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15 Blue heaven, dark soul (May 1972 to May 1980)                                            

Before going to work for Murray and Stewart in South Africa (which had become a Republic in 1961), we, all seven of us, had to be cleared by the Immigration Department who rather than the company would pay our assisted passage fares. The Nationalist government, wishing to increase the ‘white’ population, assisted companies recruiting foreign skilled and professional employees. There was a hitch – we, as a couple, had left the Union of South Africa a then British Dominion 13 years earlier and were now both registered UK Citizens. We thus might not have been considered as bona fide immigrants but as returning SA citizens. My mother through some friends in the opposition United Party managed to get clearance for our family’s return as ‘immigrants’ and our tickets duly came.

Later in South Africa we were issued with Identity booklets racially classifying us as ‘white’ but also defined us as ‘Non South African Citizens’. From our point of view dual British and South African citizenship could have been awkward especially as all our children were British born outside South Africa.

In our 13 year absence, the method of cheap travel between England and South Africa had changed from Union Castle passenger liners to air travel. Commercial air travel had started before the 2nd world war. Cubby’s father had flown as one of 24 passengers from Southampton down Africa the 7288 miles to Durban in a series of Imperial Airways 88 foot long Empire C class flying boats. These would land each day providing overnight rest at rather rudimentary hotels. The whole journey then took about a week, but had the compensation that it was virtually a grand tour of Africa.

In the intervening 40 years air travel became faster and was more affordable. After security checks at Heathrow of us as parents and our eldest daughter Nicky (almost 12 yrs) - the younger children Karen (11yrs), Christopher (9¾yrs), Andrea (6yrs) and Benjamin (1¾ yrs) were inexplicably not searched for any weapons or bombs - we boarded a South African Airways plane, a Boeing 747 Jumbo jet. This type of airplane was capable of carrying over 300 passengers, and is probably the most significant passenger plane[1] in air flight history. It had entered service a few years earlier in 1970 and over 30years later 747 Boeings still dominate many long distance passenger routes. The plane was half empty and after taking off we spread ourselves over two rows of the central four seats, folding back armrests to get some sleep. But first we dined on delicious Crayfish caught in cold Cape waters.

Because of South Africa’s Apartheid policy African nations would not permit South African Airways either to land or over-fly their territory. Their planes detoured around the bulge of West Africa landing at Las Palmas in the Spanish Canary Islands. Our plane refuelled for the 9½hour long haul mainly over sea to Johannesburg – then lumbered heavily 1¼ miles down the runway reaching a speed of take off. Foreign airlines flying to South Africa were permitted to over-fly countries below and also land - reducing their comparable costs. Smoking was permitted on flights in those days and special non smoking areas were not provided – not that these would have been of any benefit as air conditioning ensured that smoke was effectively distributed all over the plane. Reflecting South Africa’s Apartheid policy all flying and cabin staff were white.

At Johannesburg’s Jan Smuts Airport we landed to change planes for the onward journey to Cape Town. My sister Judy[2], with her husband Nigel and their sons, who we had not seen before, met us. At D F Malan Airport in Cape Town (all major Provincial Airports were named after earlier Afrikaner[3] Prime Ministers) my parents Tony and Bonny, somewhat older since we had last seen them, my sister Ruth and a representative of Murray and Stewart welcomed us. In a procession of three cars we travelled along Settlers Way – a new national road built in our absence - towards the familiar looming, blue, bulk of Devils Peak and Table Mountain, 3000 foot high.

Passing first corrugated iron squatter camps, then coloured townships set in desolate sands, we continued past Pinelands[4] where I had grown up onwards to Rondebosch Common. Murray and Stewart had provided temporary accommodation for 3 weeks at Fairmead Hotel near the suburban railway station at Rondebosch. Rondebosch was now a plush racially exclusive white southern suburb of Cape Town – where Cubby had been born, and where I had gone to school.

Murray and Stewart immediately supplied a car and we were able to travel the short distances both to my parent’s small rented house in Newlands (near the then oak tree festooned cricket ground) and to my sister’s apartment in Kenilworth on the main road. My parents had sold our house in Pinelands when we were aboard. My 72year old father, was still working for an architectural company in Cape Town and continued to do so until he was 74 years old – he had avoided unemployment and redundancy[5].

Soon after arrival in Cape Town we did a circuit of the Cape Peninsula - Cubby and children photographed with Hout Bay and Chapman's Peak behind

A new job, finding schools for children and house hunting began in earnest. The latter two tasks were undertaken by Cubby without a car - our Volvo estate car was yet to arrive from England. In just over a week, Nicky started school at San Souci Girls High School in Newlands, a school built since our original departure. Karen, Christopher and Andrea enrolled at Grove Primary School in Claremont. Travel times to schools tied us down to possible housing areas – ideally in Rondebosch, Newlands and Claremont.

House hunting was not difficult - Estate Agents collected Cubby from the hotel in their cars and took her to view houses. Large family houses in the areas close to schools were found to be more expensive than we could afford and we broadened the search. Within a month we found a rebuilt 5 bedroom, two bathroom bungalow, with a veranda, facing north into the sun in the less fashionable area of Wynberg. There was a new swimming pool in the grounds - a considerable asset for the children. We bought this house on Wellington Avenue at the reasonable price of R27000 (£13500) from a couple who were moving out to a small farm holding near Paarl, a country town in the midst of wine lands north of Cape Town.

Photo by Cubby - My parents Bonny and Tony on their fortieth wedding anniversary on 19th November 1972 with my sister Ruth and me with all five children, Andrea, Karen, Benjamin (behind), Christopher, and Nicholette photographed on our new houses porch

Despite the autumn cold the children (from top Nicky, Christopher, Karen and Andrea) enjoyed the pool while a serious Ben, who did not swim yet, entertained his grandparents

My sister Ruth with our sister Judy's twin sons Bruce and Andrew. Some years later their brother John is mystified by a finger appearing from the concrete

Our house was about 4 streets west of the rather tawdry main road with its shopping area built probably in the 1920’s. Wynberg means wine mountain but vineyards had long since been replaced by houses. A military camp and hospital erected initially for British forces during the Boer War, but now occupied by the SA Defence Force, was in the area. Also close by was the wooded Maynardville Park where productions of theatrical plays were produced in the open air. I had seen my sister Ruth, years earlier while she was a pupil at Wynberg Girls High School, performing in this park one evening in The Tempest in the role of Ariel (an airy spirit).

The Nationalist Governments Group Areas Act of 1950 had perverted the housing market by dividing and segregating towns into racial areas. The coloured population were generally moved away from the older established suburbs closer to the mountain out into the barren Cape Flats. The Act took many years to implement but by 1972 when we returned, most Coloured owners and occupants in areas such as Newlands, Claremont, and Wynberg had already been forced to move. Their houses were often sold to ‘white’ speculators who repaired, enlarged and repainted them selling at handsome profits. Coloured people had also been forced to vacate District 6 suburb adjacent to Cape Town itself and the existing properties had been demolished. The scar of this callous act remained on the mountain slopes – the Government seemed hesitant to build any replacement buildings realising that this would probably make them even more unpopular with the Coloured population. Many Indian ‘corner shop’ owners had also been forced to sell up to ‘whites’.

Two months after our arrival (with our belongings and Volvo car now arrived by sea) on the 5th July 1972, we moved into our new house and stuffed our belongings into many built-in cupboards. In the period before our house became available we had transferred from Fairmead Hotel (costing the company R1200 a month to house our family) to a cheaper boarding house, Fairfields in Wynberg occupied by retired people. R1200 was effectively twice my monthly salary of R600 (£300 per month at the then exchange rate of R2 to £1) – the same sum as I had been earning in Guernsey – I could not afford this for temporary housing. The company later refunded half the cost of the cheaper hotel so we had at least some money remaining to enable us to settle in.

Murray and Stewart’s offices were in the newer area of the town – on the foreshore reclaimed from the sea some 20 to 30 years earlier. These were boom years in Cape Town with a large number of multi-storied buildings being constructed. Murray and Stewart built at least 70% of these buildings and a forest of orange[6] tower cranes bearing their name dotted the skyline below the mountain backdrop. The price of gold was high, sanctions against Apartheid had yet to be applied, and the price of oil was also yet to escalate.

Fairly soon after our arrival when I was in the office, reports of a protest against the apartheid system taking place at the top of the Avenue near St Georges, the Anglican Cathedral filtered through. University of Cape Town student protesters were apparently being set upon by police with sjamboks (hide whips) and by snarling Alsatian police dogs. Things in South Africa did not seem to be improving - the M&S manager interviewing me in London had misinformed me and I had been naive. I wondered if I had made a mistake in returning but there was presently no way back.

1st Pict. - Western Boulevard linking the Cape Town city centre to suburb Sea Point - the mountain behind the city is Devils Peak. The chimneys of the now demolished Table Bay Power Plant are to the left. 2nd Pict. - shows one of two cantilevered carriageway ends which for more than 30 years are still surprisingly not connected to other existing raised viaducts bypassing the Docks.  3rd Pict. - Further view of Western Boulevard with portion of Table Mountain now in view as well as Devils Peak.

Murray and Stewart were increasingly engaged on civil works[7]. I started work as Project Manager on the construction of Western Boulevard, a raised, post-tensioned, cast in place, concrete box, multi-span structure, carrying roads linking the town with Greenpoint and Seapoint. This passed in front of Lions Rump / Signal Hill - we heard the noonday gun each day. On the other side of the project was the old Alfred Basin (harbour) where my father had worked in the 1930’s on the construction of still standing concrete grain silos. The municipal run Table Bay power station, at the town end of the project, had been converted from coal to oil burning (in the deceptively few years oil was cheap) and occasionally engulfed the site in choking noxious fumes when the wind direction was unfavourable.

I also went on a tender inspection trip of bridge sites at the western end of a proposed railway line running from the iron ore mine at Sishen (many miles inland) to the Saldanha Bay harbour on the west. The trip by car lasted several days and passed Piketberg (where I had worked as a student during a vacation on a cement plant). We also passed Citrusdal and Clanwilliam both on the fringes of the Cederberg an area I had visited with students on climbing trips. The landscape became increasingly dry and deserted towards Vanrhynsdorp and up to Loeriesfontein. Although Murray and Stewart later obtained some of the bridge contracts, I was thankful that I did not have to work in these desolate areas away from my family. Schooling would have been impossible, or the alternative, commuting back to Cape Town by road over some weekends to visit my family, very tiring.

After the Western Boulevard project was successfully completed, I worked as Contracts Manager supervising and planning projects from the head office. About 3 times a week, I visited two new projects – Kromboom Parkway Bridges mainly lying between the ‘white’ suburb of Rondebosch and ‘coloured’ suburb of Athlone and a combined elevated viaduct[8] with parking garage underneath close to the city.

One of the Kromboom Parkway Bridges under construction - view of the mountain effectively from Claremont / Wynberg suburbs

One day when I visited the site of one of the Kromboom Parkway bridges being cleared of scrub one of our engineers, a Dutch immigrant Jan Hermans, spotted a snake, a 4 foot long cobra, grabbed it by the tail and swung it hissing viciously rapidly around his head, the momentum preventing it from biting him, as he moved towards the brush and threw it away. Some of the Kromboom Parkway Bridges had inclined tapering columns and our alternative of precasting them and then erecting them was accepted by the designers. We also elected to cast the precast post tensioned beams for the bridge decks on the ground of bridge sites themselves to avoid transport costs and expensive cranes. Beams once cast and stressed were skidded laterally away from the bed on rails to permit the next beam to be constructed. When all beams for a bridge were cast, erection with cranes followed in a single short operation.  

The M&S managers under the leadership of D E Baker obviously knew their market well – including local clients and consulting engineers. They had also built up strong construction support divisions just outside Cape Town at Epping. These hired out formwork, scaffold and all types of plant (including Tower Cranes) to their projects. There was a central cutting and bending yard for rebar delivered and then fixed on the sites. A yard for fabricating precast concrete elements - increasingly used as decorative facades on buildings – had also been established. All these services were charged to the sites but generally were more efficient and less costly than using outside suppliers or subcontractors.

In the same area Murray and Stewart ran a training school for all new African contract labour recruited mainly from the Transkei (one of 11 so called independent states - ‘Bantustans’- created under the system of Apartheid). At the training school labour was instructed in the use of common construction tools and techniques and also safety aspects. Although the system of contract labour in the context of Apartheid was socially destructive, the principle of training unskilled labour (as had been done on the SA mines) is sensible. This system could be used beneficially on many construction projects world wide – but is usually not done - costs are incorrectly assessed as being too high without considering increased production and safety benefits arising from training labour.

Local Consultant’s staff sometimes referred to M&S as ‘muddle and stupid’ which considering the company’s drive and success smelled rather of sour grapes.

Our children adjusted well to their new schools. Nicky and Karen had forgotten all their earlier learnt Flemish and Danish both of which, if remembered, may have helped a little with Afrikaans a compulsory new subject. Nicky and Karen both started private extra lessons after school. Despite being given ‘0%’ for Afrikaans in her first year, Nicky’s marks averaged for all subjects, placed her near the top of her class. Christopher seemed to have an aptitude for learning languages and Afrikaans gave him no difficulty.

Karen continued with ballet dancing, initially taking lessons at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and later continuing with lessons at senior school. Andrea later also started dancing with a local group but stopped a few years later through a problem with her knees. The blood supply to her knee bones was deficient and she complained of ‘clicks’ occurring when she danced - apparently bone was chipping off. She had an operation on both knees at the nearby Victoria Hospital which aimed to restore blood circulation to affected bones and then spent 6 weeks at home in plaster.

After school, the children swam most hot summer afternoons and plucked and ate sweet black plums from the trees near the pool. Ben learnt to talk, but could only go to a private nursery school in Newlands when he reached 4½ years. One of his teachers had been a friend of Cubby’s parents and she asked us as a family around for a meal – rather a strange one as she had inadvertently placed a chicken still in its plastic wrapping into a pressure cooker.

With a large mortgage compared to my salary we had to budget carefully. Initially we could afford to spend only about R100 (£50) a month (1/6th of my salary) on food for our family of 7 persons – far less than some of our more affluent friends with smaller families. We bought food from supermarkets sprung up in our absence and from wholesale vegetable and fruit markets. Cubby prepared food in bulk and separately packaged this in meal sizes and put them in the large chest freezer brought from Guernsey. Despite careful management we went into a continuous slight monthly overdraft situation until in a few years of pay increases eliminated this.

While we moaned that we had relatively little money, the black population had even less. The going rate for African maids in 1972 was R2 (£1) per day for an 8 hour day. If they were fortunate and could work say 25 days this would amount to R50 a month – hopefully they would have an employed partner but this was not always the case. R50 compared with the then salary of a ‘white’ policeman of R150 per month was about one 1/3rd or with my salary about 1/12th – making ends meet was thus difficult for almost all Africans. There was no compulsory pension or health insurance contributory scheme required by the government from employers covering domestic help.

1st pict. - Our maid Johanna and one of her grand children. 2nd pict. - Cubby's godmother Gerda and her husband, Knud Sorensen, visit from Denmark. Their adopted daughter Gitte is in wheelchair among our children. Knud was at one time Manager of Christiani and Nielsen's South African Branch - a position which Cubby's father Aage Brink later held.

We employed a maid Johanna, initially one day a week, salving our consciences by paying slightly more than the going daily rate. Johanna Mtunjani, whose size of family was the same as ours but with children about 2 years older, was a forceful personality seemingly unbowed by the Apartheid system. She got on well with Cubby and was not scared to reprimand our children when required.

She stayed with us until we again left South Africa 8 years later in 1980. Before leaving we put a lump sum of money towards an annuity payable when she retired. She continued working for friends of ours who then also regularly contributed to this same annuity fund. However, with progressive devaluation of the Rand to the Pound (from R2 in 1980 to R16 in 2002), it’s effective value probably declined despite interest added.

Christmas 1972 - my sister Ruth, my father Tony and my mother Bonny with my uncle Geoff (my father's brother). Ben with his grandmother Bonny at another later celebration

In November 1972 my parents Tony and Bonny celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary[9] at our home. My mother was 66 years old and my father 72 at this milestone. For Christmas 1972 following Cubby’s parent’s customs, we celebrated Juleaften (Christmas Eve) in the Danish manner - despite the heat and impossibility of Nordic snow - with a meal of roast goose. We then sang carols and gave the children their presents from the copious stack under the Christmas tree. For my parents, sister Ruth and my father’s brother, my uncle Geoff, used to celebratory midday meals on Christmas Day, this was a new experience.

Geoff, a widower, and a jogging fanatic despite being seventy years old, was an infrequent visitor from Durban - I had last seen him 22 years earlier in Pinelands at my father’s fiftieth birthday when I was 12 years old. On Christmas Day we picnicked at Silvermine, a municipal ‘braaing’ (barbecue) area in the mountain between the Constantia valley and Fish Hoek, under the cooling pines[10] surrounding the small dam. This area was reserved for ‘whites only’ – Coloureds in theory had separate, but in practise rather unequal, facilities usually further away from the towns.

On the 28th December 1972 we celebrated Cubby’s godmother Gerda’s birthday at our home. Gerda and her husband Knud Sorensen[11] had come from Denmark on a short visit with their two adopted children, Ole and Gitta. Altogether a busy first holiday season after our return. The main snag to occur with our resettlement was the 10 months it took to install a telephone in the house.

Shortly after we returned to Cape Town, Cubby’s father Aage had decided to retire from CN London. Mercia had problems with her eyes and now only had peripheral vision – reading became almost impossible. She probably also had early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease – with erratic behaviour on occasion. They sold their house at Oxted for £41,000. (a handsome profit even allowing for the improvements they had made) in mid February 1973 and then moved to the small village of Lohals on the Danish Island of Langeland. Their daughter Dorte (Cubby’s sister) and husband Ole and two children Tim and Sandie were settled there - making and decorating ceramics for the Danish artist Bjorn Wiinblad in a workshop established in a barn on an old farm, Bastemose.

While living for much of the time in a caravan on the site itself, Aage and Mercia supervised the building of a retirement home at Gartnervaeget 1. They designed it with a very large living room[12], and two ensuite bedrooms – one to put up visitors. Heating was cheaply installed through electric ceiling panels, but later, when oil and fuel prices escalated, was very expensive to run. They moved into their home in early 1974, but we were only to see it several years later.

The engineers and senior foremen on Murray and Stewart’s sites were generally ‘white’ South Africans or immigrants from the United Kingdom and other European countries, but exceptionally the General Foreman Ray Cummins was a New Zealander, competent and good with people. Skilled Coloured foremen were increasingly integrated into the Murray and Stewart staff. Similar trends could be seen in Cape Town in banking and other businesses. When we first left South Africa in 1959 only ‘white’ tellers and clerks were employed in banks, now despite Apartheid, such positions were held by Coloureds. There were just not sufficient ‘whites’ available in an expanding economy or to maintain old prejudices. In country districts outside Cape Town more verkrampt (narrow / prejudiced) attitudes still prevailed.

Most of the skilled formwork fabrication, erection, and stripping operations for concrete works were done by Coloured artisans, less skilled operations such as concreting were done by Africans. In the Transvaal formwork operations were originally done by whites but with increasing labour shortages recruitment of Coloureds from Cape Town began and later Africans also started doing much of the artisans work.

For Africans in the Cape and elsewhere there was little improvement in conditions – the contract labour system of recruitment of men without women prevailed. All Africans had to carry ‘passes’ proving that they had the right to stay in ‘white’ areas. Despite this ‘illegal’ shanty towns made from corrugated sheeting sprang up on the Cape Flats accommodating ‘unauthorised’ women and families. No amount of inhumane bulldozing of shacks or compulsory exiling of their inhabitants to Bantustans could stop this. Conditions were poor, there was no water borne sewage and water standpipes were few and far between, flooding during winter was severe and schooling limited. Charities gradually sponsored schools used for children during the day and for adult literacy tuition in the evenings. Many of these were burnt down during the unrest occurring in 1976.

Despite this there were some cosmetic changes in race relations – the term ‘boss boy’ became unacceptable and was replaced by ‘gang boss’ – at least it was now officially recognised that African men were adults. More significantly Africans found that they had collective bargaining power especially on the mines and the industrial Witwatersrand – a series of strikes began in1973. To avoid confrontation arising from Trade Unionism, the Government encouraged consultative committees to be set up by industry and regular meetings were held on site with African labour on conditions of housing, work, etc, but real issues such as wages were usually not touched on. If African labour was so rash as to strike they were regarded as breaking their terms of employment and expatriated back to the Bantustans with new labour recruited in their stead.

With relatively cheap African labour, construction sites tended to be over-manned[13] and sometimes simplistic manual methods were employed - rather than using more efficient methods with more plant and less labour. There seemed to be more enthusiasm on sites, possibly a regular sunny climate helped, than I had found in the United Kingdom (which had often been beset by trade union labour disputes). A faster overall rate of progress was the result.

African Trade Unionisation and the increasing proportion of Africans to whites in the population probably made even prejudiced ‘whites’ gradually realise that the system of apartheid was doomed. Many emigrated – whites to avoid a cataclysm they thought would come and Coloureds (mainly professional or skilled middle class ones) hoping to find a more equitable society and future for their families. Friends of ours departed early in 1974 to Canada, hoping for a more secure family existence, and one of my most effective ‘coloured’ General Foremen later migrated with his family to Australia. Whether Australia, with it vocal opposition to Apartheid, would be a less prejudiced haven for them seemed unsure particularly with Australia’s poor record with their aboriginal population.

With the real opposition to the Apartheid system, the African National Congress, either jailed or in exile and not reported in the local media, the Prime Minister John Balthazar Vorster soldiered on in the ‘white’ parliament. He had succeeded Dr Hendrik Verwoed who had been assassinated by a ‘deranged’ messenger while parliament was in session. The opposition party – the United Party (General Jan Christiaan Smuts who died in 1952 had been the last effective leader) – held many of the Nationalist Parties prejudices and crumbled away being replaced by the Progressive Federal party.

For a period from 1969 to 1974 the Progressive Federal Party’s courageous lone representative in parliament, Helen Suzman, was the only opposition spokesman against collective insanity until she was joined by a further 5 colleagues in parliament. Helen Suzman was of Lithuanian Jewish origin – ‘white’ South African of British stock, while often disliking or being condescending to Afrikaners, often held racial prejudices not much different from the Empire’s colonial era and generally with a few exceptions provided little moral opposition to Apartheid. Indeed some enlightened Afrikaans liberals showed more moral fibre. Generally the Jewish population in S A tended to be liberal in their attitudes – which I found difficult to reconcile with Jewish Israeli attitudes to the Palestinians[14]. While still a student in the mid 1950’s I had met one Jew, who returning to South Africa after migrating to Israel, and decried the discrimination practised there against Palestinians.

‘White’ South Africa was not yet fully under sporting siege, the 1974 UK rugby Lions under Willie John McBride toured in the winter thrashing the Springboks in the test -matches. This shook ‘white’ South Africans who had regarded Britain as being in a state of decay and who probably equated their own rugby powers with their ‘white’ superior status – both now in doubt. Official sporting boycotts later became more common in the 1980’s, but ‘Pirate Tours’, mainly by unofficial English cricket teams claiming ingenuously that sport and politics should not be mixed, continued with participants receiving generous financial incentives.

At the end of 1974 Cubby’s elder half sister Tippe, then working as a journalist in Salisbury, together with her husband Johnny came down to Cape Town by train from Rhodesia on a holiday visit and stayed with us. Cubby had not seen Tippe for 18 years. Mercia, their mother, had been married to another Dane before divorcing and then marrying Aage. Tippe and Bodil, Cubby’s other elder full sister, had accompanied their parents to South Africa before the Second World War.

Rhodesia, under Prime Minister Ian Smith, had unilaterally declared independence from Britain in November 1965. The United Nations Security Council then applied Economic sanctions. Later in 1970 Rhodesia also declared itself a republic. Only ‘whites’ were represented in parliament - Africans had no representation. Black Rhodesian guerrilla activity had started in 1970 and caused increasingly a flow of white emigration – much of it to South Africa as few were accepted elsewhere if they only had Rhodesian citizenship. In the mid 1970’s it seemed to us that the situation of white rule in Rhodesia was untenable and that blacks would eventually take over. Most white Rhodesians still did not believe this. Support for Rhodesia, politically and the breaching of sanctions by the South African Government, also gradually reduced – the economic and political cost to South Africa was too high despite their sympathies to the Smith regime. In 1977 Smith finally had to start negotiation and in 1980 the state of Zimbabwe came into being lead by political leaders of the guerrillas, Mugabe and Nkomo[15]. Portugal had withdrawn from their Colonies Angola and Mozambique in 1974 to 75, the days of colonialism in Africa were now virtually over. To any thinking person in South Africa the concept of perpetual white rule in South Africa itself was impossible.

Tippe and Johnny eventually joined the exodus to South Africa resettling in Durban in 1979.

The voice of the largely imprisoned or exiled African National Congress leaders were not heard in a censored and controlled South African press and media. The Nationalist Government had delayed the introduction of television in South Africa until 1975 – probably overriding narrow Dutch Reformed Church religious scruples. They then hoped to use it as their own propaganda medium. We declined to get a TV set, avoiding propaganda, but also regarding it as an unneeded intrusion on our children’s school homework. Television started initially only with 2 hours viewing per day – half in English, half in Afrikaans and then gradually viewing time increased.

In early 1975 Murray and Stewart obtained an interesting project, the construction of the Steenbras Pumped Storage Scheme for the Cape Town City Council. This project was about 40 miles away from Cape Town on the Hottentots Holland Mountains near the seaside town of Gordons Bay on the eastern edge of False Bay. Electric power from existing fossil fuel generation plants would be used in cheaper off peak periods to pump water from a lower earth embankment reservoir on the slope of the mountains up to a recently constructed upper earth embankment reservoir 300metres higher on the other side of the mountain. This upper dam lay just upstream of the original Steenbras dam, a concrete gravity dam constructed in the 1920s on which my father had coincidentally worked as a young man. In peak electricity demand periods the water in reverse direction under the force of gravity would generate power through 4 number 45 Megawatt generators.

First picture - lower storage reservoir. Second picture - earthmoving machines working on lower reservoir, the Heldeberg mountains near Somerset West are in the background.. Third picture - upper reservoir with intake control gates

I was appointed to be M&S Project Manager, fortunately the project was within reasonable daily commuting distance by car, and I dropped work on other projects. Generally I left home before 6-30am each morning and often only returned at 7-30 to 8-00pm, all Saturdays were generally worked.

M&S had tendered for the project with two specialist subcontractors. One, a local earthworks contractor, had his head office close to the site at Somerset West and constructed the lower reservoir earth embankment and excavated the power plants and other works. The other subcontractor, a mining contractor from the Witwatersrand, was responsible for blasting, excavation and concrete lining of rock tunnels and shafts through the mountain and also for excavating the two 20m diameter X 40m deep machine shafts in rock.

M&S were responsible themselves for the concrete lining of the two 20m diameter machine shafts, the construction of the Power House above the shafts and other ancillary works. Also in M&S scope was the supply of the 5 metre diameter steel penstock pipes[16] from the tunnel through the mountain down the lower mountain slopes and then branching through further short smaller diameter pipes into the machine shafts.

1st picture - sliding form for machine shafts being lifted by guyed derrick from it's fabrication position. 2ndpicture - form over shaft to be lowered to the bottom and positioned for concreting. 3rd picture - Works Manager Jack Schmidt, left front, watches preparations required for sliding shaft.  

Of all the projects on which I have worked, this was probably the most interesting in its diversity although not the largest. Of particular interest was the concrete lining of the 20 metre diameter deep machine shafts constructed with sliding forms[17].

Later as the concrete matured, hairline cracks appeared on the surface of the concrete shafts. The consulting engineers were quick to blame this ‘defect’ on us as contractors until our own in-house expert demonstrated with calculations that the consultants had detailed too little reinforcement to resist tension stresses arising from the concrete shrinking. Naturally the question of defects was suddenly dropped.

1st picture - power house being built over machine shafts, penstock pipes being laid up to high pressure tunnel emerging from mountain. 2nd picture - penstock pipes with Hottentot Holland mountains. 3rd picture - site secretary Mrs du Toit


1st Pict. - on a walk in the Hottentot Holland mountains above Steenbras site (Nicky, Karen, Christopher, Andrea, Benjamin and Cubby). 

2nd Pict.- Hiking as a family for a few days from Algeria, a Cederberg forest station  - no tents were carried we slept in the open air trusting no rain would fall - all of us carried packs and sleeping bags - Cubby shown kitted out on right.

Before and during this project the price of oil rose significantly in price. In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war in 1973, OPEC refused for some time to supply oil to the USA and other countries supporting Israel against the involved Arab states. Ultimately the price of a barrel of oil rose almost 10 fold which led the South African Government to restrict times one could buy petrol and also lowered road vehicle speed limits for some time. South Africa started constructing reservoirs for strategic oil reserves and also expanded their ‘oil from coal’ production capacity – it then had abundant supplies of coal but not oil. The other direct effect seen was that inflation started and increased not only in South Africa but elsewhere[18].

Cubby’s daily life became very complicated – at one stage the children were at five different schools – Nicky at San Souci, Karen and Christopher passed up from Grove Primary School to high schools Wynberg Girls, and South African College with Andrea still at Grove and Benjamin at nursery school. The older children fortunately could commute independently as they grew older, but much taking and fetching children to school and extra activities, was still entailed. She sewed objects and made fudge for stalls at school fetes, acted in and made scenery and costumes for school plays, attending school prize-givings – where our children were frequent recipients of books and certificates, and joined PTA committees. Later Andrea joined Karen at Wynberg Girls High School and Ben passed up from Nursery school to Grove Primary School.

At evenings when I arrived home from the Steenbras site Cubby would frequently be out on some school activity often joining me when I was asleep in bed. To complicate matters further, Cubby in January 1975 took on a part time ½ day job at a friend’s small factory, Gay Day, making and sometimes designing soft toy animals. The word ‘gay’ did not have its present homoerotic connotation. She received R150 a month usefully boosting our income and paid for a family holiday at a farm near Mossel Bay with restful walks in mountains sprinkled with snow, horse riding and scrabble in the evenings. She also could buy a new Bernina sewing machine. This reliable item was often later carried as ‘hand baggage’ on aeroplanes to later overseas projects in the next 20 years - ready for immediate use when setting up yet another home - and is still going strong in 2003.

Our house repainted and brick paving laid. See-through fence placed around part of pool and garden much improved.

(a subsequent owner sold off part of the plot - a further house was built over the swimming pool)

In our eight years at Wellington Avenue, Cubby took charge of the property. She replaced our nasty grey strip concrete driveways between the veranda and pool enclosure up to the garage at the back with brick paved areas and also extended this in front of the house to the road – we now had space for 5 to 6 ‘visitors’ cars ‘off road’ frequently used at dinner parties. A wooden entrance gate, with a pergola above was erected and the bland white house exterior was repainted with a warmer terracotta colour, a weatherproof coating against damp and mildew staining caused by winter rains, Later, the low precast concrete fence obscuring our view from the veranda of the swimming pool, was replaced with a decorative wire fence – we could now see the children swimming when we quaffed our red wine on our ‘stoep‘. Cubby assisted by the children keen to grow vegetables, also nurtured the garden. The children fortunately were happy to clean and vacuum the pool – a chore I was not too fond of.

The Cederberg a paradise for camping and hiking - much enjoyed during annual builders holidays after Christmas. The silhouette in the cave is of the Allsopp and Purcell clans. 

At the end of most years after Christmas while the construction industry was still on holiday we journeyed up north of Cape Town to the Cederberg nature reserve in two cars and camped on a farm pitching up to three tents for the 7 of us. Our friends Oliver and Jean and their four children often accompanied us. We walked in the strangely weathered brown and yellow sandstone mountains and amongst the unique Cape ‘fynbos’ vegetation, swam in cold ‘tea stained’ pools in mountain streams, visited caves with paintings made by ancient, since departed San hunter-gatherers of themselves hunting game which was now long departed from these areas. We picnicked, wives busy making sandwiches with cutting boards balanced on their knees, feeding the multitude, while we drank cheap red wine.

In Easter 1978, Cubby and I, accompanied only by our 4 youngest children, went on a four-day walk from Algeria, the forest station into the Cederberg Mountains. We all carried rucksacks graded in size from my large one to a small one for Benjamin with clothing, food and a gas stove. Initially there was much moaning about the steepness of the ascents and the heat of the sun, but the weather cooled down fortunately without raining as we had no tents and slept in our sleeping bags under the stars. One camp was near pools high in the mountains good for bathing. We were alone and met no other people, but saw and heard occasional baboons – fortunately no leopards or snakes crossed our path. Well refreshed, we returned home.

One of many picnics and braaivleises catered for by Cubby near the poolside - Cubby relaxing under one of our plum trees. On right was photographed on one of the walks either up Table Mountain or in some country area by one of the Koeberg French expatriates on the walk

For Cubby, all the school and home activities for five children, together with a job, was ultimately too stressful - she packed in her job at Gay Day at the end of 1977, but continued doing a few design commissions for them. In the absence of suitable overseas projects, it looked as if we might remain permanently in South Africa at our pleasant home in our new Garden of Eden at Wynberg.

Eden was not eternal, my good humoured mother unexpectedly died of a heart attack at seventy years in 1976 leaving my father lonely and increasingly depressed. In 1976 African students in the Transvaal rebelled against learning Afrikaans in their segregated ‘Bantu Education’ schools. Confrontation and violence with the police and the army followed. The student rebellion spread throughout the country and many Coloureds in the Cape joined in what was essentially a protest against Apartheid. It was rumoured that many Africans and Coloureds had been injured or killed, but with a censored media we did not know the actual situation.

My fathers eightieth birthday - My sisters Ruth and Judy (on right down from Johannesburg). Cubby and me with the usual suspects 

Travelling daily to work, I was corralled back into the psychological white ‘laager’ by the possible threat of stones thrown through car’s windscreens from bridges. For a few sleepless nights we were roped in by PTAs to patrol the grounds of our privileged white schools rumoured to be threatened by arsonists. These riots, as much as guerrilla action by the ANC, spelt the death-throw of Apartheid. Generations of blacks without any schooling, with nothing to lose, later not only contributed to overthrowing Apartheid but also to unemployment and increasing crime. The murder of the ‘black consciousness leader’ Steve Biko, while detained and being questioned by police, also caused some unease for whites still living the good life.

The Government increasing criticised by the international community started superficially changing some of their legislation. They nominated some hotels as being ‘International’ and permitted all races to use them - economic factors generally limited their use except for more wealthy blacks, Indians and coloureds. This did permit me to organise an integrated Steenbras site Christmas dinner at a hotel opened[19] to all races at which we danced illegally as ‘mixed’ dancing was still an unlawful activity for people in Apartheid South Africa.

After matriculating at the end of 1976, Nicky, while staying at home started studying for a Botany BSc degree at Cape Town University at the beginning of 1977. She joined the University Mountain and Ski club I had joined over 20 years earlier, and started walking and climbing in many of the areas in the Cape I had previously frequented.

I continued to the end of 1977 at Steenbras and then was transferred to the Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant in January 1978 to supervise the civil works construction of the turbine halls and other structures. Despite the international pressure to which South Africa was subject due to the policy of Apartheid, the French government had permitted the construction of this plant by French Contractors. At this time the possible dangers of Nuclear Power Plants had not been highlighted by the media as later occurred after serious accidents at both Three Mile Island in the United States and at Chernobyl in the then Soviet Union.

The French company Spie Batignolles (SB), who were responsible for the construction of the civil works, effectively subcontracted the works to a consortium of themselves (SB) with two local companies – LTA and Murray and Stewart for whom I worked. This consortium was called Koeberg Civil Contractors (KCC) and successfully and rapidly executed the civil work.

The civil work, generally large quantities of reinforced concrete cast in big sections, was not too different to works I had done previously at Mailsi Siphon in Pakistan, Schelde Tunnel in Belgium, Weaver Viaduct in England and my just completed project Steenbras. I thus was somewhat surprised when some of my fellow staff regarded nuclear power projects containing relatively simple (but large) sections as being unique. There was also a tendency by some colleagues to slavishly copy methods used on similar plants in France – this way they would not be taking either risks or responsibility for new methods. It took much effort to persuade them that sometimes other methods[20] of construction were both cheaper and faster. Fortunately most of our proposed methods were endorsed by senior French and South African management.

An interesting decision had been taken as regards to concrete constituents for the plant. In the Cape area blue Malmesbury shale is generally crushed and used as coarse aggregate with dune sand used as fine aggregate in concrete. However some existing structures had signs of cracking deterioration due probably to an Alkali Silica reaction of stone with cement causing expansion particularly in damp conditions. To avoid this risk it had been decided to open a granite quarry north up the coast. This quarry supplied not only non-reactive well shaped coarse aggregate, but also crushed sand which could be made less fine than dune sand and decreased the amount of water required in the concrete and increased both strength and durability.

Most of the concrete on the project was pumped into position from truck mounted concrete pumps with hydraulic booms or from towers also carrying hydraulic pump booms specially set up to cover the section to be cast. About 10 tower cranes covered the power plant’s whole area and handled formwork, rebar and other equipment and sometimes buckets of concrete for smaller sections such as columns. Rapidly rotating Belgium made drum mixers produced the concrete. The mixers ‘split’ vertically to discharge concrete into storage hoppers feeding the truck mixers taking the concrete to the pumps or cranes. Similar concrete mixers had been used on my earlier Schelde Tunnel project.

Some of Koeberg Nuclear Power Plants local staff - Chris Wetter, Works Manager, and Collin Hullock, Manager Cooling Water Intakes, seated on the Roman arena tiers at Orange. Me, Manager of the Conventional Island, visiting Denmark after trip to France to familiarise us with French practice.

So as to familiarise senior local site managers with the construction process used in France on nuclear power plants, 3 of us Chris Wetter, Colin Hullock and I, were sent in October 1978 for about a week to France to see nuclear plants being constructed. We visited a plant near Bordeaux, a city I had not previously seen and then travelled by hired car southeast along the course of the Garonne River, picnicking on the way on the rocks along the river on bagettes and Camembert cheese. We went further on to the Rhone valley to see other nuclear plants. This was more familiar territory through which I had travelled on holidays while working in England and Belgium. We visited the semicircular stone built Roman arena in Oran, appreciating it somewhat more than the lumps of concrete seen in power plants.

One of the main differences with the Koeberg plant compared with French plants (in earthquake free areas) was that it was designed to resist earthquake forces, as a moderate earth quake had occurred in the 1960’s affecting the country village of Tulbagh. The Nuclear Island was thus uniquely designed to ‘float’ on thick rubber and steel bearings in case of earthquake. The Turbine Halls, while not on ‘floating’ foundations, also had heavier sections for both concrete and steel members compared to French plants to resist shocks. Before I arrived on site, dune sand under the whole plant had been removed to considerable depths down to bedrock. Then the excavated sand mixed at a special batch plant with cement and minimal water was placed and compacted by rollers up to a general foundation level – there were thus no piles or caissons under the plant itself.

Fortunately this trip to France enabled visits to our relatives in different parts of Europe and we split up for a few days. I flew on to Copenhagen meeting Cubby’s sister Bodil and her then husband Soren an actor and slept a night at their apartment. I then took the train to Korsor and boarded the ferry to Lohals, on the island Langeland, eating smorgasbrood (open sandwiches) and drinking øl (beer) which seemed to be a popular Danish pastime. I stayed a few days with Mercia and Aage in their new retirement home and also visiting Dorte, Ole, and their children Tim and Sandie at their pottery studio on the farm of Bastemose. I had been to Lohals once before, camping a night with Cubby and our children during the year I worked in Copenhagen in the late 1960’s.

One main change to systems of working on this nuclear project compared to my previous projects was the requirement for ‘assuring’ the quality of work. We as contractors were now responsible for checking the works ourselves, there was no independent consulting engineer or Client who would do this and in any case we did not want their interference. KCC set up two quality departments – a Quality Control Department which fell under the Works Department executing the work and an independent Quality Assurance Department (responsible to an off site director), which in effect policed and assured that the work was properly done and documented. Effectively almost all large new projects whether nuclear or not are now controlled by documented quality system which are the responsibility of the contractor rather than other parties such as clients or consultants. Such systems and their organisation vary considerably from contractor to contractor and errors and defective work although minimised are never totally eliminated. The system of quality assurance does tend to proliferate paperwork and is often adopted half-heartedly.

In 1979 the accident at Three Mile Island plant occurred in the United States. The local Cape Town media suddenly but belatedly woke up and queried the wisdom of placing the Koeberg plant within 30km of Cape Town in the path of the prevailing northeast winter wind. But work inexorably continued at Koeberg.

I received a generous mid year bonus, sufficient to pay for a trip for Cubby to visit her parents at Lohals and return before Christmas 1979. Karen had been appointed deputy head girl for her last year at Wynberg Girls High School and matriculated at the end of 1979. She and Nicky looked after the younger children, at home during their school holidays when Cubby was away for two weeks in Denmark and I was at work.

My section of work was being completed rapidly and my services at Koeberg were scheduled to finish at the end of 1979. It became time to think of the next project. Construction elsewhere in Cape Town seemed to be depressed, no large civil projects were in view, I would be kept on by Murray and Stewart but it was not clear what I would be doing or whether they could keep me in Cape Town.

The political situation was still volatile with increasing government oppression and black resistance to Apartheid. Our sons being British would presently not be liable for South African army service, but the situation could change and all young male ‘white permanent residents’ might later become liable for army service. The army was increasing used to bolster the police force damping down insurrection in the townships and also fighting both ANC and SWAPO ‘terrorists’ in South West Africa. South West Africa had been a German colony and was mandated to the Union of South Africa, while still British, during the 1st world war. It was now run as if it was a province of the Republic of South Africa. The South African army was also involved in destabilising neighbouring ex Portuguese Colonies, now independent Angola and Mozambique. These were deemed to be in the communist Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. The ‘Cold War’ had spread south in Africa - the United State’s client state, South Africa, was pitted against the Soviet Union’s client state, Angola assisted by Cubans. In all, the situation in South Africa looked unstable and this with an increasing recession leading to a downturn in large projects prompted me to move abroad once again.

I applied to a French company recommended by one of my colleagues and they paid for an interview trip to Paris and offered me a job on bridge construction in Baghdad in Iraq – the only difficulty was that they would not pay my family fares to Europe or Iraq - it would be a bachelor contract. On my return, I then discussed the possibility of working abroad for Spie Batignolles, our French partner at Koeberg – they also had a project in Iraq, the Baghdad International Airport[21] and said I could go there with them on a family basis. This seemed to be a better option and I accepted the offer.

Whole family gathered together at Wellington Avenue, Wynberg, Cape Town at end of 1978 for Christmas. We were not all to gather together again until 22 years later in 2000 in Sheffield. Back row Christopher, Cubby, Tony, Nicholette. Front row Andrea, Benjamin, Karen.

Nicky, who graduated in Botany at the end of 1979, now had a job at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. Eastern Cape, in their Pharmaceutical department. Karen had been accepted by Cape Town University to study nursing and would live in the Nurses home at Groote Schuur Hospital. Once our house was sold, Christopher would stay with Cubby’s cousin Phillip (her sister Tippe's son) and his wife Lynda at their home in Hout Bay and complete his matriculation year at South African College High School. He would then go to University in the United Kingdom. The two youngest children Andrea 13 years and Benjamin 9 years would accompany us to Baghdad and go to the international school there.

Meanwhile we started repainting the inside of our house and put it up for sale. I left late in January 1980 to work initially in Paris on the Baghdad project with provision for return leave in South Africa or Europe every two months until my family could join me permanently in Baghdad.

Cubby sold our house quickly and I joined them on a brief visit assisting in removing our goods into store. Cubby then moved into The Palace Hotel in Kenilworth with the two youngest children. With the delayed transfer of house deeds, friends offered to put Cubby up in their home just next to our old home. There they remained for several weeks, selling our now ancient Volvo[22] for R800 (£400), just before leaving for Denmark on 22nd May 1980. Cubby and the two youngest children would stay at her parent’s home in Lohals before coming to Iraq with me after my next leave.

In the year 2000, when visiting Cape Town and our two eldest daughters who had remained in South Africa, living through the demise of Apartheid, we drove to Wynberg to see our old house of happy memories. We were disillusioned to see that the plot had been subdivided and a further bungalow now covered our swimming pool. The view of the mountain from the veranda was blotted out.

[1] The Boeing 747 entry into the market scuppered the unrealistic sales expectations of the super sonic French / British Concorde which could take far fewer passengers and was developed at huge expense. Both British Airways and Air France were given their planes by their governments and their taxpayers in effect subsidies the privileged wealthy passengers who flew in them. No other airline would buy them.

[2] Who I had last seen in Whitstable 10 years earlier when she was returning from Belgium en route to South Africa

[3] Since the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 until the demise of Apartheid all Prime Ministers and later Presidents were Afrikaners – Nelson Mandela was then elected in 1994

[4] Next to Pinelands lay both the adjacent African Location of Langa and Athlone Power Station’s cooling towers (which Cubby’s father had built when a manager for Christiani and Nielsen)

[5] I later failed to do so at 62 years of age when back in England after years working abroad.

[6] the companies colour

[7] Their competent Civil Works Manager I S Madden had exchanged the strife of Northern Island for sunnier but still racially torn South Africa.

[8] This viaduct was to be linked with Western Boulevard, but over 25 years later in 2003 is yet to be done.

[9] Cubby and I later celebrated the same milestone in 1998 in Paris when she was 59 and I 61 years of age, about a decade younger than my parents.

[10] After the millennium these were felled, being foreign invasion vegetation, to permit the indigenous fynbos to re-establish.

[11] He had managed Christiani and Nielsen’s in South Africa during and just after the 2nd world war

[12] to accommodate their belongings, whittled down from their larger English house.

[13] But productivity (output per man) was generally better than what I was later to see in India where the importation of sophisticated construction plant was then restricted, but was less than in Europe.

[14] Jewish South African exiles were often similarly critical – I had met one at a Labour party sponsored public lecture in Frodsham, England in the late 1960’s who decried Israel’s policies

[15] Later Nkomo, of a different tribal group, was quickly sidelined when Mugabe assisted by North Korean army personnel brutally suppressed his tribe. This was hardly mentioned in a Western Press – no whites involved?

[16] The pipes were made and supplied by Dorman Long Swan Hunter – Dorman Long of course renown as the builders of the Sidney Harbour Bridge

[17] Normally with sliding forms, the inner and outer forms are jacked up tubes or rods which are extended within the concrete walls as one proceeds upward – this limits the placement rate of horizontal rebar which can only then be laboriously and slowly placed under the jack jokes, roughly at 2,5meter centres, crossing about 20 to 30cm above the forms. Instead, as there was only the inner sliding form face (the outer ‘face’ being the blasted rock), we hung rods, cantilevered from the top of the shaft, beyond the inner wall face sliding forms - this had the advantage that all horizontal bar rebar fixing could proceed metres in advance not making it the critical time factor it usually is. Each shaft with continuous 24hour sliding took about 7 days to construct – about 3 metres was lifted in a 12 hour shift, a rate of 25cm rise per hour. Concrete was dropped through 20cm steel pipes up to 40metres initially onto the sliding form working platform and distributed by wheelbarrow into the nominal 50cm thick walls. This was a tough concreting job for the African labourers who performed without complaint during the special 12hour shifts. We encouraged the workmen for this arduous work with daily issues of meat (beef brisket) stewed up and eaten directly after each shift. Today pumping concrete would avoid so much manual effort.

[18] When we returned to Europe in 1980, eight years after we had left, the British pound’s purchasing power for many things was about 1/8 of its 1972 value – disastrous for pensioners on fixed incomes, such as Cubby’s father Aage, but if you were working and received regular compensatory rises inflation was less noticeable.

[19] some hotels were opened to all races after criticism about equal facilities not being available to all races

[20] We for instance formed and cast the 18m high turbine hall columns in one single lift rather than in three 6m lifts as usually done in France. We supported the SB Paris designers in adopting a system of precast supporting slabs for the high turbine hall main floor and also formed and cast most secondary beams in cradles spanning between the main beams. These methods eliminated the need for most high supporting scaffold. In France it appeared that high scaffolds were used under the total floor and beam area and such scaffolds were difficult and expensive to build, move, and strip.

[21] Later renamed the Saddam Hussein International Airport

[22] Volvos were not made or assembled in SA during this apartheid period but were sought after by enthusiasts.

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