Robert Jaentsch and I belong to the same creative writing group in Eltham (in Melbourne, Australia). Over time we have become good friends. Robert has kindly given me permission to publish this piece of his on my blog.
I am certain, that like me, all of you have enjoyed Tim Bruwer’s accounts of his native South Africa, always well constructed, informative and entertaining. But the thing you have to remember is that Tim was a renegade, run out of town by a hostile political regime.
At the time of Tim’s departure, our family had taken up residence in Johannesburg and I would like to present you with an entirely different point of view – a glimpse of a South Africa you may never have known existed.
Did you know that this year South Africa was declared the most beautiful country on Earth? For over a decade now, Cape Town has been the most favoured tourist destination of the most affluent countries of Europe. One of its first public relations benefactors was Francis Drake, who described it as “the fairest cape in all the world.”
When Tim departed that land, South Africa was one of the world’s most stable economies, with a high level of foreign investment and a robust exchange rate. In those days, one Rand (the local unit of currency) would buy US one dollar and 20 cents. Today one Rand will buy you US eight cents!
By any measure of prosperity, white South Africans had the highest standard of living in the world, by a fairly large margin. And let it not be forgotten that though black South Africans had nowhere near the same standard of living, they were vastly better off than in any other African nation that had gained independence from their European colonisers, and they did not rely on international aid for their existence.
A benefit of living in South Africa we greatly appreciated was its education system – quite possibly the finest in the world. Mrs J and I are eternally grateful that our daughter received all her education there and our son most of his. We were able to place our 15 year old son in a well regarded private school in Melbourne. On his first day he stood up when the teacher entered the classroom, as he would have done in South Africa. When the classroom full of boys booed and jeered at him he thought we had brought him to a land of barbarians. Attitudes were different in South Africa.
Back then the only universities in the southern hemisphere that were ranked in the top one hundred were UCT (University of Cape Town) and Wits (University of the Witwatersrand).
Medical systems and facilities were also on par with the world’s best. At the age of 13 our son had open heart surgery in South Africa. When we came to Australia and he had to go for a check up the cardiologist said to him, “That’s a fine piece of surgery. Who did it?” Karl replied, “It was done by Mr Kingsley and his team in South Africa,” to which the cardiologist said, “You were extremely fortunate. Mr Kingsley’s team is one of the best in the world.”
Everyone knows that Dr Christiaan Barnard performed the first human heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. As a point of interest, an uncle of Tim’s was the immunologist on that occasion. But did you know that the uranium enrichment process was developed by the Atomic Energy Board at Pelindaba in the Transvaal? Or that South Africa still leads the world in oil from coal technology and also deep level mining? Back then they were extracting gold bearing ore one mile below the earth’s surface and were confident they could extract from a depth of two miles, though it would require a leap in the gold price to make it workable.
Back then, too, South Africa was the only African nation that was a net exporter of food. Also it became a major manufacturer and exporter of armaments, driven to this by trade embargoes because of its apartheid policy. It manufactured or assembled more different makes of motor car than any other country. In fact, today, if you buy a Mercedes Benz or BMW automobile in Australia, chances are it will have been made in South Africa.
At the end of last week’s class Tim, Bruce and I stood chatting on the pathway to our U3A classroom, blocking the thoroughfare, as blokes will. I happened to mention Franschhoek, as pretty a small town as anywhere on the planet. Tim told us his Huguenot ancestors settled there in the seventeenth century. He said, “Don’t say any more, you’re making me feel homesick.” As he turned to say goodbye, I fancy I saw the glint of a tear in his eye.