Darker shade of pale


IT WAS their little daughter’s “Rosa Parks” type of moment on Cape Town station that changed the lives of Beryl Crosher-Segers and her family forever.

It was 1982 – the days of apartheid train carriages – and on a warm Sunday afternoon in November, Crosher-Segers, her husband, Chris, daughter Sasha and son Michelin were returning home from a visit to the City centre. Sasha, tired and grumpy, refused to walk to the bottom of the platform – to the “non-white” carriages.

It was all about drawing an imaginary line in imaginary sand….On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, in the state of Alabama in the USA, Parks refused to obey the order of a bus driver, James Blake, to give up her seat in the “coloured” section of the vehicle to a white passenger, after the whites-only section had been filled.

Parks was arrested and charged, but her refusal to give up her seat, sparked a 381-day boycott of buses in the city – and this eventually led to the desegregation of transport in Alabama.

Sasha’s inadvertent protest, her line in the sand, was next to a “whites only” carriage. “I am too tired,” she cried, walking towards one of the doors of the carriage. “My legs cannot move anymore.” Chris offered to carry her, but she refused. “No, I’m getting in here,” she insisted. “I want to sit down on those seats now.”

By then, Chris was on his knees, trying to explain to her that they could not get into that carriage. “We must walk further down, because our carriages are down there.”

That was the moment the indignity of apartheid really struck deep for Beryl and Chris. “Do we want our children to suffer this type of humiliation every day of their lives?” they asked one another. Earlier in 1982, they had moved to Australia, and had returned after just three months because they could not settle. This time they vowed to make it work – for the sake of their children….They were ready to try again in 1987.

It was the beginning of an incredible adventure for the family, but for Beryl especially, which culminated in the publication of her memoir of apartheid South Africa, “A Darker Shade of Pale”, in the US, the UK, Australia and, at the end of next month, South Africa.

Hers is the ultimate “triumph over adversity” story.

“I was born in 10th Avenue, Retreat in a house built by my maternal grandfather,” she says.  “When the City Council re-zoned the avenue as industrial land, we had to move to the Steenberg council housing estate. “We moved three times before settling at 76 Pickerill Street, where we lived until I got married.”

It was a time of big families and little cash. “Our next-door neighbours, the Hendrickses, with nine children, lived in a two-bedroomed house,” Crosher-Segers remembers. “On the other side, the Olivers, with seven children and Mrs Oliver’s sister, lived in a two-bedroomed house.”

Of course, like all townships there were gangsters, or skollies, or ou-rokers as they were sometimes called. “Our neighbourhood had a character called Duiwel,” says Crosher-Segers. “He referred to himself as an Atcha American and he scared the hell out of us as children. “Most of the ‘skollies’ were our neighbours and grew up around us. In those days they protected us rather than harmed us. We were known as Mrs Crosher’s daughters. They checked out Chris when he first arrived in his father’s shiny Valiant, giving him a lecture about looking after me and bringing me home safely.”

The second time the family moved to Australia, they were much better prepared. “The Australian economy was booming and work was plentiful. Sasha and Michelin were of school going age – and all this contributed to us settling down much quicker.”

Crosher-Segers, always an avid lover of music, especially the live music scene, in South Africa, continued this connection in a wonderfully innovative way from Australia. “I attended a youth club at St Mary’s church in Retreat, where we danced every Sunday and where I learnt much about the latest music,” she says.

“In those days, the only place to hear the music of the coloured musicians was in the nightclubs. DJs, such as ‘Ely’s Coming’ gave us an education in international music.” “He introduced me to my favourite album, Kafunta by PP Arnold, and to groups such as Osibisa, Rare Earth and Deep Purple.

“The most popular local groups were Pacific Express and The Rockets.” It was her love of South African music especially that sparked a dream of bringing South African artists to Australia.

“During the Sydney 2002 Gay Games I worked for the NSW State Government and was seconded to the event organising team. One of my first tasks, as programme administrator, was to assist a gay choir from Gugulethu to come over for one of the major events, an international mass choir event at the Sydney Opera House,” she says.

“I failed miserably in trying to secure funding or donations for them. I was so disappointed and started thinking about the difficulties South African artists (previously disadvantaged) would have in getting to Australia. On a whim I decided to try and bring artists to Australia.”

“Marc Lottering was the first artist I brought over.” “I followed up his shows with a tour of The Rockets.”

“Another favourite was Tony Schilder. I teamed him up with Zane Adams and they set the stages alight with their brand of jazz and soul. Other artists included Alistair Izobell, Loukmaan Adams, Karin Kortje, Richard Ceasar, Terry Fortune, Leslie Kleinsmith, Sophia Foster, Nur Abrahams and Camillo Lombard, and comedians Nik Rabinowitz and Riaad Moosa.”

By far the biggest star she brought to Australia was Jonathan Butler, whom she describes as a “bucket list” item. “He was definitely a memorable time of my youth. I remember screaming my lungs out as he sang ‘Please Stay’.”

Crosher-Segers has also been heavily involved in raising money for worthy causes in South Africa. These ranged from feeding schemes to clothing drives.

“One of my most memorable projects,” she says, “was arranging a knitted teddy bear drive. People from around Australia participated and the teddy bears ended up on display at NSW Parliament House for the premiere of the movie ‘Yesterday’. Her involvement in other international worthy causes saw her win a UTS Human Rights Award. In 2013 she was recognised by Celebrate African-Australians as one of the top 100 influential African Australians, receiving the Captain’s Award for her work in the community.

But at the back of her mind was a dream to write a book. “I kept journals and diaries and this helped keep my memories alive. Many people marvel at the details I remember, but it is because I wrote it down,” she says. When Nelson Mandela died, we were discussing his death at home and as usual the discussion turned to apartheid. I posted some memories on social media and a few people commented that I should write a book.”

“My mother is 87 and, thankfully, has been blessed with a long life. I wanted our children and grandchildren to know more about her struggle and how determined she was in a near hopeless situation to educate us,” Crosher-Segers says.

Dougie Oakes has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specialising here and in the UK in sportswriting, politics and features. He is also the Opinion Editor for the Independent Media Group