Category Archives: Iscor

Counterfactual #6

The year is 1987, I’ve been living in South Africa and working for Iscor for the past three years, I’ve got married and my first child was born. Thinking back to my original plan of working here for a few years and then moving on, I started to get restless.

I had heard from one person who had moved to New Zealand, having been interviewed by New Zealand Steel. So when they did the next round of interviews in Johannesburg, I made sure I did have an invite.

The interviews took place in a hotel on the outskirts of Johannesburg, and both my wife and daughter tagged along, since they wanted to see the family unit rather than just the interviewee. In the end the question came: how soon would I be able to come to New Zealand? My reply, which was that I was on three months notice, clearly did not satisfy them, and in the end I did not change jobs.

What if I had been more positive that I could have wangled a shorter notice if need be? I notice that around that time New Zealand Steel was acquired by Equiticorp, which went bankrupt later in the year. Two years later it was acquired by BHP, and it still exists as New Zealand Steel under the BHP corporate banner.

So let’s suppose I had moved to New Zealand. The first question would have been: could I, as a newcomer, have survived the disturbance of the bankruptcy and take-over? And if so, would I have stayed in New Zealand, about as far as you can get from my family in Belgium and the UK? Or would I have been tempted to try and move to BHP Australia, having one sister who lives in Adelaide?

All interesting but ultimately unresolvable questions. I don’t even know whether reducing my notice period to one month would have been sufficient for them to make a positive offer.


Counterfactual #5

When I started work in South Africa my original plan was to stay there for 3 to 4 years, and then return to Europe to find work there. In the end it turned out to be 5½ years, and although my decision still held firm, there were plenty of reasons why we could have decided to stay. The job was good and one of the highlights of my career, I had two children born in South Africa, the living was easy with low rent and plenty of nice weather. And black majority rule looked no closer to reality than it did when I entered the country.

On the downside was the fact that my wife could never hold a steady teaching job unless she took on South African citizenship. I also did not think too much of the education system, with the local universities merely being glorified polytechnics. I also did not want my children to grow with a restricted world view that might have resulted from growing up in South Africa.

So in the end we decided to leave, but it could easily have been different. In that case it’s hard to tell how things would have worked out. Iscor was privatised in the same year that I left, presumably because someone foresaw the implementation of black majority rule in the near future. There must have been quite some movement of personnel around that period, because when I contacted Brian Parry for a recommendation after I had been made redundant in Allied Steel & Wire, he had become a big cheese (from lowly middle manager status during my time there) and a lot of the old guard seemed to have left.

How would I have coped during the upheaval that must have followed the privatisation is hard to tell. All I can say is that Aalwyntuine, where we used to live at the time we left South Africa, is now a gated community, meaning that Iscor properties must have been sold off, and we would have to make the decision to buy or rent a property in Vanderbijlpark. At the same time the South African Rand had plummeted in value, and what constituted good money inside the country did not amount to much in European currencies.

Meaning that the longer we stayed the harder it would have been to extricate ourselves and return to Europe. Still, as time progressed I’ve seen most of the people we knew in South Africa leave the country, so chances are that in the end that’s what we would have done as well.

It’s hard to tell how that would have panned out. It all would have depended on my job situation in Iscor / Mittal and the economic situation in the UK. But I can’t see how leaving the country when so many ties had to be broken would have been easy.

Saying Your Goodbyes

Whenever I left one job to go to another, there usually wasn’t much of a goodbye involved, and even less so as time wore on.

When I left the laboratory of professor Dilewijns, there was an informal get together with the technicians, but as far as I can remember no speeches and no presents. Maybe followed by a few pints in the pub, that’s about it.

The farewell was a little bit more official in Iscor, with a conference room booked and full of people that I’d known and worked with in the technology department. Can’t remember too much about the speech, apart from flattering my audience by saying that South Africa would always have a friend in me. I received a watch as a present, although it can’t have been a very good one, since it fell apart within half a year of me receiving it.

The farewell from Allied Steel & Wire was a bit more awkward given the circumstances, but there was a skittles evening as the Christmas do, which doubled up as a farewell do for me. I must still have the pewter cup its the AS&W logo, but it’s packed away somewhere – I still don’t see the point in putting it on display. In my reply to Tony Franks’ speech I stated that, while I would miss them as colleagues, I wouldn’t miss Allied Steel & Wire as a company.

And that was really the last of the official farewells. When I left Tinplate R&D for Ebbw Vale, it was initially only as a secondment, and by the time the secondment became permanent due to the reorganisation of R&D set-up, there was no-one left to say goodbye to. Likewise when I left Ebbw Vale for Llanwern: by the time I was making the move there were very few people left to say goodbye to.

The move from Llanwern to Port Talbot turned out to be so gradual that there hardly seemed to be any point having a farewell do, because by the time my move to Port Talbot became official, I had already spent quite a bit of time there.

When I finally decided on my retirement, I was so busy until the very last day that all the farewell consisted of going to see a few the closest colleagues and shaking their hand, receiving two £25 vouchers as a thank you for services rendered, and a final email containing the message “So long, and thanks for all the fish” – I didn’t want to come across as too sentimental, and I thought the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy reference couldn’t hurt my geek credentials.


Canteens have been around in most places from my student days to my final days in Port Talbot, although I must admit that most of the time I didn’t make use of their services.

During my days as a student, it was only in my first year, when I was still commuting between Bruges and Ghent, that I made use of the student canteen in the St. Pietersnieuwstraat. In subsequent years I just returned to my rented student room or stayed in the “Plateau” cafeteria as the whim took me. Afterwards, during my time as a researcher, I totally failed to make use of the canteen facilities, even though it was only next door to professor Dilewijns’s laboratory – instead we tended to consume our sandwiches in the technicians room whilst having a lunchtime chat.

The first few years as engineers-in-training at Iscor we often made use of the canteen facilities, although this was more an excuse to gel as a social group of people in a similar situation of immigrants in a foreign country. Later on, I either had my own sandwiches, or had a snack in one of the smaller facilities near the Technology building.

Allied Steel & Wire didn’t really have a proper canteen, just a place where you could buy sandwiches and assorted snacks. That’s why most people brought their own lunch, or went outside to the nearby shops, rather than buy something similar at inflated prices.

At Tinplate R&D the Port Talbot canteen was only across the bridge from Welsh Labs, but even then it was a rare occasion that we gave it a look-in. The option of a canteen did not exist in Ebbw Vale as far as I can remember, so by the time I moved to Llanwern I had got out of the habit of using a canteen and relied on my own sandwiches instead. There used to be a canteen near the far side office blocks, but this one disappeared soon after I joined once the heavy end had been demolished. I heard that there must have been some sort of canteen in the mill end of the shrunken site, but I never found out where it was.

Anyhow, once I returned to Port Talbot I had got so much in the habit of bringing my own sandwiches, that I did not make use of the canteen, either the main one near the site entrance, or the one next to the Hot Mill offices. That changed once I joined the Operational Research team in the AGO, where we got in the habit to either visit the Welsh Labs canteen, the nearby Tollgate park on a nice day, or the main canteen if all else failed. Some team members bought the food on the menu, especially on curry days, but I stuck with the habit of having my own sandwiches.

Which meant that when I moved to the Coke & Iron Admin block, and the distance to the canteen became too large for an easy lunchtime transfer, I continued with the tried and tested routine of sandwiches, apple and can of coke at my desk.

All in all, I can’t really comment on the quality of the good on offer, since most of the time I brought my own. All I noticed was that once Port Talbot stopped subsidising the canteen food, and the prices started to reflect the real cost, many people stopped buying the meals on offer, and either brought their own grub, or stopped coming to the canteen altogether.

Music and South Africa

When I arrived in South Africa, I had just spent several years steeped in the punk and new wave of the late 70s and early 80s, and with sufficient money to build up a sizeable record collection. I think this period also saw the start of the music CD, but at the time this was seen as a niche for artists that shift large numbers of records.

The transition to the situation in Vanderbijlpark couldn’t have been more stark. From being surrounded and immersed in large quantities of modern music, I was relegated to what felt like a backwater. One of the last records I had bought was the latest one by Eurhythmics, a record that took about six months before it made the shelves in South Africa. Clearly a different world from the present-day music scene where downloads are available at practically the same instant across the world.

At the time, the only local music I was aware of was the Afrikaner boeremuziek, which seemed to be somewhat related to the German oumpah music. Most of the time I did not have to suffer it, although at one time some students next door came home on a Saturday night, and decided to continue their night out with some of their preferred boeremuziek tunes. Revenge was sweet when early on Sunday morning I retaliated with “Never made no the bollocks, here’s the Sex Pistols”.

Still, in the more than five years I lived in Vanderbijlpark I probably bought something like between five and ten records. It was not until towards the end of my stay there that I became aware that there was a worthwhile black music scene to be enjoyed, first through a concert from Johnny Clegg & Juluka, and later on from Paul Simon’s Graceland album. Maybe if I had heard of this type of township music I might have sampled some of the local bands – provided that they were available in the white music shops.

When I started to get ready to leave South Africa, I had trouble finding new boxes to pack my albums in, presumably because by then CDs had taken off and were rapidly replacing vinyl – something that had totally passed me by during my time in Vanderbijlpark. I made up for this oversight in subsequent years, but my music collection still doesn’t contain much in the way of South African music, with only the already mentioned Paul Simon album, a Juluka compilation, and an album by Ladysmith Black Mambazo bought after I had seen them perform in the UK.

That’s probably more of a sign of how I had become less involved with the current music scene, and the fact that the transition happened during my time in South Africa my have been purely accidental.