History of Alcoholics Anonymous in South Africa

In 1946 Reader’s Digest published an article, extracted from the Grapevine, entitled “My Return From The Half-world Of Alcoholism”. This story is responsible for two separate enquiries from South African alcoholics.

The first was Solomon M, a black translator at the Johannesburg Law Courts, living in Alexandra Township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. His last bender had brought him and his family to the brink of starvation. Hung-over and wandering the streets of his hometown, he passes an overflowing rubbish bin in which lay the copy of The Reader’s Digest. Having nothing better to do, he picks it up, pages through it and finds an article on an organization called “Alcoholics Anonymous”. This appeared to be the answer to his prayers. At last Solomon had found something that had given him hope. He hurries back to his one-roomed hovel and immediately writes down the address given in the article. He soon had a reply, including a pamphlet simply called “AA”, containing extracts from the AA Big Book, which enables him to acquire and maintain the sobriety which the article had inspired. Although Solomon the ‘Loner’ is the first member of AA in South Africa, he never starts a group but remains sober for many years.

The second player to enter this drama was Sister Maxwell, a Catholic sister and nurse who maintained an alcoholic ward at the Johannesburg General Hospital. Quite by chance, a deserter from a US warship that had called in at Cape Town, had arrived at the hospital during World War II, drunk as a lord and with a suitcase, inside of which was nothing but AA literature from the US. It was this material the good sister held on to and used to form her own style of AA. Although not an alcoholics, she had deep empathy for alcoholics and accepted without conflict the newish concept that it is a disease. She treated the problem as such and in the process helped several dozen alcoholics to sobriety on this basis.

Arthur S. a successful stockbroker, during one of his periodic visits to a nursing home, was idly paging through an old copy of The Reader’s Digest and came upon an article on alcoholism. Since he had more than a passing interest in the topic, he avidly read the article and was so impressed that he decided to find out more, especially about this organization called Alcoholics Anonymous, which featured prominently in the story.

He wrote to the head office of the association in New York and promptly received a pamphlet called “AA”, which consisted of extracts from a larger work, “Alcoholics Anonymous”. Meanwhile, a member of the clergy, Reverend Peacock, set about arranging a meeting one Friday night at the Johannesburg Public Library for the benefit of Arthur, who had been identified by Sister Maxwell, as an alcoholic who desperately wanted recovery. Word was passed around to known alcoholics and Arthur was to chair the meeting with the Reverend as first speaker. On the night in question, the Reverend found Arthur, if not drunkenly incapacitated, struggling to maintain an even keel. He introduced the Reverend thus: “Ladies … and … gentlemen, you see in me an example of what alcohol does to a man. Don’t be like me. Over to Peacock”.

Thus was Arthur’s first step. However, he instinctively knew that, in order to succeed at establishing some kind of AA in SA, he must find other alcoholics to carry the message to. He enlisted the assistance of 6 people: Reverend Doctor JB Webb, whose respectability alone augured well for the budding project, Reverend AA Kidwell, for many years well-known as an enthusiastic member of the Temperance Union and a fiery teetotaler, a respected psychiatrist, a Mr Murray – Head of Johannesburg’s Social Services, Miss Donovan, Lady Almoner at the Johannesburg General Hospital, who suggested the final member of the team, Sister Maxwell, whose contribution to the establishment of AA in Johannesburg was generally conceded to be the greatest.

AA’s New York office later put Solomon in touch with Arthur, and they had regular meetings where the two men discussed their common problem.

October 18, 1946
October 18, 1946

October 18, 1946. South Africa AA group was formed

On 18 October, 1946, Arthur S. became the first in SA to form an AA group, The Johannesburg Group, which met at the Spes Bona Club, in central Johannesburg.

Remember, during this time, the Twelve Traditions were in the process of being written, so Arthur had no guidelines to follow in the establishment and running of a group and meetings. Many of the drunks that Arthur encountered obviously needed material assistance as well as spiritual guidance as solutions to their drinking problem.

Arthur sensed that these 2 types of assistance should not mix, so he established the Spes Bona Club, handing it over to his nonalcoholic team to run, while he concentrated on AA 12th step work. While this distinction was clear in his mind, it wasn’t to those he was attempting to assist, and AA became known as somewhat of an ‘easy touch’. Notwithstanding those challenges, there were those inevitable few, for whom recovery was paramount – Ronnie, Ray, and Charles, to mention only a few, prove stalwarts in the lean days to come.

In the first few months, hundreds received help in one form or another. However, this initial phase ended with Arthur’s tragic death from pneumonia. With his departure, financial assistance dried up, and AA assumed its true role of helping only those who had a sincere desire to stop drinking. Membership dwindled until there was practically no one left. It was during this period that Sister Maxwell proved her worth.

Nothing kept her from attending, and leading, almost deserted meetings. It can truly be said, that it was almost entirely due to this friend of AA, herself not an alcoholic, that the group survived the first year. Without her constant and loving care, the few remaining, who honestly wanted an answer to their problem, would have found it much more difficult.

Meanwhile, in a dormitory mining town in Springs, Johannesburg, a third alcoholic was on the verge of despair. Valentine Dillon (Val D), a mining assayer, out of desperation, approached a local clergyman for help. However, nothing the clergyman said to him was helpful, and he was about to leave when the parson handed him a book and advised him to read it. It is the book that the clergyman had ordered from an American organization he had heard of – Alcoholics Anonymous. This is perhaps one of the earliest South African examples of one of those miraculous AA ‘coincidences’ that Val goes to the one person in Africa who has an AA Big Book. Val had to read it just once to find the complete answer to his problem.

January 3, 1948
January 3, 1948

The AA World Group Directory listed Solomon and Pat F as South African Loners.

1 January 1948, Cape Town : upon setting out to continue his drinking bout, Pat F saw the hedge upon which he was leaning when Jess found him two months earlier and it sparked off a train of thoughts, leading him to make the vital decision to quit drinking. He found Jess, told her he has had his last drink, and embarked upon an excruciating withdrawal from alcohol.

3 January, Pat F starts the Wynberg group – with a membership of one – the third AA group in the country.

January, Durban : Bob M’s secretary tells him that there is a man who insists on seeing him, will not disclose why and refuses to leave until Bob agrees to see him. When Bob meets the man, he introduces himself as an alcoholic and shows Bob the AA Big Book Bob had given away to the seaman. The visitor had gone to visit an inmate – also an alcoholic – at the nursing home, where he had looked in the Big Book and seen Bob’s name. Figuring that Bob McGregor and the American consul are one and the same, he had arrived to satisfy his curiosity. Bob shows the visitor – Robbie – into his office. Robbie is a small man with a fire in his eyes as he relates to Bob his attempts to reach AA in Johannesburg. Robbie had been referred to Sister Maxwell of the Johannesburg General Hospital by Reverend Joe Webb and was one of her successes, and he had been sober some time before he walked into Bob’s office.

Robbie absolutely insists that the two men form an AA group, offering his home as a meeting place. Bob is somewhat reluctant, being sober for only a year and feeling his position in the public eye threatened. Robbie insists, however, calling back every two weeks or so, telling Bob that he’d found one or two others that needed AA.

September 17, 1948
September 17, 1948

Durban’s first AA meeting

September, Durban: Bob M helps to draft an advertisement for the evening paper publicizing Durban’s first AA meeting.

17 September, 1948, Durban’s first AA meeting takes place at 262 Chelmsford Rd.

Because Robbie’s house is relatively inaccessible, only 5 alcoholics turn up – Alf, Eric, Bob H, and a man called Steve, who later translated the Twelve Steps into Afrikaans. These 5 were to become regulars and, with only an AA Big Book for literature and little meeting format, Bob M steers the first meetings, which turn into lively discussion. Relapses are a continual problem and none of the hospitals take alcoholics. The Matron at Chelmsford Nursing Home agrees to admit alcoholics until one runs amuck and creates bedlam with a fire extinguisher. Thereafter, alcoholics are admitted only if an AA member in good standing stays with the patient for the night. There is no money save for the little collected at meetings, and the meetings are prey to the usual freeloaders who think that AA is possibly a place where free liquor is dispensed to the needy.

Word spreads like wildfire in Natal (KZN), stretching the capacity of the membership. Bob H moves in with Robbie and his wife and the two of them spend most evenings on 12-Step calls. Owen S in Pietermaritzburg begs them to come to Towns Hill Prison, there to start a group. Bob M and three others make the journey, including Bob H who has just come off a relapse. On the way, he throws up, but, a successful meeting was had by all. A prison group is started.

February 2, 1949
February 2, 1949

February 2, 1949

Val D starts “The Tendril”, a meeting-in-print that precedes the present-day “Regmaker”. In Natal, the Administrator, Mr Shepstone, hears of AA’s efforts and Bob M happens to mention the problems they are having in terms of lack of facilities for alcoholics at hospitals run by the Provincial Government. Mr Shepstone’s brother had died of alcoholism and so he facilitates the establishment of an alcoholic ward at Durban’s Addington Hospital. The Durban group outgrows Robbie’s place and it is moved to the City Hall for Friday night meetings. The improved transport accessibility vastly improves attendance at these meetings. Bob M undertakes to approach magistrates, and jailers are consequently instructed to admit AA members for the purpose of speaking to prisoners during visiting hours. A week after one such talk, one of the magistrates calls Bob M to his house to speak to an alcoholic, whereupon the magistrate confesses that he, himself is the alcoholic and wants help. The magistrate remains sober and attends meetings. The Town Clerk of Durban expresses reservations to AA concerning the presence of then-called non-white participants at AA meetings in an apartheid-era society so, for a year or so, the meeting is moved to the Blind Centre at St Dunstan’s whereafter, without AA pressure, the Durban Group is invited to return to City Hall. Val D travels to Fort Napier Mental Hospital to hold a meeting attended by a man called Liebe, who, after being discharged starts the Pietermaritzburg Group. In Natal, a meticulously-worded newspaper editorial goes wrong when it is printed with the headline “Ex-drunks Cure Drunks” and causing a flood of mostly unwanted phonecalls. After a two-hour meeting debating the crisis – during which a pair of cavorting marmosets provide the only comic relief – it is eventually decided to turn the situation over to God. The following Thursday meeting attracts a fair percentage of newcomers. Following Durban Group’s first anniversary, the Pietermaritzburg Group continues to be nursed and groups open up at Margate, then Pinetown. Subsequent to a windfall of 25 pounds, Durban is able to open a small office at Shelton House, West Street, complete with a vitally-needed telephone, with a lady called Enid G as office administrator.

Essential Readings

About A.A. History

Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers (B-8). The life story of the Fellowship’s co-founder, interwoven with recollections of early A.A. in the Midwest. Pass It On (B-9). The Story of Bill W. and How the A.A. Message Reached the World. A.A. Comes of Age (B-3). Bill W. tells how A.A. started, how the Steps and Traditions evolved, and how the A.A. Fellowship grew and spread overseas. The AA Grapevine Digital Archives. The AA Grapevine is the international journal of Alcoholics Anonymous. Here, for a nominal fee, you can find and read every article, letter, editorial, special feature, joke, and cartoon published in the Grapevine magazine starting from the first issue in June 1944.


1935-1944 History of AA in South Africa Download Jack Alexander Article About AA (pdf)


“We are trying to build up extensive records which will be of value to a future historian… “It is highly important that the factual material be placed in our files in such a way that there can be no substantial distortion… “We want to keep enlarging on this idea for the sake of the full length history to come…” — Bill W, 1957 The idea for organizing an historical collection of the Fellowship’s records came from A.A. co-founder Bill W. in the early 1950s. Bill was becoming increasingly concerned that “the history of Alcoholics Anonymous is still veiled in the deep fog.” Knowing that the office correspondence was loosely maintained in the drawers at the General Headquarters, he set out to arrange our historical records. He personally recorded oldtimers’ recollections in the Akron/Cleveland area; he sent out boxes of blank tapes to others, encouraging them to record their recollections. Bill’s far-reaching vision outlined an archival message that is still sound today. As he said: “Every one of the new and unexpected developments (in A.A.) has, lying just underneath, an enormous amount of dramatic incident and experience—stories galore.… It isn’t hard to prepare a fact sheet of what happened—that is, dates when people came in, groups started and so forth. The hard thing to lay hold of is the atmosphere of the whole proceedings and anecdotal material that will make the early experience alive.” After many decades of tireless organizing and arranging, the G.S.O. Archives room was opened with a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony in November 1975. Since then, the G.S.O. archivists and the trustees serving on the Archives Committee of the General Service Board have encouraged the importance of archival service, which is vital to the survival of the Fellowship. As a result of that work, today almost all areas have set up archival collections, and there is a significant growth at the district level. Historical records help us to sift through our day-to-day experience in recovery and reach back for the shared experience from the past. As we sort out the myth from the facts, we ensure that our original message of recovery, unity and service remains the same in a changing, growing, expanding Fellowship that constantly renews itself.