“Master Helmut you are a very rich man!” he said…
About a once famous five star hotel:
Die Landdrost in JOHANNESBURG 1975
In 1974, after ten years with one company, the restaurant’s owner had sold my workplace in Hamburg (West Germany). Consequently, I had to look for new employment. I found work in Estepona, south of Marbella on the Costa del Sol Spain, my favorite vacation spot. Yet then General Franco’s death and the political problems in the neighboring country Portugal started to cause problems. Tourists and investors alike looked skeptical at the situation and many avoided Southern Spain in 1975. Business was down. Hotels and restaurants laid off employees. I moved on. I followed the earth’s curvature south.
I stayed in a small hotel outside the City of Gold, Johannesburg’s rightful nickname. Smart city-planers had built the town over gold mine shafts. I did not know a soul when I arrived but was sure of my own capabilities. To find employment I targeted the most prestigious places first. On my third day in South Africa I walked into the Landdrost, a five star rated hotel. I asked to speak to the Food and Beverage manager and told him that I just got of the plane and needed work, any kind of work. He was British and looked at my apprenticeship and achievement certificates without understanding one word as these were written in German.
The F&B manager asked me questions in English and Afrikaans. Happy with my ability to understand both languages and speak at least English close to fluently he called one of the restaurant managers. This was a French fellow who was putting my meager school French through the wringer. I noticed myself sweating. I knew I would never get a job in an as fine workplace as the Landdrost without speaking French at least near perfectly. A Swiss fellow, came to my rescue. He was translating my paperwork. Ignoring the French restaurant manager he confirmed, what I knew, by saying “The German applicant is indeed qualified to work here at the Landdrost!” The Frenchman’s objection about my ability to speak French lost its value when the Swiss front office manager said “As a matter of fact we do have more German speaking customers from Europe and South-West-Africa, than French speaking, at least here in Johannesburg, Mauritius(1) is a different story.”
I got the job! I was hired right there and then by the F&B Manager to assist the Room Service Manager. I had no idea, what the job was going to be. However, I needed to work to buy groceries and to pay rent. Beside these essentials I also wanted to work at the best place in town. At my arrival, the driver of the bus form the airport to the Honeydew Motel had said, “The Landdrost is the best. It is the newest and plushest five star hotel!” At Barclays Bank, the teller who exchanged my few remaining traveller-checks into South African Rand pointed out to me: “Die Landdrost is die flagship of Southern Sun.” The bank teller noticed that I did not have the slightest idea who Southern Sun is, or some fellow by name of Sol Kerzner, whom he called the owner of Southern Sun. So he told me: “Southern Sun is the largest hotel corporation south of the equator!”
After two months of working room service at the Landdrost, Southern Sun’s then newest hotel, I had heard from hotel guests returning from some of the other properties that there were acute shortages of qualified management in several hotels. I wanted to get away from the City, I dreamed of sandy beaches, fresh caught fish cooked over an open fire and swimming in the Indian Ocean. One couple told me a horror story about the Beacon Island Hotel, which by their words had been the worst of all the hotels they had ever seen. And as they explained, the Beacon Island did not have any management except a couple of Indians and a bunch of drunk Cape Coloreds. I asked around and found out that the Beacon Island hotel’s management had recently quit. I did not want to know why. All I wanted was to get there, to the beautiful setting in the Indian Ocean. I called Southern Sun headquarters and asked if I could apply for the job at the Beacon Island. Within a week nobody called me back. I called again and asked if I could get a transfer from the Landdrost to the Beacon Island. The answer was “No, all positions are filled!”
So I stayed at the world famous Landdrost. The pay was lousy, 400 Rand(2) a month. Rent was running 300 Rand for the cheapest place in Johannesburg. I felt fortunate when I found out that they paid the Blacks 20 to 30 Rand a month and qualified Indians did not make more than 80 Rand. With such little income I often wondered how they could afford food and housing. Knowing that coworkers were worse off than myself made me feel somewhat better. My workday was long. My routine was to supervise breakfast from 4:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., to take a break and be back at 4:00 p.m. and then to supervise the service of cocktails and dinners to the rooms and suites until business died down.
There where only two Europeans(3) in the room service department, namely the room service manager and I his assistant. When I started, they staffed the telephones twenty four hours a day with three order takers, each working eight to sixteen hours. These were Indians(4) who were easily qualified to do my job. Yet they could not be managers for they were not White. After six months I became the room service manager at the Landdrost. That’s when I added two white females. These white South African women got to sit in the little glassed-in-office where they took over the daytime phone duties.
These two newly hired women were South African by birth, they knew less about room service than the Black waiters, but as they were white their pay was one-hundred-and-fifty Rand a month. There was open jealousy about their higher pay rate once they revealed their terms of hire to the coworkers. Still for practical reasons everybody in my department, Black, Indian or White, was helping to train the new ordertakers. This made my job easier.
Now I had the Indians working the floors, doing room service, in a capacity much like headwaiters, one for each shift. These Indians they supervised the room service waiters, who were all Blacks from the Xhosa tribe. These were good workers. I also found an assistant fresh of the plane, a talented Swiss fellow. Once every job was covered, I started to hate my own position as Manager a lot less.
Johannesburg as the center for international air travel in and out of South Africa had great numbers of people arriving and leaving. Yet in 1975 and 1976 the selection of first class accommodations was limited to only two hotels: The aging President Hotel(5), with tumbling stars, and the brand new Landdrost, a shining example of a five star hotel.
I seldom took a full day off. Often I stayed at the Landdrost in one of their lower level rooms to be twenty-four hours on call for guests classified “top VIPS.” Still I could never have done my job without the help of the hardworking well organized Indian headwaiters. They were the driving force in the room service department. They trained me. Listening to them talking about their simple lives made me feel a lot better. They liked my changes. They were grateful for not being tied down by the phone. Now these well-trained Indians had a fair chance to compete with the waiters for the so much needed guest tips.
My promotion to room service manager meant a pay raise, to 600 Rand a month. Compared to the white female order takers at 150 Rand, the Indian head waiters at 80 Rand and the Blacks at less than 30 Rand a month, I did very good. I was the top earner in the department. Reality was, that after paying rent and paying for food and clothing, there was hardly any money left over. To buy luxury items like a stereo set or a car was impossible at my pay-rate, the same with buying an airline ticket to some better place on this planet. I was at times non-appreciative for all the blessings coming my way. As one Indian coworker pointed out to me: First I made six times the amount he got to take home and second and most important I had a German Passport with which I was able to travel anyplace in the world. He said: “Master Helmut you are a very rich man!”
How little did he know. I had no savings and I had no rich family or friends. All I had was the monthly paycheck and occasionally a side tip. Yet how true, I was free to travel, they the Indians were not. Neither were the Blacks or Kleurlinge(6).
I was in charge of all food and beverages to anyone who got to stay at Die Landdrost’s VIP suites. It was expected that I would tell everybody how proud I was to work for this truly unique five star hotel. I did so.
Still, every every so often, explaining to anyone who took the time to listen how great my job is and how much I love Southern Sun, I started to get heartburns. My stomach churned. Regardless of my wants, a year of working twelve to eighteen hour days at the five star hotel went by very fast. I hated it, for many reasons. One was that I did not get to see much of the town and the surrounding area. I did not have time to travel throughout Transvaal. And wouldn’t it have been for a coffee-shop waitress who felt pity for my situation I might never have gotten out of town in more than twelve months. She took me to Pretoria twice. Still I hated my job, I hated my situation but then one day I stopped dwelling in self-pity and started to look at the positive.
At the Landdrost, the world was visiting me. I was flattered being asked by many of the other Europeans from different departments about my customers and some were exclusively mine. I got to meet and wait on the ones who never left their suites for privacy or security reasons. I got to shake hands with every one of the Landdrost’s 1975-1976 VIP guests personally.
I waited on presidents, diplomats, movie stars, singers, stage actors and heads of international business groups. True, for one whole year I didn’t see much beside the hotel, but I met a world of various people in high places. If they were somebody, rated top-VIPs, I got to greet them on their arrival in South Africa and most likely I delivered their first meal in Johannesburg to their suite. From the Landdrost many guests traveled on to their destinations. Some stayed in South Africa, taking a plane to Durban, Port Elizabeth or Cape Town. Others went on to the islands like Mauritius, just past Madagascar. Again others went to visit Chobe and Botswanaland or the Krueger National Park. A limited number of visitors went to Namibia, many said they planned to see Swaziland, a black independent kingdom within South Africa.
For most tourist the trip to South Africa was their first visit. Usually I had the same guests again, prior to their departure, when they spent their final day in Johannesburg. I listened to my guests’ stories about their travels and what they found and how they had liked what they had seen. Visitors were always excited and surprised about how clean and organized the South African cities were. People talked about how safe they felt wherever they went. Everybody raved about nature’s beauty. And there was nothing but praise for any of the various groups of South African nonwhites.
In my capacity as room service manager, I waited only on a selected few. My crew was bringing early morning coffee, breakfast trays, lunch, afternoon tea or coffee, cocktails, dinners, bar drinks and late night snacks to the majority of the guests. But still, I kept busy, morning after morning, day after day, night after night, for the Landdrost had many VIPs. I learned much about South Africa and South West Africa as well as the neighboring countries Mozambique, Angola, Rhodesia, and Botswana from my customers and my daily diary entries reflected what I heard.
“Room service!” “Your order Sir/Ma’am.” “Please sign here” “Enjoy your stay with us!” was the routine, the whole extend of my conversation with the guest on first sight. This was usually how I met high rolling con artists, arms dealers, preachers, drunks, crazy musicians, moody actresses, conservative politicians, rowdy publicity figures and sexy models.
The more the guest ordered, the better I got to know them. By waiting on the same guest two or three times, they, my guests recognized me. After all I was one of the few white waiters in the country. Instead of being just another faceless servant they treated me like an individual and often enough I experienced being on their level. I had the pleasure to meet eccentric Americans, Germans with tight wallets, French connoisseurs, British world travelers, Dutch investors, Israeli business men and Scandinavian sun seekers. In some cases I sent a Black waiter to remove the tray or table (trolley) from the suite. However if I was interested in the VIP, most likely I did even the clearing of trays myself. This served the purpose to make small talk, to ask questions like “Was everything to your satisfaction?” and “Where do you plan to go from here?” or “If there is anything you need to make your visit a more pleasant one, call me in Room Service.” I also made point in telling each VIP my name and my ego was greatly over inflated whenever a VIP called room service and asked for me by name.
Some days I still hated my job, particularly when I had not had enough sleep and a tour was checking out at six a.m. with everyone wanting to have early morning coffee at four-thirty and breakfast punctually at five a.m. served to their rooms.
One weekend (weekends were usually slow at the Landdrost) I had planned to visit the Krueger National Park. My hormones were going crazy just thinking about the Dutch sales woman from the store around the corner. She lived on the same floor where I had my flat. Less than a week earlier we had emptied a couple of bottles of Stellenbosch Grand Cru together and found ourselves spending a night together. She had a car and she agreed to show me the Krueger National Park. She had arranged our trip to nature for she was as she said deeply in love with me. I was ready to follow the calling of the wild. She was talking watching wild animals; I was thinking wild animalistic instincts.
Four hours before leaving management made me aware of a Hotel Board inspection. I was grounded. Again, all my life, the little I had was put on hold. The next four days I stayed at the hotel. Yes, I felt like quitting right then and there. At the end of the Hotel Board inspection they graded us as the best room service department in Johannesburg. And all of us, Blacks, Indians, South Africans and Europeans working together in my department were walking with our heads high, we were enjoying the fame and shortlived glory.
The day after I watched the Dutch store clerk promenading hand in hand along Twist Street with someone else. She acted like I was air. Naturally she had no understanding for my work hours.
Something else was unique, the Landdrost was brand new, it didn’t have an old established clientele. Everybody with money had to stay there at least once, to see and experience this then newest five star hotel in the southern hemisphere. These travelers, who arrived after twelve hours or longer flights from Europe or the Americas, they found their deserved rest in the comfortable rooms. The tourist who was leaving the country used it as a base to do some last minute shopping. Business people arriving in South Africa connected at the Landdrost with business partners to discuss international ventures. Politicians stayed at the Landdrost and traveled by car to nearby Pretoria for their meetings. Entertainers from overseas started their South African tours at the Landdrost in Johannesburg. For many visitors much planning and final arrangements were done after arrival at the Landdrost. The locals, members of the South African business community from Natal, the Cape and Orange Freestate came to the Landdrost to meet their international counterparts. They did their business here before their partners got back on their planes to return to South America, Israel, Europe or wherever they had come from.
Rich white people from South West Africa, Rhodesia, Angola, Mozambique, Madagascar and the islands came to the Landdrost to spend a few days, a week or more. Some of these sent their wives to do their shopping in the big city. Men came to party and to have a wonderful time, women too let their hair down, till it was time to go back into their small town atmosphere at home. Guests’ wishes covered the whole spread of what creature-comfort and entertainment people are seeking. 1975 was pre-television South Africa(7). Movie projectors were still in use. The wishes of these various hotel guests went the whole range. From the easy obtainable food and beverages from any of the hotel’s five restaurants, to the in South Africa illegal but obtainable x-rated movies. Quite often overseas visitors found themselves getting bored, without the television blaring, while sitting in their hotel room or suite with nothing but time to kill.
Except shopping there was not much to do in the busy downtown streets. Cars and carbon monoxide filled the many one-way-streets between the high-rises. Clean sidewalks did not make up for the semi darkness in the shade of the large buildings. Sunshine was restricted to the noon hour. Honking car horns, screeching tires, high idling engines and a steady flow of big and small motor vehicles did not appeal to anyone who had hoped for tranquillity and wildlife after a twelve to twenty-hour plane ride to South Africa. Many a times wealthy guests with plenty of foreign currency to spend tested my patients and level of tolerance. I remember having requests for marijuana. I had been told that a good supply was available then from Natal. One of the dates I had picked up in a bar up the hill had told me all she knew. However, smoking of such was against the law. In 1975 few of the British or American musicians or entertainers or their fans cared too much about such laws. One group of guests left a bag of dagga as tip. I gave it to whoever worked with me this night. They split it. I had no idea that it was worth a fortune to them until they told me. I did not care for it. My drug of choice was good wine, sex and occasionally a beer or two.
It was not unusual that a guest asked me for recommendations as to the how and where discrete White, Indian or Colored young women as night-time-company could be found. I fully understood these men. I knew the feeling of getting horny and looking for an outlet. One asked me, “Where on earth are all the hookers and prostitutes, don’t tell me there are none?” So I explained, “South African law does not allow prostitution.” and “Apartheid laws do not tolerate any sex between the races.”
I told my guests that Swaziland is different. That prostitution and gambling were very profitable there. I had guests who didn’t believe me when I said: “We don’t have sex for sale in Joh’burg!” They knew and I knew it, plenty of women, were elated to spend a night in a hotel’s suite. Single European women were available as dates. Colored women were harder to find, considering the risk involved in interracial liaisons and therefore higher paid in Johannesburg, than anywhere in the country. However coloreds (of Malayan heritage) were plenty in the Cape. Coworkers told me that often women, solely for the sake of income, women from all shades and background, were eager to provide companionship if the requester was somebody special, like a man of fame, a man of wealth. For this matter any foreigner staying in one of the Landdrost’s suites was pre-qualified as a safe proposition. In the night most people are color blind, and I never saw what I did not want to see.
Booze was available to the rooms and suites, twenty-four hours a day. The bars in town closed by midnight. Often parties were held after midnight in the rooms or if available in one of the suites. Some of these parties were quite wild ones. As long as there was no complaint about the noise level nobody interfered. Neither the Night Manager nor the Room Service Manager had any business to get to concerned about people living it up. Men and women do have a right to privacy and fun times within their suites. A few times the Room Service bar’s stock got greatly depleted during the night and the waiters had the guess-what-is-going-on-in-so-and-so’s-suite-grin as they were coming back from delivering more ice, more booze, more glasses. The guests’ wants for extravagancies were never too absurd, but some were borderline. One actress needed a nightgown flown in from her store in Paris. One VIP wanted on short notice more than a hundred bottles of DOM Perignon Champagne. Another VIP was willing to spend a fortune on a piece of jewelry. Such customers requests were often difficult, sometimes they even sounded impossible, considering such was in addition to their first class service. The key was not to tell the guest “Sorry, we don’t do this!” but “I shall try my best, I cannot guarantee price or delivery but I shall try to find out who could and would?” One VIP guest after the other created a challenge for me.
Does “five star service” guarantee hundred percent satisfaction for the guest, as long as he can afford to pay for it? No! I never ran a call-girl ring or pushed drugs or dealt in what we called in South Africa blue movies. Yet if a guest was looking for a dinner date, or female company to show him around town I would mention such to one of my order takers. She would in return call someone at the hotel’s switchboard who would call a friend who would then call the guest and make the final arrangements. If the hotel guest thanked me the next day for getting him in touch with whatever connection, I usually knew nothing about it and I didn’t have to act innocent for I had no part in it. Still, I said: “I am so glad it all worked out!”
With the nightgown, I had to seek the head-housekeepers help and she ordered the gown and had it put on a direct flight from Paris to Joh’burg. The champagne needed the F&B Manager’s involvement who cleaned out the cellars of all Southern Sun Hotels and shipped it by air back to Joh’burg just in time. It is five star hotel policy to give five star service. Five star always did and still does stand for the ultimate, the best unsurpassed service.
Before television invading South Africa, people still talked a lot with each other. People told stories and found ways to entertain themselves and their guest. Much of this changed drastically when TV arrived in 1976. I did not care too much for the changes which came with television. The locals were glued to the tube, the visitors from countries were TV was a more common occurrence, they initially watched some before turning it off and calling it too limited.
What I did not like were the sudden rushes. Whenever there was a good show on television, every room ordered drinks prior and food just after such show. Getting to the room, the guest barely greeted me, signed the docket for the delivery while his eyes were glued at the square picture box in the corner. Before tele there used to be an exchange of friendliness, a feeling of the guest was welcoming the room service for food, drinks, news and give and take some chit chat. After tele arrived, I often felt like an intruder, unwanted as a human being, needed only for the service provided. Nevertheless, when the customer needed something badly enough he or she still turned to the guest-service-persons for advice.
I had fewer problems with the hotel guests’, at times, unusual requests, than the mysterious no-shows at work of the otherwise punctual and reliable large Black workforce. Downtown Johannesburg was then a white township. And much as the garbage truck picks up the garbage, the SAP(8) picked up any black person found after dark in any white township. The problem for my room service department was that often black workers leaving work after dark were arrested. Police brutality did not exist in the SAP’s vocabulary. Basically anyone considered black was grabbed and thrown into the police vans, cruising the streets at night. Non-whites were relatively save at the bus station waiting for transportation, but in no other area within any white township.
SAP hauled these Blacks off for no other reason, than being of the wrong color and at the wrong time at the wrong place in their own country. I had to call the police station to claim them like lost luggage. If being unclaimed by an employer, the SAP held Blacks for up to six months, without a proper court hearing for any of them. My room service waiters had a piece of paper in their possession stating they worked for us; yet my waiters told me, simply talking back at a SAP-officer was seen as mouthing off. Several waiters told me that the SAP did not care about papers, in the possession of nonwhites. The law was, “There were to be no Blacks on White turf after dark!” and the SAP followed the law. Apartheid meant Blacks should be in Black townships, Coloreds in their township and Asians in theirs. The noted townships around Johannesburg were South Western Township (Soweto) for the Blacks, Coronationville and Westbury for the Coloreds and Lenasia for the Asians.
However, there was one other township nobody ever talked much about. This one was on the hill past Joubert Park. This township was reserved for the white immigrants. I am talking about the apartment houses and high-rises with all the studio apartments on the hill in walking distance of downtown. I have never seen a higher concentration of desperate single males and frustrated females, all living next to each other. Up on the hill the housing was up to standard: They had kitchens with refrigerators and stoves; they had private showers and toilets in each unit; they even had wall to wall carpeting. These European immigrants had all the creature comfort which only very few nonwhites ever had. No matter the worldly possessions, the concrete jungle, they lived in, took its toll. Singles bars and clubs were always full. The number of suicides was high. Those, who took their own lives, were mostly young people from somewhere in Europe, who had dreamed to strike it rich in South Africa, but ran out of hope and money. Desperate down on their luck, depressed and nowhere to go, they chose suicide.
The high-rises up on the hill were filled with strangers. Everybody tried to make friends in one of the many bars or at a private party. Nobody knew his neighbors. Living next to each other, there were many lonely souls. The international workforce came from Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany and Austria. They had come to South Africa on a paid-for-by-the-white-Government one-way-ticket. Many of these immigrants had no money to purchase a ticket to go back, provided they had a place to go back to.
Johannesburg was a melting pot for many groups of people. As certain as gold was melted and kept pure as gold has to be, the white immigrants were supposed to melt into a white culture, into the mold which had white-only stamped on it, give and take a few impurities here and there.
I was fortunate to live in Johannesburg, to experience the country and people at the time. I was lucky and made enough money to buy a used car to travel the country. I moved to the Indian Ocean looking back at Johannesburg as a stepping stone in a journey. I remember Joh’burg as a large city with many one-way-streets, hectic, as a place pulsating gold-gold-gold-gold-gold. Gold ruled the city. He who had nothing was worth nothing. People of all races came to Johannesburg to strike it rich. The pilgrimage to the golden shrine was full of suffering for many. The painful awakening, finding out that there is more to living than money, had no social or racial border. Visitor from other countries were simply overwhelmed and greatly impressed by the location and size of Joh’burg. Many never heard about the man made labyrinth beneath the city. They only saw the skyscrapers above, others did not care whatever there was hidden from sight beneath the surface.
For the tourist Johannesburg has a mild climate, in July around 50 degrees and in December around 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Downtown, tall buildings look down on narrow streets. The surrounding white suburbs were always impressive with spacious tree lined streets. For one who lived there, Johannesburg had an unusual feel to it as a city, back then in 1975. I am sure it still is, despite the Landdrost Hotel being gone, so is apartheid now more than twenty years later.
I remember myself being on the top floor at the opening of the Carlton Center, looking down onto the city and wondering how the Black workers many floors below the ground in the labyrinth of gold mine shafts might feel. I visualized the Black workers much like hordes of worker-ants drilling paths through the ground, risking their lives for very little, a meager few Rand barely enough to feed a family, to locate the precious gold for a handful of owners and shareholders. Up there with me were no Blacks, however there were a few of the top bank officials from Standard Bank and a group of the city’s noblest and richest men. I thought to myself: “How much clearer could the picture between upstairs and downstairs get, between low-life and high-life, between white and black?”
1. On the Island of Mauritius French is the language.
2. Rand, South African currency approximately 1 US$ equals 1 South African Rand.
3. European = White people, the superior race, during apartheid.
4. Indians = from India brought to South Africa by the British, a race below the Herrenvolk but above Coloreds and above Blacks.
5. The President Hotel at the time lost its prestigious fifth star and was reduced to a mere four star hotel.
6. Kleurlinge = Coloreds
7. Television arrived in South Africa 1976, with two limited channels, one in English and one in Afrikaans.
8. SAP South African Police