Bra Jeff, you lived one hell of a life

The coffin carrying my mother’s younger sister, Aunt Ann Ntsele, was lowered into the same grave in which her husband, Bra Jeff, was buried.

The service took place at the old cemetery in Mamelodi, Pretoria.

There I stood, head bowed, partly listening to the Bahá’i faith preacher, but also in communion with Bra Jeff, so to speak. Grootman, let us for a moment assume we share these memories against the backdrop of the high-pitched trumpet of Miles Davis from your favourite album of his, Four & More.

For me, the one memory that stands out was when I opened up your remarkable life to photographer and publisher John Clarke.

“Hell, I wish I could have met Bra Jeff,” was how John waxed lyrical in the acknowledgements of his self-published coffee-table book, A Glimpse into Marabastad.

In the chapter John asked me to write – “Aristocrat in the Slum” – I attempted, Bra Jeff, to bring you back to life and to describe how in my boyhood I was always in tow when you did your Saturday rounds in Marabastad.

Our port of entry was the legendary Steve’s Record Centre, where you would indulge in serious talk with Omarjee Vally about the latest in jazz, classical oratorios and theatrical musicals such as Ain’t Misbehavin’.

From Steve’s we dashed around the corner into Chiba’s book store, where you engaged with Mr Chiba, in hushed tones, about banned literature.

And hey, Bra Jeff, you remember how other township folk used to stare at us in disbelief as we sat in a corner of Kashmiri Restaurant, napkins tucked under our collars, knives and forks in hand, enjoying curry and rice. The others ate pap and curry with their bare hands.

And when they all went for a wild-west movie at the Royal Cinema, you led me into the Orient to join your Indian friends for that classic of all time, The Sound of Music.

That’s why back in Mamelodi some accused you of trying to be white. Of course, racial stereotypes were something you fought against relentlessly.

There was a time when many in the townships perceived our coloured and Indian brethren as being closer to the erstwhile white oppressor.

Tapping your two-tone shoes against the tide, you navigated your way around the colour bar, moving into a beautiful house in the coloured township of Eersterust in Pretoria.

And, Bra Jeff, do you still remember the growing mumblings when you took Aunt Ann on holiday to Tel Aviv, of all destinations? The Pretoria News even published a picture of you and Aunt Ann at the airport.

My heart melted when I called my mourning mother’s cellphone in Eersterust, and the person who answered was Vanesa, the coloured girl who is in a relationship with your nephew, Jabu.

Hell, how I wish John Clarke could have met you, Bra Jeff.

Johnny Masilela is a journalist and author

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