He was a billionaire stockbroker, a friend of politicians from Cyril Ramaphosa to Barend du Plessis, and a trustee at Constitution Hill. He was also an alleged paedophile, a man accused of sexually molesting eight men and women more than 20 years ago, at a time when none of these people had yet reached adolescence. Now it turns out that Sidney Frankel, who died of cancer in April, may be lending his name to a progressive amendment to the Sexual Offences Act. What’s the moral behind this tragic tale? And why didn’t the Daily Maverick get anywhere with the long-form investigative piece we were preparing in 2016? A report-back by KEVIN BLOOM.
“You know, this guy has destroyed my life.”
You would think, as journalists, as human beings whose work on this planet involves talking to other human beings about how and why their lives have been destroyed, that we’d hear sentences like this all the time. But you would be wrong. Mostly what we hear in such circumstances is defiance and denial. The remarkable thing about human beings is their unwillingness to accept destruction, even when the world is lying in a pile of rubble at their feet. People ignore, people refute, people repress – anything to escape the brutal truth of the devastation that confronts them. Are these people lying to us because we are journalists? Probably. Sometimes, however, even a journalist will get to bathe in the grace that is the heartbreak of a life split open.
“It started when I was six and ended when I was 13,” explained Marinda Smith, the eighth applicant in the sexual assault case brought against billionaire stockbroker Sidney Frankel. It was mid-winter 2016, around nine months before Frankel would die of cancer in his luxury Johannesburg home, and Marinda, 52, had removed herself from the bedroom of her tiny Boksburg flatlet to an old armchair in the lounge that caught the last rays of the sun.
“I’ve still got so much buried,” she informed the Daily Maverick, apologetically. “Sjoe, the dreams I’ve been having. Remembering the walls, the carpets, the ‘outside’ glass lifts in Diagonal Street. It came back to me the other day that I was always so scared to go in the ‘inside’ lifts. Why? Because I was so scared of bumping into him. I also remember the old building in Fox Street, the office was very small. I remember small passages. Diagonal Street was much bigger. And then one night the ‘Juicy Lucy’ came back to me in a dream. The lady’s bathroom. That’s where I went to clean myself up.”
The grace that is the heartbreak of a life split open – Fritz Perls, escapee from Nazi Germany and founder (with his wife Laura) of gestalt therapy, put it like this:
“Truth can be tolerated only if you discover it yourself because, then, the pride of discovery makes the truth palatable.”
Not that Marinda had the help of gestalt therapy, or any other therapy, to lead her to her breakthrough – which, of course, was Perls’s point. She discovered the truth for herself when she was watching Carte Blanche on a Sunday night in 2015. There on the screen was Sidney Frankel, the boss of the company that her mom had worked for when she was little, and all these people were saying that once upon a time he had “touched” them, “fondled” them, “molested” them too.
“Imagine this. You know, not just body-wise, but brain-wise, heart-wise, you know that this thing has happened to you also. I sat there like a zombie. I was numb. Then I started to shake.”
A volcano. That’s how 40 years of repression erupted into Marinda’s waking consciousness. As a young teenager, when she was in high school and her mother no longer needed to take her into the office during term breaks, she became a champion runner. She ran so fast and so far from the memories of her mother’s boss that she became the fastest runner in her school. She won provincial colours in sprinting. She cut her hair short and dressed like a boy so that nobody would find her attractive. When she left school, she drank. “If I wasn’t drinking, I couldn’t have been intimate with my first husband,” she said. She had a hysterectomy after her pregnancy because the period pains were so intense that she would often faint. At 52, she told the Daily Maverick, she was learning for the first time how to form “touch relationships”.
What is it about the quality of self-hate in South Africa that makes the sexual abuse of minors so ubiquitous?
Mark Peens, Marinda Smith’s boyfriend, a man who had also been sexually abused as a child and who could therefore fill the vacuum where the physical intimacy was supposed to be, shrugged his shoulders. He had been standing behind the counter in the tiny kitchenette throughout the interview, making sure that Marinda was filled up on cigarettes and tissues. He didn’t have a theory for the Daily Maverick about the larger issues – what good were theories anyway? – but he did know that whenever something could be done to change the pattern, something should be done. So on the Monday morning following the Carte Blanche episode, he put his girlfriend in the car. With Marinda shaking like a leaf in the passenger seat, he drove the car down the highway to Sandton. There, up in one of the shiny tower blocks, he located the offices of Ian Levitt, the lawyer who was in charge of the civil and criminal matters that had been lodged against the billionaire Sidney Frankel.
The civil case was straightforward enough: Frankel was being sued for the emotional and physical harm he had allegedly caused to the seven complainants who had already come forward. But the criminal case was something else entirely. Unlike rape, compelled rape, child pornography and trafficking, which have no term of prescription in South Africa, sexual assault in this country is prescribed at 20 years. Levitt, it turned out, was applying to the Constitutional Court to have the law changed so that Frankel could be charged for crimes allegedly committed in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
In August 2016, much to the dismay of Mark Peens and Marinda Smith and the original seven complainants, Levitt failed. The Constitutional Court rejected the lawyer’s bid for direct access. But he gathered his files and decided to go the long route, which meant taking the case to the High Court. Meanwhile, with the civil case proceeding in tandem with the criminal matter, Frankel had retained the services of Billy Gundelfinger, South Africa’s very own celebrity divorce lawyer a la Laura Wasser. On 13 April 2017, it was Gundelfinger who confirmed to the press that his client had succumbed to cancer. While most observers muttered under their breath about the “convenience” of such a demise, the activist group Women & Men Against Child Abuse (WMACA) were less demure: “It was the worst-kept secret in Johannesburg’s business, Jewish and socialite communities,” they said of the child molestation and sexual abuse charges.
The WMACA, as the Daily Maverick well knew, wasn’t joking. Among the numerous interviews we conducted for a long-form investigative piece that never got written, was one with Renee Rothquel – mother of Shane Rothquel, a former resident of the Arcadia Jewish orphanage and a member of the original seven. “It’s a closed community,” offered Renee, on the Jewish angle specifically, when asked why the alleged abuse had been kept under wraps for so long. “God forbid anybody outside the community should know about it.”
God forbid. That term could just as easily have been applied to the business and socialite communities too. Speaking of which, what exactly did happen to the long-form piece that the Daily Maverick (read: the author of this short article) spent all those days and weeks investigating? There are multiple answers to this question, but we will burden the reader with only two.
The first answer lies in the term “investigating”, which in its adjectival form – i.e. “investigative” – demands that something new is brought to light. Try as we might, we simply couldn’t move the story forward. We set out on the assumption that if there were eight complainants whose statements under oath pointed to habitual molestation in multiple locations, there were possibly dozens more that hadn’t yet signed affidavits – but this was an assumption that simply could not be elevated to the realm of publishable fact. Our leads landed in unanswered mails, unreturned calls, and assorted other cul-de-sacs.
As for the business community, we were met, on the one hand, with outright hostility, and on the other with a monumental waste of our time. In the latter instance, we learned of a man who was well acquainted with a former long-time PA of Frankel, a woman in her 70s who apparently had a whole bunch of “dirty secrets” in a file in her flat. Why, after countless hours of tedium on the phone and in coffee shops with this contact, did the woman refuse to play ball? Allegedly, because she feared she would get “whacked”.
Whatever that meant, there was the obvious fact that the business community was somehow complicit in the culture of silence. As of August 2016, as pointed out to the Daily Maverick by Paul Diamond – who, along with his sister Nicole Levenstein and his childhood friend George Rosenberg, was one of the first complainants to go public – the official website of Constitution Hill listed a very interesting board of Trustees: Cyril Ramaphosa (chairman), Michael Katz, Joyce Seroke, Cheryl Carolus and Sidney Frankel.
The great “philanthropist” Sidney Lewis Frankel – on the day of his death, even talk radio station 702, whose indefatigable Mandy Weiner did more than any other journalist to publicise the story, was using the word. Frankel sure did give a lot of money to charity, it appeared. He also gave generously of his time and resources. Below, for your edification, a passage from Anthony Butler’s 2008 biography Cyril Ramaphosa:
“The true significance of the famous story about Cyril Ramaphosa removing a fish-hook from (National Party Cabinet minister) Roelf Meyer’s thumb is that their host on the day, Sidney Frankel, was chairman of Frankel Pollak, the largest stockbroker on the (then) Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Frankel acted as a facilitator of relationships between foreign and domestic business investors and government. By 1987 Frankel was well connected with the “left” in (the National Party) government – with people such as Gerrit Viljoen, Barend du Plessis and Roelf Meyer – and he began to reach out to the United Democratic Front. On one occasion, he recalls, (President) PW Botha discovered that (Finance minister) Du Plessis was attending a conference, where he was talking to a senior UDF member. Botha had Du Plessis summoned to a telephone and instructed him to leave forthwith.”
Sure, so even if the man never met a government he didn’t like, he knew how to spin the PR. It’s hardly a crime. What is a crime, however, is hanging out at the orphanage under the guise of being the big macher Jewish philanthropist and fiddling (allegedly) with the kids.
Which brings up the second reason that the long-form investigative piece never got written. After a certain amount of time pouring over the legal files and re-listening to the interviews, you start to lose faith in human nature. In other words, you begin to get seriously depressed about how much power “power” actually has. And yes, dear reader, you are quite right to ask the question: how, then, must it feel to live in the skin of Nicole Levenstein, Paul Diamond, George Rosenberg, Katherine Rosenberg, Daniela McNally, Lisa Wegner, Shane Rothquel or Marinda Smith?
But it turns out there may be a redemptive ending to this tale. As of Monday 22 May, the first day of the High Court application referred to above, the media were reporting that the bid to overturn the prescription on sexual assault, if successful, could become known as “Frankel’s Law”. Given that the legal representatives for the Minister of Justice, who argued their case on Tuesday 23 May, also supported the application, it’s likely that acting Judge Clare Hartford of the South Gauteng High Court will agree.
The grace that is the heartbreak of a life split open – or, in this case, eight lives. Would it be too much to ask, on behalf of all current and future citizens of South Africa, for us to collectively recognise the bravery of Nicole Levenstein and her brother Paul Diamond, George Rosenberg and his sister Katherine Rosenberg, Daniela McNally, Lisa Wegner, Shane Rothequel and Marinda Smith?
Surely – hopefully – not. DM
The original photo: Sidney Frankel.