Peter Ball

In 1884, before Johannesburg ever existed and when herds of game still roamed free across the savannah, a young man left his home in the Eastern Cape in search of adventure in what was then the Eastern Transvaal (now known as Mpumalanga). His name was Percy Fitzpatrick (1862-1931) and he went hoping to find his fortune on the newly proclaimed goldfields.

In 2014 the monthly magazine “Civil Engineering” (published by the South African Institute of Civil Engineers) ran a series of articles entitled “A brief history of transport infrastructure in South Africa up to the end of the 20th century” (comprising ten chapters issued from January/February to November 2014), which gave an interesting account of the history of our roads, railways, harbours and airports. The author of the articles was Dr.

For those of us old enough to remember, there was a tune called the “Lift Girl’s Lament” by the British singer songwriter Jeremy Taylor (he who was banished from South Africa for deriding Apartheid), which had the immortal line “I might go a thousand feet a day but I’m not going to go that far”; the song told the tale of a lift operator in a downtown Johannesburg department store in the 1960’s.

 

We South Africans live in a polyglot society, which under our Constitution, has 11 official languages that “must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably”. Mother tongues range from Afrikaans to IsiZulu, from isiXhosa to Setswana, however to stop us being a modern Tower of Babel we largely use one language to communicate between each other and that is English. In doing so we are reflecting a world wide trend. In today’s world English has become the “Lingua Franca” replacing French as the language of diplomacy and German in the field of science.

Should one drive out of Johannesburg eastwards along the N12 highway, a famous landmark is passed at the Snake Road exit, known as Benoni’s mountain or more accurately the Kleinfontein Mine Dump. The Dump has been standing tall (92 metres) for over 90 years but will soon only be a memory as it is being reclaimed for the estimated 3 ½ tons of gold that it contains. For many it is an eyesore and good riddance, but others will be sad to see it go.

 

Ever since the Millennium the buzzword has been “Globalisation”, which paradoxically was given prominence by the anti-globalisation movement; those people who saw the threat of the multinational companies creating a new world order. By definition Globalisation is “the process enabling financial and investment markets to operate internationally, largely as a result of deregulation and improved communications” (Collins). The word came into everyday speech in the 1990’s having been coined first in the 1960’s by economists.

An article published in the May 2015 “Popular Mechanics” magazine (RSA edition), was entitled “SUPERTRAINS coming down the line” in which it was stated “Let’s get one thing straight: we don’t send much freight via railway because the country’s extensive rail network is too narrow”. Yes it is true that South African wagons run on a narrow gauge track (1065mm) - narrow by definition being a gauge less than the standard gauge of 1435mm (4’-8½”).

Rust by definition is a reddish brown coating formed on a ferrous metal (i.e. iron or steel) by oxidation, especially in the presence of moisture, which gradually corrodes the metal. Rust would seem to be Nature’s way of restoring iron and steel back to the state of the iron ore found in the earth’s crust. This process could well be called metallurgy in reverse.

The late Fred Dibnah, although unknown to most South Africans, was a household name in Britain. He was a true English eccentric who had a passion for all sorts of machinery powered by steam and he spent much of his life studying their construction and history.

He was a man born out of his time, as by the time he started work in the 1950’s, steam power in industry was being superseded by newer technology in the form of electric powered machines.

The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886 started a gold rush that surpassed the Californian (1849), Victorian (1851) and Barberton (1885) rushes and the initial boom created the city of Johannesburg, which was literally and figuratively built on gold. The initial boom lasted for three years as the mining companies followed the sloping reef into the earth’s crust and then in 1889 the bust happened, as the gold appeared to suddenly run out which in turn caused a pall of pessimism to hang over the diggings.

The tragedy of the present day Migrant Crisis caused by the Syrian Civil War has an earlier precedent which occurred in the late seventeenth century when the King of France – Louis XIV (the Sun King) revoked the Edict of Nantes (a law protecting religious tolerance).  It was on the 22nd October 1685 that the King formally outlawed the Protestant religion in France, however, prior to that date the Huguenots (French Calvinists) had been persecuted rather like the Jews were in pre-war NAZI Germany.

In today’s world, large infrastructure projects such as the state of the art “Gautrain” rapid transit railway between Johannesburg and Pretoria (80 km in length) are constructed using mechanised plant and equipment for better productivity when working to tight project schedules (fast tracking). Occupational Health and Safety on construction sites has become a main concern when it comes to planning and executing large civil engineering projects with hazard operability studies (HAZOPS) and risk assessments being mandatory.

Field Marshal Bernhard Law Montgomery, nicknamed “Monty” by his men, commanded the Allies 21st Army Group in Northwest Europe, during the last months of the Second World War. On the 4th May 1945 at Luneburg Heath he accepted the unconditional surrender of the German forces in that theatre of the War. Victory in Europe (VE day) would come four days later on the 8th of May 1945.

Dickie Jeeps who passed away recently aged 84, was one of the greatest scrum halves ever to play the game of Rugby. He came to the fore during the 1955 British Lions tour of South Africa, where he played in all four Tests against the Springboks. He went on tour as a surprise choice as he was uncapped (by England), but he proved, on the hard grounds of the Highveld, to be the ideal partner for the mercurial fly half Cliff Morgan. The Test series would be drawn with two wins apiece.

 

When someone is asked who or what is the Iron Lady, the first thought that comes to mind is usually Margaret Thatcher, but long before she became Prime Minister of Britain there was another Iron Lady. Ask any Parisian and they will tell you that “La Dame de Fer” is the Eiffel Tower.

The Channel Tunnel, nicknamed the “Chunnel” is a 31 mile (50 km) long rail tunnel beneath the English Channel (La Manche) which provides a fixed link between England and France. It is geographically situated at the narrowest crossing – the Strait of Dover (Pas de Calais). The Chunnel has been operational since its official opening on the 6th May 1994 and is run by the company “Eurotunnel” – the concessionaire until 2086.

 

Warren Buffet once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that then you’ll do things differently”.  Alas history is littered with instances where his words would have fallen on deaf ears.

It is hard to believe that it has only been a few decades since South Africa adopted the metric system. The shift had a profound impact on the economy and the daily lives of citizens. Many of South Africa's largest trading partners at the time were either using the metric system or had committed to moving over. This provided the impetus for South Africa to get going. The strength of the apartheid state ensured that implementation was highly effective.

The question is easy to answer; South Africa was formerly part of the British Empire, which decreed that the rule of the road was to keep left in order to avoid collision, end of story.

NO not the end of story. The real question to be asked, is why does Britain (and her former colonies) drive on the left, when 65% of the countries of the world drive on the right?

The old saying that “Good walls make for good neighbours” has been taken to heart in Johannesburg, where high walls have sprung up where once there were only low diamond mesh fences and hedges to keep the children and pets from straying onto the road.

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