Businessman’s music and memories

Rondebosch East resident Ebrahim Bhorat with the picture of his 24-year-old self at his music store.

A young man stands proudly in his music shop, earphones on his head, hands on his hips, a slight smile on his lips.

It’s 1977 and as apartheid rages against most of our people, musicians Stevie Wonder, the Jacksons and Pacific Express are making hits.

The music shop is in the Athlone city centre and the 24-year-old man in the black and white photograph found in the Athlone News archive cuts a striking figure.

We make it our mission to find out who he is and don’t have to look far. A clue had been right behind him in the photograph after all; a sign saying Zobo, the name of the shop.

The man in the picture is Rondebosch East resident Ebrahim Bhorat, now the chairman of the Melomed chain of hospitals.

Zobo, a combination of his wife’s name and surname, Zora Bhorat, was their music shop which specialised in jazz and sold a variety of records which were imported from England.

We took the picture to show Mr Bhorat. At his temporary office in the Athlone Industria, we finally got to meet the man in the picture. Now 68 years old, the pride is still in his eyes.

Mr Bhorat’s story is one intricately linked to the struggle for freedom in South Africa.

In a gentle manner, he recalled some moments of his life, the victories and the failures, sometimes speaking with his eyes closed, a touch of humour added here and there.

Mr Bhorat started his story in Roodeport in Gauteng. A science teacher and an activist, he was hounded under the Suppression of Communism Act and detained without trial.

The young Mr Bhorat and his wife decided to move Cape Town. “That’s what brought me to what I perceived to be a more liberal city,” said Mr Bhorat.

They opened Zobo in 1973. It was one of the first stores to specialise in jazz, as well as rhythm and blues.

Mr Bhorat said his wife had a great knowledge of music.

But opening a shop that only focused on selling music was a risk and Mr Bhorat recounts the confusion some of his friends showed as they wondered how it would work.

“I will never forget when I came to Cape Town and my so-called Kokni friends used to tell me, are you only going to sell records, I asked why, and they said no baked beans and this (and that) and I said no, I am going to specialise and they couldn’t believe it because nobody was specialised those days,” he said, amused.

Mr Bhorat said his parents had also owned an electronics and music business in Gauteng which had sold South African music such as kwaito as well as jazz.

Back at Zobo, Mr Bhorat said, some of their customers had included Jonathan Butler and Ronnie Joyce and many DJs who were big during that time, such as Big Brother.

He said the radio stations would call them to ask what the top-selling records were.

“There were some records which really put us on the map,” he said, “one by Barry White, Love Unlimited; very big at that time was The Temptations, The Jacksons,” said Mr Bhorat.

A few years after opening Zobo, which closed in the late 1980s, he took the opportunity to turn a furniture store just downstairs into an electronics store.

As they wanted to sell high-end equipment with names such as Bang & Olufsen, Mr Bhorat felt that a change of name was in order for the second store and decided to call it Melotronics, melo coming from mellow music, and being a prefix that would also be attached to his later businesses.

Melotronics sold hi-fis, televisions, portable radios, casettes and musical instruments.

“With the advent of television we became one of the biggest independent dealers in the country selling television sets,” said Mr Bhorat.

Melotronics eventually had 22 stores in the Western Cape, including their head office in Adderley Street, which Mr Bhorat is very proud of.

“That was a seven-storey building and close to Parliament and the top advocates and politicians, including PW Botha, all used to come buy electronics from us and all of them not knowing that the business belonged to a black person,” said Mr Bhorat.

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Mr Bhorat’s next foray was into the medical world.

He had been to India for a year to study medicine but unlike his brother, Ismail, he did not qualify as a doctor.

Mr Bhorat joked that instead, he had an MABF degree – Medicine Attempted But Failed. His brother had completed his studies in Dublin, Ireland, and was the first general practitioner in Mitchell’s Plain.

Mr Bhorat, with his brother and other medical doctor friends whose expertise he needed, started Gatesville Medical Centre in 1987.

“While I was busy with Melotronics I decided to diversify because there was no hospital on the Cape Flats.”

The medical centre also became part of the politics Mr Bhorat had always been involved in and didn’t show great profits at the time.

“It was tough but we knew lots of victims of strikes, and marches which took place, student uprisings, and treated all of them free of charge because if they went to a state hospital they would get arrested.

“Meanwhile, through all this I was always in the property industry, putting up shopping centres, housing developments, a block of flats nearby. See I always hedge my bets, I was in electronics, the hospital business and in property. So if the one sector was battling the other one was buzzing.”

After Gatesville Medical Centre was built, Melomed bought Mitchell’s Plain Medical Centre from the Rembrandt group Mediclinic in 1997. “When I approached them, first choice was that they buy my Gatesville hospital so I said why can’t I buy you people. Within seven days we bought the only clinic which Mediclinc has ever sold. We took over the Mitchell’s Plain staff and nobody was retrenched. Soon thereafter there was a similar situation with a Bellville hospital belonging to Lifecare. They had a partner and they weren’t doing well. We didn’t have a licence to operate the hospital so bought it from Lifecare which was also their only sale of a hospital.”

After the Bellville hospital, the group opened the life skills hospital in Claremont which treats psychiatric problems. As they were looking to increase their foothold in the Western Cape, they began looking for land in the southern suburbs but it took two years and an inflated price to acquire the land. Mr Bhorat said their latest hospital, in Tokai, which cost R300 million to build, is already doing well as it is open despite the official opening only being planned for next month.

“But it’s only the maternity section. It will take nine months before it is busy,” joked Mr Bhorat, who is father to Farahna, 41, an anaesthetist, Shamima, 39, a dentist, Ishmail, a financial director at Melomed and Ziyaad, 28, who is currently studying at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Mr Bhorat said one of his failed ventures included putting up the building which now houses Shoprite in Gatesville. In the early 2000s it housed the Health and Racquet gym and when they went insolvent, the building went into liquidation, said Mr Bhorat.

One venture that he does seem most proud of involves the place he calls home.

He initially lived in Shaanti Crescent in Gatesville but in 1989 moved to his home in Melo Avenue, Rondebosch East.

The plot had been advertised for Marsh Memorial Homes and he initially thought that it was on the white side of the M5 but a friend told him it wasn’t.

He ended up going to the auction, “Every business person was there, every Banderker and Harneker,” said Mr Bhorat, who put in the highest opening bid at R576 000. The second highest bid was only at R300 000. In the next few days he sold of the other portions of the land, including one plot for R100 000 to a school for a playground.

Mr Bhorat made his home on a section in the road named after his Melo name because he built it.

He also proudly speaks of the honour he had to have all three presidents at his house during the negotiations at Groote Schuur after the ANC was unbanned. Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and a young Jacob Zuma had all taken their meals at his home and caucused on the squash court, smiled Mr Bhorat, who has come a long way from the days of Zobo, balancing his political and family life and building an empire.

As parting shot I ask Mr Bhorat what his favourite music is. It is smooth jazz, a fitting background music to a life which seems to have broken the rules and come out sounding beautiful.