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Interview with Woolf Zasman, An

By Mary Kropman, August 2003

An Interview with Woolf Zasman

Woolf Zasman

Woolf Zasman, originally from Shmanz or Symanski {Simonys} Lithuania, immigrated to South Africa in the early 1900s, where he was also one of the founding members of the synagogue in King William’s Town. He was interviewed in Aug/Sept 1976 in his home in King William’s Town by Mary Kropman

Leah Zasman, nee Ress

as part of her research on Jewish traders in South Africa for her Masters thesis at the University of Cape Town. "The Contribution of the Ciskei Traders to the Ciskei." Woolf Zasman, who passed away in April 1977, never saw the published book.

According to his grandson, Glenn Zasman, "The interview reveals, in particular, three aspects of my grandfather’s character, viz. his sense of humour, his compassion for the <"yes">  poor native population and his political consciousness."

Int: What is your name?

WZ:    Woolf Zasman.

Int:     Where were you born?

WZ:     In Lithuania.

Int:     And when did you come to South Africa?

WZ:     I came in 1910.

Int:     How old were you then?

WZ:     I was about 12.

Int:     And where did you come to?

WZ:     To my late father.

Int:     Where was that?

WZ:     In East London[1].

Int:     And who did you come with?

WZ:     I came on my own.

Int:     Was your mother here already?

WZ:   My mother was left at home.  The economy was so hard in Russia - worse than the natives.  We could not get work.  We lived in a small place, and we heard of a place, South Africa, where people could earn £5 or £10 or £5000. We used to live there on £1 a month - was a lot of money if you could earn it.  It cost £10.

Int:     So where did you get the £10?

WZ:    I want to explain, in my town, I don’t think you could find £10 in the whole town.

Int:     But how did you come here - how did you get the £10?

WZ:    Well, you always find the poor people have big families. So we were the same, we had eight children, to keep. It wasn’t easy. So we had a friend of ours, he was a bit advanced, and he managed to go to South Africa. Of course being here, he managed to send out our £10 - it wasn’t much you see. So my late mother wrote to him and he sent £10 for my late father to come to East London.

Int:     And what did he do in East London?

WZ:    He opened a shop, but what he knew about the shop was as much as I knew about the moon.

Int:     So what sort of a shop did he have, do you remember?

WZ:    He earned a few pounds a month. Of course in those days there was no competition.

Int:     What did he sell?

WZ:    You know, it was a small place, today you find that natives have got bigger shops - he had a little shop, sugar and coffee and tea, no fancy things, he would take I suppose £100 a month and he would make £30 - it was a lot of money in those days.

Int:     So did you go and work in the shop? What did you do when you got here?

WZ:    When I got here, I stayed with my late father for a few months and then I wasn’t happy, and in those days, to get work was also difficult. They used to tell us that overseas people are very efficient, not like the South Africans. They are too fancy, they like football and 10 o’clock tea. The overseas boys are hard workers. So when I came here, people from King William’s Town[2] wanted to employ somebody, so somebody recommended me and they got me.

Int:     Who was the firm?

WZ:    Sive. I think they’ve got some relatives in Johannesburg. I earned £4 a month and everything free - well to me in those days it was like getting £1000 a day. £2 I sent home and £1 I saved and £1 I kept for my own expenses. You could buy a nice pair of trousers for 5 shillings, you could buy a jacket for 10 shillings and the economy was very strict and we weren’t playing with money in those days.

Int:     So how long did you stay with him?

WZ:    I stayed with him for 2 years.

Int:     And then?

WZ:    And I said I’m not happy. I want to start on my own, so he said that he had a place - you must know Mt Coke[3] - he could hire and he wanted me to be a partner. I said no, I’d rather he paid me a bigger wage and I’d work for him. He said that he’d prefer a partnership, so I agreed and we opened up as partners - "Sive and Zasman" - and I stayed with him for three years, and we made about £600 a year profit.

Int:     What did you sell there?

WZ:    Sugar, and tea, and a bit of drapery.

Int:     And your customers, were they all Africans?

WZ:    Oh yes, there were no Europeans in those days. I wasn’t comfortable there; I stayed with the owner of that place. I used to pay him rent and I wasn’t satisfied - the food didn’t agree with me and the accommodation was uncomfortable. I said,  "Look here, I’m not happy." I said "If I’m on my own I could build a house but now I can do nothing, I’m handicapped." So he agreed that if I paid him out, I think it was about £900, he’d be prepared to give it to me.

Int:     So you bought it?

WZ:    I didn’t have £900 for it. James W. Weir was a very nice man, a businessman. I used to do a lot of business with him. I said,  "The position is this - for this I need £900. What can I do?" He said, ’You can have it." And he didn’t ask for a signature, nothing - he just said you can have the money.

Int:     They helped many traders in that way.

WZ:    So once I found out I could have the money, I went to Mr. Sive and said, -Listen, I can pay you out.- So I paid him £900. It was not an easy task. You see, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t speak the language, the only language I picked up was Xhosa[4]. But English I couldn’t speak as I had no schooling. In three years I paid him that loan and I put up a little room for myself and then I bought the place from him and £1000  I paid for the building and I took over. Then I was free, I could do what I wanted to, I could build, and that’s what I did.

Int:     What did the building look like?

WZ:    There was nothing. I put up some buildings, but I did not intend to remain there. Like all of us, I thought well, if I could work myself up, I’ll come into town and that’s what I did.

Int:     So how long did you stay there?

WZ:    I stayed there from 1913 to 1939 - 26 years.

Int:     A long time.

WZ:    In fact I thought when I sell the place, I want to retire, I worked enough, and I worked out I had sufficient to keep going. But you know after I was idle for two weeks, I thought no.

Int:     So what happened, did you start again?

WZ:    I bought the store I am in now for £300, just to keep me occupied a bit. We used to play cards from 3 o’clock - Klabejas[5].

Int:     Didn’t you buy a lot of produce and so on?

WZ:    At that time when I started I used to buy wool and produce but things have changed a bit.

Int:     But what did you buy from the Africans?

WZ:    Oh, I used to buy wool and mealies[6]. They used to produce more in those days - they used to produce grain and so on. The big wages spoilt them, especially the younger generation. You have no idea how efficient the old type of native was.

Int:     In what way?

WZ:    They would kill themselves for me, you know. To give you an idea, I lost a fowl once at my place - I don’t remember, one or two. I didn’t even worry about it because in those days fowls cost 9 pence. So I just told my boys there are two fowls missing.  So he went and called the headman. You’ve no idea, they came and talked to me as though I’d lost £1000. He called a meeting and he told them if this happens again there’s going to be tremendous trouble.

Int:     They must have been very loyal to you. Did you help them?

WZ:    Oh yes, you see I never sued a native. Once I sued a native for £2 and it cost the poor native three head of cattle. So I said in my life I’ll never sue a native again, even if I had to lose hundreds of pounds. £2 cost him two head of cattle - in those days worth about £20, and £20 to a native was a fortune.

Int:     You must have given them a lot of credit and helped them.

WZ:    Oh sure, to give you an idea when I left the country, I had £8000 outstanding amongst them and I told them, I said, "I’m going to King William’s Town and I don’t know if I’ll open a place, that’s where I’m going." And I said, "I’m not going to sue any of you," and if I tell you they paid, I haven’t lost £5, you wouldn’t believe me. Any trader I told laughed at me and said that it’s impossible.

Int:     But you must have treated them well, that’s why.

WZ:    Oh, yes, they used to come, the children and the grandchildren to pay me - I had even forgotten they owed. Now that proves to you, if you treat people fair, it pays, it comes back to you.

Int:     Is there any other way that you feel that you helped them?

WZ:    Well, you know, if you help them you help yourself. I’ve tried my best you see. To give you an idea, I knew very little about business. Well, I knew nothing. Because I had never been to school and I had never been in business. In fact I learned from the customers themselves, the natives said this, and buy that, so I got ideas what to buy.

Int:     What did you buy? What did you keep in the shop?

WZ:    Well, some soft goods, like blankets and trousers. They did not wear fancy stuff like they do now. There were always several lines like prints, and not like nowadays, shoes, we never even stocked shoes. But still some of them progressed; they did go to town and buy a pair of shoes. But most of them were barefoot.

Int:     What else did they wear?

WZ:    Well, some of them wore red blankets. They used to buy a piece of cloth and dye it red and they used to wear it. The red clay, ochre, we used to sell it in the shop and they used to wear it and they were all very happy and they used to smear it on their faces too. If you did them a good turn, they were very appreciative. Oh, this was what I was going to tell you. When I came out here, of course when I started trading most of the natives in the country, at least 99% they used to rely on the trader. You see the trader used to support them, used to look after them. Now every second or third year there was a drought. If there was a drought they couldn’t produce enough food. So they used to rely on the trader to help them. So the trader used to give them mielies. When there was a drought they used to send their children to the mines. The mines used to give them £3 to £4 a month. So they used to stay there for six months, they used to come home with £15 to £20 - there wasn’t such a thing as spending. They wouldn’t touch a penny, they used to come and give it to their father and the father used to give the son £1 or £2 to buy himself something.

Int:     It’s not like that anymore is it?

WZ:    No, no, I’m talking about the old days. He had no say over his money. So he used to come home. So when I found out that a bag of mealies cost 10 cents to R1. Now if they would sell for cash, they would make 20 cents, which is 20% profit. Now if he takes on credit, the traders used to sell a bag for £1 or £2. Now that’s his staple food. He had no other food. So I thought to myself, it’s a crime. The poor native, he’s got to pay because he hasn’t got the money. You have got to wait about two or three months, you charge them 10 bob a pound extra, I thought it’s murder. I thought to myself, how hard we have to struggle. So I thought a bag of mealies for cash is R1,20 " I’ll charge them R1,30 " 10cents extra. They came from everywhere, but I could not finance them as I did not have enough money.

They thought of me as Jesus Christ. You know a poor native, he used to send his son to the mines, they used to pay them £4 a month, and they used to stay there six months to bring home £15 or £20. You know a bag of mealies, to them it’s like a cake, they chewed it up in one week, they were so hungry.  So he had to pay " instead of paying for a bag of mealies 13 or 14, he paid R3 six bags of mealies, it’s £9, it’s all his six month’s wages. So I worked up for myself such a name, that they thought I was Jesus Christ. Actually they called me Thamsanqa, which means "good-hearted."

My heart used to break, I used to feel so annoyed - there were occasions when natives used to be hard up and needed £1 for tax and you know the tax collector wasn’t very good. To them the native was worse than a dog, so if a native owed for tax, £1 or £2 which he couldn’t pay, he couldn’t afford it and his sons were away, the collector would come and attach his cattle. You know how many cattle he would have " 3 or 4 head of cattle " and if they attached the cattle he’s got to sell 3 for expenses, he’s left with nothing and the cattle is all his income. When he’s got a beast he gets a bit of milk, he ploughs the land with it, that’s all his assets. So one native was telling me, he was behind in tax so he went to a farmer who lent him £3 to pay tax and they charged 5 shillings a month interest. Five shillings a month, imagine, and so £3 he lent him for two months - that’d be another 15 shillings, so when the time was up, the farmer said he must pay. So he went to another farmer and borrowed £5. So the £5 interest cost him 25 shilling a month. So by the time he was finished he had to sell 18 head of cattle. When I heard the story my blood was boiling. When I said to him how can you do such a thing he said "What can I do?" So that’s the story. That fellow lost 18 head of cattle for £3.

Int:     Did you ever lend them money?

WZ:    I used to but I never charged them interest. Those I knew I used to lend £1 and they used to pay it back. Every one paid me, without ever suing them. Hardships make a man out of you. You see the whole trouble today, the younger generation have got it too easy and the easier they’ve got it, the easier they want it.

The Government, by giving the natives independence, is only looking for trouble. In 1924 I think it was Jabotinsky was in East London. I went to listen to him and he said, "Friends do you think England is going to give us Israel. Forget about it. No country is going to give you land because you are a nice looking chap. If you want the land you must fight for it." He said you can’t give a person the land there you are. There were no motor cars when I started I had only £5 expenses per month. Today the poorest native can start a business. His expenses are R100 per month. How can they manage? You see for our time it was all right, the business was small and we were small. But today the business is big and they are small. So how can they carry on? It’s impossible - a car alone cost R6 a month. The rent cost them at least another R50 and they have no knowledge of business. The beginners that came to this country, they had no knowledge and they had no capital and they could never survive in the big city, where there were people who were established and had the capital. So for the new immigrants the answer was to get a trading station. There were a few here and they’ve all done well.

[1] East London: a small coastal city in the Eastern Cape, South Africa

[2] King Williams’s Town: a small town 60km inland from East London

[3] Mt Coke: small trading station in the vicinity of King William’s Town

[4] Xhosa: indigenous African language of the Cape region and second largest language of South Africa.

[5] Klabejas: card game popular among Jewish immigrants

[6] mealie: South African word for maize

about the author
Mary Kropman