South African Royal History by Hamilton Wende

Jo’burg’s Forgotten Royal History

Years ago, in my childhood, I was being driven in a car down Louis Botha Avenue. Ahead of us, prominent on the Linksfield Ridge, was a magnificent white house. ‘That,’ the adult in the car told me, ‘is the house where the Shah of Iran lived during the Second World War.’

This was long before the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the tawdry glory of the Peacock Throne had reached even my small world. It seemed to me, as a child, somehow romantic that Johannesburg had been graced with the presence of the Shah.
Every city has memory layered into its geography, but Johannesburg seems to lose its memories faster than most. It is a metropolis of aspiration and ruthless architectural destruction. I was never sure of the truth of the Shah’s presence here.
It was with this in mind that recently phoned Flo Bird of the Parktown & Westcliffe Heritage Trust. ‘No,’ she told me. ‘The big white house is Tracey’s Folly. The Shah lived at 41 Young Ave.’
The house was originally built by mining boss Jack Scott and the Shah arrived there with his wife and six of seven sons in 1942 after having been ousted by a joint British-Soviet invasion the year before. He was forced to abdicate in favour of his son and then sent into exile. He died in Young Ave in 1944.
‘They called him the Napoleon of Iran,’ the Chairman of the Iranian Society of South Africa Ali Reza Zehpour told me. ‘He was sent first to Mauritius, but the weather there was not good for his heart trouble, so the British sent them to Johannesburg. He was heartbroken when he came here. Everybody says the reason he died was because he was away from his country.’
A more recent royal exile in Johannesburg who lived for many years in Fourways was Prince Leka, son of King Zog of Albania who was exiled when Italy invaded in 1939. Leka was a tiny baby when they were forced to leave the country. They lived initially in Egypt, Britain and France. The monarchy was abolished by the communists in 1944 so in Paris in 1961 Leka was proclaimed not ‘King of Albania’, but ‘King of the Albanians’ by an exiled national assembly.
King Leka, who incidentally was ninth cousin of President Richard Nixon, had a colourful and controversial career. He married Australian school teacher Susan Ward Cullen and together they moved from country to country. He once gave Ronald Reagan an elephant and he was forced to leave Spain in 1979 amidst controversial circumstances that involved Thai bodyguards, a stint of jail in Thailand, an arms cache in their home and talk of an armed overthrow of communist dictator Enver Hoxha. The trail to Jo’burg included a stopover in Gabon where his bazooka-wielding bodyguards forced President Omar Bongo’s troops to withdraw and not extradite him to Albania. Rhodesia offered him sanctuary, but when Mugabe came to power he was forced rapidly to become yet another ‘when-we’ living down South. In 1999 he appeared in court in Randburg on possession of illegal weapons charges, although there is no proof he was involved in arms-dealing. His son, Prince Leka Anwar Zog Reza Baudouin Msiziwe, was born in Sandton, and the apartheid government briefly declared the hospital ward sovereign Albanian territory for his benefit. The family returned to Albania for good in 2002. Susan died in 2004. The son Leka now works for the Albanian government while Prince Leka I himself is retired.
Historical researcher, Alkis Doucakis, has collected evidence of other royal exiles in Johannesburg. ‘It wasn’t only the Shah,’ he told me as we chatted over tea in his factory in Doornfontein. ‘Prince Paul of Yugoslavia and his wife Princess Olga of Greece lived during World War II in a magnificent Tudor-styled residence in Milton Avenue in Senderwood called ‘Hathaway’.
Theirs was a tragic story, typical of the whirlwind of destruction and conquest brought about the rise of fascism in Europe. Paul was Regent of Yugoslavia and pro-British. When WWII broke out Yugoslavia declared itself neutral but in 1941 under extreme pressure from Germany and from Britain to side with them, Yugoslavia signed an agreement with the Axis powers. Two days later, a British-inspired coup toppled him and he and his wife were sent to Kenya where they were placed under house arrest which is where most sources assume they remained.
Doucakis has uncovered letters, real estate agent brochures and other evidence which indicates that they had been interned in Kenya under ‘humiliating’ circumstances and that Jan Smuts had intervened to bring them to Senderwood. Olga was a celebrated beauty in her day, photographed by Cecil Beaton, and her granddaughter is Hollywood actress Catherine Oxenburg.

Jacaranda Moon over Joburg Hamilton Wende

The magnificent pillared mansion standing at 50 Oxford Road houses some of the most titillating secrets of royal intrigue in the city. In 1941 when Greece was invaded by the Nazis King George II of Greece and Crown Prince Paul and his wife Crown Princess Frederika came to live on Oxford Road at the invitation of Jan Smuts. He and Frederika rapidly became, well, at least worthy of widespread and salacious gossip that still is mentioned among older Jo’burgers to this day. He was in his 70s and she in her 20s at the time. She visited him often at the Presidential Residence Libertas in Pretoria, (Mahlamba’ndlopfu today) He taught her to shoot a gun and gave her one as a present, they often had philosophical discussions and she became a student of ‘holism’, the philosophy he developed. A quick browse through the Selections From The Smuts Papers housed at the SA Museum of Military History only a couple of blocks away from Oxford Road

I wrote about these fascinating discoveries years ago for The Mail & Guardian but I thought it would be fun to revisit them!

Winner of the Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards for Columns and Opinion, 2023.

Winner of the 2022 National Press Club’s Journalist of the Year: Print/Online Features/ Investigative Journalism Award.

Author of 10 novels, including Red Air and House of War.

Author of a best-selling children’s adventure series called Arabella.

In television, he has worked for a number of international networks, including National Geographic, CNN, BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera English, ZDF, and ARD.

He has written hundreds of articles for publications including BBC, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Maclean’s Magazine in Canada, TravelAfrica in the UK, The New Zealand Herald, The Buffalo News in the US, The Sunday Times, Business Day, The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg and many others.