Farewell to a mensch of the struggle
Norman Levy, a mensch of South Africa’s struggle for liberation, has died. He was 91. Norman and his identical twin brother, Leon, began their political activity as school boys and campaigned for freedom and equality all their lives.
The brothers stood in the dock with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo, Helen Joseph, and 150 other leaders of the liberation movement in South Africa’s “trial of the century” – the 1956 Treason Trial.
In an interview with the Levy brothers in 2020, I asked them if they were the last living Treason Trial defendants.
“Could be,” Norman said, and the twins rattled off names of fellow activists who were on trial with them. All the people they named had died.
“I’m not sure about the last, but I think it’s safe to say that we are one of the few left,” said Leon.
“I think you mean we are two of the few left,” corrected Norman.
The brothers were born on 7 August 1929 in Johannesburg. Their parents, Mary and Marc Levy, were immigrants from Lithuania.
The boys had just turned six when their father died. It was a difficult time for their mother, who had four children to look after, and the twins spent a lot of time on their own.
The brothers had similar ideologies but took different paths to becoming radicals. Leon joined the socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, but Norman rode headfirst into leftist politics when he was 14.
He had gone on a bicycle ride around the streets of Hillbrow and turned a corner into a gathering that was being addressed by Hilda Watts, the Communist Party candidate for the Johannesburg Municipal Council. He was enthralled by what he heard, and the next week, joined the Young Communist League.
When he was 17, Norman joined the Communist Party of South Africa, and the South African Congress of Democrats.
Norman, who became a teacher, was involved in the Defiance Campaign of the early 1950s to protest against unjust laws, and later campaigned against the National Party’s evil Bantu Education system.
He was also involved in the area committee of the Communist Party, which was operating underground. A month after Mandela and company were sentenced in the Rivonia Trial, the state cracked down on anti-apartheid activists.
Norman was arrested on 3 July 1964, and placed in solitary confinement where he endured endless interrogation sessions at the hands of the notorious Special Branch. The state eventually charged him and 13 other activists, including the lead counsel in the Rivonia Trial, Bram Fischer, under the Suppression of Communism Act.
Norman, who was married with two small children, was found guilty and handed a three-year prison term.
He knew what the risks of being involved in the struggle entailed, and resigned himself to serving his sentence at Pretoria Central.
He could write only one letter every six months, he had no newspapers or magazines, and was allowed very few visits, but he used his time to study for an honours degree in history.
When Norman was released in 1968, he arrived home from prison to find his five-year-old son, Simon, upset. Simon had found a dead bird which he held in his hand.
Norman looked at the bird and saw that the family was frozen, realising it would take them time to thaw.
Although he was free, Norman was prevented from working in his profession and restricted in his movements, so two months after his release, Norman and his family went to England. Leon, who had been detained under the 90-day detention laws, and his wife, Lorna, had already left the country.
In exile, Norman worked for a gentleman’s clothing shop and then won a fellowship to complete a PhD at the London School of Economics. He became a professor at Middlesex University.
Norman returned to South Africa after the African National Congress was unbanned, and helped design affirmative-action frameworks for the labour relations forum of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa. Mandela appointed him to the Presidential Review Commission, which looked at reforming the public service.
He eventually retired in 2011, and wrote his memoir, The Final Prize, in which he reflected on his involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle.
Patric Tariq Mellet, an activist who was in a communist cell with Norman in the 1980s, described him as “a great comrade, friend, and mentor … and a real gentleman”.
“It’s very sad as one by one, this generation of amazing human beings passes on,” he said.
Norman was diagnosed with lung cancer eight weeks ago, and died peacefully at his Cape Town home surrounded by his family.
Principled, humble, good-humoured, and selfless, Norman remained steadfast in his commitment to building a just South Africa. In spite of his enormous contribution to the fight against apartheid, he never considered himself a “struggle icon”.
Norman is survived by his children, Deborah, Simon, and Jessica, and his identical twin brother, Leon, the last living member of the 1956 Treason Trial.
Sea Point “boytjie” Paul Sulcas leaves a legacy
Cape Town Jewish community elder Professor Paul Sulcas, who passed away on Friday, 10 September 2021, has been likened to Moshe Rabeinu and called “a giant amongst men” by community leaders.
A soft-spoken scholar, sportsman, and quintessential all-rounder, he died at the age of 77 after a long illness. He was cared for with love and devotion until the end by his opera singer wife, Aviva Pelham.
“My dad would say that he was just a simple boytjie from Sea Point and, in a sense, that’s true. He studied, played sports, went to the beach, fell in love, raised some kids, worked his job – the playbook for a nice Jewish boy from Cape Town. But within this simplicity, he shone like a pearl. Without pulling any extravagant moves, without being the loudest voice at the table or the most forceful character in the room, my dad stole the show wherever he went,” said his daughter, Gabi Sulcas Nudelman, in her eulogy at his funeral on Sunday.
Cape Town community leader Philip Krawitz echoed her sentiments. “Our community has lost a humble giant in the passing of the late Professor Paul Sulcas,” he says. “Paul was there as advisor to every community organisation. Whenever there was conflict or questions, he would try to resolve it. He was the most non-political person and had a holistic view of community. He would take his knowledge of business and expertise as a professor of strategy, IT, information systems, and accounting and apply it to the community so that we would benefit from the best advice. And he did it in an unostentatious way. He followed the adage, ‘listen much, talk little’. He would let others talk, then provide a reasoned outcome.”
Sulcas sat on the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies for a number of years, and his Jewish identity was at the core of everything he did. He worked in industry as a consultant and mediator, supporting the growth of private and public-sector organisations.
“He realised that many people who leave South Africa cite the inability to find a job and that supporting them is a huge financial drain on the community,” says Krawitz. “He saw one of the main communal functions as helping people to find jobs, and he was instrumental in the conception and establishment of Cape community agency Staffwise, leaving a profound impact on the organisation.
“He also saw the Community Security Organisation (CSO) as reason to avoid emigration. Safety for the community was paramount, and he was one of the founders of the CSO. He also loved the idea of young men and women doing something positive and keeping fit in mind and body,” says Krawitz. “He was a fitness fanatic.”
In his eulogy at the funeral, Rabbi Osher Feldman emphasised this point. “Paul was a legend because it’s not often that you have a doctor, a professor, an academic so darn good at sports! He still holds records at Sea Point Boys High School. How many professors represent Western Province in squash?” he asked with a smile. Krawitz says it was “a treat” watching him and his brother Norman play beach bats, and a crowd would always gather round.
Sulcas’ professional accomplishments are equally impressive. “He was one of the youngest professors in the history of the University of Cape Town and then as dean of the Graduate School of Business,” says his daughter. “My dad was a teacher in the best sense of the word. He didn’t hoard knowledge, but rather empowered his students on their own learning journeys.
“The business school thrived under his leadership. His students adored his down-to-earth approach and relaxed atmosphere, but he was always thoroughly prepared,” says Krawitz. “He also wrote many recognised papers and was a visiting professor in strategy at the Haifa University Business School in Israel.
“An advisor to corporates, nongovernmental organisations, and the arts, he was often called to resolve intergenerational business conflicts,” says Krawitz. “He gently facilitated the progress of countless organisations. Always calm, always rational, he steadied many a rocking boat, and cleared the paths for others’ progress,” says his daughter.
“He was the most present and committed husband, father, grandfather, brother, son, uncle, and cousin. There wasn’t a moment in Rob, Adam, or my life where we didn’t know that my dad was here for us. My father is a giant in our lives,” she says. “His grandchildren, siblings, in-laws, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts, and cousins are always proud to say, ‘Yes, we’re related to Paul Sulcas.’”
She describes her parents’ marriage as “a love affair for the ages – a real coming together of soulmates who complemented each other in every facet. Both highly successful and regarded on their own, it was in their union that they thrived. When my mom was performing, my dad would sit in the audience, looking up at her with glittering eyes. He was enthralled by her when she bumped into him arriving for a squash tour at Salisbury airport and commented on his tennis racquets, he was enthralled by her at their wedding on 23 January 1969, and he continued to be enthralled with her for their entire life together.”
Sulcas’ niece, Natalie Barnett, says one moment that still makes her laugh is when “he was an extra in one of Aviva’s operas for fun”. It was probably a personal highlight for him, as he had a deep love of the arts.
“He never let anyone down. He was a friend to so many, and an egalitarian,” says Krawitz. “He respected every human, and was incredibly generous with his time and philanthropy. He blazed a trail in that he was happy to share in the childcare and let Aviva spread her wings.”
In the wake of his passing, “people have described him as a true mensch, a real friend, a much needed mentor, a role model, their rock, someone who fundamentally altered the course of their lives through his gentle steerage”, says his daughter. “He taught us that while you can’t choose how you die, you can choose how you live.”
While his illness afflicted him for more than a decade, “even during the darkest times, he had the most incredible courage to carry on”, Krawitz says. “He died this past Friday afternoon, and the parsha for the week was Vayelech, about Moses’ last days. And in many ways, Paul reminds me of Moshe Rabeinu. Just like Moses, he was a visionary, but one of the most humble men to walk the earth. He always saw the good in the future – the Promised Land. He thought about the future a lot. He did so much to ensure the community was well-positioned to survive into the future. We will miss his wisdom, kindness, passion, care, and reason.”
Sam Hackner, a man who “lived 100 years in just 65”
“If my father could live his life again, he would live it another ten times. He had a good life, and helped so many people. He lived a hundred years in his 65 years,” says Gary Hackner.
His father, Johannesburg property stalwart Sam Hackner, passed away on Sunday, 8 August, after a battle with COVID-19. Husband to Karen and father to Gary, Leanne, and Nicci, he was almost 66, and had been vaccinated.
“It’s been a very difficult few weeks. He got COVID-19 about six weeks ago, and went into hospital shortly afterwards. He was on a non-invasive ventilator and was conscious for the first few weeks. He was then sedated for the last few weeks.”
While the younger Hackner acknowledges that they didn’t expect it because his father had been vaccinated, he says, “He wouldn’t have it any other way. He didn’t want to grow old. He wanted to do everything himself. There is never a good time to go, but he went out when the party was still pumping. His impact wouldn’t have changed. He did everything he wanted to do, but I would have liked him to know the impact he made.”
The elder Hackner was non-executive chairperson of Investec Property Fund until his death. While he had retired some years before, it was just one way he continued to provide expertise, mentorship, and support to Investec, where he built and led several businesses. The most notable of these were Investec Private Bank and the Investec Property Group, which he ran for 38 years. Hackner was appointed chair of the fund when it listed in April 2011.
He was also the chairperson of Growthpoint, the largest property REIT listed on the JSE, from 2003 to 2008. He was instrumental in growing Growthpoint from a market capitalisation of R35 million in 2002 to about R20 billion by 2007.
On top of all that, he was a director of Argo Property Fund and Argo Real Estate Management until 31 March 2021. At the time of his death, he was a director of Platinum Hospitality Holdings and the Sunshine Tour, among others. He had also created his own property development and management company, and consulted to various others.
Investec Group’s former chief executive, Stephen Koseff, often spoke to Hackner over WhatsApp, even after he landed up in hospital with COVID-19. “Then one day, the communication just suddenly stopped,” says Koseff, describing the heartbreaking moment when Hackner was sedated and intubated.
He first met Hackner senior when Investec bought I Kuper & Company in the 1980s, where Hackner was a partner. “My dad grew up in Durban,” says the junior Hackner. “He went to the army, which wasn’t easy. He qualified as a chartered accountant and came to Joburg, where he landed up at I Kuper. He and the late David Kuper became best friends and partners. It was bought out by Investec. He thought his time at Investec would be temporary, but he landed up staying for 35 years.”
Asked what it was about Investec that made him stay so long, he says, “The culture. They understood him, that he needed a relationship-based working environment. Career wise he was an entrepreneur who worked in a corporate environment. He established a lot in entrepreneurial ventures, and was integral to the growth of Investec. But ultimately, his passion was family. That was non-negotiable. He was also a passionate golfer, and helped a lot of professional golfers to grow their careers.
“He was friends with the best golfers and businessmen in the world,” says the younger Hackner. “But he would talk to everyone the same way. He made ‘kings feel like kids, and kids feel like kings’. In our childhood, he would travel a lot, building his career, but in the past 15 years, he more than made up for that. In the past few days, I’ve received messages from people who say he changed the course of their lives. He probably wouldn’t remember them because he didn’t realise he was mentoring them, and it was so long ago.”
In business and in life, “he was very relationship-focused. He wouldn’t deal with a person if he couldn’t have a good relationship with them. He saw people as people. But he would leave meetings with billionaires to go bath his grandkids. It was all about quality time for him.”
Koseff agrees. “He was very smart, diligent, trustworthy, and you could leave your life in his hands. He was a very strong family man. You couldn’t want a better partner than Sam. He lived the culture and values of Investec.”
The younger Hackner says his father was “always prepared”, and Koseff shares a story that illustrates this.
“In the early days before computers, he would keep every property in his portfolio at the back of his diary, in a spreadsheet. If you had any questions, he would flip to the right page. He really was an expert in his field. He was a ‘straight shooter’ – he would tell you like it is. And he had generosity of spirit, helping a lot of people. His passing leaves a huge gap.”
The executive director of the Sunshine Tour, Selwyn Nathan, says that he and the late businessman first connected at a Maccabi event in Durban about 25 years ago. “We started playing golf together about 20 years ago. He sat on the board of the Sunshine Tour and had a huge influence on what happened on the tour and in professional golf in South Africa for a long time. He had a huge impact on the growth of young South African golfers.
“One of the things he would say if someone was considering a business proposition is to ‘let the feeling pass’ [consider it with a cool head],” remembers Nathan. ‘I’m heartbroken at his passing. Spending time with Sam and his family was one of the greatest pleasures of my life.”
When his father got sick, the younger Hackner created WhatsApp groups to update friends and family. “There were so many people on the first group that I had to open a second one,” he says. When his father passed away, he opened the groups to allow people to share memories, and the pictures and anecdotes flooded in.
The younger Hackner says his father lived his Jewish identity by giving to others. This could be anything from “helping guys go on Maccabi” to “helping rabbis live and serve the community”. And “every night since he passed, we’ve had a different rabbi insisting on leading prayers”.
Looking at his legacy, the son spoke of his father’s “absolute passion for what he did and how he did things. He was a father figure to so many. He would thank everyone for making his life amazing. He learnt from so many, he took it and acted on it.”
While lying in his hospital bed, Sam Hackner wrote a list of life lessons that he called “positive thoughts from the ICU”, and his son shares them now:
1. Life isn’t a dress rehearsal – don’t forget;
2. Drink your best alcohol and eat your best food with family and friends (now) from your best utensils – don’t wait for a future you don’t know;
3. Let your family and friends inherit what you can’t reproduce or spend together – time, fun, and occasion – material things matter f**k-all in the greater scheme;
4. Make time for family and friends – no excuses;
5. Share simchas more than tragedies;
6. Really listen more;
7. It’s not necessary to be critical when you can be mentoring and kind instead;
8. Live life with humour and positive vibes – anger, revenge, and hatred are hurtful wasted emotions and sentiments;
9. Surround yourself with like-minded people;
10. Don’t waste time on what you can’t control or influence – life of an optimist is far sweeter than as a pessimist.
Qhawe Lama Qhawe is laid to rest
Herby Rosenberg and I came from different sides of the political tracks. There was a threat, a gun, a raid on my offices as a young student activist. We were destined to fight, but instead, we became close friends.
A lawyer by profession and businessman by practice, Herby would regale us with stories about his time driving a luxury Cadillac motor vehicle which he gave up to find meaning in serving his people and the people of South Africa.
The first time I met Herby, he told the story of rushing to airforce headquarters in Pretoria where his son was stationed, upon hearing of the Church Street bombings, telling the story of cradling his injured son in his arms. He told the story of the first time his son danced with Herby’s wife, Sandra, after recovering from his injuries. Herby cried, we cried too.
As its director general, Herby lead the South African Zionist Federation into a political powerhouse that towered seven stories over the skyline of Doornfontein, and lead South African Jewry.
The world changed, and Herby changed too. He embraced the new South Africa with vigour and enthusiasm. He and Bertie Lubner would re-define the Jewish community’s contribution to the new South Africa. Nelson Mandela gave him his nickname of Qhawe Lama Qhawe (the Hero of Heroes), and never a better description there was.
Herby was a founding member of Afrika Tikkun, the SA Jewish Report, and South African Friends of Ben Gurion University. His energy and passion drove everything he did. When he took people round an Afrika Tikkun school, Herby would burst with pride. The kids loved him, they would run to him, surround him, hug him, and hold on to him as if drawn to their saviour.
Herby’s list of patronages and directorships included the Worcester School for the Deaf and Blind, Medunsa University, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in New York, where Herby was the only South African on its board.
Herby would often say that you don’t fundraise, you “friend-raise”, that life was about relationships and connections between people. Regardless of whether you were the chief executive or car guard, Herby would treat you with the same respect.
Always immaculately dressed and in later years with a dapper cane, he was as much at home in the boardrooms of Johannesburg as he was in the bush, where he would describe his hand reared elephant “Jabulani” and how it would smell his cologne in the Kapama Game Reserve.
When I gave a public speech, Herby would often lead a standing ovation and would tell whoever would listen that he was my mentor and taught me everything I knew. In truth, I could never aspire to be half the man that Herby was, a giant of his people, who served the people of South Africa, its Jewish community, and world Jewry with such honour and distinction.
In 1986, Herby gave me a gold Cross pen with a Star of David on its clip. It was accompanied by a note that applies more to Herby today than it ever did to me. The note read:
“The Jews have always faced a dual challenge, having to fight their oppressors and to fight for the preservation of their singular identity”. How poignantly was this expressed in Alterman’s The Battle of Granada, a poem that portrays the remarkable Shmuel Ha’Nagid (Samuel the Governor), Hebrew poet, scholar, statesman, soldier, who 900 years ago was leader of Spanish Jewry and at the same time chief minister of state for the Berber King of Granada and commander of his army.
Alterman sets a battlefield scene where Samuel, the Jewish general, is being addressed by a Spanish commander. The Spaniard tells him in this rough translation of Alterman’s exquisite Hebrew that apart from the military campaigns of Granada:
“…you have another war,
a war of your own,
an unending war.
It is the war of your people whose shepherd you are
It is the war of your language whose host you command.
It is the war of your children
whose teacher you are
to teach them the meaning of your antiquity…”
Herby leaves behind a loving wife and two beloved sons. His memory will forever be a blessing on the people of South Africa.
- Howard Sackstein in the chairperson of the SA Jewish Report.
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