How Boeta Dennis found his rhythm


Born and raised in District Six, Dennis van der Westhuizen – Boeta D to his regular customers – is the longest serving resident barber at Hair International, in Westridge,

Boeta D’s tale is the universal story of people uprooted by a brutal system and flung across the city.

Although mostly self-taught, the young Dennis learnt his craft by observing the District’s legendary barbers go about their daily business.

His father, a regular jack of all trades, owned a pair of old-school clippers, which he decided was just the tool his son would need if he was going to be the old man’s personal barber.

Clueless about cutting hair, the hapless young man was duly instructed to give his father a haircut. This was a baptism by fire because the old man wanted his hair cut and trimmed in a very specific way.

“I once started cutting his hair at 5pm and was still busy at 10,” said Boeta D.

“He wanted what was called a German haircut, what today’s kids would call a fader – short on the sides, a little longer on top.

“There was this line that I could not fade away,” he said.

Five hours later, he finally cracked it, and, much like his compatriots who found joy in song and dance, Boeta D found rhythm in his fingers. But he still had much to learn. Fortunately, there was no shortage of teachers in the old neighbourhood.

“The District was filled with many barbers,” he said, “like Manny Peterson, whose father, Philip, owned Hygienic Hairdressers, in Caledon Street. Manny was a maestro. He could make anyone look like a movie star.

“He was a pioneer, very advanced for his time and the first to introduce hair straightener for men.

“He once gave a guy what we called a Tony Curtis haircut,” said Boeta D, referring to the 1950s Hollywood idol.

On another occasion, he discovered the hair-raising effects of a homemade hot brush – a metal comb heated on a Primus stove.

“I saw a neighbour doing it and thought I’d give it a go. I found a discarded piece of galvanised metal.

“I used one of my father’s bolt cutters to make myself a metal comb and proceeded to heat it up.

“Once I was done, I ran it through my hair. Next thing I knew, there was smoke coming from my hair,” he said.

After working in the retail industry for two years, Boeta D landed his first job as a barber, just down the road from Manny the Maestro, at a salon called Red Roses, in Caledon Street.

He left the District in 1963 after securing a spot at a barbershop in Bonteheuwel, where he had settled with his in-laws who had also been from District Six.

He said he had to appear before the old city council to explain why he should be granted permission to work as a barber.

“It was more like a tribunal, but thankfully Sheikh Nazeem Mohamed put in a good word on my behalf,” he said, referring to the former Muslim Judicial Council president and anti-Apartheid stalwart.

He left the shop in 1974 and spent a few years working in Athlone before a friend recommended him to Sedick Ismail, who had opened up the first barbershop in the then newly-built Mitchell’s Plain.

Meanwhile, Boeta D and his wife Sylvia had relocated to Heideveld, where he still lives and has been commuting from via public transport toMitchell’s Plain and back, ever since he started working at Kings and Queens, upstairs at the Westridge shopping complex. The centre was the first of its kind in the area. The barbershop, now known as Hair International, eventually moved downstairs to its current location and is still managed by Mr Ismail’s family.

An avid Arsenal supporter and a bit of a baseball fan, Boeta D spent many Saturdays at Westridge sports fields in Park Avenue after a busy day at the barbershop.

“I will never forget the day I started, in September, 1979. I walked in to the shop, spotted a bench full of children and only one barber in attendance. I tried to attract his attention but he simply ignored me.

“I stood there a good 10 minutes, then, decided to leave. As I was leaving, I told him to tell my friend, who had recommended me, that Dennis dropped by,” he said.

The barber froze, turned his head sharply and said: “Are you Dennis?” Before he’d had a chance to answer, the seemingly unfriendly barber who later became a close friend, asked Boeta D to help clear the bench. The rest, as they say, is history. Nearly four decades later, he’s still there, still clearing the bench. With the prospect of returning to his beloved District in the near future, he would have gone full circle. The family’s land claim, he said, had been submitted in 1996 and they have received a positive answer.