Once upon a time, even in a city as scarred, worn and weary as Johannesburg, there was such a thing as the small family business.
There was also the neighbourhood store, located on main street. On the street corner there was the local pub or shebeen; both did their best trade on a Saturday morning when working people had money in their pockets and the luxury of a little time on their hands.
Against all odds, in the face of recession and indifference, some still survive. But now the lockdown to stem the Covid-19 pandemic may be putting them through their ultimate trial.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon a day before the lockdown starts when I pop into Bhani’s Bicycles at 278 Louis Botha Ave, one of Johannnesburg’s earliest and still major thoroughfares.
As usual, Vimal Daya and his elder sister Jyoti are at their work stations. Vimal is behind the counter, Jyoti hovering close to the doorway; Welcome, the shop’s bike mechanic, bent over a broken bicycle. The interior of Bhani’s is how I would imagine the Old Curiosity Shop, stacked from floor to ceiling with bicycle bits – pedals, wheels, saddles, pumps – many of the parts looking as if they have been there forever. One “atishoo” and you fear they might all fall down.
Vimal and Jyoti are two of eight siblings. Vimal is the youngest and has been intimately involved with bikes since he left Unisa in the early 1990s and ended up running the bike shop. His elder brother, Narendra, runs the clothes shop next door.
I start by asking Vimal how he feels about the Covid-19 lockdown. Trade has been brisk for the last few weeks, which is unusual, and Vimal’s first response is that he doesn’t have time to talk today. But as he deals with an occasional customer I slip in a question here and there, and then it flows.
He’s worried, but he’s resigned. He has no idea “what the president means when he says there’s money to support small businesses”. Nobody has informed small businesses on Louis Botha Avenue of measures to support them.
Yet, he doesn’t question the need for a lockdown. At this moment he’s more concerned that there won’t be a lockdown on his debts. There will be no income but they will still have to pay the rent, electricity, utilities and suppliers.
And business was already close to the bone.
The last decade of slow economic growth is felt most acutely by small businesses like Bhani’s. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Vimal says, his business was predictable. He dates the slowdown to 2008. More recently the disruption caused by three years of messing up the roads and pavements as the Rea Vaya bus rapid transit system construction proceeds at a snail’s pace down Louis Botha hasn’t helped local businesses.
In years which have seen a dramatic rise in cycling as a sport and the emergence of behemoths like Cycle Lab to capture a profitable market (some bikes cost as much as modest cars), Bhani’s has remained connected to its customer base within the local community. Vimal says that 60% of his customers are workers who still use a bike to get to and from work. The rest are people from the nearby communities of Orange Grove and Norwood. Although business has been bad for the last decade there’s nowhere for a small business like this to run to any more.
Yet, near penury doesn’t prevent generosity (as I noted in an article in 2018): “I’m still a little too cheap with my pricing,” he admits.
At the start of 2020 Vimal had hopes (after all, hope springs eternal) that the year might bring new promise: “a whole new decade, a new ball game, but then ‘Whooaa’ along came the coronavirus. Now we are basically just surviving,” he sighs. “If the lockdown is extended, the shop’s viability may be threatened”.
He jokes that they may have to “rethink the business strategy and sell hand sanitisers”.
That seems easy to say, but were Bhani’s to be forced to close it would be the end of almost a century of trading. Vimal’s grandfather, Daya Gopal, who came from Navsari in Gujarat, India, had started a tailor’s and clothes store on Kotze Street in Hillbrow in 1918. Jyoti rummages around to find a photo of the storefront in a picture book about Johannesburg by Brian Koping.
Yes, it’s not a dream. D Gopal and Sons did exist, although time and urban grime gradually obliterated it. Hillbrow has always been in a process of reinvention.
After a fire in the 1970s the Kotze St shop moved to Plein Street in the CBD, but in that area there was much more crime, and eventually the Gopals had to be on the move again.
And that’s how the bike shop was born.
The birth of Bhani’s
For its first half century the shop had always been a boutique store. But when the family turned their sights on Louis Botha Avenue the property they wanted to buy – opposite the once prosperous Gallagher’s Corner (now the Wits Hospice Charity shop) – was a bike shop. When they did, because bikes were “an evergreen business”, they decided to keep it open.
“People don’t cycle in winter, but they still fix their bikes,” Vimal says.
That’s how Bhani’s came into being (the new name was his mother’s ‘calling name’) on a very different looking Louis Botha Avenue. The clothes shop however remains next door, run by Narendra. It has its own woes, squeezed by the same forces that have pressured the bike shop. Ironically (because my visit was on that same week that Edcon closed), a previous edition of the shop was one of the earliest incarnations of what became Edgars. According to Vimal, on a metre box at the back of the shop is still written “switch for Edgars”.
So, eventually Bhani’s outlived another much more famous South African brand, but one wonders for how long.
Today Bhani’s still occupies that cramped and crumbling space opposite the hospice and next door to the Radium Beer Hall. Its neighbour squats on the corner of Louis Botha and 9th Avenue, Orange Grove, where it has been immovable since 1929. Louis Botha Avenue needs its own biographer before all the clues get lost. Over recent years the street’s main business (and I mean business) seems to be in the tithes collected by charismatic churches, with hair salons and spaza shops dotted between them.
After taking my leave of Vimal and Jyoti I pop next door to take the temperature of another friend, Manny Cabeleira, the owner manager of the Radium.
The Rise and Rise of the Radium
I’ve been a ‘regular’ at the Radium for 20 years and wanted to take stock of what the lockdown will mean to one of South Africa’s oldest pubs.
The Radium was eerily quiet. Alfred, a barman of 20 years standing, busying himself preparing for the bar’s imminent closure. Lina, Manny’s ex-wife and partner, looking over the (declining) finances. As usual, the posters and pictures on the wall, a mini-gallery of comical newspaper poster headlines mixed with Radium/Manny history, needed straightening. But that’s been the case for the last few years…
Manny isn’t there. He’s been ill and so wisely he’s keeping out of the way of customers who might be carrying the coronavirus.
But there’s a handful of locals, plus the resident cat, Mr Grey, a rare Russian Blue rescued from the SPCA. It replaced the Radium’s last resident rat-catcher who was sadly run over. That day Mr Grey was sunning himself on the bar top, oblivious to man-made problems such as SARS-CoV-2. (Animals, as we have seen all over the world, are making hay while the sun shines).
A few weeks later, on #Lockdown day 27, I caught up with Manny on the phone and coaxed him into a conversation.
We start with the pub’s history. Over the years the Radium has had four owners, each a colourful part of local history and always a reflection of Johannesburg’s changing attitudes to the races and the nationalities that inhabit it.
Its founders, the Khalil family, were Lebanese. Manny laughs. “The city authorities didn’t know how to racially classify them and thus how to license the restaurant.” He says that when the Radium was started it was as a tea room; “they didn’t have a liquor licence, so they bought one for off-premises consumption in Mayfair West, converted it to on-premises and transferred it to Orange Grove”.
Then, in those early years, its main trade became as a semi-legal shebeen; an “out-the-back door seller of alcohol to local black residents” something its second owners, Monis Wines, didn’t realise when they bought it. When the illicit alcohol sales were stopped the profits dropped and, as a result, Monis Wines didn’t hold on to it for more than half a decade before selling it to a Yugoslavian investor and its manager, Joe Barbarowic.
It was sometime during this period that the Radium acquired its famous bar-top, imported from England in 1985 to form the bar at the Ferreirastown Hotel, one of the first pubs in Johannesburg. In the 1940s when the hotel was bulldozed to make way for the Johannesburg Magistrates Court the bar counter moved north to the Radium.
Manny points out that it is to the bar counter that the Radium owes its heritage status: “The building itself is of fuckall value.”
Manny bought the Radium in 1982, around the same time as the Daya’s were moving in next door; it cost “R60,000 plus all its stock including a large snooker table that occupied the whole of the back room” (now the restaurant). It was bought on the spur of the moment. “One day when I came in for a beer with my brother-in-law.” Its then owner, Joe Barbarowic (who had owned it for 40 years), was ageing, suffering from Alzheimer’s and struggling to manage it. He asked Manny “what he wanted to do with it” and whether he too “would give it 40 years of tender love and affection”.
Manny said yes, although he admits his real plan was to refurbish, revive and then sell it for a profit (in those days there was no capital gains tax).
But things turned out differently. He sold the snooker table, got a licence for a restaurant and a ‘ladies bar’, designed his famous Portuguese menu (which has changed little over the years), introduced live music, including for a number of years a 17-piece jazz band, the Fat Sound (there’s a whole nother history to be told here), and then:
“Boom, it went through the roof from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s … we had all the hoi-polloi wanting to come and eat here!”
What Manny fails to mention is how he became an institution within the institution.
Like the speaker of a parliament, the landlord of a public house presides over a raucous, opinionated population, always brimming with street wisdom and lay-solutions to the great problems of any time. An engaged landlord imbibes that wisdom, a form of intellectual osmosis, and becomes an unacknowledged thought leader and analyst, developing a wisdom that outshines professional analysts and politicians.
A pub’s landlord can either be a mute observer or, like John Bercow, the former speaker of the British parliament, become part of its colour. Manny Cabeleira is the latter; from conversations I have had with Radium alumni and diaspora, you get the sense that the Radium’s locals often came as much to see Manny as to drink its beer.
He is now part of its legend, although his personal history is little known; the son of Portuguese immigrants who came to Cape Town by boat and Johannesburg by train; his father a shop-keeper, his uncle a restaurateur who owned the Guild Hall and Market Beer Hall; himself a food entrepreneur and supplier in the days before big supermarkets; a stint at Eskom; a stint in the army; all before he bought the Radium at the age of 30.
Over the years its locals, and some who have just passed by for a discreet couple of pints, have also proved a colourful crowd.
I tapped into Manny’s memory bank, much as you might pull a pint, and summoned back to life some of his favourite customers. The account was like opening a biographical encyclopedia on the lives of lawyers, people in advertising, journalists, the freedom fighters and the odd visiting global celebrity.
Among the lawyers: Supreme Court judge Robert (“Bob”) Nugent and jazz musician cum lawyer, Steven Kuny, the son of anti-apartheid legend and human rights lawyer Denis Kuny.
Among the journalists and writers: Herman Charles Bosman who, in the late 1940s, used to “stop by on his way home” because the Radium was “the last watering hole between his office at the Sunday Express and Edenvale hospital where he lived”; the recently departed Shaun Johnson, “I knew him as a cub reporter – he launched his book Strange Days Indeed here”; Anton Harber, the co-founder of the Weekly Mail, and other journalists who would come by on a Friday “after they had put the paper to bed”; as did the brilliant photographer Kevin Carter and the other members of the Bang Bang Club.
Manny sighs, “I used to see a thousand mile stare in their eyes” and think “thank fuck my military service is over” (he had spent a few months in then South West Africa on the Angolan border, on an SADF “camp” (call up), working in a refugee camp in Grootfontein). And indeed, for Kevin Carter his witness to the worst of humanity was to prove too much to live with.
“We were all young and raw then … it was liberating to run a bar where we had so many liberal people.”
And as a cherry on the cake, Manny also recalls the occasional presence of Cyril Ramaphosa who would come in for a meal with Helena Dolny, the former wife of SACP and MK leader Joe Slovo.
According to Manny, the first time they met, at a mutual friends’ wedding, Ramaphosa mistook him for a waiter. On Ramaphosa’s first visit to the Radium, he “demanded from another staff member to see the waiter”.
“In those days I was stroppy and I stormed up to see him before realising who it was. When I saw him he said, ‘Ah, the waiter’. Then I knew what the joke was. After that, occasionally, I’d sit with him for a few minutes when he came in and ask him ‘when are you going back into politics’ – that was before he became the Secretary-General of the ANC.”
And then there were global celebrities, notably Richard Branson (brought in by the British journalist and author of Invictus, John Carlin: “He always wanted fish and chips”) and the once famous lead singer of the Irish band, the Boomtown Rats (Sir) Bob Geldof: “We were hitting the 1920 brandy and getting fucked. I asked him what to call him and he said ‘call me cunt’, so I called him cunt all night.”
I realise, as I write this, that it was the lingering presence of people like this that made the Radium a retreat for me. It’s like sitting in a library, but with the benefit of beer or wine on tap, to help float your imagination. (Tell Me Why) I Don’t Like Mondays is one of the most powerful and poignant songs in rock history; Kevin Carter’s Pullitzer prize winning photograph of the vulture and starving girl child during the Sudanese famine will forever sear my memory. The ghosts of those strange days do indeed haunt the present and make the Radium the South African equivalent of ancient pubs like the King’s Arms in the English city of York.
But these were just the people Manny recognised and/or remembered. However, based on my own population survey of Johannesburg’s left and literati, as well as my own bar-stool observations, there have been many more. There were also others, like me, who for many years would just come to drink draft Guinness (in the years before it was available in every fake Irish pretender pub), submerge myself in a space that could be alternatively heaving and quiet, public and private, political, but with enough dark corners to be personal.
Race and the Radium
Most of the people Manny remembers were white so I asked him about the racial demographics of his customers.
His answer proves the Radium to have been more grey than black or white. He says that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, during the day most of the regulars would be white, but after 7pm and on Friday nights it was “totally black”.
“We didn’t have racist bullshit; the beer was cheap and it was cold, and for a while black people came to the Radium because they wanted to drink draft.”
Nonetheless, he recalls being “shat out by ANC leader, Kader Asmal, who on the night he dined there was the only person of colour”. He asked me “where’s your black customers?” to which he replied, “Minister, with all due respect, I’m not your social engineer.”
In this regard the memories of respected Wits sociologist Eddie Webster are fascinating. Webster admits to having been a “voyeur of sorts”, going to the Radium as much to observe as to imbibe. He describes himself as a “participant observer” and from his observations Webster divides the life of the Radium into three phases. In the first phase, the 1980s, it was a white male pub; artisans, small business leaders and journalists – a kind of hangover from the Joe Barbarovic days.
But during the 1990s, its second phase, it was discovered by the middle classes. The new clientele – what Webster calls “the Bohemian left, it was never a pub for party loyalists of any stripe” – saw it as a place capturing the non-racial spirit and aspirations of the new SA. As an example, Webster recalls watching the 1995 rugby world cup final there, with hundreds of people who spilled into Louis Botha. But, as Manny himself told me, by the 2000s many of these people moved on to the Northern Suburbs, turning their backs on the lower-middle class suburb of Orange Grove, as it went from Jewish-Italian, to Jewish and everything else; a spillover from Yeoville and Hillbrow.
In the third phase, the Radium became what it is now, a fair mix of black and white, rugby giving way to football on the TV, but the jazz band playing on with its huddle of diehard regulars slowly dying off and a fully-fledged new generation of customers being deterred by the grime and crime of Louis Botha Avenue. That’s what it is today; both a real pub and a living museum, a place of heritage, a repository of many of Johannesburg’s tales.
The 1990s and 2000s were what Manny describes as the “good days”. As with Bhani’s they ended around 2008/9. For the last decade the Radium too has been struggling, a victim of the same forces that have bedevilled Bhani’s: recession, depression, corruption, urban decay, and the neglect and lack of vision of a municipality that has long forgotten how to encourage small businesses.
“The last three years”, Manny says, “have been the most difficult.”
I know, I have witnessed numbers dwindling, despite various innovations aiming to draw people in – half-price pizza nights, a quizz club, opening on Sundays and the bands that still play on Friday and Saturday nights.
Steven Kuny, now a Senior Counsel during the day, still plays Friday nights.
On the day I speak to him it’s #lockdown day27. In a WhatsApp message Manny tells me, “I’m fine psychologically, a bit depressed, not much to do right now until we can trade fully without restrictions and will have to survive until then.”
In the course of our chat his worries about the Radium’s future seeped out. He talks about Covid-19 as a “final hammer blow”; worries about when and how to reopen (selling food for delivery will cost more than it makes; “it’s a Catch 22: stay closed and I lose, open and I lose more”); worries about his 15 staff; and admits to a feeling of “total blindness about what happens”.
As with his neighbours, it would seem that fixing a bike or pulling a pint are not the type of occupations considered essential, so their doors will remain locked for some time to come.
It’s hard to foretell the toll.
In recent weeks there has been much discussion about how Covid-19 has laid bare our loss of values, the inequalities those on the okay side of the line have adjusted to. People are promising themselves to live differently. But what will that mean in practice?
It will mean many things and you will need to reckon that out with your conscience. But my strong advice to readers with values is that after all the discussion we have been having about inequality and the importance of community systems that when the coronavirus is suppressed sufficiently to allow us back into pubs and bike shops you make a beeline to both shops.
Take your family to the restaurant, the pizzas are great and have a few pints. The Guinness is fresh and the Radium even has its own beer, Pickhandle 282, named after ‘Pickhandle’ Mary Fitzgerald.
Take an old bike to be fixed at Bhani’s, even if you don’t use it, and ask to be overcharged.
Pop into the Hospice shop across the road.
Tell your friends to do the same, and their friends too.
Let’s keep ‘the local’ alive and a feeling for history in our future. DM/MC/ML
"Men are good in one way, but bad in many" ~ Aristotle