Monday, 22 October 2012

Making a mark?

I have recently been intrigued to see how many former South Africans are making a mark in a wide range of fields. I first began to notice this in the UK when I began bumping into former South Africans in shops, factories and even my local doctors surgery. Several times we had a 'locum' from places I once knew well, and we even had a locum veterinary surgeon at one point. The Peugeot car plant in Swindon employed a lot of former SA engineers and the list certainly didn't stop there.

It came even more into focus when I received an invitation to attend a fund raising 'event' for my Old School Association in London. It turned out there were a lot of former pupils there, many in senior positions in law, architecture, construction, medicine and finance. Most of them definitely well connected and known as 'movers and shakers.' Nor are they the only well connected former South Africans in the UK and in Europe. There are many in Germany I have found, though it does come as a bit of a shock to hear someone speaking English with a strong 'Sarff Efrican' accent in the aisle of a supermarket in rural Germany. From my contact with my old school, I now know that many of my former classmates are scattered around the USA, Israel, Australia, Canada and Europe. Like the Irish in the 17th to 19th Centuries, we have become the world's 'Wild Geese.'

While in the Middle East a few years ago, I learned that there are a very large number of former South Africans working in the oil and gas industries. There I was told that they were popular because they had a 'can do' approach and were prepared to find solutions rather than see obstacles to getting something done. I've several times been accused of this myself during my career in the UK, and it is something I now recognise as being a bit of a hallmark of the 'colonial' mindset. Perhaps its something in our genes, perhaps developed from the experience of our forebears who had to try and create a nation out of a wilderness. They were always short of tools, equipment or support - so they made do, create what they needed, or found a new way to do things. Yes, they did get a lot wrong, we all still do, but the key we all had is that we'd rather be accused of having attempted to 'do' rather than of not having tried anything.

I was reminded of this last night as I watched the news on the television which included an item on the raising of the Costa Concordia. I was surprised that the man in charge of the attempt is a South African engineer. He's using an innovative method to attempt to lift and recover the biggest shipwreck anyone has ever attempted to lift. OK, I'll confess I am slightly tickled to see he is using a technique first attempted by a scrap merchant from the Midlands, named Cox, to recover the sunken German battleships in Scapa Flow. Just goes to show, the equipment is no longer crude and 'home made' but it is the same idea taken a step further.

What this suggests is that while white South Africans may no longer be able to make a mark in that country or to call it 'home,' they are at least being seen in a positive light, as entrepeneurs, reliable and enterprising workers with a lot to offer. I think it's worth celebrating.

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