A while ago a former colleague made me a speech which set me thinking. Years earlier, he said, I had spotted and encouraged a talent of his. Partly In response to such encouragement he had specialised in the field. Now that he was reaching retirement age he still found lots of freelance work in this field and an income to supplement his pension. He owed me a debt of thanks.
I pondered: Who had, similarly, helped me on in my own career?
A long list of names came to mind – three, four, five even six — all of them dead. That should not have surprised me. I am almost 93. It was unlikely that any adult who helped me when I was young would still be alive.
Number one had been Michael Kittermaster. His role was, initially, almost accidental: He had been appointed Assistant Broadcasting Officer but been rapidly promoted to Broadcasting Officer. His predecessor had lasted a mere three weeks and then been fired for alcoholism… a frequent problem in the colonial service in the 1950s. I applied for the Assistant post vacated by his promotion but it was another applicant who got the job. However, two or three weeks later Michael arrived at my mother’s place of work. Could she give me a message? The job had become vacant again. Was I still interested?
He did not explain why the job had fallen vacant so soon. This time it was not a problem of alcoholism. The man had treated African colleagues rudely. Kittermaster had confronted him: “Either you resign now or I fire you.”
In the racist atmosphere that prevailed in Northern Rhodesia in the 1950s such a reaction was almost without precedent.
I had been the victim of racism in Nazi Germany so I fitted well into the environment created by Kittermaster. Apart from his attitude to racism he was enormously energetic and enterprising and I learnt my trade from a master.
No. 2 on my list is Mr. Gebbie, my headmaster at Milton Senior School, Bulawayo. He lied to me. I only discovered much later how that had helped my career.
We were refugees. To make a living in Rhodesia nothing could have been as useless as my father’s degree in German jurisprudence and his long experience of German income tax legislation. He had to become a dry cleaner – not a successful one. From his small income my parents could not have afforded to finance my university studies. I had applied for a Beit scholarship. Beit had been a German Jew, a mining magnate and a close collaborator of Cecil John Rhodes, “the founder” of the Rhodesias.
But we discovered I was disqualified from the Beit scholarship. I had had to change country and languages so I had lost time and was now a few weeks too old to compete for this scholarship. Gebbie helped me to write an appeal to the trustees. It was precisely because I was of the same origin as the late Mr Beit, we wrote, that I found myself in this situation. In these circumstances, could they not override the age restriction?
This is where Gebbie’s lie comes in: He called me a while later to say the trustees had said that they would only make up their minds after I had sat my scholarship tests. If I did really well, they might dispense me from that age stipulation. In fact, this was not true. The trustees had turned me down flat. However, kept in ignorance I worked hard to prepare for the tests.
I got the highest marks in the country. Waving my results Gebbie then approached the Northern Rhodesian European Education department: “You ought to do something for this lad.”
The war was over by then but no peace treaty had yet been signed so I was still classified as “enemy alien”. Despite this the Northern Rhodesian European Education department offered me an interest-free loan to cover half the costs of my university education, provided we could raise the other half elsewhere.
Gebbie then button-holed Rabbi Lewin, the Bulawayo rabbi, who pleaded my case with Ben Baron, a successful Jewish lawyer. Baron roped in two more local lawyers and these three financed the second half of my university studies. I studied English and History at “Wits” – the University of Witwatersrand.
Who these additional donors were I never knew, so I cannot list them among my benefactors. However, once a year I was expected to visit Ben Baron to show him my exam results. I hated doing this and found it embarrassing, especially as I was not doing particularly well. Perhaps having worked so hard earlier I now relaxed all too enthusiastically. I had, after all, heard so much from my father about his merry, singing, hard drinking, sabre-wielding university years in those good old days.
I enjoyed Wits but I cannot list my unknown benefactors.
It took me several years to pay back the Northern Rhodesian loan in instalments. I then offered to do the same for the lawyers. Ben Baron refused. He laughed saying he felt they would be rewarded in heaven!
I had, however, been ambivalent about the N.R government’s generosity, knowing how poorly funded African education was. Hence my wife and I set up a fund for the education of an African child – but with a difference: The recipient was not required to go through the embarrassing ritual of presenting him or herself annually and to show us exam results.
One final note: When I had paid back the last instalment of the government’s loan, I wrote to thanks to a new director of European Education, Northern Rhodesia. I said I had been greatly impressed that the department had come to my support at a time when I was still classified as an “enemy alien”.
He wrote back – I quote him verbatim – saying my letter had been “more than appreciated”. I had studied English at Wits and winced at this use of language. Had they not helped finance my studies, they might have escaped my criticism!