A dance instructor’s recollections of defying Apartheid in South Africa
By David E. Kaplan
A marine biologist and tour guide friend of Fonda Dubb in Eilat had a bad fall and was rushed to Emergency at Israel’s southern coastal city hospital – Yoseftal Medical Center. After being patched-up, Colin Porter, said the stitching done by the Arab doctor on duty was so well done that he characterised it as a “tapestry” and wanting to show his appreciation, offered to teach him snorkeling.
Touched by this gesture, the Arab doctor agreed and said it was the first time he would be socialising with a Jew!
What this story or extended “tapestry” of life unveils is that too few people from worlds culturally separate, fail to meaningfully engage beyond the workplace. “This happens across the globe,” says Fonda. “We leave it to the politicians who are generally lousy at this job instead of us ordinary people engaging on a grassroots person-to-person level.”
Fonda knows exactly what she is talking about from her experiences in South Africa during the darkest days of Apartheid when she went out of her way to bring people who would not otherwise connect – together!
She made every effort, frequently putting herself in danger in crossing boundaries – geographic as well as personal.
What her story reveals is that while we are more familiar with the high-profile opponents of Apartheid, we are less so of the ordinary people who in their own ordinary way achieved extraordinary results. Such was the case of Fonda Dubb of Eilat.
As a dance teacher in the late sixties in Port Elizabeth, Fonda lead a kind of double life. While in the city she taught kids at a dance studio exclusively for whites, she also immersed herself in teaching boys and girls at the Gelvandale Toynbee Ballet School in the coloured district of Port Elizabeth.
At the city studio “coloureds” were excluded because of the ugly Group Areas Act, which assigned racial groups to different residential and business sections in urban areas in a system of urban apartheid. So I used to drive backwards and forwards to the township, a one hour drive away. I was totally unperturbed visiting an area where very few Whites ever went, although I was under surveillance and at times stopped by the police enquiring where I was going and what I was doing.” When there were clashes with the police in Gelvandale or on the route, “someone would phone and warn me not to come. ”
There was no stopping Fonda. If whites were blocked from being culturally exposed to the coloured community, Fonda ‘pirouetted’ devising a reverse step. “I was determined that my students performed in front of white audiences and so, I would apply for permits to the Administration of coloured Affairs for every such performance.”
Knowing the moves on the dance floor were not enough; Fonda had to ‘choreograph’ a path through Apartheid’s labyrinthian bureaucracy!
From a file, Fonda takes out a humiliating relic of the Apartheid era, the permit which imposed the following conditions:
“…that no social mixing with the audience occurs, that the coloured do not make use of any of the change-rooms or any other facilities provided for Whites and that they leave the premises immediately after their performance.” And if they needed to use the toilets, “who knows what they were expected to do,” sighs Fonda, shaking her head.
Fonda relates how they overcame problems that today, 26 years after the fall of Apartheid, appear strangely surreal:
“If I received a permit, which only allowed for the exact number of my dances, then that would exclude the coloured staff, particularly their drivers. To surmount this problem, because we had to strictly comply with the conditions, of the permit, my late husband Mark and I would drive backwards and forwards in our own cars, taking and fetching the students.”
Her coloured students frequently received the highest marks in Port Elizabeth. Following their progress, Fonda always felt proud to see how they overcame the many Apartheid-related obstacles. “Some would go on to UCT’s ballet School, others would become teachers, while a few went on to perform overseas.”
Following Dulcie Howes – considered the prima ballerina assoluta of South African ballet – introducing Ballet as a matric subject in South African schools, two of the first graduates in the progamme “were my coloured students who would go on to receive bursaries to study at UCT, where after they returned to teach at Coloured schools in Gelvendale. I think this was one on my proudest moments!”
Leaving Port Elizabeth in the mid-1970s, Fonda and her family moved to the small country town of her youth, Pietersburg, today Polokwane, capital of the Limpopo Province. There she switched from dancing to her other great love – cuisine! Boasting a strong Jewish community of some 200 families, Fonda was kept very busy catering for barmitzvahs, batmitzvahas, britot mila and weddings.
In time she was soon approached by an organization called “Woman Power” to provide cooking lessons to blacks, where they would receive certificates enabling domestics workers to command higher salaries. They were “earning at the time a paltry – in today’s Israeli currency – NIS28 per month,” recalls Fonda. Approximately 80% of my students could neither read nor write but they were determined to improve their lives.”
The graduation ceremonies regularly appeared on national television, where after “we would receive calls from other organisations throughout the country for the guidelines to our courses.”
White by Night
As a child growing up in Pietersburg, Fonda’s young eyes were witness to the horrors of Apartheid. She recalls the vivid images of “blacks being randomly picked up in the streets by roving police vans and tossed in brutally like sacks of potatoes. I can still hear the sounds of the siren that used to sound every night at 9.00pm, whereafter no blacks were free to roam the streets of Pietersburg.”
She recalls her late cousin, Dr. John Gluckman, a pathologist, “who had the courage of his convictions to expose the horrible tortures inflicted upon the black school children held in police custody during the 1976 riots. Years earlier, he had represented the Timol family, whose son Ahmed, was one of the first detainees to die at the notorious John Vorster Square by allegedly jumping out a window. He later represented the Biko family,” following the black Consciousness leader Steve Biko’s death in police custody.
She recalls being at the police station in Pietersburg a few years before immigrating to Israel and hearing the screaming coming from the cells. “I asked one of the policemen what was happening. With a whip of a hand, he bellowed, “We’re going to donner (beat) them”. Such was South Africa.”
Making a Difference
While Fonda is quick to minimize her contribution during the dark days of Apartheid, she recognised the injustice around her and through her routine activities made a difference. In Eilat, she again used her passions for dance and food “to make a difference”. Apart from assisting the blind and visiting the sick, she over the years, would through organisations like ESRA and WIZO instruct dance to children with disabilities, teach English to Ethiopian children through cooking and would fundraise for causes by conducting food demonstrations.
It is little wonder that Fonda is a recipient of Eilat’s prestigious Miller Award, presented personally by former Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi for:
“diverse volunteer work conducted with dedication and sensitivity in guiding and supporting the needy in all sectors of the population and for the empowerment of women.”
If bad laws kept people apart in South Africa, Fonda Dubb found good ways to bring them together.