SA-born ac­tivist seized life with cu­rios­ity and a fear­less sense of jus­tice

Cape Times - - INSIGHT - Norma Co­hen

DAVID Lurie, who has died of un­de­tected heart dis­ease, was born a non-con­form­ist and died in a blaze of cre­ative en­ergy that be­lied his 65 years.

Hav­ing fled a pogrom in Byelorus­sia in 1900, his grand­fa­ther, Judel, boarded a ship bound for New York which pitched up at Wind­hoek, in what is now Namibia, where he es­tab­lished the first big fish­ery com­pany in south­ern Africa.

David was born in 1952 in Cape Town to Maisie and Joseph (“Yankie”), an Ortho­dox Jewish fam­ily liv­ing in Fir Av­enue, Bantry Bay, their house on a gra­di­ent so pre­cip­i­tous that he and his school friends risked daily in­jury skate­board­ing down the hill “to­wards the dreaded fates our par­ents imag­ined would be­fall us”.

He was sent to the Zion­ist school Her­zlia, an ex­pe­ri­ence which quashed fu­ture in­ter­est in Zion­ism and turned him into a de­vout athe­ist. Oc­cu­py­ing a teenage hip­pie cot­tage in the heart of Loader Street in­side the old Malay Quar­ter, he’d burst through the door with shaggy hair and beat­nik sweater in­car­nat­ing Ker­ouac, quot­ing Zen and recit­ing Gins­berg’s po­etry.

Plan­ning to be­come a psy­chi­a­trist, he stud­ied medicine at UCT, but a visit to the in­fa­mous Valken­berg men­tal in­sti­tu­tion prompted a re­al­i­sa­tion that the asy­lum in­mates were “saner than the fas­cists run­ning the coun­try”.

He switched to phi­los­o­phy, and on grad­u­at­ing, mas­quer­aded with friends as a band of an­ar­chic bus con­duc­tors.

Re­ject­ing his fam­ily’s com­fort­able life­style, he plunged into anti-apartheid ac­tivism, prompt­ing his sis­ter, Ethel, to dub him “a rebel with­out a cause”.

As a stu­dent, he in­ter­vened to stop the beat­ings of black South Africans on the streets and em­braced guer­rilla protest theatre. Dur­ing a riot on the steps of UCT in 1972, he met “mys­te­ri­ous, beau­ti­ful, blonde 19-year-old Yana Sta­jno”.

“In days when more than two peo­ple gath­er­ing was con­sid­ered an il­le­gal crowd,” re­calls Yana, “such ac­tiv­ity flew in the face of the regime.”

They mar­ried in 1973 and moved with their son, Yabu, to Knysna, where he built a tra­di­tional mud hut on 30 hectares of wild Karatara land, de­sign­ing a func­tion­ing ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem for his veg­etable plot.

The cou­ple were af­fected by the plight of labour­ers work­ing on farms and down sil­ver mines, paid in wine and suf­fer­ing ap­palling con­di­tions. David bought land, re­hous­ing the work­ers.

When he heard about a woman with three chil­dren work­ing for a racist, bru­tal farm­ing fam­ily, he drove them 480km to safety in Port El­iz­a­beth in the dead of night. He was al­ways do­ing dan­ger­ous things that were qui­etly heroic.

As ac­tivists, the cou­ple be­came in­creas­ingly threat­ened within an in­flam­ma­tory at­mos­phere of killings and ar­rests.

By 1975, they sought asy­lum as po­lit­i­cal refugees in Lon­don. To sup­port his fam­ily, David sold home­made pan­cakes, study­ing Chi­nese medicine and the Chi­nese language by night.

He be­came a skilled prac­ti­tioner of tra­di­tional Chi­nese acupunc­ture, pi­o­neer­ing Chi­nese medicine in the UK, re­spected as a gifted healer whose di­ag­noses suc­ceeded where con­ven­tional doc­tors failed.

Along­side his beloved wife Yana, a fel­low acupunc­tur­ist, nov­el­ist and painter, his North Lon­don prac­tice at­tracted clients span­ning the worlds of pol­i­tics, sport and the arts, from MPs to The Pogues. If nec­es­sary, he’d treat pa­tients for free, said re­cently Beirut-based Pales­tinian Syr­ian jour­nal­ist Moe Ali Nayel, who blogged about their dis­courses on the Mid­dle East, deem­ing him a men­tor and a brother.

In 1993, Lurie dis­cov­ered Argentinia­n tango, es­tab­lish­ing a pop­u­lar Lon­don tango sa­lon, The Dome, along­side tango com­mu­ni­ties through­out the UK. He loved the spon­tane­ity of tango, a so­cial dance of im­pro­vi­sa­tion de­vel­oped by the poor and dis­pos­sessed.

He’d known his father as wheel­chair-bound fol­low­ing a stroke, but be­came a Roald Dahl mas­ter of tricks to his adored grand­chil­dren Til­lie, Bea and Dy­lan, squat­ting to roll his ab­dom­i­nal mus­cles be­fore turn­ing into Wally Wal­rus and the Dust­bin Man.

A pas­sion­ate al­lot­menteer, he de­vel­oped three large plots be­hind his house, suc­cess­fully grow­ing wa­ter­mel­ons and dis­pens­ing hor­ti­cul­tural ad­vice to neigh­bours, ac­com­pa­nied by gluts of pro­duce over­whelm­ing his kitchen ta­ble.

His beet­root and choco­late cake, Thai fish­cakes, gravad­lax cured with star anise, and cin­na­mon and secret recipe for brown­ies were le­gendary. Yana com­pares his ef­forts to keep the peace be­tween fel­low gar­den­ers to the UN, “trans­lat­ing an in­struc­tion not to throw toi­let pa­per down the al­lot­ment loo into 22 lan­guages”.

A huge life force, his en­thu­si­asms en­com­passed bon­sai trees; Koi carp; surf­ing; open-wa­ter swim­ming; all things Ital­ian, es­pe­cially Alfa Romeos; and the rocky beaches of Pa­le­o­chora in south-west Crete.

Seiz­ing life with cu­rios­ity and a fear­less sense of jus­tice, he was post­ing anti-Brexit and anti-Trump satire on Face­book the day be­fore he died, the bold free­dom fighter with a lion heart still hold­ing politi­cians to ac­count. He loved wa­ter but he ra­di­ated fire.

David Lurie, born Cape Town, Septem­ber 10, 1951; died Lon­don, Au­gust 18, 2017 aged 65.

Co­hen was a friend and col­league of Lurie.

CRE­ATIVE: David Lurie had a wide range of in­ter­ests.

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