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