Howland man recalls working in South Africa 30 years ago

A Howland neighbor, Tom Wills, told me about his work experience in South Africa in the early 1980s. It has been more than 30 years since he was last there.

One of the changes he’s aware of now is the demise of apartheid. One example that demonstrates that is that when he was there, city buses ran in tandem, one for white passengers, the other for people of color. Now there is one bus for all people.

It seems clear that the boycott of South Africa by many countries during apartheid was effective.

Wills was employed by Wean United in helping to develop a steel mill, Iscor. Mr. John Wean Sr., he said, was good to work for: “One sharp cookie, a pretty decent guy.”

Iscor is located in Vanderbilt Park and is South Africa’s main steel manufacturer. It produces products that are among the best in he world. They help South Africa earn millions in foreign exchange each year.

The currency of South Africa is the rand. It used to have a higher value than our dollar, but that is no longer true. The Krugerrand is a gold coin and still holds its value because of the gold content.

Wills worked six days a week, and on Sundays, he visited some of the local points of interest. On one occasion, he went to the Gold Mine Museum. On a tour there, he took an elevator down 750 feet into a working gold mine. He said it was hot, sweaty and smelly from the men who worked there in limited light.

At ground level, in a smelt house, he watched the raw gold being melted down and poured into an ingot. It weighed about 50 pounds. The density and size of the bar made it difficult to pick up. He said the worker there challenged anyone to heft it, saying, “Even if you can pick it up, you can’t take it with you!”

The waste soil from mining is piled in mounds outside the city, where Wills saw it “glowing golden in the setting sun.”

There were also substantial diamond mines but he never visited one of them.

Wills’ trips to South Africa averaged three times a year for four years from 1981 to 1984. He became acquainted with the local resources, such as barbershops and restaurants. He commented that the prawns he ate there were outstanding and he was enjoying orange roughy long before it was available in the United States.

Even now, Wills always looks for South African wines when he’s shopping. He says he found both the reds and whites to be very good and that South African Riesling is his favorite of all. He also notes that much of the wool for mohair sweaters we see in the U.S. comes from Angora goats raised in South Africa.

Wills said that while he was there 30 years ago, most stores closed by 6 p.m. on weekdays and at noon on Saturdays. They did not reopen until Monday morning. He said, “The Anglican and Dutch Reformed churches may have had something to do with this — I don’t know.”

The Portuguese discovered what we know today as South Africa in 1488 on their way to find sea routes to India. They set up stations there where they could replenish food and water supplies. They did not colonize.

The Dutch settled in northern South Africa in 1652, mainly as farmers. The British, more interested in mining and industry, arrived in 1838.

Both of these groups of European settlers participated in the lucrative and onerous slave trade. There have been frequent conflicts between their respective descendants. There has been bitter warfare between the white population and native tribes, notably the Zulus.

South Africa became a British colony in 1806 and became an independent nation in 1910.

Today, Tom Wills is pleased to observe a prosperous and essentially peaceful nation that he thinks of fondly.

Contact Thomas at