Category Archives: My Family

House-Hunting for a Haven of Help

One of my most vivid childhood memories relates to house hunting. We weren’t looking for a house to live in since we lived in a gracious double-storey, three-bedroom, colonial-style home on the Berea. The house we were looking for was destined to become Durban’s first treatment centre for alcoholics. It was my mother, Winifred Swift’s mission – and she didn’t need a mansion. Rather, she needed a house with lots of rooms, and space to grow a haven of help.

I was too young to understand my mother’s mission at the time, but I remember visiting lovely old houses with overgrown gardens; climbing in and out of heavy sash windows; hiding in corners, and pretending I was one of the Secret Seven or Famous Five, my favourite Enid Blyton books of the time. Given the chance, I made up my own stories and played them out with imaginary friends whilst my mother and other grown-ups inspected the properties and discussed what sounded like serious business.

The houses I remember most clearly were empty, and I know that at least one of them had belonged to a wealthy (in this case Indian) family that had been forced to move because of the Group Areas Act. The houses weren’t important to me, and the politics was not something I understood at the time. Nevertheless I did get a powerful message from my parents that something was very wrong. For instance, while they, and the others involved in the house-hunting quest found a wonderful property in Marriot Road that was immensely suitable for the purpose required, for their own political reasons they would not buy. It simply wasn’t right, and this was a mission where principles mattered.

To put my house-hunting adventures into perspective, it should be clear that I was a privileged white girl, the only child of working-class parents. We lived with my maternal grandmother in a double-storey mansion of sorts on the Berea, that her relatively wealthy, older husband had sub-divided so they could get an income by renting out the ground floor. We moved in when I was just a year old, after my grandfather was killed in South Africa’s first commercial air crash. It was a really lovely home, undoubtedly a cut above the mediocre, lower middle-class flats my parents had rented in Cape Town before I was born.

I must have been all of eight years old when we house hunted for a property that would be large enough to be converted into a clinic. The one I remember most clearly is the house that was bought, though I don’t know exactly how and by whom. I think Rotary was involved. It was a lovely old, not very pretty house, in Percy Osborne Road. There was nothing grand about the property, but it had sufficient space to become a haven of note. As I grew older, that playground of a moment became a healing environment for hundreds and hundreds of people in need. What had once been a rambling old home to a family that remained unknown to me, became Durban’s very first treatment centre for people who fought their demons of drink.

My father, a very successful, well-respected journalist for most of my life, was an alcoholic. Prior to his professional success he had fought his demons and won. My mother, I know, was instrumental in his fight, together with Alcoholics Anonymous. She went through hell and back with him, standing by him through thick and thin. A favourite family tale was how a mountain of bottles collapsed the ceiling in their less than modest Cape Town home at the very moment a social services worker was carrying out an inspection, I think to ensure that their newborn baby (me) was well cared for. At the time my father was unemployed, and my mother, a qualified social worker, was the stalwart provider for our family.

Having worked through my father’s illness at a time when there were no treatment or rehabilitation centres, my mother wanted to do everything she could to help every other alcoholic on earth do the same. She was an amazing woman. And yes she did drink. Every evening she would come home and have one or more (usually two) Martinis – dry I believe, just as James Bond would have wanted them. She loved olives, and usually poured out a lid full of salted peanuts that I was allowed to share.

While we were so-called advantaged, in terms of white South African families, we weren’t by any means rich. My grandmother had been married to a man employed by a major international corporation, and they were socialites of note. But when he died, she became a shopkeeper, selling costume jewellery in a quaint little shop in African Life Arcade. That was another of my play-centres, though I was forced to be on my best behaviour at all times!

When we first moved to Durban my mother started a small beauty business on the mezzanine floor in the jewellery shop. I don’t know how long that lasted, but having decided on her new life’s mission, she was instrumental in starting the Durban branch of the now national South African National Council on Alcoholism (SANCA). In fact she and my father were two of the six people who attended the first minuted meeting of SANCA, Durban on December 28, 1955, when I was just four years old. She then went on to be the only staff member at SANCA Information Centre, and a voluntary one at that. So, as a child left largely to my own devices at home after school, I didn’t realize that my mother was earning a pittance, doing what she did best. And I really had no idea of the huge implications when house-hunting with her several years later.

While AA was a well-established organisation by the mid-1950s, it didn’t work for everyone, and many who failed in their fight against addiction ended up in work colonies for the unemployed. It was Dr. William Slater, provincial secretary of the Cape Province, who initiated counselling services in the form of SANCA, which was first registered in Cape Town in 1953. My mother worked closely with him, helping to initiate SANCA offices in other provinces, including the national office in Johannesburg that opened its doors in 1956, shortly after Durban SANCA was founded. She travelled a lot, attending national and international conferences and spreading the word. But SANCA alone was not enough. She wanted treatment services.

Following the lead of Dr. Slater, who played a key role in the establishment of treatment centres in Cape Town, my mother was instrumental in the formation of Lulama Treatment Centre in Durban. Initially funded by Rotary, Lulama (a Zulu word that means get well) was established at the rambling property in Percy Osborn Road in January 1961. I was ten-and-a-half at the time, and ecstatic because my mother had found the house she needed. I visited often and got to know staff members, some of whom had previously been patients. I played in the garden and felt totally at home. I knew she was doing good things, but had absolutely no idea of the enormity of her work.

What I didn’t realize was that this rambling old colonial house had become a place of miracles. Here people were healed and given a new chance in life. With the team my mother had pulled together, people were rebuilding their lives and starting new tomorrows.

In 1966 the City of Durban recognised her mission and awarded her Civic Honours, just one step down from Freedom of the City. I was superly proud, even though at 15 I still didn’t absorb the magnitude of her success.

In 1969 SANCA Durban also founded a clinic in KwaMashu. But of course it doesn’t stop with alcohol, and it soon became clear to this super-woman that drugs were as big a demon, even though they had not reared their head in our family. Late in 1999 she, with the help of then mayor Trevor Warman, started Warman House, a facility initially aimed at drug-dependent adolescents.

I had discovered social alcohol, but had shunned both tobacco and any other form of drug that I had been introduced to. My super-woman mother continued to drink acceptably, and my recovered-alcoholic (whom I believed should never drink again) father started to drink again. I was shattered, but it seemed to be alright, and continued to be alright for the rest of his life.

I have learned that addiction is a reality. But for me it is hugely ironic because, while I believe my mother’s success was largely due to her determination to overcome addiction, her fight itself was addictive. She was relentless in her quest and never ever stopped fighting. My mother died more than three decades ago, and shortly after her death Lulama moved to larger premises in Morningside; later Warman House moved to the Berea.

Her legacy lives on.

First Major South African Air Crash for South African Airways

South African air crash

A portion of the front page of The Natal Daily News in Durban, Tuesday October 16, 1951.

 Seventeen Killed as Dakota Smashes into Mountain

South Africa air crash

A horrific South African air crash made headline news on Tuesday, October 16, 1951, after 17 people were killed when a South African Airways (SAA) Dakota, the Paardeberg crashed into a mountain and exploded in the air. There were 13 passengers on board, including my maternal grandfather, Archie Cramer, and four crew members.

It was reported to be the first major South African air crash involving an SAA plane.

The weather was described as very “unpleasant” with wind that had up to 50 miles an hour velocity and visibility was said to be low. There were also said to be “occasional cloud and thunder conditions”. The last known communication from the plane was at 3.48 pm when the pilot radioed their expected time of arrival at Stamford Hill (Durban) as 5.35 pm. When it didn’t arrive, a search was started.

The next morning, the pilot of the Paardeberg’s sister plane spotted the burnt out wreckage of the missing Dakota strewn over a large patch of mountainside. It was clear to him that the plane had crashed into the mountain and exploded. It was also very clear that there were no survivors.

The mountain into which the plane crashed is about 7,500 feet (2,280 meters) above sea level and the only high ground in the immediate area. It was about 11 miles (about 18 km) south of Kokstad which is situated inland between Port Shepstone and Port St. Johns.

During the period of time that the plane was “missing”, ships at sea were alerted and the well-known mailship, Capetown Castle was on the look-out, using its radar equipment. South African Airways Sunderlands and Harvards were on standby in Durban, while SAA Lodestars flew along the likely route the plane had taken and then on parallel courses up and down the coast.

South African air crash
Air crash scene. An aerial photograph that shows the wreckage of the SAA Dakota, Paardeberg that crashed into a mountain on October 15, 1951. The scorched veld (ground) shows the path of the aircraft as it tore across the ground in flames, breaking up as it did so. The starboard wing can be seen in the foreground, while the tail can be seen in the top left-hand corner of the picture. Officials found the two engines “some distance” away. A policeman can be seen to the right of the wing (circled in orange).

Just before this South African air crash, people on the ground reported hearing the droning of heavy motors at different times (and in different places) during the afternoon of Monday, October 15. At about 4 pm, at Mendu, which is 20 miles (32 km) from the Bashee River mouth, an aircraft was heard flying very low in thick cloud. There was also a report of a plane flying over Tsolo – which is 90 miles (145 km) north west of Kokstad, at about 4.30 that afternoon. The Paardeberg was the only “big” plane on the route at that time.

Later, a board of enquiry said that one of the contributing factors to the crash was the “unserviceability” of ground-based radio navigational aids along the route.

SAA’s Safety Record

The Paardeberg South African air crash was the first major accident in the history of SAA, as well as the first in which people had died. It was reported at the time that SAA had an exceptionally good safety record.

Since the end of the Second World War (1945) the national carrier had flown 35 million miles (more than 56 million km) on both internal and external routes. By 1951 SAA aircraft reportedly flew more than 7 million miles (more than 11 million km) per year. It had reported carried a total of about 900,000 passengers safely.

There had previously been three fatal air crashes involving South African passenger planes, but all owned by private charter companies. In January 1950 12 people died when a Dove crashed near Ixopo, which is about 63 miles or 104 km south-east of Kokstad. In December 1948, 13 lives were lost when a Dakota crashed in Italy. And in May 1948, 13 people died when a Dakota crashed near Vrede in the Free State, South Africa.

Crew and Passengers Who Died in the Paardeberg South African air crash

Commander Douglas Ellis, said to have been in his mid-thirties, was captain of the ill-fated Paardeberg. Previously a transport pilot in the South African Air Force, he was very experienced, with between 7,000 and 8,000 flying hours. The first officer was Fred Joubert, who was in his early thirties. The wireless operator was a Mr. le Roux, and the air hostess, Miss Mary Bondietti, both from Cape Town. Ellis and le Roux were from Germiston in Gauteng, while Joubert was from Benoni.

Ironically, three of the passengers killed, Dulcie James, 31 and her two children, Deborah, 6, and Meyrick, 2, were listed as being from Valley Green in Elgin in the Western Cape. Valley Green is an apple farm that was owned by my cousin Jean Beaumont’s (born Swift) father-in-law in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Newspaper reports stated that Mrs. James (formerly Timson) was flying to Durban where her husband’s parents lived. Her husband, Mr Meyrick James was travelling by car with her oldest child, Paullie. Mrs. James had previously been married to a SAAF pilot, Captain Paul Hahn, who was killed in an air crash in the Western Desert during World War II.

An Italian count was also killed. Director of a fibre and paper factory that was being established in Port Elizabeth, Count O. Minerbi was a member of a Rome-based family that held one of the oldest titles in Italy. Prior to the war, he had been Italian Consul in both Barcelona and Alexandria. He was also reportedly a very keen sportsman and had represented Italy three years running in the David Cup tennis championships.

My grandfather, who at the time was regional director of the Schlesinger organization in Natal, was on his way back to Durban from Cape Town after visiting his daughter (my mother) and his grand-daughter (me). His wife, Mabel Cramer, was still in Cape Town with us. A former public prosecutor, he had previously been chairman of the South African Citrus Board and the Deciduous Fruit and Co-operative Citrus Exchange (South Africa). For three years he was president of the South African Automobile Association.

Other Fatal SAA Flights

On April 8, 1954, a de Havilland Comet leased from the British Overseas Airways Corporation (Flight SA201) crashed off the Italian coast en route from Rome to Cairo and Johannesburg. All 21 people on board died. The cause of the crash was ruled to be a flaw in the design of the plane.

On March 13, 1967, a Vickers Viscount 818, the Rietbok, crashed into the sea while it was approaching East London. All 25 people on board were killed. While no official cause was found for the accident, investigators said that they “couldn’t rule out” the possibility of the pilot having a heart attack and losing control of the aircraft.

On April 20, 1968, Pretoria, a Boeing 707 that had only been in service for six weeks crashed near Windhoek in Nambia (previously South West Africa). The plane had descended too quickly due to human error and 123 people were killed.

On November 28, 1987, a Boeing 747 named the Helderberg crashed into the Indian Ocean while en route from Taiwan to Johannesburg via Mauritius. It was found that there had been a fire in the main cargo hold, but the cause of the fire has never been confirmed. The most popular theory is that there were nuclear armaments in the hold and that these exploded. All 159 people on the plane died.