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My series of memories from my long career as an Engineer will now appear every Monday, instead of fortnightly as hitherto. Here is a fairly long final installment about life in South Africa during 1974.
Weekends we would often get in the company car and drive out to one or other of the many beauty spots nearby: Oribi Gorge, Nagel Dam, the Drakensberg Mountains and, of course, Zululand again, this time without the distraction of a would be rally driver in front. We visited Durban zoo, the reptile park and quiet coastal resorts down the coast. One of these had a tidal pool. This was good because sea bathing was ill-advised unless shark nets were in place. The tidal pool facilitated a close encounter with the ocean’s waves without the risk of attack by sea-borne predators.
Often on Sundays we would spend the greater part of the day at the poolside of the hotel where we had stayed before we were properly housed. Sitting in the shade with a book, occasionally looking up to see the children enjoying the water, savouring a curry washed down with Lion ale, it was easy to believe that life could hardly get better.
In July – the winter in the southern hemisphere, remember – we took a two week holiday and motored up to the town of Sabie, about 500 miles to the north. Internationally there was a fuel shortage and a speed limit of 50 miles per hour was in force. The same restriction applied in the UK, accompanied, from 1st January to the end of March, by restrictions on commercial use of power which had the effect of reducing the working week to 3 days.
For much of our journey we were on empty dirt roads, straight so far as the eye could see, bounded by fields of maize. We had been used to driving in the rolling green hills of Natal with clusters of African dwellings clinging to the hillsides and in deep valleys. Once we arrived in the vicinity of our destination we discovered a land of forested hills that reminded me of paintings of Scotland. From our base in Sabie we took day trips to various tourist destinations including the Blyde River Canyon, where centuries of erosion have created multi-hued hemispherical hollows in the rock face, and God’s Window, a part of the escarpment created by the Great Fault from where it is possible to look across the lowland plain a thousand feet below.
One day we drove down the escarpment to that lowland plain with its orange groves, and on to the wild life reserve, Kruger Park. Before we set out at 8am I had to scrape ice from the windscreen. By 10am, down on the plain, the temperature was in the 80s Fahrenheit. In the reserve it was dangerous to wind down the windows. We saw zebra, giraffes, elephants and various species of deer, all in their natural environment, often just glimpsed through the scrub, but no lions.
Another day we visited a nineteenth century mining village, preserved as it would have been during the South African Gold Rush. One of the timber buildings, all of which resembled the kind frequently seen in Hollywood Westerns, housed a shop selling souvenirs and local crafts and produce. The place seemed to be run by two rather camp young men. A woman in front of me commented on the local honey displayed for sale: “Do you make it yourself?” she wanted know.
“Yes, aren’t I a busy bee?” came the reply in a pastiche of camp.
This surprised us in a country where the NGK (Nederlands Gereformed Kirk or Dutch Reformed Church) had such influence on behaviour. But then, the State and Church were full of contradictions. Like the heritage site we visited once where, after a tour of the rondavels, we were treated to a demonstration of African traditional dance by bare breasted women. I couldn’t help describing this particular “attraction” as “the human zoo”. African topless dancers were acceptable whilst a young white woman who performed a cabaret act in which she danced wearing a live python and very little else was prosecuted for indecency.
I cannot recall how it began, but somehow Ian struck up a relationship with an elderly lady who was a permanent resident at another of the hotels in town. During the long school holidays he would spend hours in her company, playing cards and, I have no doubt, listening to her life story. I must ask him how much of this he remembers now.
Freda was quite content to do the small amount of housework required herself. During our first weeks in the new house it was not unusual for her to answer a knock at the door and find a young African woman looking for employment as a maid. Several times she refused these offers. She discussed it with Walter’s wife, Vi, who had taken on a ‘Girl’ as these women were called. “You should,” Vi advised. “For one thing, once you have one, the others will leave you alone. But where’s the harm? They have no other source of income.”
Freda wondered if they could be trusted, but decided to engage the next young woman who came seeking employment. There were rules attached to such casual arrangements. The ‘girl’ must not use the same washing and toilet facilities as the family. The block of five houses had been provided with a small brick building at the back which is where ‘girls’ were supposed to take care of their personal hygiene. Freda let our ‘girl’ know that she had no objection to her using our downstairs toilet.
Another rule dictated that whites were not permitted to enter the African village where these ‘girls’ resided with the male family members who worked at the plant. So we were not supposed to give her a lift home at the end of her working day. Not even after using her as a child minder on nights when we drove into Durban to catch a show or to go dancing in one of the dance halls. Strictly speaking, blacks were not permitted in ‘white’ areas after dark so we were breaking two rules when we did this.
One thing that became obvious was that the Europeans in Natal, perhaps because it had been a British colony, were far less bigoted in their view of the Africans than were those in the other provinces, at least so far as one could tell from comparing observed behaviour with what we read of events and attitudes elsewhere in the Republic. Our transport manager, with whom I had frequent contact due to our continuing use of the company’s vehicles, was an Afrikaaner. As such he was one of the few people I met who was open in his contempt for Africans – he usually referred to them as ‘Kaffirs’ – and would pontificate about them and their perceived short comings at length given half a chance.
One of his stories, told more than once, was of a visit by the British Labour foreign secretary George Brown several years before. It was an open secret that Brown had a drink problem and Van – the man’s surname was Van Roen, always shortened to Van – Van was full of scorn in his description of Secretary Brown stumbling and staggering in and out of the diplomatic car. Van also told us that the BBC crew accompanying the British minister had filmed black children scavenging in dust bins which, Van assured me, had been staged by throwing coins into the bins. It was never clear whether Van had actually witnessed any of this in person or if it was an apocryphal tale the details of which had been embellished through frequent tellings and re-tellings.
Van also had a theory – and it was undoubtedly plausible – that the bloom of red silt that we saw each summer flowing from the river into the ocean was the result of inefficient agricultural methods employed by the ‘Kaffirs’. Van’s contempt for their ignorance never seemed to extend to the idea that ‘The Kaffir’ would benefit from education.
Fortunately that attitude did not have an echo in company policies. Design drawings are traditionally produced on tracing paper from which prints are prepared for use by those implementing the designs. Every drawing office has its print room where the machines for reproducing the drawings are housed along with the stored originals and catalogues of all drawings. The operation of these machines and the maintenance of the drawing register is usually the responsibility of a clerk. At SAICCOR that clerk was an African.
At the staff Christmas party in December 1974 I talked with one of the directors, an English man who assured me that white rule would be ended in the near future: it was in everyone’s interests, not least the business community who would gain a vastly increased market as Africans acquired greater purchasing power. The recent granting of a license to Philips to roll out a television service would help to facilitate this change. Eighteen months later I would witness on British TV the Soweto uprising and subsequent reinforcement of discriminatory laws. It would be another 15 years before the release of Nelson Mandela and the eventual enfranchisement of Black South Africans. Almost 30 years after that there is still appalling poverty in the Republic whose government is well known to have been plagued by corruption.
I wish I could illustrate this post with my own photographs. Although I took many, a lot have been lost in the course of several house moves since. The ones that survived are of very poor quality. I have found better quality photographs on the web and acknowledged their provenance in the captions. Please follow the links to find lout more bout the places featured. Next Monday I’ll tell you what happened on our return to the UK 45 years ago this month.
Continuing the occasional series in which I describe significant events in my life.
Despite my long hours at the pub, we were still struggling financially. Freda wanted to make a bigger contribution and it occurred to us that a small shop, of the kind where we would live on the premises, would enable her to use her training and experience in retail over a greater part of the day. Moreover, instead of working at the pub at weekends I would be available to work behind the counter of our own shop. We began looking at the property advertisements in the local paper and found just such an enterprise. It seemed to be within our capacity to purchase if we sold our present home.
We arranged a viewing at which we were told the place was already under offer. If that offer fell through then we would have a chance. Meanwhile would we like to put our house on the market?
We looked at a few other potential retail opportunities before we discovered that the size of mortgage available for such properties was less than that for a house. ‘Goodwill’ was not something that could be used as security. How would we finance the purchase of stock?
The plan began to look like a non-starter. Then we saw a leasehold property where the remainder of the lease was being offered for a relatively low price. Our offer was accepted, subject to the approval of the landlord. We received an offer for our house from a couple who did not want to take possession until after their marriage in March, six months away. This, we fondly supposed, gave us plenty of time to find something if the landlord did not approve our proposal – and why would he not?
We were, I now know, incredibly naive. The landlord strung us along throughout the winter. He even came to discuss our plans whilst I was at work in the pub, but still would not give us an answer.
Eventually, one morning in February 1972, when we were becoming increasingly desperate to have the business concluded, I took a call at work from our solicitor. The vendor’s solicitor had contacted him to say that the landlord had foreclosed on the lease, for non-payment of rent, and that, the vendor, no longer had anything to sell.
In answer to my question he indicated that we would have to negotiate directly with the landlord. Unsurprisingly, he was not available that day. When we did make contact it was to be told that he had let the property to someone else.
Looking back, it is impossible not to conclude that we were nothing more than a back-up plan to him. The tenant to whom he let the place, a small bakery chain, was the one he wanted and they wanted the premises without having to pay anything to the outgoing tenant. As she could not pay the rent, all the landlord needed to do was to delay until the point when he could legally end her tenancy. Only if the bakers became impatient would he need to find an alternative. He could have turned down our offer at the outset but it suited him to keep us ‘on ice’, stringing us along until he achieved his intended outcome.
We, now, had to be out of our house in a matter of weeks. House prices had started to rise rapidly since we had agreed our own sale, so buying was no longer an option for us. We would have to find somewhere to rent.
What we found was a small co-ownership apartment block on the West side of the city. The apartment offered two bedrooms, a decent sized kitchen, living room, bathroom and a garage in a separate block. The rent was affordable and, if we stayed for five years, we could claim a share of the equity on leaving. As it happens, we did not stay for long because, within a year and a half, I was offered an opportunity much too good to refuse.
Meanwhile I continued working at the pub, painted the Corsair yellow, and watched unbelieving as Hereford United achieved unprecedented success in the FA cup, beating
Newcastle United and drawing with West Ham United in the 3rd. and 4th rounds respectively. On August 19th 1972 I attended their first home match in the English Football League Division 4 in which they beat Reading 3-0 having previously lost in away matches to Colchester (Div.4) and Aston Villa (League Cup). They would go on to win promotion to the 3rd Division at the end of that season. [For those whose memories don’t go back far enough, League Div. 4 was equivalent to the present EFL Div.2, Divisions 1 and 2 having been superceded by the Premier League and Championship, respectively.]
In another attempt to increase our income I went to Brmingham one evening to attend a presentation from a multi-level marketing organisation that involved selling Unit Trust investments. Although I did buy into the investment, cold selling was not for me so nothing came of this.
One day my boss called me into the office. Our subsidiary had been asked to assist with a project in a pulp mill in which the parent company had an interest. The mill was in Swaziland, a small country sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique. I would need a passport and several inoculations – Yellow Fever, Typhus and a Small Pox booster, among others.
I had the ‘jabs’, got a passport – and then was told the job was cancelled. I continued with what I was doing – I can’t recall precisely what that was at the time. One important project undertaken around this time was the detailed design of the first production scale manufacturing plant for ibuprofen at the Boots pharmaceutical facility in Nottingham. All we were told about the product at the time was that it was “a new arthritis drug”. I suspect that even Boots would have been surprised at the way in which their invention has become ubiquitous as a pain killer and remedy for colds and flu.
In the summer of 1973 I was called into the boss’s office again. This time the project for which I was being recommended was in South Africa. Expected to last for between 18 months and 2 years, the team would be accompanied by our families. We would be provided with accommodation and basic living expenses whilst our salaries would continue to be paid into our UK bank accounts.
Ian was 7 and attending a primary school in Coventry with children of assorted ethnic origins. I wondered how a period living in a country in which people of colour were treated as second or third class citizens would affect him. After due consideration we, his parents, decided that it would be advantageous to see for ourselves whether conditions were as bad as the UK media portrayed them.
I tried very hard to get the company to allow us to travel together. To no avail. I don’t know the reason, whether it was to do with South African visa regulations or the possible cost to the company should a situation rise in which I did not fit in with the team and had to return.
I left the UK, together with another mechanical designer and the team leader, on 3rd August, 1973 aboard a Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet” operated by the then newly formed British Airways.