for me to share the plane with these excited, dark-skinned youngsters.

Their coach’s seat was not far from mine, on the other side of the aisle. I could tell that he had an excellent rapport with the kids. One of the boys came past and ruffled his hair. When they became too excited and noisy, he called them to order and they quietened down immediately.`

“What is the name of your club?” I asked the coach.

“The Primrose Rugby Club. Our boys are going to compete in a rugby competition for Under 13s in New Zealand.”

I had never heard of the Primrose Rugby Club, so I asked him how long the club had been in existence. “It started in 1896,” he said. “It’s a community club. I used to play for them myself when I was young. We have at least one boy here who is going to play for South Africa one day,” he added confidently.

The separation or ‘apartheid’ between races when I grew up was so comprehensive that this rugby club, which had existed not far from where I had lived as a schoolboy, was unfamiliar to me.

“Do your teams sometimes fly to other parts of South Africa to compete?” I asked him.

“Oh no, very few of our players would ever have been in an aeroplane before.”

The excitement amongst the boys was palpable. One of them had taken more than a hundred photos on his digital camera in the plane even before take-off. Another exclaimed: “Look! They even have little televisions in here.” He turned to me. “Could you please show me how to switch this on?”

The plane started moving towards the runway. I asked the young fellow across the aisle from me if he had ever travelled in a plane before. “No, never,” he replied. “I’m very scared!”

As the plane gathered speed on the runway the boys’ voices grew louder and some of them cried out aloud in fright when it lifted off the ground. Suddenly, one of them started singing the post-Apartheid South African national anthem, “Nkosi Sikilel iAfrika” (“Lord Bless Africa”, in the Xhosa language) and all the others immediately joined in to sing their fear of flying away. It was an enthusiastic and beautiful impromptu performance.

Later, back in Melbourne, I googled the Primrose Rugby Club and found an amateur video of the boys on a New Zealand rugby field, standing in line and facing a long line of their young New Zealand opponents, who were performing the haka. I could imagine just how immensely the boys of the Primrose Rugby Club would have enjoyed that moment, and I was grateful that something like this had become possible in my lifetime.

Some months later I googled the Primrose Rugby Club again, curious to know how their tour of New Zealand had gone. One website informed me that they had made history as the first ever international team to have been invited to compete in the prestigious Annual New Zealand Junior Rugby Festival. Then I found a photo on another website that caused me to be overwhelmed with great emotion, as well as with a strange feeling of immense pride. There was the trophy for the Under 13 Champions of the New Zealand Junior Rugby Festival, perched on the shore of Table Bay, with Cape Town in the background.

Primrose Rugby Club trophy