Michael Duffett 1956-2021
Written by Robert Baigrie (1974F)
Michael Duffett was my “first best friend”, and it was a perfect friendship of the sort one hopes all boys have in childhood and adolescence. Best friends also come along in later years, and in old age we should all heed Dr Johnson’s advice to Sir Joshua Reynolds: “A man should keep his friendships in constant repair. If a man does not make new acquaintances as he advances through life, he will soon find himself alone.” And while I guess we all acknowledge that wisdom and have had several best friends during our lives, I am talking of something different.
Those youthful friendships were way more exciting; a roller coaster of exploration, experimentation, boundless energy and mischief, uninhibited by experience and life’s lessons. Well, Michael’s whole life seemed not to move out of that phase, and he kept a steady stream of uninhibited, mischievous, irreverent friendships throughout his 65 years, the number of which all his other best friends only properly realised after his death. The outpouring of personal stories of intense fondness and affection for the man was truly overwhelming. At his memorial celebration, his brother Jonathan (1969O) observed that he really had no idea how widely Michael’s circle of friends extended until he witnessed this flood of emotional heart-warming and heart-breaking tributes pouring in from all corners in the days following Sunday 2nd May 2021.
Just a few days ago, there was a zoom gathering with about 30 of his old friends from home and abroad, about half of whom are ODs. I listened to a recording of this 90-minute celebration of Michael and, like his memorial here, it was filled with endless love, anecdotes, hilarity and tears of sadness and laughter. These typify any discussion of this hugely missed friend, and this particular group were all part of a wonderful gang that socialized and holidayed together in the mid-late ‘70s. Michael was at the heart of this group, not only the entertainer, but also always the first to comfort a jilted lover or any sad soul. Steve Hofmeyr (1974O) was also one of this gang, and has the distinction of knowing Michael from birth as they were next door neighbors in Pinelands for the first year of their lives before Steve’s family moved to Windhoek. Steve remembers:
“One particularly fond memory I have is Mike and I putting up Van Zyl Slabbert posters on Main Road between the Brewery and the Newlands swimming pool in the early hours of the morning. I borrowed my father’s extendable ladder and we managed to arrange the posters such that on successive lampposts, on the sweep towards Claremont, the posters were successively higher. The Cape Times were so impressed that they published a photograph on the front page! And VZS was duly elected, in what you will recall were watershed elections.”
“Joe”, another nickname, was a wonderful man with a quirky mix of talents and gifts. As a boy, he was athletic. He smashed our bowling all over the garden, was very quick and made Athletics Day finals, while also a tough rugby forward sometimes known as “The Block”. He was a wizard artist but didn’t apply himself to it, rather using it only for his own pleasure which, primarily, was to draw as many variations possible of a F1 car in action using ballpoint or pencil or crayon. The tilt of the helmet, the drift and shimmer of the tyres, the downward braking force on the quivering front wings - these were masterpieces of the rare skill of creating visual movement in a drawing. He was a passionate, lifelong F1 addict and loved to drive his car ‘sitting’ almost supine like an F1 driver and most especially his hero Denny Hulme, even in the ancient, rusted Renault 2CV of his youth. This particular wreck was nicknamed “The beast” and he and I were lucky to escape unscathed on a wild winter’s night on the Foreshore, when we were struck by another vehicle which probably didn’t see the candlepower headlights in the stair-rod rain. Finally, the Beast was retired to the wrecking yard. Mike would sketch people too, but they were always comic and just for fun… “Ha” he would say. It was one of his favorite rejoinders, and with his slight stammer…“Ha, o-o-o- only joking!”
As much as Mike had a quirky mix of talents and gifts, he also had a similar mix of foibles and follies. The one that frustrated most was his complete inability to keep track of his possessions and impose just a modicum of organization and order in his affairs. The stories of lost keys, cars, papers, cameras, suitcases, passports, cigarettes might be recounted with deep affection by all, but they drove everyone working or living with him nuts! Alongside this obituary is a beautiful piece written by his journalist friend John Webb. It describes this aspect of Mike so perfectly and you will shed tears of laughter. John recounts exactly what we all experienced with Mike – endless eye rolling, sighs of “not again Michael” as he profusely apologized for once again dinging your car, losing your binoculars, dropping your camera or breaking his, forgetting a date or any other mishap from his Pandora’s box of careless catastrophes. Everyone recalls how he was their chosen photographer for their wedding and how naturally he disarmed strangers, capturing a different, creative view and emotion. His people photos were superb. At least the ones you eventually saw were superb. He would lose the negatives, the camera, the prints… and you had to be grateful for the few which survived the organizational carnage and made it into your album. He clicked the night away at my 21st birthday – if Mike was to be believed, it was to have been the most photographed party of all time - except the next day he confessed he had failed to load the film properly and had kept shooting away without the film winding on. But the dozen he retrieved are still my favorites of those youthful friends.
Mike also had a bit of an addictive personality. It went back to Coca-Cola, Sugus sweets, wine gums, fruit pastilles and Simba chips at school, and his diet never improved. Roast potatoes, sugared carrots and peas were the only vegetable likely to pass his lips and salad was an anathema. He never really liked alcohol and after his early brush with substance abuse, he never touched the stuff. But he smoked like a chimney and his forgotten, still lit cigarettes were a fire hazard, the most memorable being when he tossed a cigarette out of the car window and, unbeknownst to him, it flew back in. With the door pocket melting, smoke and flames billowing from all his old wrappers and tissues, Michael calmly put it out with the coke he was drinking.
Michael was born in 1956, the youngest of three boys. His Mum and Dad were Jean and John Duffett (1940O) who, like many 16yr old boys lied about his age and enlisted from Std 8. He became a tank driver and, in a gripping story he eventually told to Michael and me (both obsessed with Captain Hurricane, spitfires and WW2 generally), recounted driving down a deserted, bombed out Italian street filled with corpses when a mine blew them up. He became a double amputee and, serendipitously, had significant limbs’ length saved by a certain young Captain Bags Baigrie who was the senior surgeon supervising several local field hospitals. Years later, 1962, the Duffett family moved to Rondebosch and John was overwhelmed to find the surgeon whose name he had never forgotten, was his neighbor. The families became very close, even more so because Ronald (1966O) dated my elder sister for years, and Jonathan (1969O) took my younger sister to his Matric dance etc. Meanwhile Michael and I were the pesky little brothers spying and getting blamed for all the mishaps created by our older siblings.
Miss Eaton’s. Not hard to spot Michael! Apologies for any errors below!
Front: Jenny Norton (now Smitherman), Bernhard Kelley-Patterson, Stuart Fry, Chris Boyes, Robin Impey.
Back: Anthony Harding, Charles Smitherman, hidden, Rob Campbell, Bob Baigrie (partly hidden), Jeremy Carpenter, Michael Duffett, Gregory Whittaker.
Mike started at Sunnyways Pre-preparatory school at the bottom of Pillans Road (where Miss Eaton and her sister Auntie Ellie taught us the three Rs) along with a host of future Bishops and WPPS prep boys. Above is a brilliant photo of Mike and some contemporaries. He went right through the whole of the school (no pre-prep in those days) to Matric and matriculated with our wonderful class of 1974. Anthony Mallett was our headmaster. By then the Duffetts had moved to Zeekoeivlei where various friends left their dinghies, the condition being that the Duffetts could sail them. It was a deal Michael exploited to the full, adopting a F1, “Sideways Scheckter”, approach to sailing. Every Sunday I would crew for Michael as he flogged and thrashed these craft mercilessly across the vlei in all conditions. He was addicted to speed. Rudders, centre-boards, booms, masts, sails were laid waste and Michael definitely got more out of the deal than any of the owners. Below is and extract from a beautiful letter from Charles Harvey-Kelly (1973O) a fellow motor-racing devotee:
“I have so many memories of our hanging around together at their house in Rondebosch and latterly the vlei house. He used to relish ‘jibing’ when sailing, when he claimed he was going to do a leisurely ‘going about’, to see if he could catch you with the boom! Also remember him ramping a friend’s dinghy onto the lawn coming in at speed from the vlei to see how far he could get it up the garden, and how high in the air, and his Father being furious. Also, while his parents’ were away, painting and hanging his Father’s spare leg on the wall & making it into a light fitting. I also remember our dog being rather shocked when it bit his Father in his tin leg and his joke about pulling his leg – ‘don’t pull my other leg it will come off’! What long-suffering parents he had and his Mother, in particular, with Michael, Jonathan, Ron and his Father’s injury to contend with.”
Above: Charles Harvey-Kelly and Michael at Killarney. They were both racing addicts - Charles still is!
After school and National service, Mike joined Printpak as an estimator and hated it. But he managed to get a student loan and obtained a BSocSci (UCT) majoring in Social work. Rev John Atkinson, born in the same month as Mike, describes meeting him at a three-month University vacation army camp in 1977 in a Caprivi Strips settlement called Venela. John had us in hysterics at the memorial describing his pulling strings to get Michael to be his assistant Medic in the camp. He tried to teach Mike to put up a drip using unwilling volunteers. But It sounded like a toss-up as to who fainted first, Mike or the reluctant troepie.
After his degree, he joined the Dept of Social Welfare and Development and worked as a probation officer in Cape Town and Johannesburg for a few years to pay off the loan. Ronald describes how he lost both a scooter and a car in Johannesburg… he simply forgot where he had parked them and could never find them again. He was a regular at The Wynberg Magistrate’s Court, before he was appointed director of the Drug-Counselling Centre in Observatory where he worked closely with the remarkable drug abuse campaigner Adele Searll who raised its funding. In the 1990’s Mike made an unsuccessful attempt to set up his own Counselling service, but financially it didn’t work and so he combined his two passions, movies and social issue stories. He formed the company “Face 2 Face Films” in 1995, later moving to a studio in The Warehouse in Green Point. He was also doing commercial work for the Waterfront. Ronald again:
“Somehow he talked the Waterfront, in its infancy then, into employing him to make promotional videos for them. He moved to the Waterfront and worked from there. Unfortunately there was a coffee shop close by, and he would drink hundreds of cups of coffee and never return the cups. Once a week a waiter came to his office to collect the cups and saucers. Many a time tea spoons went missing as he had used them as a screwdriver, or to open a stuck drawer. A friend of mine offered to clean up his office and get his files in order. She resigned at the end of the first day as Mike said he would never find anything again. The last straw for her was finding empty filing drawers … filled with empty or half empty coffee cups, many with cigarette stompies in them.”
This work lacked the social issue edge and he needed to move on. By 2002 he was doing a few inserts for Carte Blanche and this became the vehicle in which Mike could produce his social issue stories. Most people had never heard of The Faroe Islands, but graphic images began to emerge of the annual whale slaughter by the Faroese people, a centuries old tradition. The arrest of a South African woman, Rosie Kunneke of Sea Shepherd for trying to stop a whale hunt resulted in Michael raising some money and travelling there to produce a program which was the centrepiece of the award to Carte Blanche at the 2016 Genesis awards in Hollywood of “Best International News Magazine”. Michael was proud of his awards, but always being profoundly and unfairly self-critical, kept quiet about them. The website of “Face to Face” doesn’t mention any awards. His list of Awards is appended below. Do look at the website and watch his documentary on Ellen Pakkies and on Cape Flats ganglands. You can also watch them on Carte Blanche.
These are his recent stories, courtesy of their office. The older ones seem harder/impossible to access now, even for them.
Ganging Up | Carte Blanche | M-Net
Shroom State of Mind | Carte Blanche | M-Net
Don’t Trifle with Truffles | Carte Blanche | M-Ne
A Poacher's Second Chance | Carte Blanche | M-Net
His memorial, arranged by his brother Jonathan, was a wonderful outdoor occasion with about 100 in attendance. Jonathan, niece Leigh, Brian Nottcutt (1973G) and Rev John Atkinson spoke at his Memorial service and, amidst the pathos, cheered us all up with yarns and anecdotes from their lives together.
Liz Fish, a colleague and producer at Carte Blanche read several tributes to Mike.
Liz read a wonderful description from Jon Sparkes, director of Combined Artists Management, who described Michael as always wearing his heart on his sleeve and when walking into the Carte Blanche office in JHB they had no idea what he was going to do or say. A hug was mandatory, but it could easily be accompanied by a kiss and a comment that was often inappropriate and totally outrageous. Jon wrote:
“I just loved listening to him making his way through the office dispensing affection, love, humor to everyone he came across. I don’t know anyone who took offence because that was Michael’s way of telling you he cared about you”
Joy Summers, a 25-30 year long producer at Carte Blanche wrote:
“The readers of CB demand that we put our grief in a box and move on to the next deadline. But this is not what we must do. We must honour his life and grieve him, because he was a gift to us of how to be kind and beautiful and a caring human being. Whimsical, funny and fragile, an extremely dedicated and talented CB producer, he would travel miles at his own expense to get a shot that would improve his story, even if it was only for 20 seconds.”
Ten days before he died, Richard King (1974S) our efficient reunion convenor, arranged a drink for a few of us at WPCC. He wrote:
“A dozen of the ’74 class met at WPCC two weeks ago and Mike was there making sure that each one of us was well. Sadly, little did we know he was going through a really difficult time. The many messages received from school mates are a testimony to how he touched all of our lives.
Words such as kind, warm, sensitive and concerned, humble, compassionate are in most of them
."... always interested in how you were" A great loss – one of the ethical guys who made a difference and mattered, has passed”.
The collated tributes from the class of ’74 and John Webb’s beautiful tribute are on the Carte Blanche website. Rob Campbell (1974G) is creating a digital photobook of Michael. Everyone will have access to it and he requests any pictures or tributes to be mailed to him at [email protected].
To read all his classmates email messages, please click HERE
Mark van Ryneveld (1974G) wrote a beautiful peace about Michael, with some wonderful photographs, including a memorable action shot taken by Michael of Gavin Douglas Hamilton (1974F) diving and thereby pipping Mark to the tape in the Athletics Day 100 meters final. As recently as our reunion drinks a few weeks ago, Mark and Gavin talked about the photograph with Michael. Gavin recounted that he wasn't sure the dive was worth it as his reward was a mouthful of turf, soil and bruised teeth. Mark said this provided some compensation 47 years later. To read Mark's tribute click HERE.
Twelve years ago, Michael and Najma Solomon married. Najma explained to me in a message that she is currently honouring Michael by keeping to her mourning period of four months and ten days. This requires not to speak to any men except family, but we will see each other again in due course. She has shared several of the photos below and there is a beautiful one of Michael with her own caption. An inappropriate observation, in keeping with our inappropriate friend, would surmise that living with Michael must have been a challenge, but living without him – heartbreaking. To Najma goes the deepest sympathy and sadness of all his friends and colleagues. I know I speak for us all in expressing the hope and wish that you are comforted by wonderful memories of your precious husband as you try and rebuild your life without him.
Xmas day 2020. That is Ronald’s hairless cat "Oscar" in shot with Mike and Najma!
Michael, Ronald, Najma and Jonathan. Xmas 2019.
"Shirts courtesy of PEP Stores", says Ronald, "reduced to R110 each on a Xmas eve special".
"Daylight robbery" said Jonathan. But Ron says Michael loved his!
I can do no better than to conclude with a wish from Joy Summers again: “It was impossible not to love Michael with all his eccentricities. Let us take time to reflect on this beautiful soul who leaves a huge hole amongst us.”
Rest in Peace, dear Friend.
Above: Bob Baigrie and Michael Duffett at their reunion in 2014.
Photo credit Richard Olivier (1974S)
Below are some of the acknowledgements he received for his work:
Discovery Health Journalist – Best TV Health Journalism
Michael receiving the Best TV health journalism award at the 2017 Discovery Health Awards Ceremony
Michael Duffett – Doctors’ Working Hours
Webber Wentzel Legal Journalist of the Year Award: Runner up – TV Category
Michael Duffett – Carte Blanche
Genesis Award: Brigitte Bardot International Award – Best International News Magazine
Michael Duffett – Faroe Islands Whale Slaughter;
Citadel Words on Money Journalism Awards: Best Feature
Michael Duffett – Where’s the Money?
Winner: Webber Wentzel Journalist of the Year Award, Broadcast Category
Michael Duffett – Ellen
Citadel – Breaking News Electronic Award
Michael Duffett – Debt Admin
Webber Wentzel Bouwens Legal Journalist of the Year, Electronic Category – Runner-up
Michael Duffett – The JD Group
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