2014 Africa Date Geography

Notes from South Africa: Johannesburg (Part I) – Then and Now


Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa, a place that over ten million folks call home. This is a staggering fact, really, when you consider that it is also the largest city anywhere in the world not located near to a reliable source of water. But such is the power of gold and diamonds: Johannesburg is in the Witwatersrand hills, which overflow with all things shiny and glittery.

Johannesburg also happens to be where I grew up.

My grandfather had migrated to South Africa in the early 1930s. Like so many Jews from Lithuania, he was attracted by the prospect of work and a better life in the burgeoning South African gold fields. My grandmother had come twenty years later, after witnessing the murder of her family and destruction of the world as she knew it, in the Holocaust. She was a penniless refugee, and set about rebuilding her life anew, far from home, on the southernmost tip of the African continent.

After they married, my grandparents settled in Benoni, a small town about 20km east of Johannesburg. My mother and aunt were born and raised there. My grandparents ran a mixed-goods store nearby, primarily selling clothes and household necessities to Black mine labourers.

In her late teens my mum, a first generation Zionist, moved to Israel. She met and married my father and I was born there. But when I was less than a year old my parents returned to South Africa, so my father could pursue his studies in Johannesburg. It was meant to be a short-term stay, but stretched into thirteen years. During which time my brothers were born, I attended all of my primary school and first year of high school, and I had my Bar-Mitzvah at the Berea synagogue in Johannesburg.

Then in 1985, when I was thirteen, my family migrated again, this time to Australia. My grandmother followed a few years later; my aunt and her family shortly after that; and within a decade much of our extended family had relocated from South Africa to the eastern seaboard of Australia.

And in the thirty years since, I have never been back.


Context: My aunt and uncle recently celebrated their combined 120th birthday (they’re both 60), at a game park in South Africa. This provided a convenient excuse to return to the country in which I had spent my childhood – the first time there in almost thirty years. My youngest brother travelled with me. We visited Cape Town; made a trip down memory-lane in Johannesburg; and then met family and friends on safari. The visit was jam-packed with memorable experiences, which I have tried to capture in this series. I hope you enjoy.


Yet South Africa has always remained a part of me. It is in my accent, which has remnant “Seth Efrican” twangs. It is in my speech, where random Afrikaans words will often creep into my vocab. It is also in my tummy, my idea of comfort food often including some form of steak, in throwback to countless childhood braais (barbecues). My preferred tea remains rooibos (South African red leaf tea) ideally with a rusk (South African dry biscuit) to dunk in it. And my favourite snack is still biltong (a kind of air-dried meat jerky, South African style, which I have now even got my thoroughly Aussie kids noshing on).

But more than all this stuff, most of my formative experiences happened in Johannesburg. It is where I had my first day at school. It is where I first learned to ride a bike, and where I first read a book from cover to cover. South Africa is where wrote my first stories; where I travelled for the first time (to the beach in Durban on summer holidays); flew for the first time (to Israel); got kissed by a girl for the first time (on the cheek in a fifth grade school production – thank you Mandy Milner); had my first schoolyard fight (I still owe you a black eye, Brandon Fuller); spent my first night in hospital (to have my tonsils removed); and watched TV in wonder for the first time (Kojak, in 1975).

Every time I see a really big dog I can’t help recalling the time I was bitten by a Rottweiler, age eleven, while walking home from school, and I feel a twinge of the same fear I felt then. I can’t smell a fragrant flower without remembering the hydrangea bushes at my grandparents’ home, in Benoni. Random events in my day will evoke equally random memories of childhood friends, of primary school teachers, of youth movement camps, of early birthday parties, of long forgotten school projects, of talks with my grandmother.

A fleeting association, a passing thought or even just a turn of phrase – it might not be much, but there will be something that takes me back to Johannesburg almost every day of my life. And even though the thirteen years I lived there are now misty and vague, obscured though a heavy fog of time, they are and always will be an integral part of who I am. Like it or not. So perhaps not surprisingly I have long wanted to visit Johannesburg again. To “reconnect” with my earliest memories there, I guess in the hope that by shining a light on the dim past, it might somehow also provide greater clarity in the present.


A Cyrildene Primary School class photo - circa 1980
A Cyrildene Primary School class photo – circa 1980

Now, whatever you may think you know about Johannesburg c.1980 (ie: a city rooted in apartheid, inequality, social unrest, subject to global sanctions and international condemnation etc), from the perspective of a White Jewish child growing up there, it was a pretty wonderful place.

My family lived in the comfortable, all-White middle-class suburb of Cyrildene, on a leafy street, in a nice house, a few moments walk from a well-tended park. We were part of the privileged White 5%, and so like almost every other similar family back then my dad went out to work each day, and my mum stayed home to look after the kids and tend to the house. She was ably assisted in this endeavour by my grandmother and two live-in Black nannies – all a constant presence in our lives – and by a full-time Black gardener who lived in a small alcove at the back of the garage.

Of course with hindsight it is easy to say how horribly wrong this state of affairs was. I still feel pangs of shame, for example, to think that as a ten-year old child I habitually referred to an adult man tending to our flowerbeds as the “garden boy”, and to Black people in general as “shochs” (dark ones, in Yiddish). But that was normal in South Africa back then – no use moralising otherwise. Many ex-South Africans I know might choose to selectively re-memorize things (a-la “we were always opposed to apartheid….”, “we couldn’t continue living in such an unjust society”, etc), but I suspect that like everyone else at the time they had drunk the same Cool-Ade, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

In any case, all I can say is that from my own (admittedly limited) perspective of being a White child growing up in apartheid-era South Africa, I knew nothing of the massive social injustice being perpetrated all around me. Instead, all I knew was the incredibly happy, sheltered, safe and privileged life that it brought me.

My childhood was centred on Cyrildene Primary, the local Government-run public school that I attended for seven years. There were about fifty kids in my grade, every one of whom was White (as was every other kid in school). About sixty percent of us were Jewish, Cyrildene being a predominantly Jewish suburb at the time (see my previous post Reflections on a Cyrildene Childhood). But in accordance with Government policy of the day we were still made to recite The Lord’s Prayer each morning (I know it by heart, to this day), and we had to sing Christian hymns at school assembly (“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me, all the days of my life…..”).

Outside of school hours my life was full-up with extra-curricular activities: soccer games and swimming tournaments and tennis matches and Chess club. Some days after school my gang of pre-pubescent buddies and I would gather round a beat-box in a far corner of the playground, insert a cassette of the latest American music, and try to break-dance (we were woeful at it). Twice a year there was a school fete, for which all the mums would bake cookies; the highlights of the school year were the annual graduation ceremony and the annual disco in the school hall.

Most days I walked to and from school, a distance of about a kilometre. On the way home I would often call in at a local corner store on Derrick Avenue, Cyrildene’s main commercial thoroughfare. It was owned by an old Greek man and his wife. There I’d buy chunks of moist biltong, or individually wrapped chappies chewing gums for two cents each, often offsetting the five cents refund I got from returning glass soda bottles. Or I’d pop into the chemist a few doors down, which was owned by a friendly Jewish man, to buy stationery and other school necessities.

My piano teacher lived in an apartment above that corner store. Twice a week I would go there for lessons. Once a week I walked up the road to judo lessons, and once a week to speech and drama class. When I wasn’t walking I rode my bike everywhere: to Hebrew lessons, to tennis camp, to friends’ houses for play-dates, or to the local public library. There I would sit on a beanbag in the children’s section, and voraciously consume Famous Five, Hardy Brothers and Nancy Drew books. Or I would pour over the World Atlas, trying to learn the names of every country and capital city on earth. It seems I was travelling even before I could travel.

Mostly, however, I would read the library’s huge collection of Tintin, Asterix, Biggles and Lucky Luke comics, over and over and over again, to the point that I knew every word and panel by heart. It was the start of a life-long love affair with these animated books, and often I was so engrossed my mother had to extract me from the library at closing time.

In short, my Cyrildene childhood was ridiculously wholesome – almost cloyingly so. It was pretty much the same suburban white-picket-fence sort of thing you mostly see portrayed in films set in small-town America. It was a happy, content and uneventful childhood, and from as young as ten, I was able to do my thing, largely free of active adult supervision. Not, mind you, because of wholesale neglect on the part of my parents, but rather because back then this sort of junior independence was totally normal. More or less every other kid I knew was doing the same thing, too.

Most parents today, whether in South Africa or elsewhere, would never dream of allowing their ten-year old kids to walk themselves to school, or hop on their bikes to pedal round to the library. But for me and my classmates growing up in the early 1980s in Johannesburg, this was no more unusual than it was to have a full-time nanny, or to eat air-dried meat as a snack. Like the apartheid system, independence from a young age was just another background feature of daily life in Cyrildene, so common as to be completely unremarkable.

But now, thirty years later, when thinking about my childhood, I see just how remarkable and extraordinary the freedom we had then was. Indeed, in many respects this was the defining theme of my early life. Which of course is all kind of ironic, really, given that it was in large measure only possible thanks to the regime of mass oppression in which we lived.



After a few days in Cape Town my brother and I flew to Johannesburg. We still have some family there, and Tom, a cousin who is a couple of years younger than me, collected us at the airport. It was the first time we had seen each other since we were teenagers, but clearly he hadn’t forgotten who he was dealing with: as we hopped into his car Tom said “welcome home” and passed me a brown paper bag. I opened it to find half a kilo of freshly-sliced biltong inside. My brother and I set upon it like two crazed animals, munching happily as Tom sped us down roads and freeways that I couldn’t recognise.

Now that I was finally in Johannesburg, a trip down memory lane was my top priority. So I asked Tom if we could go straight to Cyrildene. Twenty minutes later we were there, and suddenly everything became incredibly familiar to me. It was an utterly weird feeling, arriving in a landscape that although completely foreign was also one that I knew intimately. I found myself able to effortlessly navigate my way around a little clutch of streets that I have never laid eyes on as an adult, but which as a child had been my entire world.

On the outskirts of Cyrildene we passed the Eastgate shopping mall, which seemed much smaller than I remembered it to be. Tom and I instantly began reminiscing about how we used to ride our bikes there after school, armed with a fistful of twenty cent pieces. We’d feed them into first-generation video-game machines, which today our kids would regard as beyond antique (Galaga and Pac-Man were my favourites).

And then we came to Derrick Avenue, where Tom parked so that we could walk around. In my mind I know every square inch of this street. After all, this was where the old Greek man had his store, two doors down from the Jewish-owned chemist, underneath my piano teacher’s apartment, and around the corner from the local public library where I spent countless afternoons. So in many respects, this was my childhood Ground Zero.

Sometime in the intervening thirty years, however, the whole of Derrick Avenue has transformed into Johannesburg’s Chinatown. The street is bounded at both ends by huge Chinese gateways, and almost every store is a restaurant, grocer or business catering to Johannesburg’s migrant Chinese community. Tom told me that last year he had brought his kids here on Chinese New Year, to watch the fireworks, eat sweet’n’sour stir-fry, and see the dragon dance.

The Greek grocery store is still there, only now it is a clothing shop, filled with cheap shoes and dresses. Inside two young Chinese shop assistants were slurping noodles and giggling with each other in Mandarin. Next door is a restaurant offering dim sum. And next door to that the chemist has become a grocery, selling water chestnuts, bok-choy and Chinese cabbage.

The library – a sacred place in my memory, and one to which this blog probably owes a goodly portion of its origin – is not there anymore. It has been replaced by a dusty garbage-filled car-park, and Chinese billboards. Indeed, all along Derrick Avenue the street signage is now exclusively Chinese, printed in large red characters.

It all felt so strange, in a completely disjointed sort of way. Most of the buildings that I remember so vividly from my childhood are still there, almost brick for brick. Yet at the same time the whole strip has become so completely different in character I may as well have landed on the Moon.



But where the full depth of this transformation really hit home to me was when I came to the entry to “Patrick Mansions”, the block of flats in which my elderly piano teacher, Mrs Brislin, had lived. Twice each week I’d ring the bell that now, like then, was on the wall in front of me. I’d then ascend the stairs to her neat apartment. Inside I’d sit on her couch, decorated with her hand-knitted doilies, in the compact sitting room that was dominated by her lovingly polished upright piano. When she was ready she’d invite me to sit alongside her at the keys, where I’d practice hated scales, or painfully hack out tunes, while she would beat time with a ruler.

Even though Mrs Brislin almost certainly died many years ago, in my mind she will always be alive. So something about seeing the entryway to her apartment block again – now derelict, blocked off by heavy iron gratings, lined with rubbish and papered over with Chinese flyers and posters – really unsettled me. It felt like a thief had snuck in and stolen this aspect of my childhood from me. It was as if the place I once knew had been stripped back to a bare skeleton, and then a whole new body had been grafted onto those same bones.

I found myself secretly wishing that the whole Goddamn suburb of Cyrildene, along with all of those hazy and idealised childhood memories I have, had been razed to the ground. At least that would have closed the chapter for me. But now, what I had found instead was a place that was neither here nor there; neither then nor now. This was simultaneously both somewhere I knew intimately and yet somewhere that was completely foreign to me, too. It was a place still familiar enough to be the place I grew up in and once knew as home, but so radically different to have become a place I can never go “home” to.

In short, Cyrildene as I found it in 2014 undoubtedly still exists as a place, but at the same time is a place that long ago ceased to exist.

All in all, confusing and confronting, and not exactly the revelatory “homecoming” that I had been expecting. To be honest though, I am not quite sure what I was expecting. But I do know it was more than where to get good Peking duck in Johannesburg.


[To be continued next week].



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