Nico Diederichs' suit

Andrew Donaldson on his late grandfather, a tailor, and his run-in with the NP finance minister's wife


MY late grandfather, God rest his soul, was what the Italians call an umarell. The term refers to retired men who pass the time of day watching construction sites, hands clasped behind their backs, offering advice that is very often unwanted.

The Bolognese writer Danilo Masotti is credited with popularising the word. Earlier this year, upon umarell’s official listing in the Italian dictionary, he told The Times: “These are men who are often told to leave home in the morning by their wives, who don’t want them in the way. Their first mission is to be first in a queue – could be the supermarket, but it doesn’t matter. And they have a passion for roadworks.”

Far from being a total nuisance, however, the umarells have proved to be of some use. In 2015, for example, officials in Riccione, near Bologna, allocated a small budget to pay these retired men to “oversee” worksites, counting trucks as they come and go, checking delivery schedules and the like. The nearby town of San Lazzaro di Savena even awards an annual “Umarell of the year” prize to a local resident. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Construction companies, meanwhile, place windows in the boarding surrounding worksites to allow scrutiny of their activities. The phenomenon has crept into other working cultures. For a while, before Covid put the kibosh on office life, umarell figurines were in-demand executive toys. Placed on desks, these brightly coloured statuettes peered on those grinding out the nine-to-five, silently disapproving of any lacklustre approach to the tasks at hand.

This was the thing about my grandfather: he abhorred shoddiness, and he was quite vocal in his displeasure. There was a lot of grumbling about “loafers” and those for whom honest toil was an alien concept. 

This could be embarrassing at times – for me at least. He once unnerved a gang of municipal road workers by shouting at them: “C’mon, boys! Dig that hole! Get to it!” 

Another time, he took the shovel from a gardener preparing a flower bed for my mother. “No, Pete,” he said. “That’s not how you do it. Here, let me show you. Like this … and like this … see?” 

He ended up doing the entire bed himself while Pete looked on, smoking roll-ups. Later he told my mother, “That’s a good boy you got there, that Pete. He’s a hard worker. He did a bloody good job today.”

I should point out that my grandfather was not a politically sophisticated person, at least by present-day standards. This was back in the early 1970s, a whole other time and place. Besides, his exhortations (“advice” is perhaps too generous a term) were generally good-natured and, as far as I recall, no offence was ever taken.

He’d had a hard childhood. His parents died when he was a toddler and he was raised in an orphanage. He was barely a teenager when he tried to enlist to fight in the Great War. Happily, the recruitment officers at the Castle in Cape Town sent him packing. So he became a tailor instead, leaving school at 14 to become an apprentice.

According to a study of the industry, the local rag trade was at the time devoted almost entirely to turning out military uniforms, often in appalling conditions. [1] 

Matters improved considerably after the war. A protective tariff on imported clothing introduced in 1925, together with new industrial laws, allowed the Cape Town garment manufacturing sector to grow at an impressive rate. By 1939, the industry was the leading employer of labour in Cape Town, and the Western Cape the centre of clothing manufacturing in South Africa.

Interestingly, Cape Town’s garment workers were considered far less militant than their counterparts in the Transvaal, all members of the Garment Workers Union of SA. Under the leadership of Solly Sachs, a devout communist, the GWU became one of the most active and controversial labour organisations of its time, embarking on several strikes in the early 1930s. 

In the Mother City, however, matters were more chilled. The Garment Workers Union of the Cape Peninsula was a far more employer-friendly bunch, and never once called its members out on strike. Wages may have been lower as a result, but unlike the GWU, which did not admit Africans as members and consigned coloured workers to a separate branch, the Cape Town union was strictly non-racial. 

Not that any of this mattered, of course. Back then, very few Western Cape garment workers were drawn into union or political organisations. It has been noted that, as a result of its dominant merchant class and an economic base rooted in manufacturing rather than the exploitation of mineral resources, dozy old Cape Town was hardly the place to foster a radical labour movement. The city was probably still sleeping when the rag trade was destroyed by cheap Chinese tat.

My grandfather’s own relationship with his fellow workers was a good one, and they seemed to enjoy his bluff amiability. Once, when I was very young, he took me to his place of work in Salt River – he was then a senior tailor with Albert Bertish & Co – and I was struck by the conviviality and ease with which seamstresses and other employees would converse with him. 

Within a few years, though, I began to wonder about the relationship with some of his customers…

One summer evening, during my mid-teens, he took me to a cinema in Rondebosch for an old Clint Eastwood movie. As treats went, this was something of a mixed blessing; on the one hand, I was up for some gloriously mindless spaghetti western mayhem, but on the other, I would have to endure my grandfather’s bellowed commentary during the movie. Cowboys were his thing, and he’d get quite excited and shout at the screen, “That’s right! Shoot ‘em up! Shoot ‘em all!”

True to form, the shouting started moments after we took our seats. This time it was the newsreel that set him off. It featured then prime minister John Vorster and senior cabinet members on a state visit to Paranoiaguay to cement some or other anti-communist pact with the South American juntas.

“I made all their suits! All of them! Except that bastard Nico Diederichs!”

Audience members hissed at him to keep quiet. He ignored them.

“Look at Diederichs! I didn’t make that suit! It’s rubbish. It’s his bloody wife’s fault…”

This was too much for me. I fled in embarrassment and hung out in the lobby until intermission ended. When I returned to my seat, audience members were gathered around my grandfather, hanging on to his every word.

“…now, Eben Dönges, that bugger, I was making him a suit. He was the state president for about a week. Then he had a heart attack. Gone. Dead. Just like that. I still have his suit somewhere. It’s not finished. Never be finished now… 

“But that bloody Mrs Diederichs! Doesn’t know a thing about suits. You can tell if a suit is rubbish. It’s the cut. No shape, just hangs like … like … your jacket … What’s your name? Ronnie? Well, Ronnie, where’d you get that jacket? I hope you didn’t pay too much for it. That’s all I’m saying…”

Later he told me the story. It seems that Vorster and his ministers did have their suits made at Albert Bertish. One by one, they would traipse into the premises to be measured up and fitted. All was going well until Nico Diederichs, then finance minister, brought along his wife, a dressmaker, who wanted to view the progress on her husband’s suit. 

“Next thing,” my grandfather said, “she starts telling me how to do my job.”

The row started over the absence of a jacket pocket. It got ugly very quickly. 

Marga Diederichs had wanted her husband’s suit to have a left-hand inside breast pocket and my grandfather simply refused to do this. He argued that two pockets on the same side, one inside and the other outside, back to back, would ruin the jacket’s form. The left hand side would be too bulky, he said.

Nonsense, Mrs Diederichs said. Lots of jackets had inside pockets on the left. She’d seen them herself. In shops. 

“She said she was a dressmaker and that she knew what she was talking about. She actually said that, ‘I’m a dressmaker. I know what I’m talking about.’ I told her, ‘We’re not making dresses here. This is a suit. A bespoke suit. Top quality. Not some rubbish you buy in shops. It’s made according to the guidelines of the world’s best tailors.’”

With that, my grandfather hauled out one of his treasured trade books, some 1930s Savile Row manual on men’s formal wear, and opened it up at the relevant “rules about pockets” section to drive home his point. 

Mrs Diederichs was outraged and slammed it shut. 

“This is an English book,” she hissed. “We are not English. This is not England.”

My grandfather said he may have lost his temper then, and his language was possibly a bit rough. Mrs Diederichs stormed off to his bosses, demanding that he be fired. 

He said that, in order to mollify her, his employers pretended to dismiss him. One of his colleagues would finish the suit, and he had to make himself scarce whenever Nico and Marga Diederichs visited the premises.

I was appalled at this charade. It must have been a humiliating experience. “Well,” he said, “it wasn’t as bad as actually getting the sack. That much I can say.”

And where was Nico Diederichs when all this was happening?

“Oh,” he said, “he was there. He did nothing, though. Useless bastard. They were all bastards, actually. Very arrogant and unpleasant.”

Could he not have just given the suit an extra pocket and be done with it? He looked at me as if I was stupid. “You do a job properly,” he said, “or you don’t do it at all.”

I asked if any of them had thanked him, personally, or expressed any form of appreciation for their suits.

“Only Vorster. He gave me a bag of kudu biltong and a picture.”

I later found this picture in his cluttered workroom at home. It lay neglected and gathering dust amid bolts of cloth, cardboard patterns and Eben Dönges’s half-finished suit. 

It was a block-mounted photograph of Vorster and his son. Both cradled high-powered hunting rifles and were leaning on the body of the elephant they had just shot. I asked my grandfather, jokingly, why he hadn’t hung it up.

“Are you mad? It’s bloody awful. The biltong wasn’t bad, though.”



[1] A History of Garment and Tailoring Workers in Cape Town: 1900–1939,  by Martin Nicol, a 1984 doctoral thesis, University of Cape Town