Conversations with Mr Stander

I found a letter in the pile of personal documents my mother gave me. It was posted on 24 February 1958 from Warmbaths, then part of the Transvaal. The single small stamp looks like the precursor of a portrait of the stylised zebra that Investec has as its emblem. The envelope is addressed simply to:

Mnr Peter Stathoulis

Union Caffee


It arrived the year before my parents were married. They had their honeymoon in Warmbaths, and Mr Stander, the writer of the letter, lived there. He had helped my grandmother with my father when he was small. She would have been in South Africa only a few years when Mr Stander helped. I cannot imagine how they met, or what he did to help. Or even how they communicated, because she could speak no Afrikaans or English in the early days of her immigration.

His letter is addressed to my father, family and dearest friends. It is written in old Afrikaans, with more than a hint at Dutch. Mr Stander complains of the heat in Warmbaths. February would have been the end of summer. He developed pneumonia and was bed bound for eleven days. After the diagnosis his one leg went lame and he was worried that he had contracted polio. There had been four cases diagnosed in the Warmbaths community over recent months, and with respect I assume these were amongst the whites only. Using heat treatment and rest to retard the damage done to the spinal cord by the polio virus was in vogue at the time. This much is evident from the medical literature at the time. Who knows, with all these people seeking treatment in the warm waters they probably caused infection of others. Mr Stander was happy when the doctor told him that it was not polio, and that he must get out of bed and walk. He did, slowly, and walked with a “kierie”. He complains that he had to do everything himself, that there was even no maid to help him. With the heat and his illness his garden had dried up and the weeds had taken over.

It is an odd letter. I suppose an sms would impart that information from an old friend today. “Hot in Warmbaths. Recovering from pneumonia and thought I had polio. Dr says not. Garden a mess. Regards to the family. HC Stander.” In sixty years time no one would have any record of the event. Instead I have neatly folded letter posted with care and carrying news of illness to friends who cared. It does not ask for anything, other than Godspeed to meet again.  The addressing of the envelope is also heart warming. No street or number, no code, and yet it arrived. In those days Union Café was a landmark in Alberton, with my grandfather and Uncle Piet delivering some semblance of social service to the poor whites of the area. The same poor whites that the government introduced affirmative action for in the form of Apartheid.

The tragedy today is that the poor people today  cannot write letters and only use sms’s to communicate. They also do not have a Union Café to look after them.

The letter from Mr Stander

Conversations about J.S.Centre

Voortrekker Road is the main dual carriage way that runs through the industrial town of Alberton that manufactures for the gold mining industry of the Witwatersrand. It used to be the main road to Durban before the National Roads Department built the N3 that now bypasses the eastern border of one it if many suburbs. I remember cycling on the unfinished highway in my teens, the seventies. Highways changed the nature of life. We took our first step towards speeding up life to a frenetic pace on that tarmac.

You enter Alberton from Johannesburg by driving down the gold bearing ridge and crossing a small river, the Natalspruit. This flows into the Vaal River eventually, but is named in honour of the road towards Natal and Durban. I suppose today we should call it the KwaZulu Natalspruit.  The river used to run yellow with mining acid and dust until some measure of control was forced on the processing for gold. In fact, it is more likely that the process became more cost effective and efficient, and a cleaner river the by product. I remember doing a school environmental project on the river: it was sterile. Occasionally it would burst its banks in heavy summer rains and flood the lower valley. Downstream in the townships it did more damage to the small houses packed close together in regular geometric patterns on sand roads with no drainage.

Once the steep road flattens into Alberton there is a tall block of flats on the left, York Building. Before, after this for a long way on the left was the open valley of the Natalspruit. First they built new municipal offices that looked like a mini parliament (well before 1994) and then a garish shopping mall. When the valley was still green and unbuilt my grandfather built his first commercial building with apartments above the ground floor. This was Stats Building, on the northern corner of Fore Street, which led to the pretty golf course nestled in the koppies, and Voortrekker Road, en route to Durban. I live in Durban now.

My father and his brother built J.S. Centre on the southern corner of the same intersection. The façade was originally face brick and the building was rounded on the main corner with a pleasing effect. The bottom floor was commercial and the next two floors were offices, while the top two remained lovely north facing apartments.

My Uncle Mika had the largest corner cafe there, in the years before supermarkets. Then Barclays bank took over and expanded to include the first floor as First National. My father’s auditors also remained as tenants on the first floor and in his corporate heyday his company occupied half of the second floor, including a wide passage that paralleled the curve on the corner of Voortrekker and Fore Street. My father’s office was the last on the left of the passage that ended in a strong room.

J.S. Centre on the left, Stats Building on the right, in the Sixties.

Conversations at an Interview

Alberton in the seventies was already blown wide open when one of the Greek community’s sons underwent gender reassignment surgery. In his teens he became a she. There was never any malicious talk that I can remember from that conservative community. There were no hushed whispers when she came to church.

We used to be friends when we were preteens, but then drifted apart. Nothing was forced, and they were a lovely family.

One day my father was interviewing for a post in the company. It was an administrative position, one that would normally be filled by a woman. It’s interesting how gender roles were so fixed in those days, and still we struggle to break them down. South African women were only empowered to vote in 1943. In the years when my father was active on the community there were no woman on the committee. Woman had defined roles, catering in the hall, preparing the bier of Christ, the epitaphio for Good Friday and other important events.

And in those times here was my father interviewing, quite fairly, a gay man for a woman’s post. No doubt my father sat at his ash wood desk with a folio of foolscap pages to make notes. He would have had some questions prepared, written untidily because although he wrote right handed, he was born left handed and all of society forced him to change. Being left handed was too close to the devil, too sinister. While interview, or chairing meetings, he would unnerve people by changing pen from right to left and continue writing.

He would always ask about education and achievements at school, because they were important. Playing sport was a good indicator of social integration. Church attendance was more important than what religion a potential employee followed; I am not sure if Jehovah’s Witnesses were ever employed. I have a feeling they were, but that religion was never discussed at work. Family life was another topic to be covered in the interview. I am not sure how that would have been answered by the gay candidate. It was acceptable in a manner of speaking in those days to declare yourself gay, but not to live with a lover. Of course, marriage to that lover was unheard of, and sodomy was still a crime in the Republic of South Africa.

The candidate was a good option for the job. Well educated, a sportsman, churchgoing and well spoken. My father let him leave.

He called in his senior secretary. Prim and proper, she sat down.

“Yes, Mr Peter?”

“He is a good candidate. But I will not take him. I am worried about you girls.”

Conversations while Walking

The best time we had together was when we walked. We never walked together in Durban. It was too hot for my father, and he used to get chest pain in the heat. Also, to be fair, I work in Durban and I would rush off early to work and come back late.

We used to walk at Mbona. We would walk past the stables down the valley, over the dam wall and up through the wattle and pine plantation past my brother John’s place for coffee. Then we would contour in the grassland, past the zebra that always hide in a hollow and back onto the main road to our house.

Walking at home in Alberton was fun, because it was with the dogs. They would lead the way and set the pace. There were certain houses with enemy dogs that always required a stand of aggression, and there were other gates and poles that required a territorial marking. His attorney’s house always required the dog to mark with something more solid. The house was the last in the suburb without a fence, so it was easy to let the dog make a mark in the open. It was an abvious calling card.

We also walked in Astros. I only remember really hot days with early walks, past the village shops that were still closed, past the harbour with yachts lying unmoving in the still blue water. Past the Duck House in the middle of the harbour, and the amphitheatre at the edge of the harbour. Up the hill, with a rest at the church and sometimes to light a candle, then downhill, back into the village. Now the bakery was open and the heavy smell of fresh bread and pastries would force us to stop to buy breakfast; then laden with bags we would walk the few blocks home and devour the fresh bread with fig jam and share the apple pastries.

The best place to walk was Kakouri. He was always so happy heading off into the plain. Down the avenue of plane trees, the village fresh in the morning, the earthy smell of sheep not yet fermented in the day’s heat. After a while he would turn left into the fields, along a sand road, then left again to slowly walk up a long hill to the original spring of the village which still trickled fresh sweet water. He would stop for a drink and then continue up to the church of Agio Dimitri and then backtrack into a small ravine that separated the village from the mountain of Analipsi. From there onto a tar road studded with sheep droppings and into Keza’s Cafe, where the men were already sitting in the shade of the pergola covered with vines as old as the shop. Some were drinking coffee; a few others would always be nursing a brandy. The usual group was always chatty. More often than not someone who was not regular would come by, be offered a coffee and information would be exchanged.

I am sure the same happened at the socialist cafe up the road.

Conversations on Potatoes

I know today is a holiday in Greece. The day we said OXI (no) to the invasion by the Italians. Yesterday we said yes to the European banks writing off 50% of their Greek debt. I doubt OXI will change to EFXARISTO (thanks).

My father spent many OXI days making speeches at schools and churches and communities. In 1974 he made a patriotic speech at the new church. Yes, church and state were indivisible. It is filled with rhetoric and slogans. I have translated from the Greek:

“NO to baseness;

NO to darkness;

NO to slavery.”

The great OXI was shouted out loud in October 1940, across the Mediterranean Sea and Balkan Mountains, hearkening back to the Ottoman Occupations and the freedom once known by the expansion of Macedon into Asia by Alexander the Great.

The next speech I have on record is 3 years later. On 28 October 1977 my father made a speech at Marais Viljoen Technical High School. This was a dual medium high school, with beautiful grounds at the foot of the koppies in Alberton. It had a strong academic and sporting tradition. They were my high school’s arch enemies in athletics. I remember running a 200m race and being cut off by their star sprinter in the corner as I overtook him on the inside. I lost that race, but we won the 4 x 100 m relay.

He was invited to speak at the conservative school on  ”What Hellenism has Contributed to South Africa” . It must be one of the few speeches he made on 28 October that did not contain any slogans and win which not a word of Greek was spoken. In fact, in that speech he does not mention the relevance of the day to Greeks.

He expounds on the history of Greeks arriving in South Africa:

The he moved on to explain the two types of immigrants who arrived: the unskilled initially and then the skilled. All of who had the entrepreneurial spirit. He expounds on great Greek sportsman, but refrains from mentioning that the Greeks started the Olympic games.

Along the way in trying to explain the dual nature of the South African Greeks he emphasises that “ we do not worship two gods”. I am not sure why he said that.

He concludes the four  page speech typed on a typewriter and edited with Tipex with a summary of the commercial success of South Africa Greeks. A classic is the Potato King, Lampies Nichas, whose spud empire threateden the USA.  They supported farmers to outstrip his production so that he would lose his dominance in the industry.