Between “Living in South Africa” parts 1 and 2, a rather boringly technical article about my reason for being there. This will be the last Monday Memory for 2018 but I intend to increase the frequency from fortnightly to weekly when I return with “Living in South Africa” part 2 on January 7th 2019.
The principal agricultural product of the region where the SAICCOR (South African Industrial Cellulose Corporation) mill is located is sugar cane. This is harvested throughout nine months of the year, during which time a large fleet of road and rail trucks transports it to sugar mills. For three months of the year this fleet is idle – or would be, but for the eucalyptus plantations, SAICCOR and other timber conversion operations such as Masonite whose mill was and still is (though now operating as Evowood) in Estcourt.
The problem for these operators was that the bulk of the year’s supply of timber was delivered during this 3 month ‘closed season’ for cane. The wood yard at SAICCOR covered a vast area in which logs were stacked up to 15 feet high. A 9 foot wide trench filled with water (the canal) ran the length of the yard in its centre. Down this logs were floated to the point where they were transferred to the chipping machine. A team of African labourers used wooden poles with metal hooks to guide the logs along.
A couple of crawler cranes with grabs unloaded the trucks during the delivery period, dropping a proportion into the canal and stacking the remainder. The rest of the year the same cranes lifted logs from the stacks and dropped them into the canal.
The process operated 24/7 except for a single weekly 8 hour shift when everything was cleaned and necessary maintenance undertaken.
Similar undertakings in North America had converted from storing logs to storing chips. This took up less space but meant that chipping capacity, and the handling of timber, had to be doubled. That was the main task for our small team. It took all of 1974, running well into1975.
Taking our cue from similar installations in North America and at Estcourt, the canal was replaced by a flume – a fast flowing stream that carried logs down to the transfer point. This was served by a concrete storage tank the top of which was at ground level, a filtration system to remove sand, grit and bark shards from the water, a pump and a pipeline to return water to the top of the flume. All of this had to be designed and constructed whilst the normal operation of the plant continued.
The hydraulic design of the flume to achieve the desired combination of volume and velocity required the application of a complex formula involving a constant called the Reynolds Number, meant to represent the frictional resistance of the steel liner which was layed to a gradient.
Back then there was no computer programme available to do the calculation for me. The team were allocated one of the first electronic calculators. This was a fairly basic model. I’m not sure if the kind called ‘scientific’ even existed yet. Certainly ours would only do basic addition, multiplication/division and simple functions like square roots.
It was important that I got the calculation right because there was a lot of steel and skilled labour involved in the construction. If it did not work as intended the cost of rectifying it would have been considerable. Because of that my calculations were thoroughly checked by one of the in-house designers. I’m pleased to be able to report that we did get it right.
Another innovation concerned the unloading crane. This was intended to run on rails either side of the flume, with an articulated jib and grab that lifted logs from road or rail transports and dropped them between its ‘legs’ into the flume. The proposed machine had been designed in conjunction with a hydraulics engineer who had come from Italy as part of the original installation team in the mid 1950s, subsequently setting up his own business in Durban. The contract had been awarded before we arrived. Many months had elapsed since then and several trials in the works had failed to demonstrate that the machine was capable of performing its intended task.
SAICCOR’s managing director, an Irishman who was extremely supportive towards our team, was becoming increasingly frustrated by this failure of the supposed specialist to deliver. The route from Umkomaas to Durban passed through an industrial area on the south side of the city. One of the many businesses that lined the dual carriageway was Blackwood Hodge, the South African distributor for JCB. There was always an array of excavators of various sizes on display in their yard. One day the MD waltzed into my office and explained that he had just come back from Durban and had a brainwave as he passed Blackwood Hodge. Would I get in touch with them and see if it would be possible to come up with an adaptation of one of their machines? To cut a long story short, it was and we did.
A further design task which I undertook was the method for lifting logs from the flume and depositing them onto the final conveyor into the chipper. The canal terminated in a so called jack ladder – a chain conveyor that carried the logs up an incline and dropped them onto a conveyor belt running at right angles. With the flume, the logs would be the wrong way round for this so my new elevating chain conveyor had to end with a steel chute designed to turn the logs through 90 degrees before dropping them on to the conveyor belt.
Whilst I was designing the log handling part of the project, Walter was designing a system of pipes and blowers to distribute chips to the new storage area. This now had to be integrated with the existing chip handling which consisted of a very long inclined conveyor belt which transported chips from the base of the chipping machine to the top of the digester – a vertical cylinder in which the wood chips were dissolved in acid to create pulp. This conveyor had to be split about half way up the incline so that chips could be diverted to the blower system when required.
One aspect of the design for water cleaning was the final filtration to remove very fine particles. I had seen an article in a South African business journal which described how a centrifuge had been used to reclaim tobacco shreds from the water used in a tobacco processing facility in what was then Southern Rhodesia. It seemed to me this would be ideal for our application.
The team leader disagreed. He had already been in touch with a company that had supplied filtration equipment to Courtauld’s Derby factory and insisted we should have a cloth filter that would be cleaned by vibration. He contended that “you can’t separate organic materials (in our case small particles of bark and wood splinters) using a centrifuge” I argued that tobacco is organic and it reportedly works in the tobacco factory. Perhaps I could go up there and have a look. Anyway, I thought the splinters would get trapped in the fabric of the vibrating filter.
Of course I was over-ruled. I spent many hours over the Christmas and New Year period, when we were commissioning the plant, trying to get the vibrating filter to work without success. The manufacturer’s representative flew out to assist but had no success. At the end of January Freda, Ian and I returned to England. When Walter returned, a few weeks later, he told me that the vibrating filter had been abandoned and a centrifuge installed in its place.
As a follow up to my interview with Denzil Walton, here’s Author Stevie Turner enjoying some non-screen time with her grand-daughters.
I have been pondering some of the responses to a Facebook post yesterday in a pro-EU forum. Contributors were asked to say whether they voted “remain” or “leave” back in June 2016 and to say why. The majority of responses came from people who voted “remain”. What struck me was the way in which the reasons for that decision mirrored the reasons usually given for a “leave” vote, and the gulf in perceptions, not just about membership of the EU, but the world view that it revealed.
I guess it’s been obvious for many years that such a gulf existed but prior to the referendum it was relatively hidden. Since then it has led to accusations of ignorance and treason from both sides. So what are these different perceptions and how can the gulf that separates them be bridged?
“For 40 years membership has never been a real problem and still isn’t. The economic, social and cultural benefits of membership are incalculable.” (JS)
Clearly that view is in complete opposition to those who believe that the EU is the source of all the UK’s recent problems.
“The EU protects the European continent’s food supply, ensures sustainable fish stocks, protects the environment and aims to ensure that as larger global powers become economically stronger the EU maintains strength and European values through unity.” (RV)
Again, a view that is contrary to the “leave” camp’s belief that the EU’s agriculture and fisheries policies are damaging to rural and coastal communities across Britain.
“I think we need immigration and we have lots of Polish where I live and I really like the Polish – they work hard and are polite and a lot nicer than some other people. They have brought footfall to our High Street which was becoming deserted.” (SH-C)
In contrast, there were, at the time of the referendum, a number of vox-pops on television in which people complained their high street was no longer recognisable with all the Polish shops and foreigners taking jobs.
The same contributor to the forum also said this: “It’s quite a good idea to have other higher courts to look at matters of say human rights,” a point echoed by another: “I voted remain because the EU’s laws are the only thing protecting the ordinary people of this country from exploitation by our politicians and employers.” (IR)
A sentiment which is in direct opposition to those who want to “take back control of our laws”.
“I value my right to live, work, study or retire anywhere from the West Coast of Ireland to the Black Sea, or from the Arctic Circle to the edge of North Africa. I think that the EU guarantees standards and conditions which successive Tory governments try to remove. I think it’s much better to resolve disputes between nations with a legal process instead of dispatching the armed forces.” (DF)
A recognition of the way in which the EU’s Freedom of Movement principle is a two way street benefiting many British students, workers and retirees, a fact that many who voted “leave” either ignore or deem to have been gained at too high a price.
“We have huge global challenges to solve and we can do that better as a block.” (JC) A sentiment expanded upon by another contributor: “I voted for Remain mainly to keep our sovereignty. Without being part of the biggest trading block in the world we’ll be a punching bag for larger powers such as the USA, the EU and China upon which we depend economically more than they depend on us and therefore can force us to do things against our will. Inside the EU we have a fair share of power and say in what the rules are and are protected against unfair bullying by larger powers such as China or the USA.” (SK)
The idea that pooling sovereignty with our neighbours actually strengthens that sovereignty is completely alien to those who believe we have lost sovereignty and can only regain it by leaving the EU. Such people seem unable to grasp the idea that making trade deals with anyone involves a quid-pro-quo and that any deal we reach with any of these larger powers is likely to involve the loss of some of the “control” the UK is intent on “taking back” from the EU.
“Because the EU has, in 40 painstaking years, cleared away protectionism and created an actual free market where countries can trade with each other without barriers, which improves our ability to export, and lowers prices. And countries have valued that so much that they really want to join it, that’s how three former fascist dictatorships and ten former communist countries have come in to the EU and become richer, more mature democracies.
When I was a child, about half the countries now in the EU were very hard to visit. Now we can travel there freely, live, love and learn across a whole continent, and the understanding we have gained about each other is what keeps our peace.” (JS)
There are several things here that “leave” voters would contest. For a start they see the EU as a protectionist bloc that uses tariffs to exclude imports from non-member states, ignoring the many free trade arrangements the EU has made with underdeveloped countries, providing tariff free access for certain goods and, inter-alia, making nonsense of the claim by some pro-brexit MPs that we can have cheaper imports from those countries when we leave. Secondly, I think I can say without being accused of elitism that most of the people who voted “leave” have no interest whatsoever in understanding their fellow Europeans.
I think that AD sums up perfectly what all these “Remain” voters believe about the EU: “European unity, security and freedom of movement. Rejection of nationalistic sovereignty.”
And therein lies the crux of the problem. Half the country welcomes the opportunities that EU membership has provided, remembers the horrors that red blooded nationalism brought to Europe twice during the last century, and rejects the idea that the accident of being born in any particular place makes you better than someone born elsewhere. The other half clings to the antiquated notion that being “English” makes them superior. That, certainly, is why we hear so many cries of “Traitor”.
I grew up believing that being English meant more than that. I was proud that English men and women, alongside other Europeans, had developed a set of values that had the potential to make the world a better place. The sentiments that underpin the “leave” campaign are diametrically opposed to that world view. I wish I knew how to undo the damage done by those in the media who have spent 40 years denigrating the EU and those very English values it stands for. I fear that it is too late. I fear for the future of the UK and the young generation that is about to have taken from it the many opportunities their parents took for granted.
Continuing the occasional series in which I record significant events from my life. This installment takes up a couple of months before the previous one ended.
For the first couple of weeks after Freda and Ian arrived, in September 1973, they joined me in the hotel which I had been staying in since my arrival. Soon we were offered a furnished house. A traditional colonial style bungalow with a tin roof and veranda, this cottage had been vacated by the owner who had a modern bungalow built at the back. At first it seemed quite romantic with its early twentieth century furnishings and decor. That was until the night Freda went into the kitchen to brew a nightcap – and screamed.
Anyone who knows anything about cockroaches will know that they hate the light. They come out to play after dark. If their playground is suddenly illuminated, by someone switching on a light for example, they scuttle back to their hiding places – in this case under the kitchen cabinets. “I’m not staying here,” was Freda’s verdict. When I explained the situation to the HR department, who passed it on to the owner, that lady insisted there were no cockroaches in her house, implying that we were impugning her reputation by suggesting such a thing. In that case, why were there several cockroach traps under various pieces of furniture? We wondered.
The company agreed to relocate us at the hotel for the time being. Construction, by a local developer, of a block of five terraced houses was almost complete and the company had taken a lease on two of them. One would be allocated to us. We were given an allowance to spend on furniture and textiles and told to visit an emporium in the inland town of Alexandria. “Ask for Smiley”, we were told.
“Smiley” turned out to be a very accommodating Indian gentleman and we selected beds, a settee and chairs, curtains and bedding from his overflowing warehouse. The day we moved in, the developer pointed out that a pair of Minah birds had constructed a nest in the eves. Should he remove it? No, we said. It would be a shame to disturb the birds, at least until after their young had fledged. Also, it would be interesting for Ian to watch the birds.
We got into the habit of doing our weekly shop on a Saturday morning in a new mall in the larger town of Amanzimtoti a few miles away on the road to Durban. We had become used to hearing the birds chatter but one Saturday, as we were having lunch after our shopping trip, they seemed especially noisy. “Those birds are inside,” Freda said.
“Don’t be silly, how could they get in?” was my response.
“I left the bedroom window open.”
With that she climbed the stairs – and, once again, screamed.
One of the birds had indeed come in through the window. Confused by the dressing table mirror, which was situated directly opposite the window, it had been trying to fly out of the reflected window. We succeeded in guiding it to the real window. There was now an awful mess to clear up.
All three of us developed itchy rashes which we put down to the change of climate. Several mornings we noticed accumulations of grit on the corner of the bath. Then one day I noticed that the ‘grit’ was moving. Once again we contacted the HR department and they sent along someone to have a look. “You have an infestation of bird lice,” was the verdict. “The birds’ nest has to be destroyed and the whole place fumigated.”
With the birds removed and the place fumigated we settled into a routine. The house was on a hill overlooking the estuary and the Indian Ocean, a view we never tired of. Ian was, by now in school. At that time in South Africa children did not commence school until they reached 7, unlike the UK where 5 was the usual starting age. At 8, Ian was therefore 2 years ahead of most of the children his age in the school and entered the 4th year alongside 10 and 11 year olds. Indeed, some were older because a grade system was in use which meant that children who failed to make the grade at the end of any year were held back. Ian, I’m glad to say, had no trouble keeping up, except with regard to the compulsory second language, Afrikaans.
Our son also joined the cub scouts. This was run by the wife of the factory’s Electrical Engineer, both of them German and both delightful to know. Over our time in South Africa we took part in various fund raising efforts for the Cubs and helped out at some events.
Before we knew, the spring of 1973 had metamorphosed into summer, the highlights of which were Christmas and New Year celebrations. These included an outdoor Christingle service on the village football ground and a factory Christmas party at which a group of the African labourers entertained us with their “Gumboot Dance”, a traditional African stomping dance performed in Wellingon boots.
By then the house next door to us had been let to a young couple. The husband was a Welsh Chemical Engineer. Having begun his career in one of the steel mills in South Wales, he had emigrated to South Africa to work for the South African Steel Corporation (SASCOR). From there he had moved to SAICOR with his Dutch wife. For clarity, when I say “Dutch” I mean that she was born in Holland, not that she was a South African of Dutch descent. As a new employee he was provided with temporary accommodation whilst he awaited the construction of his own house in the company’s staff village. This was an area of land owned by the company where employees could purchase a plot and have a house built to their own specification.
They brought with them twin boys about 2 years old, both as blond and pale skinned as their mother and each determined to play with the other’s toy despite having his own identical copy! The poor woman was forever having to break up fights between them, or so it sometimes seemed. To be fair, they were a delightful family and we quite often “babysat” for each other.
The summer climate was extremely hot and humid – or seemed so to us being more used to the British climate. Days would usually begin very hot with clear skies and brilliant sunshine. In the afternoon clouds would appear and the atmosphere would become very oppressive. There were frequent thunder storms with torrential rain in the late afternoon and early evening. One consequence of this was that the ocean in the vicinity of the estuary became red with the soil being carried down river from cultivated lands in the hills above.
The other feature of the portion of ocean visible from our windows was a long line of white surf about a mile off-shore. This, we learned, was a rocky outcrop known as the Aliwal Shoal. One Sunday, having taken Ian to a scouts’ event in a town a few miles down the coast, I noticed as we were traveling back without him, a tanker that appeared to be too close in. We stopped at a lay-by to take a closer look and it was obvious that the vessel was listing. Once back in Umkomaas we watched from our upstairs window as a couple of the ski boats operated by local fishermen journeyed to the stricken vessel to bring the crew to shore.
Ian was back in town in time to see the helicopter that landed to take the crew back to Durban. According to the newspaper the following day, the vessel was carrying molasses (raw sugar) from Mozambique. It had docked in Durban to refuel on the Saturday. It seems the Norwegian crew had a good night out in Durban and, after leaving the port on Sunday lunch time, had set a course due South before heading for their bunks, forgetting to allow for the Aliwal Shoal on their course.