Backstory: Kapitan of courage and curry

Mandela ate here: An apartheid oasis of interracial mingling is still a spicy hotspot.

Nelson Mandela wrote his regrets in cursive; wide, looping letters cleanly following the lines on paper now yellowed by age. The date stamp on the note is 1989 – months before his release from prison.

"Dear Mandajit and Marjorie ... I learn with sorrow that your famous Oriental Restaurant on Kort Street is closing down.... There are many palates and tummies inside and out of the country which will justifiably be outraged at the disastrous news."

He wrote that he will always remember the place that he patronized as a young lawyer – in part because of the food, in part because it was one of the only restaurants in Johannesburg that would serve both blacks and whites during apartheid.

"Sincerely," he signed, "Nelson."

The letter is now laminated, hanging on a wall not far from a table of four, digging into their curry. Kapitan's Oriental Restaurant, it turns out, didn't close in 1989, newspaper articles and gossip to the contrary. It didn't close in 1990 when Mandela was released from prison or in 1995 when he was president – although almost every year, owner Mandajit Ranthod promises to retire.

Today the restaurant is as popular as ever, attracting tourists to its living, cooking history. And Kapitan's can write the brutal story of Johannesburg in meals and curries past. The struggles against apartheid, the crumbling of the downtown, the recent, tentative urban renewal – Mr. Ranthod has seen it all in this restaurant.

Mandela brought Winnie Madikizela here on their first date. When Botswana's founding president, Sir Seretse Khama, came to Johannesburg for medical treatment, this was the only restaurant that would accommodate his white wife, Ruth, along with his black cabinet ministers. When violinist Yehudi Menuhin came to play in apartheid South Africa – insisting on performing in Soweto so that blacks, too, could hear his music – Kapitan's was reportedly his restaurant of choice. And while apartheid forced South Africans into a handful of race categories – mainly black, white, Indian, and colored, or mixed race – Kapitan's was one of the few social environments where mingling actually took place.

"Kapitan's did become a sort of symbol, an island of sanity," says Luli Callinicos, a South African historian and author, who, as a white anti-apartheid activist, felt "very daring" eating here.

Ranthod today denies any revolutionary fervor. "I thought, why not serve them?" he says of the black professionals such as Mandela and Oliver Tambo who frequented his restaurant. "We served Indians, coloreds, and whites, too."

He says he didn't realize that many of his customers were activists. Mandela, for instance, "was a quiet person. I didn't know he was a politician until they arrested him."

From the beginning of apartheid, in 1948, through the early 1980s, the South African government passed increasingly repressive, racist laws. It forced blacks and whites to live separately; forbade shops and restaurants from selling alcohol to blacks; segregated public facilities, from bathrooms to city halls; and prohibited romantic relationships between the races. As in the southern United States during Jim Crow, no law prohibited restaurants from serving mixed race clientele. But in practice, almost no place did – whether out of racism, convention, or fear.

Ranthod, who was characterized as colored, shrugs off questions about flouting norms in that sinister time: "Nobody criticized me."

Ranthod's great-grandfather, a merchant seaman in Fiji, came to South Africa in 1887 and started the first Kapitan's in Durban. Ranthod's grandfather opened the Johannesburg Kapitan's in 1914. Ranthod's father started helping in the Johannesburg restaurant in 1936, and four years later, the teenage Ranthod, who quit school after the third grade, started cooking full time. Sixty-six years later, he still cooks all the meals.

After he turns 80 this month, the self-proclaimed "King of Indian cuisine in South Africa" says that he may step down. Then again, maybe not, he adds.

Ranthod's restaurant is near what locals call the "Diagonal Street" section of downtown, one of the city's oldest shopping areas and an eclectic jumble of skyscrapers and low-rise buildings with old, wrought-iron balconies.

When Mandela was coming here, the area was one of the few overlaps between the mostly white business section of downtown – the Johannesburg Stock Exchange was a few blocks away – and the colored and black communities to the west. The old headquarters of the African National Congress was around the corner. But in recent years, the crime rate has skyrocketed, department stores have closed, and the exchange has moved to the suburbs.

To get to the restaurant, diners push through a dingy metal door on narrow Kort Street and climb up a twisting staircase that would fit in many an old, unkempt apartment building. At the top of the stairs is the tight, red-tinted restaurant. It seems crowded – the effect of a drop ceiling, a grate woven with 3,000 Christmas lights, plastic grapes, booze bottles hanging by strings, paper flags, Chinese lanterns, fake garlands, and various other bric-a-brac. The floor is checkered with red, white, and black squares; old college pennants are tacked to the wall, which is papered by at least two different patterns, along with travel posters and newspaper clippings and handwritten signs explaining the latest specials.

But any worries that the food will be as haphazard as the décor disappear at the first smell of warm, delectable curry.

"We love the food," says diner Avrille Marsden, who is scouring the short menu with three friends. "I've been coming here for 20 years. It hasn't changed one little bit."

In fact, Ranthod still uses the stoves he bought in 1947. And there's no microwave oven, he says, scowling at the very thought. "Everything here is real. We don't do artificial."

Before his wife, Marjorie, became ill, she helped with some of the cooking. He has four sons and seven daughters, but says none are interested in taking over the business. Because he doesn't want to spend as much time on his feet, he's only open for lunch, six days a week.

As a lone, harried waitress rushes by, Ranthod sits down with diners.

He knows his restaurant is an institution. "I know many famous people," he says, consciously nonchalant. He fed King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, he offers. And Aristotle Onassis. And, he smiles, Naomi Campbell. He points to a newspaper clipping as proof.

"I am famous in America," he says after asking a visitor where she's from. "Everybody in Washington knows me." He explains that he has fed 25 senators, as well as some top newspaper editors.

And who is his favorite famous person?

"Kissinger. I met him at Gandhi's funeral."

Ranthod returns to the kitchen as Ms. Marsden's party debates: "Do you want the prawn curry mild or spicy? Oh, never mind. He'll make it however he wants anyway."

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