The Radium has lost its heart

Manny Cabeleira made The Radium Beer Hall in Orange Grove what it was for 35 years, a place for progressives and misfits, malkops and musicians. His death sent shock waves around the world.

Manny Cabeleira, the larger-than-life man who made The Radium rock, is no more.

For those who don’t know, The Radium Beer Hall is a very, very old bar on Louis Botha Avenue in Orange Grove, Johannesburg. It’s a bar that became a second home to hundreds of journalists and musicians, and promoted culture and left-wing ruminations.

Its walls are adorned with memorabilia: pictures of pre-war soccer teams and the jazzmen who’ve played there, along with the best newspaper street-pole posters of the times. Like the one from The Star that reads “The situation is vrot with danger”, in reference to the perilous times during the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) talks of the early 1990s, when violence broke out between Inkatha and ANC supporters, people were thrown from trains and the far Right entered the fray.

An important centre for progressives in Joburg, it added to the heady mix of The Market Theatre, The Yard of Ale, Jameson’s and, earlier on, Rumours in Rockey Street and The Chelsea Hotel and Le Chaim in Hillbrow. Havens for anti-government, non-conformist malkops (madcaps), these non-racial places assured their patrons they weren’t alone, or really that mad.

Undated: A mock-up of the front page of The Daily Mail featuring Manny Cabeleira, which hangs in The Radium Beer Hall. (Photograph courtesy of Mark Heywood/ Daily Maverick)

Cabeleira was loud. His wife Lina Cabeleira described him as “fast and furious”. He instantly filled any space he occupied. “Manny was a larger-than-life character, with an indomitable spirit,” said advocate and musician Steve Kuny. “He had a wicked sense of humour, so mischievous. He didn’t discriminate, saying everyone had good and bad aspects, and he always said everyone had a skeleton in their cupboard.” Cabeleira attracted patrons from the full spectrum of society, from the regulars to trade unionists to lawyers and judges. President Cyril Ramaphosa had been there for lunch early in his career, he told Kuny.

Such was Cabeleira’s clout that The Star’s then political editor, Shaun Johnson, wrote an op-ed column predicated on his wisdom just over a year before South Africa’s first democratic elections on 27 April 1994. The headline was “The Manuel Cabeleira theory of seasonal/climatic politics”. Johnson went on to launch his book, Strange Days Indeed, a collection of his weekly columns on South Africa’s transition to democracy, at The Radium. 

Journalist Charles Leonard remembers saddened journalists descending on The Radium when the Weekly Mail’s boldly launched Daily Mail proved short-lived. “Manny was very informed, politically clued up and progressive. He always knew what we’d written. That night he felt sorry for us.” The wake went on till dawn, when Cabeleira made breakfast for everyone. A mock-up of the newspaper’s front page with the headline “Free beer massacre!” still adorns the walls of the bar, alongside The Daily Sun’s “Tokolosh took my virginity!” and The Times’ “SA loses its sense of Zuma”.

Secret shebeen

The self-proclaimed oldest surviving bar and grill in Johannesburg, The Radium was opened in 1929 by the Khalil family, meaning it is fast approaching centenary status. It started as a tea room, but according to its website had a secret, back-door life as a shebeen. It got a liquor licence in 1942 and retrieved the wonderful wooden bar from the Ferreirastown Hotel when it was being demolished. 

The story goes that during the 1913 miners’ rebellion, “striking miners were egged on by passionate speeches delivered by a fiery female activist who stood on that very bar, brandishing the weapon which got her the nickname ‘Pick Handle Mary’”, otherwise known as Mary Fitzgerald. (Her name has also been memorialised in the square in front of The Market Theatre in Newtown.) Today, The Radium bears a Johannesburg City Heritage plaque boasting of Mary’s activities. 

Undated: A collection of newspaper street-pole posters add to the unique charm of The Radium. (Photograph courtesy of Mark Heywood/ Daily Maverick)

Cabeleira took over The Radium 35 years ago, in 1986, replacing the billiards room with a wildly popular Portuguese restaurant. It attracted cosmopolitan customers – and music. “Manny was a huge supporter of local music,” said musician and film composer Sean Fourie. “There were always bands there. All the jazz groups, as well as people like Wendy Oldfield and Robin Auld.”

One of the most striking acts was the Fat Sound 19-piece jazz band on the first Sunday of every month, an institution that lasted for 24 years, according to Kuny, who organised the jazz on Friday nights.

Kuny performed there with his jazz trio for 20 years. “Manny really opened it up to jazz, and after Rumours closed down, people like bassist Art Kelly, who started and ran Rumours for years, pianist Stan Jones and guitarist Johnny Fourie migrated there.” But it wasn’t just jazz. Pop and rock, township beats… whatever moved an audience, it was welcome. “I am so thankful to him because it was my musical home,” said Kuny. “And I played with everyone there, with so many good musicians, including visitors from the Cape like Robbie Jansen.”

Kind, but tough

Cabeleira was always ready to help people, Kuny said, staging benefit concerts if a musician was in trouble, for example. “He was a complete mensch.” 

Double bass player Herbie Tsoaeli remembered Cabeleira fondly, as well as the adjacent bed and breakfast he established. Tsoaeli would book the place for any ventures he had in Joburg. “The Radium was mostly white clientele, but we fitted in. I never had any problems. I was loved by the family and I knew the kids, especially Miguel. I’d go there and feel like I was at home. There’s also an upstairs where I would have many meetings. For the musicians, there were great combinations across colour lines, it didn’t matter.”

Cabeleira was a tough man, too. You’d have to be if you ran a bar. 

16 June 2021: From left, Manny Cabeleira with Steve Kuny, who played with his jazz band at The Radium for 20 years. (Selfie by Steven Kuny)

Colourful stories abounded on Twitter and Facebook in response to his death. Anton Harber, the Caxton Professor of Journalism (Adjunct) at the University of the Witwatersrand, wrote: “Very sad. A real Joburg character who ran a real Joburg place. I can recall his no-hat rule when he would jump over the bar with his baseball bat if you kept your hat on. Tsotsis wear hats in a bar, he said.” Another wrote: “I loved his cellphone ban at the beginning and him throwing out some ponytail marketing person’s phone after three warnings. And a taxi drove over it.”

He had a keen sense of propriety, said Kuny. He recalled seeing Cabeleira launch himself at a man who became aggressive with a staff member, threatening to get out his baseball bat. The man fled. “He would kick you out if you behaved badly,” said Kuny. “I once arrived for a gig in shorts and he went off at me, making it clear this was the first and last time this could happen. And if anyone put their feet up on the chairs they’d get into big trouble.”

‘An amazing heart’

Pops Mohamed, a versatile multi-instrumentalist who blends traditional instruments with modern ones, said The Radium surviving for so long is “almost like a miracle. It’s one of the best venues in the country. Everyone knows its name.” Covid-19 put a spanner in the works, but Mohamed thought The Radium should survive and perhaps start staging live concerts that could be streamed around the world. “I would love to see live albums being recorded there. Let’s create new memories. I’m still very optimistic.”

The Radium was special, said human rights activist Mark Heywood, because of Cabeleira, because of the staff and because it held its own on Louis Botha Avenue at a time when other restaurants were moving to the northern suburbs. Cabeleira’s death really knocked him, he said. The man had been a friend, but also “almost like a father figure”. Heywood hopes “progressive people who care about the character of our city and community will come back to The Radium. I certainly will make myself available to help.”

20 June 2018: Pops Mohamed backstage at the Linder Auditorium at the University of the Witwatersrand. He suggested that The Radium start streaming live concerts around the world. (Photograph by Madelene Cronjé)

“I didn’t realise how much of an icon my husband was,” said Lina Cabeleira, who has been getting calls of commiseration from all over the world. “He had an amazing heart, he was so helpful, he had a heart of gold. He loved the limelight and had so many friends.” An eccentric, “he was fearless and always honoured his responsibilities. I loved this man so much.”

Cabeleira is still managing the venue and there is still music every Saturday, when Covid-19 regulations allow. She does not favour any music styles and acts have, in recent times, included Jesse Clegg and Dan Patlansky. People are still very supportive, she said. 

16 June 2021: Manny Cabeleira shortly before his death in the billiards room that he converted into a Portuguese restaurant. He turned The Radium into a popular live music venue after taking it over in 1986. (Photograph by Steven Kuny)

Cabeleira is planning a memorial for her husband at The Radium, “possibly about three weeks after the funeral, which we’re hoping to have this Friday” 2 July.

Manny Cabeleira was born on 27 October 1955 in Madeira. He died of a cardiac arrest on 25 June in Johannesburg. He leaves his wife, Lina, and three children, Deniz, 36, Miguel, 37, and Marco, 39, as well as three grandchildren.

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