A Rough Diamond in South Africa
Foreword by Patrick Leonard Symcox
I have no doubt that the many emigrants to South Africa or those associated with mining will enjoy reading this book, which will bring back many memories as well as part of the history of Anglo American Corporation and De Beers. Those fortunate enough to have been in the De Beers Kimberley precinct were forever touched, shaped and scarred in some way. Somehow, it all seemed so right. The world beyond was a different place.
It says much for those such as Cecil Rhodes and the Oppenheimers who established and made De Beers what it is today that the precepts of the original charter permeate the company. The global giant that was born out of the dry dust of the Northern Cape, and whose Head Office still stands proudly in a quaint back street just a stone’s throw away from the biggest man-made hole on planet earth, was surely responsible for shaping the lives of millions.
The Kimberley mines no longer operate under the De Beers banner and others have been closed for some years. Therefore, it is perhaps timely to gather together the many thoughts and reminiscences of some of the characters who worked and played there in an era when the diamond meant so much to so many and loyalty to the De Beers brand was life itself.
The De Beers Country Club, as one would expect, served as a “second home” to the men of the mining brotherhood. Moreover, it afforded the characters of Kimberley the opportunity to express themselves in the “Pick ‘n Shovel Bar” or at any of the many grand sporting facilities provided.
Perhaps the first link between Len and me was made in 1968 when Len met my uncle, Weston, who worked in the drawing office at De Beers Head Office; this led, inevitably, to an introduction to my dad, Rodger.
My own memories are of his sons Leon, a similar age to me, and Andrew, who we always enjoyed playing with at the De Beers Country Club and our respective homes. Even though many years have passed since the time when De Beers seemed to be Kimberley itself, I still have, in my mind’s eye, the boyish-looking Len Thompson, playing bowls with my father, uncles and, even, me.
To Len, his wife Iris and his family, I hope the sparkle of Kimberley and De Beers remains as bright as that diamond found by a young lad on the De Beers’ farm all those years ago, and that your journey through this book is enjoyed as much by all those who choose to read it.
Patrick was a fully-fledged Springbok cricketer in the Test and One-Day sides. He and Mark Boucher still hold a Test record ninth-wicket partnership of 195 runs against Pakistan, during which he reached his first Test century on the way to an innings of 108.
A life-threatening accident in 1964 saw me move lock, stock and barrel with my wife and family thousands of miles to a country we knew little about and to a lifestyle we could only have dreamed of.
This book records my recollection of our family life, places, holidays and events both memorable and mundane. I worked at a gold mine and several diamond mines in South Africa and my aim has been to paint a picture of industrial and social life in that great country
The book is, first of all, dedicated to my children who will be able to reflect on the marvellous experiences they had in South Africa. Secondly, it is dedicated to four of our dear friends in South Africa who are no longer with us but their spirits will still be there.
Rear Cover Text
The book is dedicated to four of our dear friends in South Africa, shown above, who are no longer with us but their spirits will still be there.
It is primarily a compilation of memories of our stay in South Africa, from 1966, when we emigrated from the UK, to 1973, when we returned. The contributors are myself, my wife Iris, children Leon, Andrew and Julia plus a host of friends that we made during that period. It is backed up by information, obtained from the companies I worked for – Anglo American Corporation of South Africa and De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited, obtained during my research mostly by a visit to Johannesburg and Kimberley in March and April of this year, 2008.
It contains a brief history of South Africa at that time and most of the mines that I worked at and places we stayed and people we met during our stay in that great country.
The body of the book is made up of memories of my working for Anglo and for De Beers. It looks at such mining magnates as Cecil Rhodes, Ernest Oppenheimer and Harry Oppenheimer who helped to make those mining companies what they are today. The text is supported by a number of images, both photographic and line drawings.
It will no doubt cause more than a mist of nostalgia to rise in the eyes of many people who lived in South Africa during the sixties and early seventies, and should especially bring back memories of all those who enjoyed working at Welkom Gold Mine, Dutoitspan and Bultfontein, De Beers, Jagersfontein, Finsch and Wesselton Diamond Mines during this period.
THE CHESTERFIELD AREA, approaching half a century ago, was an altogether different place – reflecting a culture largely borne of heavy industry. With its position at, perhaps, the centre of the industrial revolution, it was naturally associated with the dirt and poverty that went hand-in-glove with the coal and iron industries which provided employment for the bulk of the local workforce.
There was little social or economic migration and most working-class folk followed their parent’s occupation as they had done so in an earlier generation. A son followed his father down the pit, or into the local iron and steel manufacturing works which was almost part of an extended family.
There were, however, ways in which to escape – and local author Len Thompson, both as a youngster and later as an adult, did just that. The first route was through education, via a local grammar school, and the second was through emigration – in his case to South Africa.
Len Thompson has already published Life Down t’Lane, Memories of Tapton House School and A History of Tapton House paying homage to his working-class roots and later education. In his latest book, A Rough Diamond in South Africa, he chronicles his emigration to the land where he worked in gold and diamond mining for the industrial giants, Anglo American Corporation and De Beers.
In today’s modern world, such a hybrid of good education and venturesome spirit would not, per se, be the stuff of which books are made. In context, however, the South Africa of half-a-century ago was akin to the dark side of the moon, compared with a Chesterfield which was relatively poor, often grim, and lacking in opportunity.
Len Thompson has managed to skillfully blend the autobiographical side of a life of relatively plenty in a comparatively privileged world, with insights into the world of gold and diamond mining that, to a local reader and those who were directly involved in the mining industry, will certainly prove novel and interesting. He does this without undue sentimentality and without venturing into becoming overly technical at the expense of the thrust of a story of De Beers and its interests in South Africa. Other contributors are his wife Iris, children Leon, Andrew and Julia plus a host of friends that they made during their stay. He also touches on the effect of apartheid on the uninitiated like him and his family.
During his career with De Beers Len became expert in computers and developed approaches to mining aimed at calculating the profit-and-loss involved in the excavation of huge holes in the ground in pursuit of diamonds. As well as documenting, in pictures, his personal life, there are also a number of colour plates illustrating the diamond mining process, the huge diamonds occasionally unearthed, and the leading figures in an industry that was to become legendary, including Cecil Rhodes, who, through his Rhodes’ Scholarships, gave Bill Clinton the chance to become President.
For the Derbyshire Reflections Magazine December issue by Graham Bannister of Bannister Publications, Saltergate, Chesterfield.
Congratulations on an absorbing story, a story with a humble beginning, well told in your own unique style. A most interesting account, covering a wide spectrum of living in South Africa. The book paints a graphic picture of all aspects in the way of life in all sections of the community. It also covers the many problems facing South Africa, such as poverty, apartheid, and describes the social and political scene in detail.
The many aspects of the gold and diamond mining techniques are explained in an interesting, easily understood way. The book leaves one with the feeling that South Africa is a beautiful country, and in spite of some problems which still exist, a really great place to live.
The wonderful journey made by the author even produces a champion bowler in the process.
Wilf H Share, 4 Chatsworth Court, Chatsworth Road, Chesterfield S40 3AP
During the late 1960’s to early 1970’s the industrial mining giants of the Anglo American Corporation and De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd. still recruited a number of their engineers and other managers from the previous colonial power. Len Thompson was one of these youthful and adventuresome UK immigrants who packed up and moved his young family to “darkest” South Africa. For Thompson South Africa was a land of opportunity from which he could escape his poor background. The book is essentially an autobiographical sketch of a young UK industrial immigrant to South Africa covering his seven years of work from 1966 to 1973 first for the Anglo American Corporation and then mostly for De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd. Each place where the Thompson family resided and worked is introduced by a historical setting. The story is then intertwined by personal experiences and reflections from individual members of the family as well as Thompson’s own work experiences from a not too technical angle so that the unfamiliar reader may understand. One meets family and friends, especially on the sports field. A comment on the cultural and social standards of living in mining towns in South Africa is thus achieved from a bystander’s perspective. Near the end of Thompson’s career with De Beers he became an expert in computers and was one of the first to start in the computer department. This training also assisted him to write a programme for his sports draws. A Rough Diamond in South Africa (ISBN 978-0-9525678-3-7), contains 24 pages of coloured plates. Foreword by Pat Symcox, all-round South African test cricketer 1993-1999. To help maintain the name of the Warren Symcox Childhood Development Centre part of the proceeds of sales of this book will be donated to the Sinothando Home, Galeshewe, Kimberley, to assist the children suffering from HIV and Aids.Ingrid Henrici – Chairperson – N Cape branch of LIASA (Library and Information Association of South Africa)
Len Thompson’s aptly named book describes not only life on the mines in South Africa but also the type of life one led as an immigrant in South Africa in the 60s. His description of the land, family life, holidays, travelling along long rural roads and the friendly, hospitable lifestyle of that land will take the reader to a place quite different from England. His experiences set out in a subtle way the culture shock of arriving in a typical mining community without the benefit of the local language or an understanding of their feelings toward the empire. Factually correct, the book describes the country, the climate, the mines and the challenges facing a young rooinek family in the Orange Free State and Northern Cape. Len provides a detailed history of the diamond mining industry and towns such as Jagersfontein and Kimberley. Sport played a crucial role in day to day life and Len’s tales of bowls, rugby and cricket describe their importance as the main source of social activity in a somewhat barren area. South Africans reading this book will relate to the Volkswagen Beetle, the Ford 17M, sunny skies and Chevrolet. While conscription and the unfortunate consequences of the border war are covered, Len has managed to steer clear of politics and concentrates on the experiences of his family as they discovered this vast and complex land. From a mining perspective Len’s knowledge of the industry has enabled him to set out in an extremely interesting way the amount of effort taken to place a diamond in a loved one’s ring. The companies and the characters involved as well as the technical side of diamond mining are covered in a way that a lay person will understand. This book is true to life and makes easy and entertaining reading even if you have not experienced South Africa. In my case his narrative reminds me of my own life as a child in nearby Bloemfontein.
Steve Cridland – Grahamstown
Dear Len: Many thanks for ‘A Rough Diamond in South Africa’ – a powerful book that I strongly recommend.
Tony Benn, formerly 2nd Viscount Stansgate and British Labour politician