Muizenberg, South Africa

George or Holidays By the Sea

by Isme Bennie

Re-published from Maple Tree Literary Supplement courtesy of the author


South Africans who lived in the landlocked Transvaal or Free State provinces would make for the coast for their holidays. These vacationers included my family as well as families from as far afield as the Belgian Congo or Northern Rhodesia, as they were then called. We would go east in July, replacing – for those of us from Vereeniging – the chilly Highveld with the semi-tropical Natal. In December we went south to the beautiful Cape, enjoying either the Atlantic or the Indian Oceans that frame the tip of Africa.

The first holiday I remember was with my mother in Port Elizabeth, on South Africa’s east coast. I was pretty young, it must have been during or close to the end of the war, WW11 that is. I don’t think that my little sister was with us – she was born in 1946. I have a vision of my mother sitting with other women on the beach, friends or relatives, and I have a vague memory of a place called Happy Valley or Fairy Glen that we tried to find, or perhaps did visit.

For the next holiday, about three years later when I was about nine, my whole family went to Muizenberg, a few miles outside the city of Cape Town. Muizenberg was the vacation preserve of South African Jews, much like the Catskills for New Yorkers, but without the entertainment factor. Our black maid Paulina came with us to look after my sister who was a toddler then. Paulina would have been accommodated in the hotel’s servants’ quarters. The hotels in Muizenberg were barely two-star, but people went year after year and stayed in the same one year after year. Not my mother. After this first family holiday in Muizenberg and our stay at the Marine Hotel she would never go back.

We went by train, a steam train that took two days to arrive in Cape Town. My mother made friends at the hotel with a woman from London, who was escaping from post-war England, and its rationing and so on. Years later, when I went to live in the UK, I looked her up, but she had no recollection of meeting us.

After that holiday, my father went to Muizenberg alone. He would bring back gifts for my sister and I – one year it was sweaters, another time, the pin-on “nurse’s watch” which I had requested. When I was about eleven, I started going to Muizenberg with my father – just the two of us. We would go on the Blue Train, a luxury express with everything decked out in blue, sheets, blankets and towels. We shared a blue leather compartment with its own blue washroom. We dined elegantly in the dining car, sitting on blue banquettes and eating off blue table linen. It always reminded me of an Afrikaans poem that I had learned at school, about a small girl standing at dusk beside a lonely candle-lit tent looking out “in stomme bewond’ring.” She was looking with wonderment at a brightly lit train racing by, envying the sparkling wines and expensive food being enjoyed within.

The Blue Train was electrified, but as it approached the mountain range, it was hitched to a steam train, to pull it over the passes, and then it made the descent into the low-lying Cape Town and its environs. In Cape Town we switched to the local train that would take us to Muizenberg and to our accommodation. My father and I now stayed at the somewhat better Bayview Hotel.

I hung out with my friends from home or with friends made during previous vacations. I walked for miles along the beach when I first went to Muizenberg, looking for a snake park. I did not realize that it was the name for a crowded triangle of beach, edged by a row of bathing huts on one side and the concrete wall of a promenade on another, where all the young people hung out. The air in Muizenberg was invigorating, full of saline, and the sea had breakers to jump into or surf upon. One could stay in for hours. But the Snake Park had the attraction that it brought girls and guys with hopes for a date, or at least a few weeks’ vacation relationship, into close quarters.

In the evening after dinner at our hotel we would meet to walk along the Promenade, the long elevated concrete walkway that ran parallel to the beach. We paraded up and down, a few girls together, a few guys together. Years later in the small beach town of Torres in Brazil, I encountered the same thing: young girls and guys parading around the town square, and it brought back memories of those teenage years in Muizenberg. New Year’s Day usually fell on the weeks of summer vacation, and having a date on New Year’s Eve was important. I never did. However I went once with a group of friends to a New Year’s Eve midnight show, “jailhouse Rock.” I can remember it so well.

I went to camp one summer. If the Muizenberg experience was inadequate for my mother, so was camp for me. I went only once to the annual Habonim Camp organized by the Jewish Youth Movement. I was not particularly indoctrinated, but my friends and I belonged because in a small town that’s what one did. We went overnight by train, with hundreds of other campers, to East London, to a large camp ground near the ocean. Camp was pretty basic. There were six of us to a tent we had to put up ourselves. We slept on bedrolls. If it rained, we got soaked. We had to help with food prep at the large communal kitchen. Showers and toilets were a long walk away. Even accessing the beach for a daily swim was preceded by a trek through brush. Singing round the campfire at night was one of the nicer things we did, so was eating the chocolate cake my mother sent, which we cut with a potato peeler. My tent mates and I were hardly equipped for the rigors of Israeli frontier life! I came home very grubby and with a strep throat.

After I graduated from university, I went to Cape Town most years for my summer holiday, staying at a Sea Point hotel and taking the bus to the beach – Clifton Beach – every day. Clifton Beach, set at the bottom of a rocky cliff, was divided naturally into four mini-beaches or bays – from the Fourth one, which was the family beach, to the First, which was for the older people. One clambered down steep steps set in the rocks to these enclaves, each year or so moving on and up to a more age-appropriate beach. My friends and I would skip the one known to be the Afrikaans intellectuals’ hang out. Pleasantly tired, tanned, glowing with sun and salt, we would leave the beach to shower and change for an evening out at a party or a club.

Sometimes the party might be in one or another of the cottages perched along Clifton’s steep inclines, or in an apartment in one of the luxury blocks at the top. This was during the apartheid era, of course, and these buildings and the hotels, restaurants, beaches and clubs were for whites only. There were a few nightspots that fell under the radar though. We felt quite adventurous patronizing them. Navigator’s Den was one, a low-down multi-racial dive on the docks.

Going by air was the way I usually traveled to the Cape like my father. But occasionally I would cadge a ride from friends and we would drive the 1000 miles, stopping briefly en route at the Colesberg Hotel for a drink or a bathroom visit. The hotel was like a stagecoach inn of the days of yore. The village of Colesberg itself was in the middle of the semi-desert called the Karoo and there were miles of nothing on either side of it. Then once in Cape Town, I would have to start canvassing for a ride home. I went on several holidays to Durban through the years, usually in the winter months, staying at my uncle’s beachfront hotel. But it is the holidays in the beautiful Cape that stands out in my memory.

After I left South Africa, I seldom went back to Cape Town. I did meet up one time with a friend from those days who was also visiting the old country. We spent a day on Clifton Beach, a day exactly like those of our earlier teenage vacations. Some years ago, in the new post-apartheid South Africa, I had a strong yen to return and so I rented a cottage on Clifton Beach for a few weeks. My sister and her family joined me, and we enjoyed beautiful weather, scenic drives, and idyllic days on the beach, descending from our cottage to the sea and sand below, sunbathing and taking the odd dip in the freezing cold Atlantic Ocean to cool off. Even in this new South Africa era, it felt as though nothing had changed. Our beach was still populated by whites; the cars outside the luxury apartment blocks were high-end BMWs or Mercedes. There were lots of black domestic help available. The cottages were still white-owned. But there was one change since my last visit: many had been rebuilt or renovated into luxury summer retreats with swimming pools.

In the evening we would barbecue or “braai” in an outdoor stone pit. I would give the leftovers to George, the black “boy” who came with the rental. He maintained the property for the owners in addition to his day jobs. George had a room with its own entrance in the basement of the cottage. When I left, I gave him the contents of the refrigerator. I heard later from the owner that he said I had been the best “missus.” I had a picture, perhaps unfair, of the red-faced, badly sun burnt, loud, gin or beer drinking English or Germans lording it over the black help.

The following Christmas I sent George a bonsella or ‘gift’ of some money, care of the cottage owner. The following year she sold the cottage and told me she was trying to find new accommodations for George. Then I got a letter from Louis Traub. He was George’s new employer and George had asked that he contact me. For several more years the bonsella was sent via Mr. Traub. I always made sure it was sent before George left for his annual vacation to his tribal homeland in the Eastern Cape. Then a letter came from Carol Musikanth. Mr. Traub had died and she was taking over. So the annual gift has continued.

This February I went to Cape Town and visited Carol Musikanth, hoping that George would be back from his vacation so that I could meet him face to face again. Carol told me he was seriously ill in hospital in the Eastern Cape. I left money for him. George, the “boy” was by now a man well in his sixties. He had held down manual jobs, several at a time. He was barely literate, unable to communicate directly with me except for one awkwardly printed thank you. But he had saved his bonsellas to put his daughter through university and she was now an accountant, and he was educating a second daughter. This, his life in Cape Town, had been playing out through those years we were enjoying the sun and sea.

Copyright © Isme Bennie

Ismé Bennie is one of the most influential women in Canadian broadcasting, and has a proven track record in both private and public television production and management. Her most recent positions were, as a Vice-President and General Manager of several CTV specialty services. She managed a large portfolio which included Bravo!, The Comedy Network, Space, BookTelevision, Drive-In Classics and TV Land Canada. In 1990, she received the Canadian Film and Television Production Association (CFTPA) Personal Achievement Award, and in 1995, the CFTPA Jack Chisholm Award for Lifetime Contribution to the Motion Picture and Television Industry.