What made me decide on South Africa ? In short, fear of unemployment. Having been thrown a lifeline by the university in the shape of a 1-year contract as a researcher, I decided quite early on that I did not want a repeat of the 8 months of unemployment that followed my army service.
So I started to have a quiet nose-around the adverts in papers and magazines. Not sure where I picked up on the fact that Iscor was doing the rounds of all European capitals, hoping to recruit people for their Vanderbijlpark plant, but I did have an interview in June/July and a job offer by the time the professor of the lab let me know in November that there was no hope of an extension to my 1-year contract.
Did I have any misgivings about the political situation in South Africa ? Not really. I was aware of the whole apartheid thing of course, but not to the point that it put me off going there. Maybe the attitudes were not as polarised in Belgium as they presumably were in the UK, but no-one of my friends and families seemed in any way disturbed by the fact that I was in an indirect way going to support the apartheid regime.
When I arrived in Vanderbijlpark, I quickly noticed that I was but one of a number of Flemish who had been recruited in the same way. Not that it really mattered too much, I made friends with a number of South Africans – all of them were white, apartheid being so effective in separating the “Europeans” from the “Non-Europeans” (read “white” and “black”) that I had no social contacts with anyone but white people.
In a way you could become friends with them, but somehow you could never get over the feeling that somehow you were thinking north-south and they were thinking east-west, and neither side could quite appreciate what made the other side tick. For example, at one time Danie Botes asked me what church I went to. When my response was “none”, he took a bit of a double-take and for a while looked at me as if I’d grown horns and a tail. It must have been strange to him that a person who he considered to be quite normal was missing something that was quite central to an Afrikaner’s life – to them, the church they attended was part of their social life and defined who you were, hence not belonging to any church must have been hard to deal with.
At the time I was not really following the news, so when problems reared up their head again in Sharpeville in 1984 I was only vaguely aware of what happened, and again it shows the effectiveness of the separation, since life in Vanderbijlpark continued as normal even when the troubles in Sharpeville were only just nextdoor.
Anyhow, once I had got married in 1985 and our daughter was born in 1986, I started to think about leaving South Africa. After all, it had never been my plan to settle there for life, and having to think about your children’s future brings it all the more in focus. I must have decided in the end that I did not want to see my children grow up as South Africans, and that their scope for having a wider outlook on the world would be better served by coming back to Europe.
In my heart I still have some affection for South Africa and South Africans – most of them are eminently decent people – and I felt good when Mandela was freed, when black rule came with relatively little bloodshed, and when the first rugby world cup took place there.
Will I ever go back ? Probably not, although you never know. It’s just that the clock is ticking, and there’s still so much more to see of the world.