MAYBE I have too much time on my hands. Maybe listening to Vodacom’s soul-mangling jingles waiting for the mythical “Next Available Consultant” (that ranks up there with Bigfoot & the Chupacabra) forces the brain into self-defence … Anyway I got to thinking about all the jobs I’d done in my life. More specifically, those for which I had actually been paid. I ended up with a list of 36. Thirty-six things people paid me to do! Give it a go yourself. You might be as surprised as I am.
So I’d thought I’d blog about them. It’s a helluva lot more fulfilling than tacky old politics. So, not in any order whatsoever, here’s Chapter 1:
Time to come clean, to ‘fess up as Americans say. Even as an ankle-biter I craved the spotlight. From class clown and maverick to teenage stud muffin to varsity daredevil-cum-stand-up comedian, I loved being the centre of attention.
I blame the Church. As a small dusty Northern Cape desert-town Anglican Church minister my father was the centre of attention – and what boy doesn’t want to be like his dad?
In Standard 2 (grade 4) in Prieska Primary School I was infected big-time. I won the school prize for being the Best Bilingual pupil in the school. Which actually wasn’t too hard if you’re the only bilingual kid in the school. But for one brief shining moment I basked in my 15 seconds of fame. At school in SA I was an oddity because I spoke English in overwhelmingly Afrikaans communities. For two years at school in England I was an oddity because I came “from Africa”. It seemed I could not avoid the spotlight, so I learnt to embrace it.
I was chairman of the high school debating society and won Best Speaker award (along with the bilingual thing again) in matric. At varsity I fed the drama-demon by dabbling in amateur theatre and cheerleading. In later years it was training under the late Gordon Mulholland (who also became my agent) and starring in numerous TV commercials, training videos, TV soapies and even cameos in two movies. Then came Toastmasters, still the unassailable world’s best adult education programme bar none. I did pretty well in that becoming the first person from Africa to reach and compete in the World Championship of Public Speaking in Washington, DC, in 1988.
And then in 1993 I joined the Chamber of Mines of SA as communication manager in the “pee-arh” department under my former Rand Daily Mail night editor, Peter Bunkell. Bunks was a newspaperman’s newsman and steered the Chamber through the toughest years of its 104-year-old history when it became the whipping boy for all the pent-up political rage channelled through the National Union of Mineworkers prior to the miracle of 1994.
The Chamber had been established in the late-1800s to coalesce the interests of burgeoning mining companies against Paul Kruger’s plans and to get a foot in Queen Vicky’s door back in London for support. Throughout the 20th century it grew to the point where it employed hundreds of staff and essentially managed everything for the mines that was not grit-under-the-fingernails holes-in-the-ground mining related. This included healthcare (the Chamber managed the 47 best hospitals in SA and the best medical aid, provident and pension funds in Africa), recruitment across sub-equatorial Africa, industry communications, safety standards, training and fought the political battles against a Nationalist government, just as rapacious and money-grubbing as the ANC is today.
Despite our atrocious safety records, the gold, coal and diamond mining industries were the showcases of South African industrial heft and deep-mining engineering technology. We were the benchmark.
And for both good and bad. By the late 1980s the mining industry was the perfect microcosm for South Africa as a whole. And the Chamber of Mines was its voice, its administrative arm, its agency, its go-to place for its members (the mining conglomerates) and the world beyond the whirling headgear and yellow dumps.
Then the cutbacks began. By the time I joined, the communication department (PR was a concept that had become too tits-and-bums for the league of extraordinary gentlemen at the Rand Club) had shrunk from 98 staff to 12, the hospitals and clinics were being hived off, the diamond mines had gone on their own, gatvol of playing second fiddle to gold, mines themselves demanded more control of their own affairs, new transglobal giants like Rio Tinto didn’t see value in joining the Chamber and the focus shifted from digging ever-deeper holes in the ground to dealing with the advent of democracy, majority rule, HIV/Aids and the perennial wage negotiations. The mining houses didn’t want to have to deal with these things (after all getting gold out of the ground was tough enough) – and what the mining houses wanted and didn’t want was law north of Cape Agulhas. After all, their membership fees paid our salaries.
The mining industry had grown and flourished on the back of a rigid hierarchical mindset that would make the average military establishment look positively egalitarian. In places like Carletonville, Randfontein, Blyvooruitzicht, Welkom, Witbank, Cullinan and Lime Acres where buggerall happens and continues all day long, the ranking, top down, worked as follows:
Mine Manager’s Wife
God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit
saints … and so on down.
When I joined the Chamber I asked Bunks why all the handles were set so low down on the office doors. He explained that it was to ensure one was already in a stooped position when one entered the Boss’ office. I didn’t endear myself to one of big cheeses when, ignorant of how unimaginably celestial a being he was, he “suggested” I call the president of the Chamber “Mister” and not Alan. Automouth replied that he called the Son of God by his first name and saw no reason not to do the same to another mere mortal. The report came back to Bunks and I was given a 99-carat closed-door uitkak (er, dressing down).
With the increased focus on political and politicised issues, increasingly tortuous wage negotiations, the ways people still found to kill themselves underground, the arrival of the Internet and South Africa’s imminent momentous step into a brave new world, the industry needed some talking head to take media pressure off, to say the “right” things when needed and to keep it off the front pages and 8 o’clock news when necessary. That’s where I came in.
The step was smooth as a Michael Schumacher gear-change. Bunks briefed me when necessary and under the overarching guidance of one of South Africa’s handful of true leaders, BobbyGodsell, as Chamber president, I was kept fully in the loop. Only two departments within the Chamber sat in on executive committee (think US Joint Chiefs of Staff or a Conclave of Cardinals in the Vatican, except more important) meetings – legal (for on-the-spot counsel) and communication.
Wage negotiations were always fun because NUM eagerly sought the media’s ear (and the media gave it liberally and unquestioningly), while the Chamber wanted none of it.
Then some fool would get touchy-feely with a major electric cable underground and NUM would make a meal of it, blaming “capitalist bosses” and everyone from Santa Claus down – except, of course, the dead guy. Those were never fun.
And then 1994 was upon us. South Africa was about to become a bloodbath. Catch the apocalypse live on CNN – tune in at 8.
Any journalist worth his or her salt – and there were literally thousands – knew if you wanted a Reader’s Digest version of South Africa in all its myriad manifestations, complexities and tensions, the mining industry was custom-built for that. Everyone from Yomiuri Shimbun to The Wall Street Journal, from CNN to PNG TV, from the Alice Springs Bugle Herald Tribune to Die Gemsbok wanted to go down a mine, visit a “compound”, record a day-in-the-life-of Miner X, interview Godsell.
There were some exceptionally talented journalists from James Nachtwey (who called Gold Reef City “your tatty little theme park”) to the current editor of City Press, Ferial Haffajee (affectionately known as Ferial 500 – because 500 is half-a-G as in grand or 1,000, see?). There were also complete nitwits like the erstwhile SABC boss, Snuki Zikalala (once barred from a media conference because he arrived 15-minutes late and demanded entry).
They were exciting times, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants times, run-rabbit-run times, yack-their-ears-bloody times, smile-and-kick-them-in-the-balls times and I discovered I was to the manor born. Unexpected 2am live radio interviews from Brisbane or Hong Kong, preparing for TV interviews with German broadcasters only to find they had lied about their agenda and doom-and-gloom prognosticators only looking to have their eschatological Dantesque predictions vindicated.
Naturally I had to be quoted every time, not merely as journalistic necessity, but as Chamber policy too, and, while my first name endeared me instantly to every Pom – especially the leek-loving Welshmen – it posed grave difficulties for most others. Chief among these was our own beloved “black pepper”, Sowetan. I was named everything from soapie heroine “Sue Ellen” to the imaginative “Louis-Allen”. My colleagues kept a running journal of the latest grotesquely hilarious contortion. My last name also came out as anything from Creel (a basket for carrying fish) to Creole, Krieg to Kruger and Krill (the stuff baleen whales eat) to Kyle. At first a bit insulting, it came to be a very handy scapegoat when the media did screw up factually (which was about 50/50) – “Well, (fill in upset mine boss’ name), look what they did to my name. You just can’t trust these arseholes to get it right, now can you?”
And after the great post-coital anti-climax, when the streets ran with happy, hope-drunk people and not blood, when Nelson Mandela gave us a glimpse of our yet-to-be-realised potential – it was back to business as usual. The mining industry would survive another 100 years and the Chamber of Mines would be right out there in front, catching the flak and doing it with transcendent aplomb on behalf of its members.
The brave new Rainbow Nation was here. Everything was gonna be aalllllrrrright!
That clichéd all-but-extinct notion traipsed off in the disappointed aftermath of the media hype. And after Nelson Mandela left government, the steady downward spiral of rot, disease, ineptitude and corruption set in. Unlike the other myths and dreams of the time, South Africa is not quite ground zero, but definitely far over on that side of the scale from hero.
The Chamber today is a mere vague, half-glimpsed shadow of its erstwhile grandeur, little more than an ethereal shape you thought you saw in the morning fog. The mining industry it once represented is now pretty much the same compared to those ebullient heady times.
With the benefit of hindsight and the reality of my autumnal years upon me, I’m pretty sure that leaving the Chamber was one of the worst mistakes I ever made. That’s neither the wistful nostalgia of age nor rancorous regret that the world has moved on. That understanding comes from casting about in South Africa today and realising the dream of 1994 will not come to fruition in my lifetime. And also the conscious knowledge that amid the ubiquitous apathy, bigotry and moribund leadership in private and public life, the one thing the Chamber of Mines did with unwavering dedication was look after its people.
And, folks, we need that now. That I know with painful poignancy.