Home
Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Index
Publications
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch
Meetings
Links
Search

Interview with Bernhard Herzberg

This interview was conducted on 20 November 2000 in Reading by Y.S. Joe Rassool, who contributes the following introduction: "There are many people who have made their unsung contributions to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Bernhard was one of them. At 91 years of age his vivid recollections of his life since his arrival at Cape Town in 1933 from Germany to escape the Nazi onslaught reveals the character of a man who has a developed sense of justice and was determined not to fall for the lure of the white supremacist regime, but threw in his lot with the voteless oppressed."


I REMEMBER the day in November 1933; a very hot day, when the Windsor Castle docked in Cape Town. I was accompanied by three youngsters. I was 24. They were 18, 19 and came from my home town, Hanover. You may remember the Mailboat quay in Table Bay docks. That was where the ship docked.

Also present was Dr Verwoerd, who was opposed to immigration of "non-Aryans". An interesting thing was the immigration form I had to fill in. It gave three categories of people: Europeans, non-Europeans and Hebrews. So there we were discussing among ourselves Ė what are we? We come from Europe, so we are Europeans geographically. But by descent unfortunately we are Hebrews. As it was, we put down Europeans Ė we came from there. But the Greyshirts with their swastika armbands and flags waving were shouting abuse on the quay when we landed.

The luggage came up by Railway Transport from the docks. The reception was in the old Zionist hall in Hope Street. I was the only one who spoke English, so I had to ask people in the street how to get to Hope Street. We finally arrived at a boarding house in Union Street in the Gardens near Leeuwenhof (where the administrator of the Cape used to stay, and that historic building is still there, an old Dutch building). We were accommodated for £2 a week, which included breakfast, sandwiches to take to work and supper. There was nothing for bus fares. For two weeks I acted as interpreter Ė unpaid.

Then a chap from my home town was offered a job, but he couldnít take it because he had no knowledge of English, except what he learnt at school. So I was sent to Woodstock. I was taken out there to 349 Albert Road, not far from the Salt River market. It was a business, called Glaser and Shagam, importers of industrial chemicals. They also represented Bokomo Milling Company of Malmesbury. They had a flour depot. Glaser offered me 30 shillings a week. I said I would not work for that wage. He wanted me to keep his books, do his English and Afrikaans correspondence. I said, "How can I work for 30 shillings when my boarding house costs me £2?" He said, "Beggars canít be choosers." So I said to him, "I am not a beggar. But it looks as if your business is so bad you cannot pay a decent wage." After much haggling I was engaged for two pounds.

What I didnít know was that this man was also interested in exporting chincherinchee flowers. They were exported to Europe. I was supposed to be engaged as a clerk, but when I entered the premises, there was Mrs Glaser. She handed me a hammer to nail up little boxes to insert the chinks. Anyway it wasnít a very interesting job, but it paid for my boarding house at least.

In those days it cost a tickey from the Parade to Woodstock and a tickey from the Gardens to the old post office. But a sixpence a day I could not afford. So I bought a bicycle for £3 and paid it off half a crown a week. When my boss saw me he said, "You cannot come to work on a push-bike. Only Kaffirs and Coolies do that." I said, "Donít talk to me in that way. I donít like the expressions of ĎKaffirsí and ĎCooliesí. They donít belong to my vocabulary, and they shouldnít belong to yours either."

Anyway the most interesting part of my job was as a commercial traveller. I had to go to Langa Location It was the first Township administered by the City Council and not then by the government. I was told by Glaser to go out to this Kaffir Location. I asked, "What is that?" He said, "Youíll learn soon enough. They are black people speaking Xhosa." "What must I do there?" "You must load a lorry with flour, ĎKaffirí beans, mielie meal, and ĎKaffirí corn malt, load it off at eating houses and shops. You must only sell for cash."

So I had to be at the office at five in the morning. As no buses were running so early, I had to walk from the Gardens to Woodstock, load the lorry there and go out to Langa. It was very interesting to me. It was my first contact Ė apart from the people I knew like the intellectual, I.B.  Tabata Ė to meet the African middle class.

The richest man was Charles Nabe. One day he said, "Do you ever go up Table Mountain?" I said "Yes". He said, "Iíve got two nephews here from Fort Hare University. Will you take them up?" I met two students soon afterwards. When we were at the top of the mountain, it became very misty. I knocked at the door of the Mountain Club. A white man appeared. He said, "Yes?" I said we were caught in the fog. "Could we spend some time here in the hut?" He said, "Youíre accompanied by two black men, and you want to enter a white manís hut?" He was very rude. I slammed the door and went to look for a cave. Then the fog lifted and we didnít need the hut. I mention this because one comes from a country where oneís excluded as a minority, to a country where the majority is excluded from the good things of life. That offended my sense of justice.

So one day at the Gool`s house in Searle Street, I met a student, a girl. She said they were running a club called the Lenin Club in Roeland Street, not far from the jail. I agreed to join. She said, "Yes, weíre against the Communist Party and also against the Government." I said it seemed right as far as I was concerned, because I saw the Communist Party betraying the working classes in Europe by not co-operating with the Socialists and letting the Nazis come to power. I had my first lecture by Eddie Roux. There was also a writer, Peter Abrahams, who used to come. There was also an Irish fellow, Duncan. He came from a Protestant family, supported the IRA. In later life he reverted to type. Quite a few Afrikaans-speaking chaps from the Cape Times joined the Lenin Club.

But I got tired of the theoretical discussions, so Duncan and I started organising. At 4am we went to the Royal Dairy in Long Street. The African workers were engaged on a yearís contract. In our ignorance we disregarded the fact that they were on a contract. We said they must join because they were earning only 10 shillings a week. We werenít successful. We had to work through an interpreter. I said, "If you join a branch of the union it would be an unregistered one." That was the law. Their answer was, "No, we`ll get the sack if the boss finds out." Next we went to the Delmonico Restaurant. They employed a lot of Indian waiters from Durban. We sat down and ordered a beer. We started to talk to a waiter. He said, "Shhh ... the manager." I asked, "What about the manager?" "We`re not allowed to organise. We are here from Durban on sufferance." They were engaged to stay in Cape Town for one year, and if they were "good boys", their contract was renewed for another year.

It was interesting, those early days. And as I went to Langa every day, I took political propaganda into Langa Township. My first contact was a chap called Rametse. He was from Basutoland. He was shopkeeper. He said, "You donít tell us to fight for land and liberty. We know itís not up to whites to teach us our business." He was the first black consciousness man. And I agreed with him, but I told him I was given these pamphlets for distribution. Perhaps I shouldnít have left it with the shopkeeper, but go to the bus stop where working people are, catching the bus to town. Anyway that was a beginning.

By and by my wages were increased because the trade in Langa brought in a turnover of £10,000 a month . But this chap Glaser wouldnít buy me a car . I travelled on the lorry. The shopkeepers didnít have bank accounts. It was all pennies and tickeys. I used to walk through the bush and sand carrying the bags of money. One day a lorry came through the bush. The driver, a white, stopped and offered me a lift. I said, "Please, I must catch the train from Pinelands to Salt River." The next thing, he said to the African, "Get off! You can stand on the running board." I said I should stand on the running board. "No," he said, "I donít mind if one of them falls off. There are plenty more where he comes from." Two years ago I was in Cape Town and talked to a group of students and related some similar stories. They found them incomprehensible. But I said, "This is what the liberation movements have achieved at least."

They used to hold dances in Langa and the shopkeeper, Nabe, invited me. He said, "You can spend the night in my house if you want to." I remember one school dance. I was dancing with Mrs Nabe and at the door stood a white policeman. He didnít say anything. It was the first time he saw a white person dance with a "Kaffir" woman. As I walked out he said, "Where do you come from?" I said, "Cape Town". "No, no, where were you born?" I said, "Itís none of your business, but if you want to know, Iím a German boy." "Donít you know itís against the law?" I said, "What? Dancing?" He said, "We donít do that here."

Interestingly Langa was the first location with electric light and water-borne sewerage, whereas Pinelands was still using chemical lavatories. Langa had this wonderful innovation, which I think is quite important because even today in places like Kayelitsa and Crossroads, there is no sanitation. To have waterborne sewerage is a sign of civilization.

The Africans found my name difficult to pronounce, so I was called Mr Bokomo. I especially remember Mrs Siyaya. She had eight children. She laughed, "I get a child every year." She was breastfeeding the latest baby, but she was also feeding the other seven. It was common practice. She sold the tinned milk but she couldnít afford to buy fresh milk.

After Smuts and Hertzog formed their coalition in 1934, there was a big demonstration organised by Cissie Gool on the Grand Parade. Hertzog wanted to introduce a law making it impossible for any non-white to have a driving licence. For two days we met on the Parade. I took off from work and we were very rowdy. The Greyshirts were there attacking us, but finally Hertzog had to withdraw that Bill. Just imagine, no lorry, no motor car could be driven by a non-white even if they owned the vehicle.

After the Second World War when the Afrikaner Nationalists came to power notices were put up in post offices in Cape Town Ė separate telephone booths for whites and non-whites. One day I had to make an urgent phone call at the post office but all the European booths were occupied, so I went to a non-European one. A policeman rapped on the door. "What are you doing here? This is for non-whites." I said, "Who tells you Iím not a non-white?" He slammed the door. He wasnít going to argue.

The important thing is that this movement of reconciliation of Tutu is wrong. There can be no reconciliation with the past, which is still in their bones. Itís politically very unwise, but itís this Christian attitude. I suppose itís all right if you stay in Bishops Court

In 1937 I was living with Anne Fischer, the photographer. To the great astonishment of my employer, we moved in together without being married. It was very shocking to him. I thought itís bugger all to do with you Ė for the measly salary you pay me, you want to teach me morals? When the war broke out, I married Anne, a German national, because I was naturalised in March 1939.

I did not use my own name when I did political work. I remember discussions at the Hyman Liberman Institute. Mr Ziervogel (the librarian) invited members of the Lenin Club to debate against coloured nationalists and this was reported in the press. We won the debate. Later a participant, a chap called Hendricks, became leader of the Coloured Labour Party. We also met at the Stakesby Lewis Hostel. It was suggested to phone Dr Malan, who was living in Sea Point. We were very interested to hear his views on miscegenation. Would he come to the Lenin Club to debate? He said, "My program is vol" [my programme is full].

When the war broke out I was still the editor of The Workersí Voice. The committee said the editorial must protest against the war. "We will only fight against the class enemy at home." I said, "Fifteen members of the Lenin Club?" I recall there was a chap called Auerbach, who was the intellectual leader. He said, "We must form an alliance with the Afrikaaner Nationalists because they are also against Imperialism." So I said, "Here in this country we fight against racism, but if we volunteer in the war, we fight against German racism. What is the difference between the two?" "Itís a different thing. Nobody volunteers."

I left the club on this issue. My wife Anne was dead against my joining the army. She said: "First Chamberlain throws Czechoslovakia into the lap of the Nazis and now we must fight for Poland run by the Fascist Pilsudski. No." I said, "But thatís not at stake. If the Nazis defeat Britain, South Africa is a British Dominion. This will also become Nazified. Where will you go?"

On the day Paris fell, I joined the Duke of Edinburghís Own Rifles. There I was also asked, "Where were you born? What is your nationality?" "A British subject," I replied. So they accepted me, and for a week I had to do foot and rifle training in my own clothes because they did not have sufficient uniforms. The regiment was already in Abyssinia, and so they formed a Cape Town battalion and made me a member. Then they noticed I was of German birth, and I was dismissed. A year later the Military Police came to arrest me as a deserter. I said, "But the army deserted me." Eventually they said, "We now accept your oath of allegiance to King George. If you donít report within 24 hours youíll be interned at Baviaanspoort with all the German prisoners of war and the Ossewa Brandwag. You can have your choice." My attorney Buirski said, "You canít run away. The police will soon find you. They know where you live. If you disappear now, where will you work?" So I became a gunner at the Docks Battery.

When the war ended I became prominent in the trade union movement, the Distributive Workers Union. I also organised the Jewellery and Precious Metal workers. Non-whites were not accepted as apprentices. All the journeymen were white, but yet they were in one union. So the non-whites learnt the trade by looking over the white manís shoulder. Then they passed a new industrial Conciliation Act, and we had to split the union into a coloured and a white union. Both unions elected me as their hon.sec. We met in Union House in Victoria Street. My desk was across the threshold and one side was for the coloured union and the other side was for the white union. I was in the middle. I would sometimes say to the coloured representatives, "There is a motion passed by the white branch asking for this or that wage increase or improved condition. Do you agree?" Or vice versa. This was perfectly legal. The secretary of a coloured union could be a white person. This crazy position was the way to comply with the law.

Then there was an Industrial Council Ė this peculiar South African organisation where employers and employees jointly ran the industry. You could only do that when you had organised over 50% of the workers into the union. It was very hard going because the employers were against it. I knew the Labour Department representative, a chap called De Klerk, who was a very interesting character. He didnít like the new Act, but he got along with me the union representative. We got 50%. I filled in the forms for those who didnít want to join. I said to them, "If I paid your subs would that be in order?" They said yes. So we had a 100% organisation. I paid in money out of my own pocket then we got our Industrial Council scheme at last.

Africans were not allowed in the jewellery industry in the Cape. In the Transvaal they were allowed to work in the factories but could not join a registered trade union. Then there was some semi-precious stones. It was considered to be unskilled work. One didnít have to work through a journeyman. The wages were 30 shillings a week. After the war all the non-journeymen were coloured, except one who was Muslim We werenít allowed to let him join the union (being a Malay, he wasnít regarded as coloured), but we accepted his subs. This Industrial Council is still operating today. The trade is almost 100% coloured and some Indians and Malays. And all these men learned their trade initially by looking over the shoulder of white men. In 1960 they were declared to be journeymen, and the employers had to pay them £25 a week instead of £5. They said, "Weíll all go bankrupt." I said, "Well, if you do at least weíll know you made too little money to pay a decent wage." Nobody became unemployed.

As a representative of the Trade Union Council I was delegated to sit on the board of the Technical College. That board was all white Ė employers, city councillors, and members of the church. It transpired that the Cape Town Municipality had no pension fund for non-whites even in 1960-70. Then a man died whoíd worked in the council for 34 years. The matter arose at a board meeting and I moved that the council be compelled to institute a pension scheme for everybody regardless of "race". A man died, and there wasnít any money for the funeral. The corpse was lying at home. I said, "This is scandalous. Why is there no official burial fund?" "Oh, the coloured people have their own burial clubs", I was told. I said, "Do you know why? Because the only happy day they have is when they get buried and are transported in a black wagon with horses. They pay their half a crown a week into a private burial fund." So the white clergyman said, "What do you mean? Do you mean the voyage to the beyond?" "Precisely," I said, " because whilst on earth they live a hell of a life." And all this was duly minuted.