An Israeli Search for a South African Icon: A Son’s Biography of His Father

Journalist-author Roy Isacowitz lost his father, a prominent anti-apartheid activist, when he was 10. More than 50 years later he went back to South Africa to ‘discover’ him

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Jock Isacowitz on the cover of Roy Isacowitz's 2020 book "Telling People What They Don't Want to Hear."
Jock Isacowitz on the cover of Roy Isacowitz's 2020 book "Telling People What They Don't Want to Hear." Credit: Kibbitzer Books
Larry Derfner
Larry Derfner

To Roy Isacowitz, his father Jock, a leader of South Africa’s liberal anti-apartheid movement from the 1940s until his death at 46 in 1962, had been an idol. So it was a big surprise for him to read in his father’s military records that the World War II mortar-shrapnel wound he’d told everybody about was no such thing.

“It was a knee infection, a bad one; he was laid up from it, but there was no mortar involved,” Isacowitz said in an interview. “It was a very pleasant surprise, because that made him more human to me.”

The Johannesburg-born Isacowitz, 69, an author and veteran journalist in Israel, including at Haaretz, made five trips to South Africa in 2016 and 2017 to research the story of his father’s life and times. Jock Isacowitz headed the Springbok Legion, a progressive, street-activist movement of soldiers and veterans, during its glory years in the 1940s, was at the forefront of the Liberal Party in the 1950s, and went from being a Communist anti-Zionist to being a left-wing Zionist and member of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

Along the way, he got banned and jailed by the apartheid government. His son Roy “discovers” him in a new book, “Telling People What They Don’t Want to Hear – A Liberal Life Under Apartheid.”

South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts, left, and Jock Isacowitz, Johannesburg, circa 1946. Credit: Courtesy Roy Isacowitz

You lost your father when you were 10. I imagine this book has been sitting inside you for a while.

“It was gestating for about 40 years. I knew that I wanted to write it already in my 20s. My father was an enigma. All I knew of him was from a few memories, from my mother, other family members, what I’d read about him in the press and elsewhere.

“But the memories I do have of him of him are very strong. I remember the one time I visited him in Pretoria Prison. He brought us these huge slabs of chocolate from the prison canteen; I’d never seen such big slabs of Cadbury’s chocolate.”

You write that in your own radical youth, you thought he’d been too tame, too establishment-oriented, but later on you learned different.

“Yeah, that must have been in 1974 when I was finishing my B.A. at Hebrew University, and I went to London and was browsing the shelves in an anarchist bookstore, and I saw a book about liberalism in South Africa. It said that during a very big march in Cape Town, which had been stopped outside of Parliament by the police, Jock tried to persuade his colleagues to storm the Parliament.”

You liked that.

“Oh, I loved it. That was a life-changer.”

Roy Isacowitz in Tel Aviv in 2019.Credit: Drora Yatsiv Isacowitz

Parting with the Communists

What was the progression of your father’s Jewish identity and attitude toward Zionism?

“It was one of dramatic changes. He was brought up in a Zionist family. They were living in a small town outside Johannesburg, so when he finished high school he moved to the city, and he came under other influences, Marxist influences, and he became very anti-Zionist. He joined the Communist Party in the army in 1942. He even went to the trouble of having his religion changed on all his military documents – you can see ‘Jewish’ crossed out and ‘atheist’ written above it.

“But learning about the Holocaust had a profound influence on him. He left the Communist Party in ’46 and became interested in Israel; he became a sort of proto-Zionist, joined the Jewish Board of Deputies [as a representative of a socialist Zionist party], and was very quickly elected to the executive, so he was one of 15 or so people who ran the Jewish community. He became a big fan of Israel, though of the left-wing socialist variety.”

Jock Isacowitz, second from right, in Paris for the founding of the World Veterans Federation, 1948.Credit: Courtesy Roy Isacowitz

What got him imprisoned?

“After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, there was a state of emergency, Sharpeville township was under siege, and my father and others were bringing food and blankets and other stuff to the people there. Jock was one of about 300 whites among the detained.

“That’s another very clear memory. They came to the house at 3 or 4 in the morning. They searched everything in the house, it was light outside when they left. One of the cops put his hand into my sister’s school satchel, and when he pulled it out his fingers were covered with strawberry jam from her sandwiches.

“After four or five months the government slowly released the detainees with very severe restrictions. He had to check in at the police station every day; I couldn’t have friends over, nobody could come to the house. And there was this dumpy little late-‘50s car sitting outside the house all the time with cops in it.

“He went back to the pharmacy and back to the Liberal Party, but something in him had changed. Jock came back a much more subdued, less energetic and much more enervated person. I believe that at that time, he and my mother started discussing the options of leaving the country.

“My sister Tessa, who’s two years older than me, says she distinctly remembers them sitting on the veranda one day, talking about moving to London. Then, within a year of his release, he was diagnosed with leukemia.”

Jock and Eileen Isacowitz on their wedding day, Johannesburg, 1945. Credit: Courtesy Roy Isacowitz

'Sad for South Africa'

You spent a lot of time in South Africa for your research in 2016 and 2017. What were your impressions of the country?

“I left South Africa 50 years ago in January. But a bit of South Africa remains in me; you know, the sights and sounds and the landscape. I’m very partial to South Africa. Each time I see whites and blacks mingling in public and stuff like that, it strikes a very deep chord in me.

“But the place is in a terrible condition. I went back to live in South Africa between 1992 and the end of 1999, and at that time, under Mandela, it enacted the most progressive constitution in the world. Not everything was perfect, of course, but it seemed to be headed in a good direction. But later on the ANC, which has been the government since the end of apartheid, brought the country to its knees with its total incompetence and corruption.

“So I’m sad for South Africa. I believe it’s on the way to being a failed state along the lines of Zimbabwe.”

Roy Isacowitz in the cell occupied by his father Jock in 1960 at the Fort prison in Johannesburg, 2017.Credit: Drora Yatsiv Isacowitz

How did researching and writing the book affect your view of your father?

“Look, I always – I can’t say I loved him because I didn’t know anything about his character. I respected him, he was an icon – sometimes an uncomfortable icon because he was a doer and I’m not a doer. I’m sometimes a good talker, you know, but I’m not someone who goes and puts his life on the line and Jock was, so his legacy for me has always been two-sided: It’s always been something to be proud of and something with which I also reproach myself.

“And that hasn’t changed. I do, however, feel that I’ve gotten to know him. I do feel now that I can love him, in the sense that there’s a character there that I didn’t know of before, but do now.”

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