Neville Cohen, a leading light amongst the disabled community and an inspiration to all who knew him, passed away peacefully in the Milpark Hospital, Johannesburg on Sunday, 4 September 2005.
Neville Joseph Cohen was born in Johannesburg on 7 February 1933. He attended King Edward VII School and after matriculating he enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) to study engineering.
During his second year at Wits at the age of 19, he was involved in a motor accident while travelling with friends to the Kruger National Park. As a result of this accident, he sustained a spinal cord injury and became a paraplegic.
After a period in hospital in Johannesburg, Neville went to the United Kingdom where he spent seven months at Kings College Hospital, London and a further two and half months at the worldrenowned Stoke Mandeville Rehabilitation Hospital. Neville had always been an active sportsman at school and university and at Stoke Mandeville; he was able, once again, to participate in sporting activities including wheelchair basketball, which became a passion.
While at Stoke Mandeville, Neville witnessed the first International Paraplegic Games, which took place in 1953. As a result of this he decided to introduce into South Africa sport for people with disabilities.
He returned to Wits to complete his engineering degree and during his spare time at university, Neville introduced wheelchair basketball into the rehabilitation unit at the Johannesburg General Hospital. He served on several committees whilst at Wits, including the Student Representative Council. Already at this stage, Neville had designed and built a special wheelchair for his own use.
After completing his degree, Neville and his friend Danny Wiener travelled in a Hillman Minx - 12 000 miles overland from Johannesburg – through Africa, arriving in London in April 1956 – fulfilling a lifelong dream.
Neville was employed by Marconi Wireless for a period of three years, starting in the instrument factory at St. Albans, then the Communications Division. While he was at St Albans, the Stoke Mandeville games took place near Aylesbury in June/July 1956. Neville wanted to enter the games as a South African. In his true spirit of meeting any challenge in his life, he found an application form, a coach, a manager – and a flag.
And so he became an ‘official’ participant in the games – official in that he had fulfilled all the requirements. In those days South Africa did not have an official sporting body; that was to come only after several years when Neville had done a lot of promotional work with newspapers, medical authorities, hospitals and sports people.
Neville entered various events, including swimming, which was not his preferred sport. However, he won his breaststroke heat, and to his surprise, the final. The first ever South African gold medal in these games.
Neville and friend, Boris van der Riet then travelled from London through Europe and then overland down the east coast of Africa back to Johannesburg in a Zephyr convertible, arriving back in South Africa in November 1958.
He subsequently work for two years in engineering companies, namely Greenfield Engineering in Isando, and Cadac Engineering.
Neville was invited by Herbie Jacobson, an old friend and his business partner, Jack Levy, to join their company, where Neville worked for thirty years – eventually becoming technical director. The company, Quinton Hazel Superite became a public company in 1969, employing in excess of 600 persons, in seven factories.
In 1962 Neville was instrumental in forming the Paraplegic Games Association of South Africa – the first meeting was held at the Old Edwardian Club, Johannesburg. He served on the national committee.
He then represented South Africa at the Paralympics at Stoke Mandeville in the United Kingdom where he won his second gold medal for swimming. In 1971 the Mandeville Sports and Social Club was formed with branches in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth. Wheelchair basketball was now added to the sporting disciplines.
By this time Neville had already purchased a plot on the Vaal River and together with friends built a weekend retreat, ‘Ronnie’s Ruin’. This became the focal point for a hectic social life involving many friends and acquaintances.
He also bought himself a boat and began racing as a member of the Southern Transvaal Motorboat Racing team. Eventually specialising in water-ski racing and representing the national Springbok team and racing in international meetings including on Lake Como in Italy. In 1970, 1971 and 1972, he also won the South African national championships.
Neville at his 70th with the two nurses who attended him (left) Kay Law, Johannesburg and (right) Joan Boardman, Kings College, UK
Neville was always seeking new challenges and in 1970 took part in ‘The Argus Tip-to-Top’ challenge. This race started at the top of the Herzog Tower in Brixton, Johannesburg and finished on the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town – an enormous amount of planning and logistics was required. All possible problems were anticipated and overcome and after being rushed through the streets of Cape Town by the Hell’s Angels, Neville made it to the finish line, coming third in his category and was awarded the grand prize of R200!
In 1971, he was awarded the ‘Outstanding Young Man of the Year’ award by the Johannesburg Junior Chamber of Commerce.
Neville was also an avid radio ‘ham’ enthusiast becoming friends with many ‘ham’ operators around the world, including Aaron Kirschner, a polio victim and paraplegic who lived in Israel. With the help of Aaron, Neville arranged a tour to Israel for 16 people with disabilities, including his elderly mother, Rita. At this time, there were no travel facilities or amenities for wheelchair users – again Neville’s enthusiasm overcame all obstacles.
After leaving Quinton Hazel Superite, Neville became a specialist in preparing medico-legal reports for persons who had sustained injuries in motor, and other accidents. For years Neville had been building motor vehicle hand controls to allow him and other persons with disabilities to drive. This product was awarded the Shell Design Institute Award and subsequently has been fitted to thousands of motor vehicles driven by persons with disabilities.
In 1983 Neville met Ian Cristol and together formed a company, Chairman Industries which manufactured light-weight custom-built wheelchairs and other adaptive devices.
Throughout Neville’s fifty-three years as a wheelchair user, he was always actively involved in various disability organisations and initiatives, striving to improve amenities, legislation, transportation and conditions for his fellow disabled people.
Numerous awards bear testimony to the recognition the community and South Africa gave to Neville for his selfless and continuous efforts.
We will miss you Neville and we will strive to follow in one of your wheel tracks.
With sadness we record the passing of Schalk Bosch who died at the age of 43 during on Friday 7th October. Schalk was a charismatic and motivated quadriplegic who, whilst living at House Otto, was one of the motivating forces behind the establishment of the Impumelelo Self Help Centre in Gauteng South. He will be sadly missed.