Why do I occupy these pages with words about the betrayers of poor nations instead of reserving all the space for the story of a miserable woman with a broken heart? Why do I shed tears for the oppressed peoples rather than keep all my tears for the memory of a weak woman whose life was snatched by the teeth of death?
But my dear readers, don’t you think that such a woman is like a nation that is oppressed by priests and rulers? Don’t you believe that thwarted love which leads a woman to the grave is like the despair which pervades the people of earth? A woman is to a nation as light is to a lamp. Will not the light be dim if the oil in the lamp is low? Kahlil Gibran, The Broken Wings
I come from a complex family. I come from a family with a long history. Some of the histories have faded and become lore. Others have been shined, grown patina and stood the test of time. The one truth I have learned from my family is that nothing in life is predictable. There is a reoccurring narrative of men and women who had to and continue to grapple with creatively adapting to the disruption and challenges of the society they find themselves in.
The Coopers came to South Africa with the Royal Army Medical Corps during the South African War. Major William Cooper, a medical doctor, and pharmacist and his wife, Mary Brookes, were born in Scotland. Tom, their son, was a trumpet boy for the British Army during the war and at eighteen, went to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, to become the first Victoria Falls postmaster. A natural storyteller, many of his autobiographical stories were farfetched and unbelievable. He married Elsie and they had three sons.
My paternal grandfather, Basil, followed in his father’s footsteps becoming, along with his best friend Alan Garrard, one of the jokesters of Jeppe High School for Boys. He completed a B.Com degree at Wits before doing his medical degree and finally specializing as a physician.
In 1954, Basil married my grandmother Barbara Stern and went on to work mainly at Baragwaneth Hospital, an environment that he found challenging but immensely more rewarding than his brief spell in private practice. Tragically he died relatively young in his late thirties in a motor car accident as the family were en route to a holiday at the coast. The family have still not really dealt with his death and don’t speak about him much. I therefore don’t know much about him.
On my paternal grandmother’s side, the pragmatic responses to the vagaries of anti-Semitism and survival are exposed. Her great-grandfather’s lineage may be traced to the Sephardic Jews, who, during the Spanish Inquisition fled Toledo, Spain to live in exile. Most of those stories are lost.
The first member I can accurately trace is Samuel Stern. Born in Reichensachsen, Germany in 1863 he traveled to Cape Town, South Africa in 1886. He started a store in the then Western Transvaal which grew into a considerable business concern, which included several farms – Mumusa, Kangverwacht, and Palachoema.
Samuel married Henny Fels, a gregarious, festive woman, born in Einbeck into an academic, cultural family, shortly after she turned nineteen, and brought her to live with him in Wolmaransstad. Farm life did not suit her.
Samuel was a charming, pragmatic man who befriended both the Afrikaner and English communities counting both Paul Kruger and Cecil John Rhodes in his sphere of influence. There was a rumor was that the mythical Kruger Millions were hidden under the floor of one of his shops. However, during the South African War, his close friendship with Paul Kruger ultimately become a threat to the British occupation and he was interned in a British Concentration Camp for aiding and abetting the enemy.
Here Henny’s smarts and cunning helped free Samuel. Deploying her significant culinary skills to offer them expensive, and rationed, German cakes and sweets, she convinced the soldiers to release him. After signing an agreement to leave South Africa and never to take up arms against the British, the family returned to Germany.
My paternal grandfather, Rudolf “Rudi” Stern and his sister Irma, were born in Schweizer Reneke and educated by German tutors. While expelled from South Africa, Rudi studied Agriculture through the University of Fryburg while Irma studied art at the celebrated Weimar Academy.
After the First World War, Rudi returned to South Africa to manage the farms. Numerous factors from the farming disaster of the 30’s to drought, locusts, and further economic depression all contributed to making farming unprofitable and Rudi left South Africa to work in his uncle’s bank where he met Mary Glen.
They returned to Schweizer Reneke and Rudi started the London Malt Factory making millet beer, and the Supreme Produce company, a maize mill which would extend into different branches of agriculture in the Western Transvaal. Mary and Rudi had two daughters, Bridget, and Barbara.
Although not much recognized in her time, Rudi’s sister Irma went on to become one of the country’s most celebrated female artists. Heavily influenced by the Novembergruppe and the German Expressionist painters of the period, her main benefactor, and friend, was the industrialist Anton Rupert, who collected some of her best pieces over her artistic career. She was particularly well known for her extensive travel in Europe and Southern Africa, particularly Zanzibar and the Congo. Secondary to her painting she was a well-known collector of eclectic artefacts from the regions she visited and assembled a collection of rare objects.
To this day her ability to see beauty in the rough is a quality that separates her work from her contemporaries. Irma married her German tutor, Johannes Prinz, who was a professor of German at the University of Cape Town, but the short-lived marriage ended in divorce shortly before his death during the Second World War.
The earliest ancestor on my paternal great-grandmother’s side is Alexander McKenzie, a Scottish clansman and an officer in the British Army, his daughter Agnes would later marry Reverend John Glen. Both of their daughters, Elizabeth “Hope” and Agnes “Mary” won scholarships to Cambridge with Hope, the eldest, studying at Newnham campus before going to the London School of Economics. She would become the first female, chief linen buyer for John Lewis and Peter Jones in London and subsequently a director of John Lewis before retiring to marry Hugh Stuart-Menzies. She earned an OBE for organizing food for the people of London during the Second World War. Mary studied Modern and Medieval Languages and French at Grenoble University before becoming the first female Assistant Director of Examination under the British Civil Service until she retired to marry Rudi Stern and move to Schweizer Reneke in the Western Transvaal of South Africa. Alexander, the only son, lied about his age in order to join the air force during World War Two, after receiving his pilot’s license he was sent to France where he was shot down by German bombers at Cambria. Considered “missing” until the family received a letter from the parish priest of Marquion, who informed them of his death, he, and his flying, have been written about in The Red Baron’s autobiography. He was also awarded a medal for gallant and distinguished service in the field.
I do not know a lot about my mother’s side of the family. My mother was a laatlammetjie and most of her family are much older than her. Both of my maternal grandparents lost their fathers at young ages. Without the security of male incomes, both mothers were forced to open boarding houses, a lucrative and pragmatic solution to generating an income while caring for a family alone.
My maternal grandmother, Wilhelmina Truter, a primary school teacher, lived in Porterville in the Swartland. She supported her three sons by extending their house and turning it into the Delictus Boarding House.
She became a pillar of her community serving both as a mayor for a period and running the local library and at the time of her death at 84, still led the congregation as the church organist.
My maternal grandfather Willem Burger Truter’s elder brother, Fred, died on Newlands stadium in a rugby accident in his late teens. The two brothers, both exceptionally gifted sportsmen, had been inseparable and the loss was traumatic.
I am not sure what happened to the youngest brother Bernard, who joined the mining industry, as him and my grandfather were never close.
Willem Burger Truter would become a detective in the South African Security Police Force. I did not know much about him until this assignment. I found the article The Armed Struggle Before and After by Piet Swanepoel (Swanepoel, 2014). He mentioned the following reference by Nelson Mandela in his discussion about his Treason Trial:
Several police witnesses, especially Head Constable Truter, Sgts. Muller, Ngcai and Swanepoel (not the same as Colonel Swanepoel who in the 60s gained notoriety for his brutality as Security Branch police officer), gave a sober and balanced account of the policy of the ANC and its allies. They also agreed that our struggle was non-violent and that the violent speeches delivered by some of us did not express the policy of the organisation. (p.292)
The defence team had little difficulty in showing that the Crown had failed to prove the allegations in the indictment. In support of their argument they quoted in addition to the massive evidence of the different witnesses, that of the police men referred to earlier and asked for our discharge.
On 29th March 1961, four years and four months after our arrest we were found not guilty and acquitted. (p.295) (Swanepoel, 2014)
He was a First Class detective sergeant in Pretoria when the Second World War broke out in 1939 and played center for the Pretoria Police Rugby team and the Pretoria Combined team which would become the Northern Transvaal team and later would be known as the Blue Bulls.
Arrested mistakenly under false suspicion of being a member of the Ossewa Brandwag, he was jailed without trial for an extensive period. After his release, he joined the army as part of the landmine detection unit in Italy where he stepped on a landmine and, as a result, lost 70% of his eyesight, both shoulders were broken and his legs stripped of flesh. My grandfather was apolitical, but in 1948 when the National Party won and instituted a commission of enquiry into the cases of policemen who had lost their jobs during the war, he returned to the police force at the rank of detective head constable.
My grandfather never forgot his unfair incarceration and dealt with apartheid by demanding reports from his staff, notes from public meetings and detailed information on all informers to ensure impeccable accuracy and correct, truthful justice and prosecution. It is rumoured that he turned down many overtures from the Broederbond and was unpopular as a result of his scrupulous insistence on procedure for all. Above all, my grandfather was a man of conviction, truth, honesty and integrity. He believed in always remaining your own man, and doing the right thing despite the ideology of the time. Nelson Mandela in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, mentioned my grandfather:
At the police station I was led into Sergeant Vorster’s office, where I saw a number of officers, one of whom was Warrant Officer Truter, who had testified in the Treason Trial. Truter had made a favourable impression on the accused because he had accurately explained the policy of the ANC, and had not exaggerated or lied. We greeted each other in a friendly way. I had still not admitted to anything other than the name David Motsamayi, and Truter said to me, “Nelson, why do you keep up this farce? You know I know who you are. We all know who you are.” I told him simply that I had given a name and that is the name I was standing by. I asked for a lawyer and was curtly refused. I then declined to make a statement (Mandela, 1995).
My maternal great-grandmother, Wilhelmina Ludick and my great-grandfather Lambert Fick had three daughters and a son. Lamber died of Spanish Flu, three months before my Ouma’s birth in 1925, Ouma, in remembrance of her father would be named, Jan Johannes Hermanus, later she would change her name to Janet. Wilhelmina started a hotel in Lichtenburg, purchasing a house from the insurance money. She died at 58 from breast cancer.
My maternal grandmother lost her eldest son, Bernard in a car accident when he was twenty-one. They too did not speak of the dead and I do not know much about him. My grandmother was much older when I was born and she often had difficulty understanding the new world I was living in.
My maternal aunt, Wilhelmina Bezuidenhout,’s children, female triplets named Helene, Janet, and Magda, were much closer to our grandmother than I because of age and proximity but I do have strong memories of her innate gumption and attitude. My uncle Willem Truter is an artist in Pretoria.
My paternal grandmother, Barbara, studied medicine at Wits, where she met Basil. He and my grandmother had three children, my father, Alan, and my aunts Gillian and Jennifer. My grandmother has always been around and has been one of the major influences in my life. She has always lived close, just down the road, and was a key feature in my life whenever my parents were unavailable.
One thing is for sure is I am from a family of strong, independent women. It isn’t that the men aren’t strong and independent. More that there aren’t too many around to speak of. I am just the next woman in a long line of feisty, stubborn and resilient women.