Tafelsig ‘working class hero’ gone, but not forgotten

Son of Tafelsig, Dr Leon Swartz, 56, the national Department of Social Development’s director of population and research development, died of Covid-19.

A son of Tafelsig, who returns to his hometown every Christmas to reunite with family, was buried after succumbing to Covid-19.

Dr Leon Swartz, 56, the national Department of Social Development’s director of population and research development, who lived in Pretoria, drove to Cape Town with his wife, their two daughters and grandchildren.

His brother William Swartz said he visited the family and his in-laws on his arrival in Tafelsig on Friday December 22.

“He was very tired. On Boxing Day we went to have our hair cut and he complained of an earache.

“He went to Dr Parker, opposite Melomed hospital, and was prescribed medication,” he explained.

The next day he had shortness of breath and drove himself to the private Mitchell’s Plain hospital.

On December 28 his results came back positive for Covid-19.

He was put on oxygen but spoke to his wife, encouraging the family to move to their holiday destination on the West Coast, where they would celebrate New Year’s Eve.

Mr Swartz said his brother called his family at 4pm on December 29, while they were on holiday, to say goodbye.

On the video call, he told them “he loves them and waved to all of them”, said his sister-in-law Joslyn.

He died six-hours later.

“This was not expected,” she said.

“No one saw this coming. I mean he drove himself down for Christmas,” she said.

Ms Swartz said he lived for camping. Their last camp under canvas was in 2010 at Soetwater and every year since then they had stayed in holiday homes.

“He loved his potjiekos, the Cape Town coast, hooking up with the family on or about January 3 for a last gathering before heading home,” she said.

Mr Swartz said his big brother was the backbone of the family and had pledged to their mother Louisa Swartz who died in 2010 to keep the family together.

Their Dad Abdol Swartz died in 1986.

“He did a superb job of it. It was always concerned about our well-being and was willing to support anyone, who had a dream and would be shoulder to the wheel to get there,” he said.

Mr Swartz said it would be difficult to fill his brother’s shoes. Mr Swartz senior would also always visit his maternal aunt “Aunty Lizzy”, Elizabeth Engelbrecht, 96, from Crawford.

“He would make sure that everyone had something under the (Christmas) tree,” he recalled.

Dr Swartz is survived by his wife, four children and six grandchildren. He was one of eight children and is survived by Mr Swartz and their two sisters.

He was born in Wynberg but by the time he was three, the family were forcibly moved to Manenberg, under the Apartheid era Group Areas Act.

Mr Swartz and his brother were very close because there was only a year between the two of them.

“As a big brother he was always overprotective. Always caring. He would take care of me when we walked barefoot in Manenberg to pre-school.

“We lived in poverty. We walked from Sonderend, where we lived, to Silvertree – about 15 minutes to school.

”He would navigate safe routes and times for them move around during the Apartheid government’s State of Emergency in the 80s.“

Dr Swartz started at Modderdam High School in 1979 and then moved to Portland High School three years later.

He graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of the Western Cape; completed a diploma in higher education from the same university, while teaching at Portland High School; and completed his Masters in Population and Sustainable Development summa cum laude.

He moved to Egypt in 1998, where he worked at the Cairo Demographic Centre.

He also had a Post-Graduate Diploma in Population and Sustainable Development from the University of Cairo.

He studied qualitative methods and analysis for development evaluation at Carleton University and then planning for HIV/AIds at University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. In 2008 Dr Swartz completed his PhD in Psychology at the University of Pretoria.

Mr Swartz said his brother was a man of action and had been active in the fight against Apartheid.

He had draped the banned flag of the ANC on the coffin of Ashley Kriel, 20, who was killed by police in Athlone on July 9 1987.

According to Mr Swartz his brother had led youth on marches and campaigns calling for municipal services in and around Mitchell’s Plain.

“Leon, after the 80s was more a militant type of activist.

“He was the first to start displaying the ANC flag on podiums when at mass rallies.

“He draped Ashley Kriel’s coffin, when that was considered treason. He was not a meeting type of guy. He was on the road and challenged the dispensation,” he said.

Mr Swartz recalled his brother leading a march of students challenging “this brutal regime” along Spine Road.

He said Dr Swartz started the Colorado Park Residents’ Association in the early 1990s, when he married and moved into the area.

He would protest before going to school to teach and would be joined by fellow residents after work for placard demonstrations for traffic lights – at the corner of Highlands Drive and Weltevreden Parkway.

“That robot is there as a result of Leon,” he said.

Dr Swartz was the youngest chairman of the ANC Mitchell’s Plain branch.

“He fought bread and butter issues, which were very dear to his heart. He was an active youth member and instrumental in setting up Tafelsig’s first soup kitchen, which would operate every Wednesday evening.

“He would be first to distribute pamphlets regarding anti-Apartheid campaigns, the Grassroots, the first series of community newspapers designed to give a voice against oppression and injustice and the Molo Songololo magazine, which informed children about their human rights,” he said.

They hosted Monday candlelight vigils calling for the release of political detainees.

Each household would have to burn a candle in their window. “But one night while on a march through the streets, the youth were singing freedom songs and he (Dr Swartz) noticed that every window had a candle lit, which meant they never had electricity. And so every Friday night he would open the electricity boxes and switch it on.

“He could see the joy on the peoples’ faces,” said Mr Swartz.

In recent years Dr Swartz was concerned about gangsterism, substance abuse and the Sassa grant “dependency syndrome” as he referred to it.

“He was worried about teenage pregnancy because he could see unplanned children were increasing in Tafelsig – it is a vicious cycle of unemployed parents and children in the community,” he said.

During the national Covid-19 lockdown Dr Swartz was a founding member of the Mitchell’s Plain Development Action Collective (MPDAC), a non-profit organisation that supports 25 feeding schemes in the area, providing up to 30 000 meals a day.

They also launched backyard vegetable gardens to provide household sustenance and ingredients for feeding schemes.

In the MPDAC’s tribute, they said “Comrade Leon Swartz”, was dedicated family man and community activist, who contributed significantly to the growth of liberation movements such as the Cape Youth Congress (CAYCO) in Tafelsig.

MPDAC convenor Neil Cole said the organisation’s members were mourning the loss of Dr Swartz and appealed to the community to remain vigilant in the fight against Covid-19.

“MPDAC is deeply saddened by the loss of a true servant of the people of South Africa.

“We know that Comrade Swartz would have wanted us to continue the work that we started,” he said.

His long-time friend and comrade Ryland Fisher said: “I met Dr Leon Swartz in the early 1980s when Donny Jurgens and I went to organise young people in Tafelsig.

“Despite achieving academic and other success, and relocating to work for the government in Pretoria after we became a democracy, Leon remained humble and connected to Tafelsig.

“We will miss you, Comrade. You remained a working class hero. We will have to try and pick up your spear. May you rest in peace,” said Mr Fisher.

His funeral was at the Royal Chapel in Strandfontein on Sunday January 3.