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Monday, January 13, 2020 - 13:05

The author and poet Mike Alfred followed up his book Johannesburg Portraits: From Lionel Phillips to Sibongile Khumalo (Jacana, 2003) with a second series of writing about contemporary Johannesburg people a few years later. In a series of interviews and reflections Alfred captured the pen portraits of people who he encountered in Johannesburg, people who made a difference to and who had an impact on the kaleidoscope of Johannesburg in the first decade of the 21st century. Mike’s book is about their lives, their achievements and their relationship with the city.

Biographical writing is an art. It is intimate writing that requires the author to capture personality, essence, character and achievements. A good interviewer will draw out the interviewee to reflect on life and its meaning; the voice of the person is given space to be heard. Good biographic writing gets beyond boring publicity hype and reveals the person’s soul in authentic conversation. The interviewer needs to shift between past and present to draw out the making of the man or woman, their values, their history and their passions. Mike tackles the task almost effortlessly and the result is a series of biographical sketches that should be shared and preserved. One wishes to hold the reader’s interest and at the same time “ring true”. Seventeen Joburg people feature.
Mike anticipated that this second book would be published at the time (i.e. during the first decade of the 21st century); unfortunately it was not and has now moved into an archival category.
Mike migrated to Cape Town late in 2019. It was with a sense of regret at leaving his Johannesburg and at the same time anticipation of a new life on the Atlantic ocean. Before he left he generously presented his manuscript to the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation for preservation in the JHF Resource Centre. He also passed an electronic copy to me. I felt that Mike’s writing should be read and would be enjoyed by a wider audience in Johannesburg and elsewhere in South Africa. I then suggested that we publish the manuscript of People of Johannesburg – Glimpses 2005-6  as a series on The Heritage Portal which has established a reputation for heritage writing and has a readership of tens of thousands.


The JHF Research Centre is located at Holy Family College in Parktown (The Heritage Portal)

Alfred’s canvas gives us portraits of the following people: 

  • Neil Fraser
  • Ronel Bischoff
  • Mervyn King
  • The Klass brothers
  • Clive Chipkin
  • Ken Boffard
  • Irving Lissoos
  • Doris Mosikele
  • Melanie Yap
  • Maggie Friedman
  • Kenneth Stanley Birch
  • Charles Rhangani Furumele
  • Flo Bird
  • Frans Baleni
  • Ravi Lalla
  • Madoda Tshabalala


Flo Bird and Clive Chipkin (Radio Today)


All the people interviewed by Mike gave their permission for publication at the time. The portraits capture people but also offer a glimpse of our city a decade after the new society came into being in 1994.

I found myself wanting to know more about the person and his story and wanting to know what had happened in their lives since. Are they all still in Johannesburg? Were all 17 still alive? Sadly I knew that for example, Kenneth Birch had passed away and his collection and archive is now housed at the University of Pretoria. Neil Fraser has left Johannesburg to take up a new life and new interests; he was minister at the Montagu Community Church in the Western Cape for many years before retiring in 2019. Neil gave his Johannesburg archive to the University of the Witwatersrand. Clive Chipkin celebrated his 90th birthday in 2019 and is currently working on the third book in his trilogy of Johannesburg. Clive has also donated his fine architectural archive to Wits University. The Klass Brothers - Geoffrey and Jonathan still run their extraordinary book emporium in Commissioner Street and their stock of books is now pushing the two million mark at Collectors Treasury. Flo Bird is still a driving force in city heritage and went on to morph the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust into the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation. Mervyn King is a Senior Counsel and former Judge of the Supreme Court of South Africa and is still active and an internationally renowned name in arbitration, international law and governance. Maggie Friedman, the partner of David Webster, still resides in Johannesburg and made a new life for herself with her children and married in 2014. Irving Lissoos passed on in 2011 and was buried at Westpark Cemetery (source Northcliff Times). A stalwart of the Jewish community, he was a founding member of the Victory Park Synagogue and served the King David Schools and Jewish Board of Education. Dr Lissoos pioneered kidney transplants in South Africa.  Frans Baleni is no longer a trade unionst but is still an activist politician and public sector player and was appointed to lead the new PetroSA board in 2019. Charles Rhangani Furumele, a man committed to liberation through education for himself and his children has passed on. Ken Boffard, world-renowned South African trauma surgeon is a professor emeritus of Wits University and in 2019 was awarded Netcare’s highest honour, the Christiaan Barnard Memorial Award. Melanie Yap is still active as a journalist and writer and marketing director and has a lively professional profile on LinkedIn.


Collectors Treasury run by the Klass Brothers (The Heritage Portal)


James Ball and I are combining our efforts to edit Mike’s manuscript and to find photographs of all of the people where possible. Please email James (jamesball01@gmail.com) if you have any good shots.

Mike Alfred’s Glimpses fit into a special genre of writing about characters and personalities in South Africa’s past. Mike’s writing brought to mind earlier books, that together almost constitute a genre - collections of essays about people of their time in the 20th century. Books by Cartwright, Bond, De Villiers and Anderson. Books that are now consigned to the scrap heap of white South African history. I do not wish to enter into a debate about the value of such previous efforts. In my view these earlier studies which today cannot be read without an awareness of the political mindset of their era still have value as archival sources of information. Alfred’s sketches of Joburg people have now been saved and shared and we hope you will enjoy this series. Click here to view the series index.

Kathy Munro is an Honorary Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand and chair of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation. She enjoyed a long career as an academic and in management at Wits University. She trained as an economic historian. She is an enthusiastic book person and has built her own somewhat eclectic book collection over 40 years. Her interests cover Africana, Johannesburg history, history, art history, travel, business and banking histories. She researches and writes on historical architecture and heritage matters. She is a member of the Board of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation and is a docent at the Wits Arts Museum. She is currently working on a couple of projects on Johannesburg architects and is researching South African architects, war cemeteries and memorials. Kathy is a member of the online book community the Library thing and recommends this cataloging website and worldwide network as a book lover's haven.


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