Thursday, 25 November 2010

Memories of Africa, 1969

Relaxing with a glass of pinotage, on the stoep overlooking Noordhoek Beach, and reflecting on the past 3 weeks, I have been thinking of how Southern Africa has changed beyond recognition since Barbara and I first set foot here in September 1969, after a two week voyage from Southampton on board the RMS Windsor Castle, the flagship of the Union Castle Line.

The Cape Town that greeted us was cold, grey and unfriendly. Everywhere were taxis displaying signs ‘whites only’; park benches, beaches, all with the same ubiquitous sign. The local people, mainly coloured, were (not surprisingly) sullen and an air of hostility was all pervasive.

South Africa was in the depths of its era of apartheid, designed to keep the races apart, but heavily biased in terms of land and privileges to the whites. Dreamed up some twenty years earlier by the rabid D.F. Malan, leader of the first Nationalist Party government, it was nowhere more iniquitous than in the Cape, with its large coloured population who were in a political and social no-man’s land. It was little wonder that they appeared unfriendly; on his election victory, Malan had told his supporters: “For the first time, South Africa is our own. May God grant that it always remains our own. We Afrikaners are not a work of Man, but a creation of God. It is to us that millions of barbarous blacks look for guidance, justice and the Christian way of life.”

We were eager to leave as soon as possible, but had to spend a night in a small hotel by the docks (now the sophisticated and vibrant Waterfront area). Once our car had been unloaded, and cleared customs, we set off on the Great North Road (now the N1), the start of our 3700km journey to Chingola on the Zambian Copperbelt.

Initially it was slow going. The weather was still dull and wet as we crossed the Klein Drakenstein mountains near Paarl, but as we descended to the Karoo via Du Toitskloof Pass, the skies cleared, and it was sunshine all the way.

We were following friends that we had made on the boat, Cath and Nels Jackson, in their white BMW, and although the distances were vast, we ate up the miles, as the roads were long and straight, and virtually empty, in sharp contrast to today’s N1 traffic. After an overnight stop in the diamond town of Kimberley, we made for Johannesburg, where we spent a weekend at the home of Nels’s parents.

Cape Town had been oppressive, but Johannesburg was even more foreboding. Owing its existence to the gold mining industry, it is the Transvaal’s major commercial city, in the heart of Afrikanerdom. As in Cape Town, ‘whites only’ signs were in profusion, and one evening, after leaving the whites-only cinema, we heard the curfew siren, warning the black population, mainly Zulu, that they must no longer be seen on the streets.

Nels’s parents were regular church attendees and it was implicit that we should accompany them to church on the Sunday morning. The service in the Dutch Reform Church was entirely in Afrikaans, and after the service we were introduced to the predikant (pastor) who advised us in all seriousness not to venture near Zambia, as it was populated by black people who were all ‘heathens’. We must stay in South Africa, which he explained was ‘God’s country’. Here was our first introduction to the old Boer mentality, exhibited in this modern Afrikaner, a direct descendant of the original white settlers.

This bigoted predikant in the 1969 Transvaal provided living evidence that the old Boer attitudes had survived into the mid-20th Century. They were the basis for the apartheid system and it was evident that this archaic, racist country was on an inexorable path to self-destruction - we knew virtually nothing of Nelson Mandela and the miracle that would occur little more than 20 years later!

Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn
It was therefore with a great sense of relief that we joined the Great North Road again for the 485 km journey to the Rhodesian border. As we progressed northwards the scenery began to change and, after crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, became typically African, with dense thorn-bush, mud-hut villages and the strange ‘upside-down’ baobab trees.

We crossed the Limpopo River, entering Rhodesia at Beitbridge, and stopped overnight at a small hotel in Gwanda. It was evident that we were in a very special country, of outstanding natural beauty. The roads were immaculate, hotels and restaurants of a very high standard and the local people were friendly and accommodating. Rhodesia, like South Africa, was also under white minority rule, Ian Smith’s Government having declared unilateral independence from Britain four years earlier, but there was no obvious evidence of the aggressive racism that we had encountered south of the Limpopo. There was a pervading air of optimism and confidence in the future of this small country, which had everything to sustain it, agriculture, minerals and enormous potential for tourism. Who could have envisaged that South Africa, the sad country that we had just left, would enjoy peaceful transition to majority black rule under Nelson Mandela, whereas Rhodesia would be plunged into a bloody civil war, leading to the horrors of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe?

From Gwanda we passed through the heart of Matabeleland and the anachronistic town of Bulawayo, with its 1950s cars, and roads, wide enough to turn a full span of 16 oxen, lined with jacaranda and bougainvillea. Then on to Victoria Falls along the straight 450km road through unchanging dense bush.

On the Victoria Falls Bridge
At last we came to the mighty Zambesi river and crossed the Victoria Falls Bridge with the roar of the falls (Mosi-oa-Tunya, ‘the smoke that thunders’) in our ears. Three weeks after leaving Southampton we were now in Zambia and we spent a pleasant day in Livingstone, walking down to the ‘Boiling Pot’ to view the magnificent spectacle, for the first of what would be many visits to this wonder of the world.

We still had 900km ahead of us, and the drive through Zambia turned out to be the most arduous. For the first time we encountered Zambian strip-roads. These are basically dirt roads with a narrow central strip of asphalt, wide enough for only one vehicle, and often heavily pot-holed. Whenever another vehicle approached, each would drive onto the dirt section, raising huge clouds of dust. Tired and dusty, we eventually arrived at the Anglo American guest house in Kitwe, and the following day drove the remaining 50km to the mine offices in Chingola.

Here we were met by a friendly personnel officer, who directed us to our new home, which lived up to the earlier promise of the recruitment film that we had been shown in London. A large bungalow, it was set within what was to us a Garden of Eden. Little over a month ago we had left our small council flat in Manchester, and now we had a large garden filled with all kinds of exotic fruit- mango, pawpaw, lemon, pomegranate, avocado, banana. Things were looking good!

I had been assigned to work on the Concentrator (whatever that was) and next day nervously found my way to the metallurgical offices, trying to comprehend the sheer scale of the mine complex, the size of a small town.
With fellow concentrator metallurgists Tony Watts and Mick Boylett
 My fellow metallurgists, Vic Bryant, Tony Watts, Mick Boylett and Dave Spencer seemed a very friendly bunch and were making me welcome, when suddenly there was a hush, and a giant figure framed the doorway. This was Paul Piercy, the concentrator superintendent, who introduced himself and then asked, in a broad Australian accent “Is that your white sports car outside?” I replied that it was, thinking how nice of him to ask, and remembering the smiling superintendent in the London film. “Well move the f*****g thing, you are in my space!” My career in the minerals industry had begun!

It would be great if anyone has news of any of these people. Paul Piercy, who is now in Australia, I ended up getting on very well with, and he is now one of my LinkedIn contacts. Vic Bryant is in Canada and we keep in touch. Mick Boylett I believe retired in South Africa. Dave Spencer I met briefly at one of the Cape Town Indaba conferences a few years ago, but I have no idea of the whereabouts of Tony Watts.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating as it mirrors our experinces in 66-69 except that we lived in Johannesburg. We travelled as much as we cold in Southern Africa literally crossing the continent from Walvis Bay to Beira in our rather basic VW camper. We left SA in October 69 thinking give it 25 years and there will either be a bloodbath or a transition. We feared the first but thank goodness the second prevailed in the Republic but unfortunately not in Zimbabwe. Enjoy your pension.


If you have difficulty posting a comment, please email the comment to and I will submit on your behalf