Detailed article by Hymie Negin on the beginnings of the Onrust Machaneh site
Habonim Onrus Camp Site…. The story of it’s development in 1964 and how the experience educated me
By Hymie Negin
Written June 2020
In 1962 Habonim agreed in principle to acquire a camp site from the Figg family. The land was
on the sea and adjacent to the Onrust Hotel, owned by the Figgs. The purchase was only
completed in 1965, but Habonim used the site in 1962 and 1963 and decided to make it the
permanent year end camp in place of Leaches Bay in East London area where they had been for
many years. In early 1964 it was time to develop the site and build the required infrastructure as
well as establish a network of suppliers and service providers.
Hermanus was the nearest town to Onrus, less than 10 kms away and situated about 130 kms
from Cape Town. In 1964 it was a small town with only a few hundred permanent residents with
a marginally larger population in the nearby township populated by residents classified as
“Coloured” at the time. The population did grow over the summer but it had not yet caught on as
a major holiday destination. In the town there was one bakery, one butchery, one hardware store
and a few other retail outlets.
1964 was a time of no cell phones, no credit cards, no fax, and no internet. Negotiations were
done personally and interpersonal relations were a critical element of achieving one’s objectives.
Habonim camps were very different than they are today. Everyone slept in tents on the ground,
on a waterproof groundsheet and in a sleeping bag, which was also taken with on overnight
tiyulim (hikes). The dining area was in the open air, as was the mitbach (kitchen), plyms (toilets)
and showers. The only buildings at a Habonim campsite were a “hospital” or medical clinic with
some beds, an office which also housed the only phone on the premises and sometimes a store
room for food, though this was also sometimes housed in a tent. There was no cold room and the
only electricity was in the hospital and office. The “Plyms” were very communal and sociable
with absolutely no privacy. They were housed in the open air over a large pit. The pit had 2
wooden structures covering most of the area. In each structure were 8 holes resembling toilet
seats and the structures were set up on either side of the pit. 16 people could sit together about a
foot apart (30-35 cms), doing their business, making music while discussing all sorts of topics. In
addition the Plyms were not restrictive by age, so the head of the camp could be sitting next to a
Shtil (say a 10 year old) and of course the aroma was not that desirable. The Plyms were
surrounded by a wooden wall and the girls and boys had separate facilities. The showers were
also communal with a large area surrounded by a wooden wall with a paved base and shower
heads every few feet (maybe 1 meter). Everyone showered together as there were no cubicles or
partitions. The girls and boys had separate facilities. All activities were held in the open as there
was no meeting buildings of any kind.
The term “Plyms” derived from a construction of the walls of the toilets at one of the first
Leaches Bay Habonim Camps. East London had an auto assembly plan where Plymouth car sub
assemblies were shipped to from the USA. The car components came in huge creates and
Habonim had secured this wood to build the walls of the showers and toilets at the camp. The
wooden creates had writing on it indicating what was inside. When these walls were complete
the entrance to the boys toilets had the letters PLYM on it, so henceforth the toilets at Habonim
camps were known as “plyms”.
I joined Habonim at the age of 6 in Salisbury, Rhodesia (Harare, Zimbabwe) and was immersed
in the movement from then onwards. I attended many seminars and camps which were held at
Weizmann, near Bulawayo and at Leaches Bay near East London. I served as the Head of the
movement in Salisbury and we had over 200 members in that town alone. One year I took a train
load of chanichim from Rhodesia to Leaches Bay and we had 200 Habonim members, half from
Salisbury and half from Bulawayo. Habonim was a vibrant organization in Rhodesia . I became a
member of Garin Etgar which was scheduled to go on Aliyah at the end of January 1965. At the
beginning of 1964, I was staying at the Bayit in Johannesburg and was now working for
Habonim. I had turned 18 a few months earlier.
Early in 1964 Rita Hellman and Riwa Durbach (Lapid) sat down with me and said Hymie we
want to transfer you to Cape Town where you will be the point person preparing the Onrus camp
site and getting the camp ready for December 1964. We expect 1,000 people to attend, the
largest camp we have had. I asked if there was a detailed plan of what was needed at the camp
and was told there wasn’t but there were a group of senior members in Cape Town who knew
what was needed. In that case what was my role and why do they not do it. The response was
they are in their last years of University (mostly medical students) or are working full time in
jobs and do not have the time to do the work needed. Arni Friedman, the Shaliach, will assist as
well but he has other work to do in the movement. I was no engineer nor had ever put a camp
together, so this was a huge task for a young man.
Johnny Comoroff met me at the train station in Cape Town and I stayed with them until I was
organized. Johnny and his parents were extremely kind to me. I soon found a residential hotel
which provided a room and 3 meals a day for R20 per month. Habonim payed me R30 per
month, so I had to be careful with my expenditures. While I was in Onrus I stayed at the Onrust
Hotel and there the meals were great and the Figgs looked after me extremely well. Most of the
time I was the only guest in the hotel, though sometimes travelling salesmen were also there and
people from Hermanus came for meals occasionally.
It became clear to me that while there were a group of people who knew what to do about
specific aspects of the camp, there was no coordinated plan and it was going to be an
evolutionary development. On my first trip to the campsite with Arni I saw that there was no
infrastructure at all, just a piece of land near the beach where tents had been. I realized then that
we needed to clear even more land to house the 1,000 campers.
I asked “where is our water source” and was told it came in by tanker. Our first task was to find a
permanent water source. We were too close to the sea to drill for water so we started to explore
the nearby farm land. We really lucked out on our first encounter with the local farmers. We
found a farm nearby and went to the homestead and spoke to the owner. We told him about the
camp coming up, needing water for 1,000 people and asked if we could get some borehole
experts to explore his land and drill a borehole for our use. His response was that was not
necessary as he had a spare borehole with lots of water and we were welcome to hook up to it.
The well was about 1.6 kms from the camp so now the issue was to lay a pipe all that distance.
We needed to keep the cost down so it was going to be a plastic pipe 5 cms (2ins) wide. I then
realized that we could not leave the pipe exposed above ground as it certainly would be damaged
or cut soon and often. We had to dig a trench and lay the pipe in and cover it completely with
earth. Later I thought about this pipe and imagined 1,000 people coming from the beach and
wanting to shower. This 5 cm pipe was going to be completely inadequate and further there
would be no pressure. I asked who knew about these things in the movement and was directed to
Harold Kaufman. He was a plumber and gave me an education in that field. My concerns were
correct but there was a solution that Harold would take care of. We would build some steel
towers with large water tanks on top. The water from the well would be pumped into the tanks
24 hours per day and the height of the tanks plus the volume would create the pressure needed
and the volume would be adequate at peak periods. Harold would do all the plumbing from the
tanks to the showers, mitbach (kitchen) and hospital.
The plyms and showers had to be constructed. A deep hole was prepared and we needed wooden
walls and the toilet seats as previously described. A carpenter was required so the next call was
to the local hardware store. I told them what I wanted to build and their response was that there
was only one carpenter in the area. He lived in the township and was named Johannes. If he was
not available then we would need to bring in a carpenter from Cape Town or some other town.
Off I went to the township and asked around for Johannes the carpenter. Johannes answered his
door and I enquired if he was available for a project, which he fortunately was. I took him to the
campsite and explained what was needed. He took measurements and we agreed on his weekly
payment plus the wood and materials would be for our account. Johannes told me what supplies
were needed and indicated he would obtain them from the hardware store but he needed the
money to pay for them. It was a Tuesday and I told him I would be back on Thursday with the
cash and would meet him in the morning at the campsite. He would get the materials delivered
on Friday and start working on Monday. I had work to do in Cape Town on Monday and would
be at the camp on Tuesday morning.
Tuesday morning I arrived at the campsite and there was no Johannes and no timber. I assumed
there was a problem with the supplies so drove over to the hardware store. They told me
Johannes had not placed an order for the timber and in fact they had not seen him for a few
weeks. I had this sinking feeling in my gut and immediately was off to the township to find
Johannes. As I approached his house the front door flew open and a woman stood there and
started yelling at me. “Why did you give him all that money? That was stupid…you are an
idiot!!!” This 18 year old was shocked. “ He drank all the money and is now completely
unconscious…come I will show you” She took me into a room where Johannes lay disheveled
and stinking of alcohol. The smell of vomit permeated the room. She told me it will take another
two or three days for him to return to normal. I was devastated and now realized that I lost the
money but had no timber supplies and no carpenter. I was too trusting and naïve. I thought
through the alternatives. To bring a carpenter from Cape Town or another town would be a very
expensive exercise as their rates were almost double, they would spend 2 hours each way
travelling per day and we would have to pay for that in travel time and expenses or we would
have to pay for accommodation in the area. I decided to leave this situation for a few weeks and
then go back to Johannes with a new approach. When I approached him several weeks later he
was very contrite and informed me he really wanted the work as he had no other projects at the
time. I told him the new arrangement would be as follows. I would pay the hardware store for the
supplies directly and I would only pay him for the work he had completed. This way if he went
on a binge for a few days, we would not pay for it. It turned out that Johannes was an excellent
carpenter and the project was completed by him. For me this was a huge lesson in human
relations, economics and negotiation.
Ronnie Schneeweiss sat with me and described the hospital and office facilities needed at the
camp. Ronnie was a medical student in his last years of study. He had reviewed prefabricated
building plans for both and said he would order them. We then discussed exactly where the
buildings would be placed and it was my role to facilitate access to the site and ensure the
buildings were placed in the correct place. The next issue was electricity for both buildings and
he indicated that I should go to Escom and organize electricity to be delivered to our buildings.
Escom was a much better organization then than it is today. I did not speak any Afrikaans and
now had a new challenge to deal with something I knew very little about. After finding the right
people at Escom and explaining our needs, they were very responsive. They had a line about 1.6
kms away from the proposed buildings and could put a line connecting the two. However they
required a clear path, 20 meters wide, the entire length of the line. All trees and any brush had to
be cleared away. This was to prevent fires if a wire fell and also to facilitate the construction of
the electricity line. I thought this was a simple task and so gathered about 30 shomrim and
madrichim to come out to the camp and clear the route. The response was overwhelming and the
atmosphere was very upbeat. They came with axes, pangas, saws and hoes together with food and drink and we set out on the task of clearing 1,600 meters, 20 meters wide. The vegetation was thick and after 2 hours of cutting and chopping we had cleared 10 meters of the 1,600 meters needed. At this point I told everyone to stop working and take a break. It was clear to me this
plan was not going to work and I went to Arni Friedman and said we have 2 problems. Firstly at
this rate of progress working only on a weekend the clearing would take 3 or 4 years. Secondly
with axes, saws and pangas flying around we were fortunate that no one had sustained a serious
injury. We needed a bulldozer and Arni and I recalled that the farmer who had let us connect to
his well had one. We immediately got in the car and went to visit him. We negotiated a deal and
within 30 minutes he was clearing the path for us. We also used him to open up some of the area
for the required number of tents. I was learning all the time.
There were still about 50 tons of tents, mitbach equipment and hospital beds stored in East
London which had to be brought for use at the camp. The storage company in East London
would load it all in train carriages but we had to arrange the routing and delivery to the Onrus
site. I visited the South African Railways office in Cape Town and explained our needs. They
could get the train cargo wagons as far as Caledon where there was a small siding. From there
we had to engage private transport operators to bring this equipment to Onrus. At this point I
realized that there was another problem in that all this equipment would be left in the open as we
had nowhere to store it. We then decided to first have the hospital delivered and built and then
we could store everything there.
Errol (Itchy) Ger was in charge of the mitbach and had run the kitchen at several camps
previously. One day he explained the menu for the whole 3 weeks and the quantities of food
required. It was an incredible amount of food required to feed 1,000 people for 3 weeks. He told
me which suppliers we would use and I took the lists and visited the suppliers and made the
arrangements. Sid Walt ran one of the largest wholesale grocery businesses in the Cape and he
was our primary supplier, agreeing to transport our requirements out twice a week and also to
take the things supplied by others. There were 2 issues that Itchy said we need to address. There
was no cold room facility at the camp and this was the peak of summer. He directed me to visit
the local Hermanus butcher and make arrangements to store food in his fridges. The camp was
within easy drive from the butcher. I had to explain to the butcher that we could not buy meat
from him because all the meat needed to be Kosher and of course that involved a discussion on
Judaism and “Kosher”. The next issue was bread. Every day between 300 and 400 loaves of
bread were consumed and bread did not stay fresh for a long time. I visited the local Hermanus
baker and received an economics lesson from him when I requested he supply our daily bread
needs. He told me that if he did that there would be no bread for the rest of the community and it
was not economically feasible for him to increase his capacity that much for only 3 weeks. He
would need to buy new equipment and train bakers and staff who would only work for 3 weeks.
He offered to help us out if we were short of 10 or 20 loaves in a day, if we came early.
Many other tasks were performed and procedures developed during the year by the whole team.
A new road was built into the camp and I helped plan some of the multi day tiyulim as I had
become familiar with the area. That came in handy when one day during camp the office
received a call that a group on tiyul had a sick chanich and the doctor was needed. I was the one
who knew where they were and drove the doctor and nurse out to retrieve the hiker.
Harry Shevitz was a fixture at many camps and in fact he was the titular adult head of camp for I
believe over 10 years and every camp I had been to prior to 1964-65. He was known as Rosh
Machaneh, but in fact the Segan Rosh Machaneh ran the show. In 1964-65 Jack Shapiro became
the new Adult at camp and at that camp Ronnie Shneeweiss was Segan Rosh Machaneh. There
was a feeling that after Harry Schewitz the community still expected to have an “adult figure”
around and so Jack filled that role. This was repeated again at the camp in 1966-67 where Benzi
Segall was officially the Segan Rosh Machaneh. Then in 1967-68 it was decided to break with
this tradition and appoint Benzi, the Mazkir Klali, as Rosh Machaneh emphasizing the entire
senior leadership team together with the Shlichim.
Philemon and his wife were the primary cooks at many Machanot before and after the 1964-65
camp. He worked in the offices in Johannesburg and I was very friendly with him. I knew him
from Johannesburg and often at camp we would sit and chat after the meals were over and before
hot drinks were served late at night.
The camp was a great success and the team of Arni Friedman, Ronnie Shneeweiss, Errol (Itchy)
Ger, Harold Kaufman and myself were the people who created the framework for many years of
memorable camps at Onrus. For this 18 year old it was an amazing experience and extremely
educational in terms of human relations, economics, management and a range of practical
aspects of life. I went on Aliyah with Garin Etgar to Kibbutz Tzora about 3 weeks after camp
Thanks to Benzi Segall for his contribution to this story of the development of Habonim’s Onrus Camp Site.