A couple of years prior, Basil Read Construction had been involved in the trial pit at the site which would become Phoenix Mine, of Tati Nickel Mining Company Botswana. By 1995 they had secured the contract to develop the opencast mine for the next ten years for BCL (Bamangwato Concessions Limited).
Back in September 1993, The Bouygues Group became the majority shareholder of the Basil Read Group. Because Bouygues was a major global construction giant, Basil Read was in a position to benefit from cross‑border projects and gain access to multilaterally financed projects that had previously been denied to South African companies. It also meant that our personnel were sprinkled with Frenchmen.
First the overburden was stripped off to a dump, then the ore was trucked to a crusher, run by a Basil Read/Blasting & Excavating joint venture, then to a separating plant whereupon the richest nickel-bearing ore was trucked to the extraction plant at Selebe Pikwe, and the poorer ore was stockpiled on site.
My survey duties included setting out shot-holes for the drilling teams, installing level benchmarks for the pit foremen, inputting the info needed for the computer to calculate quantities of ore. Previously on sites I controlled, I would tell the foreman what he would need and give it to him. Here, the French foreman told me what he wanted, which included a lot of concreted beacons around the rock faces. I told him they would simply be blown up – rather put them in one by one as needed.
“Well, if you put it like that,” I said, “yes.”
He skipped his South African boss, Renier Naude, the on-site Contract Manager, and complained to the next Frenchman up the totem pole, Christoffe Morreau, in head office. Morreau had already told me that the company would no longer pay the rent for our home in Maun, nor would they arrange for accommodation for Sheila in Francistown as he claimed I was there on a temporary basis, awaiting the start of more work in Zambia.
By that time we knew it would never materialise, so when they replaced me at Phoenix with Chris Larkin from Port Elizabeth, the die was cast. They flew me to head office to tell me that there was no other job for me and I would be retrenched. Four days before the final day, they told me to report to a road job in the Free State Province, South Africa. I said: sure, just fax me the contract so that I could be sure that I would not have to renew my Botswana residence and work permits.
This they refused to do, saying I should pick it up at head office on my way past. Their refusal was the writing on the wall – they got out of two months’ severance pay when I told them to stick their job where the sun don’t shine…
For me, Phoenix was less like rising from the ashes but rather like going down in flames. But it opened a whole new chapter in our lives as I took on the challenge of working for myself.