In a bar and grill on Louis Botha Avenue there sits a tale of how a man and his family came to own a heritage site honoured by the City of Johannesburg.
A cheerful man wearing a blue-striped shirt walks into the Radium Beer Hall on the corner of Louis Botha Avenue and 9th Street in Orange Grove, Johannesburg. He makes his way to three men seated at the bar and pats on the back one of them in a green shirt. The three say simultaneously: ‘Hey Manny!’ They all share a few words and then Manny leaves them to greet more patrons sitting at tables near the entrance.
It is a Saturday afternoon at the Radium. Proprietor Manny Cabeleira (65) speaks to the bartenders and waiters, ensuring that the venue is running right on track for the night. As the sun begins to set, rain starts to shower the street. The heavy downpour outside, on Louis Botha Avenue, is masked by the loud music played by a band, Black Harbour, as they perform for the crowd.
A white-haired woman sitting in the dining area swings her hips and raises her hands in the air to the beat of dark blues. Despite the band’s loud music, a few men at the bar have their eyes glued to a soccer match on TV. At midnight the laughter and music fade away at the Radium as the night comes to an end.
The night’s crowd has long disappeared when the Radium’s atmosphere eases into the silence of a Sunday morning. A white bakkie pulls up alongside the venue. It belongs to Miguel Cabeleira, the Radium’s manager, who steps out of it. A young boy and a woman emerge from a small sedan parked in front of the bakkie. The woman, wearing black leggings and a pink tank top, hands Miguel a blue school bag and a gym bag. He and the woman slowly make their way to the Radium as the boy runs, excited, to the entrance of the bar.
“Dad, can I help you open up the bar today?”
“Yes of course you can, my boy,” Miguel answers.
Sunday afternoon winds down while four men fill the Radium with jazz.
On Wednesday a noticeable aroma of burning incense billows out of Yogi’s Den, a clothing store that neighbours the bar and grill, welcoming the bar’s patrons just before they enter the Radium.
A loud voice pierces the room as Manny greets a bartender, two waiters and a customer propping up the bar.
“Good morning, everyone. We need to start bringing in more beautiful looking people to brighten up this place,” he jokes as he strokes his round belly.
The Radium does begin to brighten up when a waiter switches on the lights.
Seated at a sticky table, Manny tells the tale of how he came to own the Radium, and of the adventures his family has experienced over the past three decades.
An institution enriched with history
The Radium Beer Hall was passed down from family to family after its establishment in the 1920s. The Khalil family primarily ran the place as a tea room in 1929, and at night it doubled as an illicit shebeen catering to black customers.
“After the Radium obtained a malt and liquor licence, a Slovenian football player, Joe Barbarovich, and his brother came to own the bar in 1944,” Manny says as we sit in the dining area which was once a ladies’ section during Barbarovich’s ownership.
In 1971 Manny, at the age of 17, walked into the Radium for the first time one night with his friends, ordered a few beers and enjoyed the evening. Little did the Portuguese teen know he would later come to own the Radium.
“Years later I came to know Joe through my brother-in-law, and we then built up a friendship,” he says.
Having sold his fish-and-chips restaurant on Bree Street, Newtown in Johannesburg, Manny was looking for a new venture.
“Joe, who had early onset Alzheimer’s, was telling me how he wanted to sell the Radium. I told him, ‘Why don’t you sell it to me?’ Then he asked, ‘What do you want to do with the Radium?’ Then I said, ‘How long have you been here?’ Joe said 40 years, then I told him I wanted to be here for the next 40.”
In February 1986 Manny became the proud owner of the Radium. With arms stretched wide, one finger pointing to the many provocative newspaper headlines covering the bar’s stage while his other hand gestures to the bar counter that once belonged to the demolished Ferreirastown Hotel, Manny shows me the Radium that he built.
Meet the Cabeleiras
Emigrants from Madeira, an island located off Portugal, Manny’s family – with him aged five years old – arrived in South Africa.
“The first school I went to was Yeoville Boys. I could not speak a word of English, and I learned it very quickly,” says Manny.
“The transition from Portugal did not really affect me at all. I grew up here, went to school here, got married here, had all my children here and I have not left,” says Lina Cabeleira, who immigrated to South Africa when she was four years old.
Raising three children while owning a bar put a strain on the Cabeleira family.
“The hours were hard. It did take a lot of strain and the lifestyle was pretty difficult. I had to do everything on my own, take the kids to school and take care of them. Manny was a good dad and he was visible – but not enough,” she says with a shrug and a sigh while looking out of the window across the bar counter.
“We got divorced after 25 years, because I went off the rails,” says an apologetic Manny as he looks at Lina, who is seated at the corner end of the bar. “It was an amicable thing; not that she did anything wrong. We are still the best of friends and she is the mother of my kids, all throughout.”
Looking back at the drugs he took and the infidelity that cost him his marriage, Manny explains the dangerous lifestyle the Radium brought to his family as they grew older. He spoke about his brief drug use and the effect it had on his life.
“Miguel took my place as manager 10 years ago after I had cancer, and helps Lina to look after the place,” Manny says as he lifts up his shirt and points to a scar running horizontally across his abdomen and ending where his belly button used to be.
Manny now runs a bed-and-breakfast, where he also lives, located behind the Radium.
“After my health took a hit, I decided to take things slower,” he says. Manny comes into the Radium from time to time to check up on the bar’s progress. Lina says Manny still calls the shots, regardless of his unstable health.
The Cabeleira children had a family-oriented life, growing up in Glenhazel, Johannesburg. Their mother often took them to visit her family in Kyalami and they grew up with their cousins and other extended family members.
Now in their mid-30s, Marco and Miguel have kids of their own, except for the last born, Deniz. Miguel is the only one among his brothers who decided to go into the family business.
What life was like growing up in a bar
“I was just one year old when my father acquired the Radium. This place has become second nature to me,” says Miguel as he sips on a bottle of beer before starting his shift on a Tuesday evening.
The first memory that comes to Miguel’s mind whenever he thinks of the Radium is the smell of smoke.
“I remember whenever you would walk in here, even if it was just for five minutes, you would walk out smelling like cigarettes,” Miguel says as he looks up at the ceiling, which was once green but is now dark grey due to the smoke interacting with the paint.
The Radium’s walls are covered with memorabilia that resembles a proud family’s living room: From newspaper clippings to old photographs of the Radium’s past, to the dusty beer bottles on the shelf by the bar. The Radium looks like a time capsule of the memories the Cabeleiras made with various people who have come and gone at the Radium.
Growing up, the Cabeleira children were never known as “the kids with a bar”. It was when Miguel was in grade five that he and his brothers grew popular at Glenhazel Primary School.
“A number of the Savannah ads were shot at the Radium, and that is when people started to recognise us,” he says.
“The people at the Radium are truly part of
Owning the Radium for roughly 33 years, the Cabeleira family could not help but make an extended family of their own there.
Chef Charles “Charlie” Mbamba, whom Miguel considers his “second father”, has worked with the family since 1994.
The Mpumalanga-born man worked as a driver in Mpumalanga, transporting vegetables, before he met the Cabeleiras.
“My older brother, Mario, in fact was very good friends with Manny. That is how I came to know them,” the 57-year-old said.
“Mario and Manny worked together at the fish-and-chips restaurant Manny owned in Bree Street, Newtown, and then they came to Louis Botha Avenue in the 1980s where Mario owned a store next to the Radium,” Mbamba tells me.
After acquiring the Radium, Manny added a few touches of his Portuguese heritage to the menu, Madeiran cuisine such as espetada and prego rolls are still served at the Radium.
“When I started working at the Radium I did not know how to cook, let alone cook Portuguese food,” the old man chuckled.
Manny taught Mbamba how to cook Portuguese food, thus creating a long friendship.
“I truly feel at home when I am at the Radium,” says Mbamba, who lives in Pretoria with his own family.
“He is like my second father. He would pick me up from school and even scold me whenever I got in trouble,” says Miguel as he embraces and laughs with Charlie.
The Cabeleira family have tried to cater to the ever-changing Louis Botha Avenue community, through the Radium.
“We try to serve the community by making this place as welcoming as we can. We want this place to make people forget the troubles of the world once they enter the door, and a place of friendship once they exit the door,” says Lina Cabeleira.
Yet the Radium’s staff members are the only representation of Louis Botha reflected inside the bar.
The legacy of the Radium
Like his father, Miguel has moved back to Orange Grove to be closer to his six-year-old son.
“My son gets so excited when he comes to the Radium, he even wants to be the boss one day,” says Miguel.
The lifestyle of owning a bar is not something Miguel wants for his son, however. Growing up, he barely saw his father and would not want the same fate for his son’s future children.
“I do have great memories here at the Radium, but it consumes all your time,” Miguel says.
Although Miguel and his son’s mother are not together, the 36-year-old does his best to make time for his son. Picking him up from school and spending time with him during the day before his shift starts are moments Miguel cherishes.
After owning the Radium for 33 years, The Cabeleiras are undecided on the future of the Radium Beer Hall.
“Who knows if we will be here for the next five days, let alone the next five years?” says Lina. Despite Louis Botha’s economic decline, Manny and Miguel remain hopeful of the Radium’s future.
As she sits at the corner of the bar, a spot always occupied by her husband, Manny, when he managed the venue and by her son, Miguel, who manages the bar alongside her, Lina takes a moment and says: “If I were to do it all over again [owning the Radium], yes, yes I would. I would not trade anything.”
FEATURED IMAGE: Manny Cabeleira, the owner of the Radium Beer Hall, a place honoured by the city of Johannesburg, says “the reason why I welcomed blacks into the Radium is that it was the right thing to do”. Photo: Tumelo Modiba.