Subscribe to our Newsletter

click to dowload our latest edition



Beryl Unterhalter: ‘A strikingly different woman of her generation’

Avatar photo



Described as “one of those selfless souls who were the backbone of our country and Jewish community”, Beryl Unterhalter lived a remarkable life. From her anti-apartheid advocacy to her prolific academic career in sociology to her dedication to her family, Unterhalter also remained an integral part of organisations championing education and literacy well into her 90s.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report following their mother’s passing on 4 April at the age of 95, David and Elaine Unterhalter and Karrie Weinstock paid tribute to a loving mother whom Weinstock described as “a strikingly different woman of her generation”.

What set Unterhalter apart, says Weinstock, was her ability to combine her academic career with a spirit of fun and adventure while parenting three children and keeping her family life together. Building a home that became a centre of people, meals, and joy, Unterhalter was also a core volunteer in multiple non-profit organisations.

“That ability to hold three portfolios where many women of her generation held only one, spoke to her incredible organisational skills, her huge energy, and her sense of commitment to various communities,” says Weinstock.

In addition to her successful academic career, Unterhalter was an active member of the Liberal Party alongside her husband, Jack, who led the party in the Transvaal. Under Alan Paton, the party fought for a society based on non-racism against the backdrop of apartheid South Africa.

“While its electoral prospects were meagre, it stood for a set of non-racist values that at the time, were very hard to pursue, many of which have now found their way into our Constitution,” says David. The Liberal Party eventually disbanded as it declined to participate in a racially exclusive set of elections.

Those that actively fought against apartheid in the 1960s were thought of “as being essentially either crazy to be trying to oppose this monolith that was in the making, or certainly were castigated as being some set of species of terrorists and the like”, David says.

“The racism of the white community at that time was pervasive,” says Elaine. “We grew up exposed to it, and my parents were always resolutely against it.” David laughs as he recalls how Albert Luthuli once stayed at their house on the way to accept his Nobel Prize in Oslo. “Years later, my parents hired a white nanny who turned out to be an out-and-out racist, and they always thought it funny that she was sleeping in the same bed that he had been staying in.”

Unterhalter excelled at school and majored in social work at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). She went on to train black social workers, teach at a primary school, and then lecture in social work at Wits. Later deciding to specialise in what was then an emerging field and what eventually became the serious discipline of sociology, Unterhalter pursued an academic career at Wits, pioneering medical sociology as a required subject for future doctors.

“Our mother embarked on an academic career in what was then an entirely male-dominated institution,” David says. “She went on to get her doctorate in sociology when she was in her early 40s, amidst a handful of women who had doctorates and pursued academic careers.”

Not only did Unterhalter inspire a new generation of female academics in her more than 35 years at Wits, she contributed to her children’s professional success. David, a Gauteng High Court judge, Elaine, an academic in London, and Weinstock, an educator in a Toronto-based girls’ school, all point to their mother’s impact on their careers.

“More than an inspiration, she was an incredible support to us through this talent she had for interest and engagement,” says Elaine. “Even though she was so ill and frail, about three weeks before she died, she was still giving me advice for a journal article I was writing.”

All three of Unterhalter’s children were inspired by her belief in service, which they perpetuate in their own projects. “My mom had a deep love of learning,” says Weinstock. “She was a lover of the arts, literature, philosophy, music, and always wanted to empower those who didn’t have access to the education she had.”

Among Unterhalter’s many projects, she worked in early childhood education in Soweto. “Right up until the time proceeding her illness at 93, she was working in literacy programmes with children from government schools helping them with their reading.”

Unterhalter also ran literacy programmes with young children and adults, collaborating with the late Ann Harris on literacy and computer classes for domestic workers. “My relationship with Beryl was cemented on the premises of Oxford Synagogue, where she established a facility to train domestic workers in the art of cooking, dressmaking, and introduced IT skills training,” recalls Afrika Tikkun Chief Executive Marc Lubner.

“Her highlight was the annual event where her students presented their designed dresses to an audience at a sit-down dinner sponsored by Afrika Tikkun.

“Beryl loved to see these ladies acknowledged for their efforts, knowing she had imparted a part of herself and her belief in the capabilities of others. Given a chance, Beryl believed, anyone could grow and experience the joy of achievement.”

Unterhalter was also integral to volunteer organisation University of the Third Age (U3A), an international organisation that’s greatly developed in Johannesburg. “Here, people who have had academic lives continue to offer a huge range of academic and other kinds of courses to mainly retired ‘students’,” David says.

“Beryl was an outstandingly active, energetic, and enthusiastic member, introducing many important new developments, making friends with so many members, going on outings, sourcing and co-ordinating courses, and motivating so many of the activities,” says U3A Johannesburg Chairperson Marcia Leveson.

Unterhalter, her children say, was a woman of action. “People talk a great deal about the value of giving,” David says, “but there are those who actually do it as opposed to thinking about it. My mother’s great virtue was that she was a doer of boundless energy and effort.”

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *