Still Standing

RIP Grandma 21/09/1951 – 21/06/2022

She was the go-to person for all sorts of background information for South Africa’s social and corporate world stretching decades from her earlier life in Johannesburg, to Southern Cape and ultimately Cape Town whereat she died last Tuesday.

In Brief

Grandma, you may be gone, but you'll always live on.

The WhatsApp text I received from an American friend on the morning of Wednesday, June 22 was the worst wake-up text I have ever received; “Gail passed away”. I did not need to ask “which one?” there was only one Gail known to both of us. That had to be Linda Gail Behr the South African Grandma who had not just been a dear friend since I first met her precisely a decade ago but had equally meant a lot to uSpiked. When I launched uSpiked in 2014, Grandma housed us in her Greenpoint basement. That's how she got to nickname me Gimp, a name that has stuck among her many friends; she never introduced me as Mark… I was always Gimp.

Any journalist (I know of many of them) that ever spent as much as an hour with Grandma, would acknowledge her encyclopedic mind. She was the go-to person for all sorts of background information for South Africa’s social and corporate world stretching decades from her earlier life in Johannesburg, to Southern Cape and ultimately Cape Town whereat she died last Tuesday.

Having spent more than a year in her basement, she shared most of that knowledge with me. Grandma only had one rule to journalists who interacted with her. Respect for her place, whatever came out of her mouth was never to be shared with the public without her explicit consent. Grandma appreciated that her mouth had no guardrails and neither did she have political correctness. If any journalist crossed that line, they would be banished from her magical company. Though a white South African, she never referred to black South Africans as ‘gentlemen’ as is commonly the case among most white South Africans. She called it the way she saw it. She never censored her speech.

For about two hours while still in denial, I sent our ritualistic ‘Good morning’ greetings to her cellphone. When the text wasn’t read for about an hour, it dawned on me that the earlier text wasn’t a prank. I didn’t know what was happening, I felt some indescribable emptiness. I tried to reach Simmone, her long-time Assistant and the daughter she never had. Her failure to answer my call didn’t make it any easier. I later called her at work and the confirmation I got from her was regrettably harder than I had expected.

Personally, I still haven't known exactly how to take this loss. With tears rolling down my black cheeks, I found myself smiling at the thought of Grandma organising a social justice protest among the angels in the heavens. In the 1980s when she married and joined her second husband in the Southern Cape, she reportedly encouraged her own farm workers to unionise and fight for their employment conditions. This action placed her on the radar of apartheid security police, to whom she was a communist agitator while earning her alliances within the South African trade unions and anti-apartheid movement. State security reportedly spied on continuously.

Grandma fitted everywhere and I would bet my last Rand that some of those who ever crossed her path, must now be shaking in their pants wondering whether Gail ever kept a journal. I am not sure, but I suspect she did since the details she usually spat between her lips could only be narrated if she had some reference points tucked somewhere in her house.

Grandma was not just uSpiked's first landlady, personally, she was my sounding board. I regularly went to her for assessment whenever I worked on sensitive cases. With compassion, she would often tell me; "Gimpy stay away from that! Or, Go for it, but try to talk to XYZ before you publish anything.” She knew and appreciated where most landmines were in social, political and corporate South Africa.

Another thing she valued most was her time. I recall a day I was thirty-two minutes late for our lunch date. I hadn't factored in the lunchtime traffic from Cape's Southern Suburbs to Greenpoint. When I ultimately arrived at the restaurant, I was met by the restaurant manager, "Are you Gimp? And are you here for Gail?" on responding in the affirmative, the manager told me; "She is gone and she's told me to remind you that you should not think your time is more important than hers." The manager added, "She wasn't happy at all." It took nearly a month before she started taking my calls again. Once I got back into her good books, I never got late again for any appointments with her. I would rather be earlier than late.

And typical of her connections, she insisted we never talked about the spat; "Gimpy you don't keep grudges, just don't forget..."

So not only have I lost a dear friend but my Encyclopaedia Southafrica. I would write thousands of words about Grandma, but I know that’s one thing she never liked about me; “Gimpy why must your narratives be too long?” My answers were usually the same, "Grandma, how the hell do you expect me to tell you a story that has taken me months to investigate in fewer words. So for you, Grandma, rest in peace and no more protests. Stevie and family, your mum was my mum too. I know her Grandkids will miss her a lot. But should you find that suspected journal, keep it as tight as your mum would have wanted you to. She taught me a lot about your people and will forever be grateful.