The King Is Dead

By David E. Kaplan

Legendary SA ocean swimmer known as the “King of Robben Island’’ dies suddenly in Cape Town

Swimming in the ocean is my ultimate joy,” he once said of his favourite pastime. “There are no boundaries, no lane ropes to constrain me and very few people to disturb me.”

Having faced off the perils of the open sea from dangerous currents, Great White sharks, poisonous giant jelly fish and sheer exhaustion,  it was  a routine check-up in Cape Town  on the 17 October for asthma that surprisingly struck down South Africa’s legendary ocean swimmer Theodore Yach at the young age of 60.

Holding the record for the most crossings to Robben Island – hence his nickname in the ocean swimming fraternity as “The King of Robben Island” –  Yach made quite a splash in Israel in 2016 when he swam across the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee)  “not the width like most long-distance swimmers but the LENGTH – 22 kilometres from south to north,” says Stanley Milliner from Kfar Saba Israel who has been a friend of the Yach family since childhood.

“It was a tough swim because he was more accustomed to swimming in the cold temperatures off the Atlantic Cape coast and not the 26 degrees of the Kinneret and thus took him over 8 hours,” recalls Milliner. “There was great excitement at the time as members of the Israeli Swimming Association joined him for sections along the way.” Apart from the famed St. Peter’s fish, “He appreciated the human company.”

“It’s been such an unexpected shock for his friends and fans. He was a titan in the water and an example to future generations of ocean swimmers.”

Away from the water, the Yach family name on terra firma is synonymous with philanthropy supporting causes both in South Africa and Israel.

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Theodore Yach (right) with Stanley Milliner at the 2005 Maccabi Games in Israel

Leading Light

A leading member of Cape Town’s general and Jewish communities and an inspiring role model of philanthropy, Theodore Yach’s mother, Estelle has been a devoted friend of Israel and the Hebrew University whose benevolence significantly advanced the University and enabled hundreds of its students to pursue a higher education.

It all began in 1938, when Theodor’s grandfather, Morris Mauerberger, established the Mauerberger Foundation Fund, which his son-in-law and Theodore’s late father Solm Yach went on to head. His mother chaired the Foundation for over twenty years; thereafter passing over the reins to his sister, Dianna Yach.

Since the 1960s, the Mauerberger Foundation has lent its support to a wide range of projects at the Hebrew University, including the Mauerberger Medical Bursaries, the Morris and Helen Mauerberger Chair in Agricultural Entomology, research projects in diverse areas and, notably, numerous research fellowships and scholarships for Israeli and international students, many from underprivileged backgrounds.

Africa Israel – A Pulsating Partnership

Africa is benefiting today from the launch in 2017 of a prize by Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology together with the Mauerberger Foundation Fund in South Africa. Each year, Israeli scientists now compete for a $500,000 prize for suggesting ways of addressing a major development priority in the African continent – and in doing so, also advance the role of women in science.

Dianne Yach called on scientists to collaborate in tackling impediments to the full development of people and societies, while Technion president, Prof. Peretz Lavie committed the Technion to fostering Israel-African partnerships “with purpose and impact.”

The new prize builds on 80 years of the Mauerberger Foundation Fund support for those areas in Israel and South Africa that include the initial support for the Technion’s Soil Engineering Building in 1955; chairs in nursing, preventive cardiology and neurosurgery at the University of Cape Town; and the advancement of public health at the University of the Western Cape.

Theodore’s grandfather and founder of the Fund first visited the Technion in 1955.


Today, the Helen and Morris Mauerberger Soil Engineering Building is home to ‘Engineers without Borders’, a programme that the fund continues to support, and that enables Technion students to initiate community projects in Israel and abroad and promote the University’s goodwill in Africa.

In Cape Town, Theodore Yach with his expertise in property development, was one of the key strategists behind the Central City Improvement District, “which helped the city avoid the inner-city decay that has affected so many other cities in South Africa and across the world.” In keeping with the family tradition of Tikkun Olam (Hebrew: “repairing the world”), Theodore Yach has over the years, raised millions of Rands for various charities.

During office hours, Yach was a divisional director at Zenprop, one of South Africa’s top property development and investment companies. He has also been a director of his family’s philanthropic Mauerberger Foundation and supporter of the Cadiz Open Water Swimming Development Trust.

The Cadiz Freedom Swim is an extreme 7.5 kilometres open water swimming race from Robben Island to Big Bay, Bloubergstrand. It takes place annually close to Freedom Day  – the 27th  April, the date of SA’s first democratic elections in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa, marking the end of Apartheid.

The Cadiz Freedom Swim is recognised as one of the world’s most extreme sea races due to the extremely cold water characteristics of the Atlantic Ocean, unpredictable sea and weather conditions, and the presence of the Great White Shark.

Legacy of a Legend

Deserving of the moniker “The King of Robben Island”, Yach had at the time of his passing, 108 Robben Island crossings to his name – more than any other swimmer in the world. He has also swum across the English Channel, and he is the first person to swim from Cape Town around Robben Island and back, taking 11 hours. Despite the freezing temperature of the water, the area is popular for sharks, including the Great White. This never deterred Yach who always took the necessary precautions.

Yach comes from a family of swimmers and his love for swimming was nurtured from an early age.

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Theodore the Titan. Theodore Yach emerges from the water after his epic 30km Ultra Swim from Three Achor Bay, around Robben Island and back in a trip that took approximately 11 hours wearing only a regulation swimsuit, cap and goggles while being totally exposed to the elements. (Stephen Williams, Gallo Images, Foto24, file)

In His Element

Theodore’s late father Solly, himself a champion swimmer, “told me as a kid to keep a record of my swimming achievements, which I did,” and led to his internationally acclaimed autobiography.

Titled, ‘In My Element’, it is an inspiring story that brings alive the sport of open water swimming and reveals how the boy matured to a man with every stroke.

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“I planned a simple paperback book until my editor looked at all the photographs and material I had, and she convinced me otherwise,” he reveals in his preface to the book.

The world of ocean swimming in South Africa is not for the faint of heart. “It requires guts, training and a sense of adventure, all of which characterized Theo,” says Milliner.  “It was no wonder,” continues Milliner, “that his book was nominated in the ‘World Open Water Swimming Offering’ of the year category,” which recognises innovative products or services that have made a positive impact on the world of open water swimming.

Set in the backdrop of the wild waters off the South African coast, In My Element is filled with photographs, memories and personal highlights of his often-risky open water sea-swimming exploits undertaken since the 1980s, including stories about swimming with sea life such as sharks, seals and dolphins.

The autobiographical book sets out to motivate other swimmers and offers training advice.

An unrivalled pastime

“Swimming in the ocean is my ultimate joy; there are no boundaries, no lane ropes to constrain me and very few people to disturb me.”

Long distance open water swimmers are always exposed to the threat of hypothermia, jellyfish stings, bluebottles and the ever-present danger of sharks, yet Yach enjoyed every opportunity to get into the water.

“The best part of swimming in open water is that it isn’t structured. I don’t want structure in my leisure time,” he said. “I like the solitude and the fact that I am in the middle of nature and I like the possibility of a Great White that can come visit!”

But he was never reckless. He always swam within two metres of his support crew and with a shark shield that hung off the boat. The device created an electronic force field around him that kept sharks away.

He maintained that open water swimming was a tough sport that involves as much psychological preparation as physical endurance.

“The mental aspect of ocean swimming is more important than physical preparation because you are dealing with the sea, the cold water, currents, sea life and the fear of what is under the water.”

“Hypothermia and heart failure are biggest risks for open water swimmers – even more than shark attacks.”

Yach noted that South Africa was becoming the preferred destination for top open water swimmers to train, “as the water on the Cape coast is so cold.”

He explained that training in water with optimal temperatures was critical for open water swimmers who were preparing for races. “A swimmer’s ability to cope with cold water is essential and this is why they train in our waters for races such as the English Channel.”

The cold water of the Cape has lost its warm friend.


By David Saks

To mark the 70th anniversary of the birth of the State of Israel, the editorial board of Jewish Affairs, a journal published under the auspices of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies since 1941, decided to devote the Rosh Hashanah 2018 issue of the journal to the topic. Contributions, particularly personal memories relating to the founding and early years of the Jewish state, were invited, and people, both from the local Jewish community and former community members now living abroad, took up the invitation. The result was a true landmark issue of the journal, one providing much original material and many fascinating new insights into Israel’s establishment and the noteworthy role that South African Jews played in its birth and early struggle for survival.

Fighters and Founders’

The first section features first-hand accounts of South Africans (mainly, but not exclusively Jewish) who participated in the tumultuous early months of Israel’s existence, when the fledgling Jewish state was faced with critical challenges from both within and without its borders. All of them volunteers, they included soldiers, kibbutz workers and medical personnel. The section includes the memories of six South African Machalniks – foreign volunteers who fought in the Israeli War of Independence – namely Leslie Marcus (as recorded and written up by Leila Bloch), Eddie Magid (based on extracts from a recent biography on him by Michael and Suzanne Belling), Ellie Isserow, Audrey (Benedict) Meyersfeld, Henia Bryer (by Veronica Belling) and Elie Zagoria (with an introduction by David Solly Sandler). Marge Clouts records what it was like to work on a kibbutz in the years 1948-9.

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Leslie Marcus (left) and Mike Isaacson as Mahal volunteers serving in Moshe Dayan’s battalion in 1948.

Some excerpts:

Says Leslie Marcus: “My late brother Sam had a clothing shop, so I got a few shmattes together in a suitcase. There was a fellow called Solly Levin (from Claremont kosher butchery) who had a car; he came and fetched me at six the next morning and took us to the airport.

There were two of us, me and Max Korensky from Paarl. I had never been on a plane before It took us four days to get to Israel We had to stop every four hours to refuel. When we landed…we were taken straight away to some camp in Haifa. Two days later I was in the army, fighting. I was all of 21 but I was ready for it.

There were 32 of us in our unit of various nationalities. I was second in command. There were eight South Africans. We were the first to go into battle. Why did we go into battle first?

Because we were the most trained.”

 Marge Clouts who spent two and a half years in Israel soon after the founding of the state records: “The excitement of landing in Israel was intense. We did not land at Lod (now Ben Gurion Airport) but on some very small airstrip. We were then transported by truck to the army base at Tel Levitsky. A few days later, in Tel Aviv, we visited the welcoming and comforting South Africa office. The kibbutz they found for us was called Bet Keshet, a four-year-old basic settlement of about seventy Sabras located in the foothills of Mount Tabor in the lower Galilee. The settlement had recently been traumatised by the deaths in an ambush of seven of its leading members.

Our first Sunday at Bet Keshet we heard the church bells of the monastery on Mount Tabor, and at the same time the ominous sounds of distant gunfire.”

“One Sunday Morning in May 1948…”

Part II looks at perspectives from Diaspora Jewry in the period leading up to Israel’s establishment. Glenda Woolf’s memoir of how Bloemfontein Jewry celebrated the inauguration of Israel’s independence is reflective of how South Africa’s fervently Zionistic Jewish community will have greeted the much longed and hoped-for occasion.

I remember waking up early one Sunday Morning in May 1948, and hearing, “Wake up. Quickly, get up. Today is a very special day. We Jews have our own country again. Soon we are going to shul to celebrate. The children must wear fancy dress. Hurry, we don’t want to be late.”

Glenda continues, “….The flag was raised. We sang Hatikva, and slowly a murmur of sobs came from here and there among the crowd. It was then that my mother said, “You must always remember this day. For the first time in thousands of years we Jews have our very own country. Your generation will be different to our generation.”

Veteran contributor and editorial board member Gwynne Schrire has made available the recollections of her mother, Mary, a stalwart worker for the women’s Zionist movement first in Kimberley and later in Cape Town. Florrie Cohen recalls her days on hachshara – an agricultural training programme for prospective olim – in the English countryside in the early days of World War II. As with all the memoirs in this issue, one gets a sense of the powerful spirit of idealism and self-sacrifice that underpinned the Zionist movement during those crucial years. Another veteran JA contributor, Cecil Bloom, evaluates the impact made on Zionism in the UK by Haham Moses Gaster, at the time a prominent figure in the Zionist movement but today largely forgotten.

The deeper significance of Eretz Yisrael in Jewish religious thinking, as well as how this history is being distorted by those driven by an implacable hatred for the reborn Jewish state, are the subjects of Part III of this issue. Artist and poet Abigail Sarah Bagraim reflects on the meaning of the Patriarch Abraham’s spiritual journey and connection to the Holy Land, a thoughtful piece complemented by one of the writer’s most recent paintings on Jewish religious for which she is justly renowned. (As will be recalled, another of A. S. Bagraim’s paintings, “The Welcoming of Shabbat”, graced the front cover of the Pesach 2018 issue of Jewish Affairs. The artist’s work can be viewed, and prints ordered, at

We next have reprinted an address given by the late Chief Rabbi B M Casper on the spiritual and historical connection of the Jewish people to Jerusalem, an analysis that is both erudite and deeply felt. Finally, Rodney Mazinter, also a regular JA contributor, considers how contemporary antisemitism and hard-line anti-Zionism – to the extent that they can be separated at all – overlap with and inform one another. It is a sobering reminder that while Israel has to date emerged triumphant in its battle for survival, final victory in that struggle is still to be achieved.

Writes Mazinter: “Antisemitism did not just disappear with the end of World War II. Like most Jews, we got used to having ugly things said about us from time to time. Mostly we were lucky and grateful for the many Christian friends who stood up for us, and still do. But nothing prepared us for today’s misinformation, demonization of Israel, and the gut-wrenching anti-Israel, antisemitic hostility expressed by many students, professors, church members and even established “liberal” newspapers – and now, even Jews who act out their anti-Israel stance for whatever reason. The new form of bigotry against Israel is called the :new antisemitism” which replaces “Israel” with “Jew”…”

On a more positive note, Mazinter continues, “Meanwhile, venture capital continues to pour into Israel. The business world, the engine of growth, education and prosperity, is voting with its feet to seek investments in the only reliable country that constantly points the way for the future of humanity.”

The special “Israel at 70” issue of Jewish Affairs, as well as all previous issues of the journal from the beginning of 2009, can be freely accessed on Those with a particular interest in Israel are referred to the Rosh Hashanah 2017 issue, which likewise is very much focused on the Israel-themes.





David saks

David Saks is Associate Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and Editor of Jewish Affairs.


Feature picture: South African volunteers, engineers at the Sodom Camp, meeting with some of the 7th Battalion Infantry soldiers who walked down to Sodom through the waids and reached it a while before our jeeps did. First and second on left – Dov Golanty and Zvi Sikoler (Israelis), third on left – Hymie Kurgan (SA), extreme right – Sydney Bellon.