My next job for Basil Read was a ten kilometre tarred road with a pier and beam concrete bridge over the Komati River in the smallest of the Apartheid derived black Homelands, KaNgwane. It was ironical that I was once again away from home in the Lowveld. Coincidentally, the man who represented the Client was my old friend, Tommy du Plessis! KaNgwane was meant to form a buffer between South Africa and Mozambique to stem guerrilla infiltration, nestling up against Swaziland, with which the government hoped to amalgamate the homeland. Swaziland refused the idea, and Kangwane was granted nominal self-rule in 1981.
By 1990 the South African pressure-cooker was nearing the point of explosion. Entrenched Apartheid supporters were checking their ammo for a confrontation as the pressure built, but were grinding their teeth when President de Klerk began to show signs of compromise.
The senior concrete foreman on site was Frik Hand, a hardworking and popular giant of a man, he was one of the old school who despised any sign of what he thought was weakening in the stance against the rising black menace. He had a lot to say about traitors and such when, in the mess one evening, we listened to the news that de Klerk decided to free Nelson Mandela from prison.
Up to that point, I had got on very well with Frik, but not after I tried to reason with him about releasing the lid on the cooker before it blew up in our faces. I reckoned that if we, the whites, didn’t do something positive about building bridges very soon, we would be facing a blood-bath.Mandela was released from prison on 11th February, 1990, after twenty seven years of incarceration. The ban on the movement of which he was a prominent leader, the African National Congress (ANC) was unbanned and executions were suspended.
As the gantry lowered the beams onto the piers across the Komati River, I watched in terrified apprehension. As the surveyor, the responsibility for the accuracy was mine, and no matter how often one checks it, the actual fit is what counts. Relief, as the beams fitted snugly onto their bearings!
The site-agent on that job was a young Brit engineer named John Riley, who became a friend who would share most of my life up until 2004.