Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy SA-SIG
C o n c e s s i o n S t o r e s
by Cecilia Muller
Editor: Dr Saul Issroff
Copyright © 2003 Saul Issroff, Mike Getz, SAfrica SIG
and Jewishgen Inc.
This article was first published in the Supplement To The Jewish Herald for 14 September, 1976 - Rosh Hashanah 5737. It was written by Cecilia Muller ( née Colley) © 2001.
Ceci(lia) Colley writes on South Africa's early Jewish Immigrants.
THOSE WERE THE DAYS
They came from Russia, Poland, England, at the turn of the century, in crowded ships, enduring a journey lasting several weeks and fraught with danger, those early Jewish immigrants to South Africa.
What were the conditions like? one may ask, and how did they pass their time?
'Well, the conditions were bad. Most people traveled steerage. I remember my Mother telling me the food was adequate, but basic. And I remember her prejudice against condensed milk lasting to the end of her days at age 74 - as the result of rumours among the immigrants that it wasn't kosher! They were glad enough to use it for the babies, though. As for passing the time, the women were kept busy enough, cleaning. soothing, comforting while the men's gutteral voices could he heard calling their hand at Klaberjas and totting up the scores, 'Jasj', Menel, Shtog! as the precious dogeared and dirty cards were thrown on to boxes and upturned suitcases.
With considerably less than R50 in their pockets, they came, and found work. They worked as hawkers, locally known as the 'Smous', going about the country on foot, horseback or bicycle, with their suitcases of trinkets and neccessities, and with a horse and cart when they could afford this almost unheard-of luxury.
Others worked in the concession stores owned bv relatives or 'landsleit' and were taken on a 3-months' trial basis at a wage of R20 per month, and if satisfactory, received an increase of R2 per month. They worked from 7 or 8 in the morning till 6 at night, and on Friday, pay day, till much later.
The Concession Store trading stands were bought at public auction, and the shops were then erected, usually with a house adjoining. The store had to be 160 ft. x 100 ft. and situated not less than 600 ft. from the entrance to the Native Compound.
The basic requirements for the purchasers were that they had to be white persons over 21 years of age, and had to have a clean personal record, certified by a police clearance. There is a provision in the Trading on Mining Ground Regulation Act No. 13 of 1910 which dealt with the sale of trading stands. Shops could be bought and sold in the normal way. The Mining Commissioner had the right to grant extra sites if he thought fitting. After trading had begun, rental was on the basis of taxation, and a return had to be submitted every three months to the Mining Commissioner who sent a copy to the Receiver who then assessed the tax payable, which was based on 5% of the gross turnover. I obtained this information through the courtesy of the Acting Mining Commissioner, Mr Steyn, and from one of the few remaining original Concession Store owners.
The 'green' youngsters who came over between the ages of 15 and 19 learned to speak a Native language within three months - they had to! These men, whose mother tongue was Yiddish and Russian. also learned to speak very good English and a smattering of Afrikaans! Did they ever know what a splendid breed of men they were, these pioneers of a particular section of South Africa's people? When immigration was stopped in 1935. Natives were trained as shop assistants. The days of the immigrant boy shop assistants were over.
Leisure activities of those early days consisted mainly of discussions, a game of Klaberjas, and occasionally at weekends, a visit to Johannesburg traveling by train - even the express was slow! and a couple of hours spent at the 'bioscope', the old Orpheum or the Bijou. Anyone still remember them?
One of the early concessionaires bought his first motor car, a Hudson, about 1922. Another man bought his first car, a Studebaker, second-hand for R200. Driving tests - none! The day after purchasing the car one had to go to the municipality and get a licence and that was it. In later years, however, they all took a driving test. The owner of that Studebaker told me during our interview that he still has the licence in his possession. Was the sun hotter in those days that the wide had to affix blue adjustable curtains to all the windows?
Concession Stores were the shopping centres from before the First World War for the mining communities along the East and West Rand. It was referred to - not unkindly, as 'Jewstore' by the mining families. They consisted of several departments under one roof. There was the butchery and the 'Eating House', the Native miners could try boiled tripe, whole sheep's head and. cooked flank - the oily, flat odour pervaded the store at cooking times, when the meat was prepared in huge cauldrons by the black chef wearing an old sack for an apron! The customers brought their own tin or enamel plates and paid 5c, or 10c per portion. They sat at long, rough tables with benches alongside, noisy, laughing and at ease with their blankets hanging loosely over a shoulder, or discarded entirely from the heat.
The general store, smelling of soap, sacking, damp straw and sweat, served the Native mineworkers who used to come in their dozens, wearing their colourful blankets. Trousers and shirts were only for returning to their homes. They earned between 20 cents and 30 cents per shift and kept their money in a leather belt worn next to their body. The money was put into a slit pocket in the belt, the only bank for their precious golden sovereigns.
They bought snuff, tobacco, 'tickey sugar', soap - Blue soap and Sunlight, Erasmic and Vinolia, (where has Erasmic soap gone to with its quaint coloured pictures of a family on the wrapping?) and candies, and at home-going time, colourful blankets and gaudy tin trunks which were manufactured locally from paraffin tins and bound by iron strapping. I was told that the cotton blankets sold at 50 cents and the woollen ones at around R1 each. Most goods were bought from the 'Market Street Merchants' - a breed that has almost disappeared together with the Concession Stores.
At 'iKIismis' time, how I remember my father nick-named 'Mafuta Baas' (Fat boss) serving the Natives (not Africans or Bantu in those days) who came to buy a sheep. They paid for it with one golden sovereign and carried it away alive, bleating vigorously, draped round its new owner's shoulders, to be shared in a feast of food and drink with his friends - the owner richer by one sheepskin and several good meals! The Concession proprietor richer by several hundred golden sovereigns!
- where are those sovereigns now?
The so-called 'White' store catered for the miners on the property and there they purchased good quality clothing materials and everything they needed for their homes and families. The store manager in those old and not-so-far-off days was a friend to the community. He was cajoled to supply the best meat cuts and first pick of the new season's clothes. He always had time to chat with the women when they came to buy; to commiserate with or to congratulate them; he knew every one of their children by name, and no child ever left the store without a handful of sweets.
As for the cuts of meat! why everyone had the best. Every Concession Store owner was also a sheep and cattle owner, and slaughtered his own supplies on the premises. Shortage of meat? Not in anyone's wildest dreams and the price within reach of all.
Most of the Concession proprietors knew each other well from Modder 'B', Modrea and Modderfontein to West Kleinfontein and Benoni, and the West Rand. The very names of all those railway sidings revive memories of train journeys to school in Benoni, and visions of the dusty veld in the dry season with the little mining villages where the White miners and officials lived, within walking distance of the mines where they worked. The Concession Store. was always some distance removed from the village.
The villages are still there, but the Concession Stores, for the most part, have given way to the supermarkets in the now tremendous towns of Boksburg, Benoni, Springs, Brakpan and many others, where they cater for the large communities in a way that the smaller stores, could do no longer.
Today? A very few of the early concession store proprietors are still alive and well and living in Johannesburg. Bless them! They were fine young men, and now are contented, fulfilled, with families firmly established in business or the professions. Some of the wealthy have been levelled by taxation or later business losses. Their grandchildren? Some of the younger generation lost to disinterest or drugs; some living with great aplomb. All of them with grass-roots in the early part of twentieth century South Africa.
And so life goes on - many changes, some progress, much trouble, and always like a hand of cards containing good ones and bad ones.
We seldom win the game but we have a lively and interesting time playing it.