Tag Archives: Afrikaners

Arriving in South Africa

I finished my second at professor Dilewijns’ laboratory in December 1983, leaving me a month during which to get ready to move to South Africa. During this period I packed up all my belongings and had them sent ahead with an international shipping company. My dad also had a steel trunk where more fragile items could be packed; these were taken by a captain who through family links unknown to me took it as his personal luggage on his ship.

I travelled on the first of February 1984, arriving the next day in Johannesburg. The flight went via Frankfurt, the Cape Verde islands (at the time South African airplanes were not allowed to fly over most of Africa at the time), and turned inland over Namibia, which at the time was called South-West Africa and almost considered an additional South African province. The flight to Johannesburg was fairly uneventful, although the food was good, it being the 50th anniversary of the South African Airlines.

On arrival at General Smuts airport, I must have been one of the last to collect my luggage, which was a good thing, since the person collecting me only held up an A4 piece of paper with “ISCOR” written on it in normal pen, so hardly visible from a distance.

The drive from the airport to Vanderbijlpark was pretty uneventful. One of the few things I remember of it was that the landscape was flat and rather boring and brown – the latter probably because the country was at the end of a summer that had been unusually dry. And there was the inevitable question by the driver, which I’ve noticed white South Africans often ask on meeting you for the first time : “so what do you think of our country ?” Which is a bit of a hard question to answer when you’ve only been in the country for less than an hour, and you haven’t really seen much of it.

I was dropped off at a building which appeared to be some sort of hostel for students working at Iscor. I was given a key to a room, and that was more or less it for the rest of the day. Fortunately I was met the next day, brought to the steel works for a medical and to finish off some paperwork. I was also given assistance in getting to know Vanderbijlpark, where the shops were and opening a bank account to deposit the funds I had brought across from Belgium.

Still, I was raring to go and start doing proper work, and it made me feel impatient that things were moving along so slowly. After two weeks I was finally assigned a flat in Becquerel Court, and someone helped me buy some bare essentials such as a table and chairs, a fridge, a bed and a bicycle. I also was introduced to the manager of the 1420mm hot strip mill, where I would be starting work on a project to do with evaluating the change in strip width from the hot condition (just out of the last finishing stand) to the coil at room temperature.

So it was only at the end of February 1984 I was getting settled into a routine, although the times that I felt I was really making a difference at Iscor were still a few years in the future.

Praying for Rain

I had been in South Africa for a few weeks, when something happened that made me realise how different the Afrikaner mindset is from the European one.

South Africa is supposed to have its rains in the period from October to March, i.e. their summer, whereas their winter months June to August are normally bone dry. Obviously there are fluctuations from one year to another, and I’ve seen the difference when visiting the nearby Vaal Dam, which could be full to overflowing or less than half full depending on whether the expected rains had arrived or not.

For the first six weeks after my arrival in South Africa I had hardly experienced any rain, which suited me fine (at the time I was traveling to and from work on a pushbike), but it also meant that the 1983-84 summer turned out to be a bit of a drought period. Then one Wednesday afternoon we were told we could go home at 3pm instead of the usual time of 4:30pm. The reason ? To give people there opportunity to go and pray for rain !

I don’t really know how to process this type of behaviour. Clearly, properly religious people must be of a mindset that praying is an effective way to make the deity intervene in worldly affairs, but I’ve never seen it so publicly practiced at any other time in my life.

Presumably, if you believe in that kind of thing, you could then state that prayer works, since towards the end of March it rained non-stop for 48 hours, thereby ending the long hot summer. However, the implication of cause and effect is somewhat reduced if you consider that there was a time lapse of about 5 weeks between the two events.

The strange thing then is that South Africans have a love-hate relationship with rain : on the one hand, they need rain for their country not to turn into a complete desert, but on the other hand, if the sun doesn’t appear for several days on end, they seem to become depressed through the lack of sunshine.

So if you’re praying for rain, do you then specify the quantity and the timing as well, so that you still can enjoy the sunshine you crave so much ?

Bike Meets Car

In a previous blog (South Africa) I mentioned how you could become friends with white South Africans but somehow they always thought east-west while you were thinking north-south. No more could is this exemplified by two encounters I had with a car overtaking me on my bicycle and then turning left right in front of me.

The first time this happened was in Perth when I was visiting my future wife. When riding around on her bicycle to explore the town a car overtook me and turned left, thereby colliding with my bicycle. I managed not to fall, but my steering wheel had left a gauge in the side of her car. The reaction from the driver? Aghast that she nearly had killed a cyclist, not bothered about the damage to her car, and in the end relieved that the outcome hadn’t been worse.

Now move a few years in the future, the place being Vanderbijlpark where I was living whilst working for Iscor. Nearly exactly the same scenario, apart from the fact that no damage was made to the car, and that the car was driven by a burly South African man rather than an Australian woman. I must have shouted out (what exactly I can’t remember, but it may have contained swear words), because the car stopped and the man came out of the car.

I half expected to hear an apology or words expressing concern for my health, but no, his exact words were : “Vloek jy vir my?” (Are you swearing at me?). Again not totally sure what my reply was, but absolutely clear about being flabbergasted that someone nearly kills you and all he’s concerned about is whether I had been searing! Go figure!

South Africa

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.