I started writing this letter on 16 December which is a South African public holiday called the Day of Reconciliation. It got me thinking about how much has been achieved in our country in the past ten years, as a direct result of the national reconciliation that took place rather miraculously around the time of our first democratic elections. The country still has many problems to deal with (such as poverty, unemployment, housing, education, crime, and HIV/AIDS), but has seen real progress in developing a generally good constitution, putting the economy on a sound footing, and providing clean water and electricity to the majority of people that had no access to this before. Overall, my view is that the country is a much better place now than it was ten years ago. The subject of reconciliation has been a recurring theme for us this year. Debbie has continued with her HeartWork project among women in prison, running her fourth course this year and planning much future growth. This has made a huge difference in the lives of many women, who have been shown much love and have been equipped with some skills and emotional tools for dealing with the world in which they live. The story of one of these women is featured in a travelling exhibition called The Forgiveness Project currently on at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. Deb was also involved in another Kairos outreach weekend at the Johannesburg prison this year. For my part, I was able to make a small contribution to a book by Alexander Venter (the pastor of our church) called 'Doing Reconciliation', which was born out of his pastoring a church in Soweto in the 1980s and 1990s.
In January, we started the year by taking some time off to do some interesting things with friends, including a tour of the Cullinan Diamond Mine, and a visit to the Johannesburg Art Gallery, as well as a trip up to the top of the Carlton Centre to enjoy a birds-eye view of the city. We also spent a couple of days as a family at Bakgatla camp in the Pilanesberg Game Reserve - we got rained out, but had an enjoyable time nonetheless.
Still in January, Sarah decided to swim the Ekurheleni 1200m race across Germiston Lake, just as David had done for the first time last year. They both swam very well and really earned the medals they won, as did Sarah's friend and David's cousin who swam with them.
At the end of January, I went to Cape Town to attend two metallurgical conferences (Molten Slag, and Infacon) which were very worthwhile. Between conferences I visited Saldanha Steel and Namakwa Sands ilmenite smelter, stopping briefly at places such as the West Coast National Park, Langebaan Lagoon, and Mamre en route. Debbie joined me for a weekend together in Cape Town where we were able to fit in a few visits to friends and scenic places. During the conference time, I also managed to fit in a run from the hotel in the city centre to the cableway on Table Mountain.
On the computing front, the year was one with much development in wireless 'broadband' connection to the Internet in South Africa. Mintek was kind enough to provide me with a connection via the Sentech MyWireless service which has given me an always-on connection to the Internet since February. The speeds are not as fast as they are in many other places around the world, but the system has been very workable for me.
The April school holidays saw David fly on his own to Port Elizabeth where he joined up with Jason and family for a holiday. Deb took Sarah camping at Bergheim in the Magaliesberg for a couple of days on their own. Later in April, for Sarah's 13th birthday, we all went camping at Mountain Sanctuary Park for a few days to celebrate Sarah's entering into the world of teenagers. We did lots of walking, climbing, and swimming in rock pools, and Sarah had a very enjoyable time with a few of her friends. Sarah had quite a time of holidays this year, also going away with a friend (Kirsty) to Durban (involving flying down on her own too), and with another friend (Robyn) to Clarens, and then finally to Dullstroom for a week with the Bezemers.
April was also the beginning of a very hectic period at work for me, where I spent four and a half months without a single day off, setting up and commissioning a furnace and rotary kiln drying plant to recover platinum group metals (PGMs) from a waste material called revert tailings. Being in charge of the project, I expected to be responsible for all the process design and engineering issues, but I also learned things that I never imagined I would need to know - from building to storm-water drainage to dealing with public relations. We had to deal with complaints from neighbours (two people) about noise and dust during the early stages of the project. A few complaints actually had some substance (and we fixed those as quickly as humanly possible), but some were quite outrageous. One complaint made to the local newspaper was that we were incinerating radioactive platinum (quite a ludicrous concept, as will be appreciated by those who are technically inclined), and were supposedly producing a slimy green dust that was hazardous to people's health. The reality was that we were removing moisture as steam from a clay-like susbstance before smelting it in a very environmentally clean process to produce a harmless rock-like slag and metal ingots that contain smallish (but valuable) quantities of precious metals. (The shipping container of ingots shown below (one of many) represents about one million rand's worth of PGMs.) The project has already grown to the stage of having about 120 people working on it. It has provided new jobs for about fifty people who were previously unemployed. I strongly believe that our country needs many more projects such as this to address the serious problem of unemployment. In the year ahead, I hope to grow the project even further, perhaps even spinning off a separate company in the process. Another point of technical satisfaction for me is that this project has provided a large-scale demonstration of a major part of the technology that I would like to see being adopted more widely in platinum smelting.
During August, we had a much-needed family holiday to the Northern Cape, along with the Wurts and Bezemer families. We had a wonderful time, camping mostly, and experienced a wide range of temperatures, from below freezing some nights to sweltering hot some days. In Kuruman, we enjoyed visiting the amazingly prolific fresh-water spring (called the Eye of Kuruman, which sounded like something from 'Lord of the Rings'), as well as the historic Moffat mission station. The scenery (with some of the early Namaqualand flowers) around Springbok and Hondeklip Bay was quite magnificent. I also liked exploring some of the historic copper mining areas around the nearby town of O'okiep. We passed through quaint places like Pofadder, and took a lengthy detour to Pella which is renowned for its dates (only to find that the entire crop was sold out).
Augrabies Falls National Park was one of the highlights of the trip - a really peaceful and wonderfully beautiful place. We were able to do some hiking and climbing, as well as scenic drives and game and bird viewing.
We then spent quite a few days at Nossob Camp in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (previously known as the Kalahari Gemsbok Park). The roads are few and rough, and mostly follow dried river beds, criss-crossing between South Africa and Botswana (with the country changes being marked by occasional concrete markers at the side of the road). We saw some great animals and birds.
On our way home, we stopped at Kimberley and enjoyed a visit to the Big Hole diamond mine museum. The discovery of diamonds in this otherwise desolate part of the world certainly made a big impression at the time, and brought about much prosperity - to the point that, in 1882, Kimberley had electric streetlights before the city of London.
Soon after our return home, our family had a few bouts of hospitalisation. David had all four of his wisdom teeth removed, and Deb had an abdominal hernia repaired. Fortunately, both have recovered well.
In September, Debbie flew down to Port Elizabeth and Cape Town to give some counselling training courses to antenatal educators (as part of a conference that Lynne had arranged). This was followed up with another two sessions in Durban and Johannesburg.
I attended a platinum conference at Sun City in October, and presented a paper on the ConSmelt project. Debbie came with me for the introductory day, and we had an enjoyable time exploring the layout of the resort together. The hotel wasn't the greatest, but the grounds were very nice indeed and I managed to fit in a couple of early-morning runs through the bush surrounding the golf course. Another fun activity was having a ride on one of the first Segway Human Transporters in South Africa. This dynamically stabilized two-wheeled scooter was a lot of fun to ride. It is equipped with five gyroscopes and balances itself as you ride over all sorts of terrain. Speed is adjusted according to how far you lean forward, and steering is controlled separately with a small twist-grip on the left handlebar. This battery-powered device is environmentally friendly in that it has no emissions, and has a top speed of 20 km/h, with a battery range of 15-20km (about 1 hour). These devices came onto the market two years ago, but haven't yet taken off as much as the early predictions indicated. I suspect that the price tag of US $4500 has a lot to do with this. I read today about someone called Josh Caldwell who in November concluded a three-month journey across the United States aboard a Segway, and is planning a documentary tentatively called "America at 10mph".
In November, I attended the first annual Phillip Tobias Lecture, given by Sydney Brenner. He grew up in Germiston, attended Germiston High School, had lots of arguments with the teachers there, then went on to study at Wits University, with his work eventually culminating in a Nobel Prize. (His story sounds just like mine until we get to the Nobel Prize part!) As far as I can tell, there have been only nine South African born winners of Nobel Prizes (including Sydney Brenner), and the list can be found at http://www.amethyst.co.za/GHS1976/Brenner.htm along with the very interesting story of this accomplished man whose father was a Lithuanian immigrant shoe repairer who never learnt to read or write. At various other times through the year, I also attended some really interesting talks by various photographers, philosophers, writers, and artists, including Nadine Gordimer, Susan Sontag (who died yesterday), Guy Tillim, William Kentridge, and Bernhard Schlink. Deb particularly enjoyed the 'Judging and Understanding' colloquium that we attended, as it provided some interesting insights in relation to her prison work.
David is now 16 years old, and has grown very tall and strong. He has only two years left of high school, and will be going into Grade 11 this coming year. He has worked well this year, and was awarded the Computer Studies prize (a subject for which he has shown much talent), as well as achieving three distinctions (for computer studies, English, and geography) for the year. He has again really enjoyed playing rugby this year.
David and I have gone to gym together a lot this year, where we do some weight training and play squash (and I routinely get beaten by him). David also started running some races this year, and we enjoyably ran the 15km Joburg City Challenge (in July) and the 10km Soweto race (in November) together.
Sarah has now finished primary school and is looking forward to Grade 8 of high school this coming year. The past year has been quite a turbulent one with respect to friendships and inter-personal relationships among the girls at school - part of growing up I guess. Sarah has shown much maturity in dealing with these difficulties, and is growing up very nicely indeed. She also did very well at school, achieving five distinctions. She was awarded a scholarship for high school, which, apart from the honour, means a significant reduction in school fees.
Sarah's final term of primary school was finished off very creatively by being given a group project to put together a computer presentation showing off some aspect of Johannesburg that the children could choose for themselves, after being taken on a series of really fascinating tours of places like the Constitutional Court, the Oriental Plaza, Gandhi Square, the Rand Club, downtown Johannesburg, Baragwanath Hospital, and a school in Soweto. After all that, Sarah's group of four children chose to study the history of Sophiatown. I volunteered to take a morning off work (and for them to take a morning off school) to explore and photograph the area and to visit Museum Afrika to see a depiction of life in that area a few decades ago. It was great fun to take the group around, and they did a very nice job of their presentation to the parents at the end of term.
In December, Debbie and the children took Reggie (our domestic worker) and her grandchildren home to Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg) for the holidays. They stayed overnight and visited Reggie's 98-year-old mother who stays on her own and still works in the fields daily. Everyone loved the visit, and David and Sarah were deeply impressed by the real welcoming feeling of community and the relaxed rhythm of life in that rural area.
Early in December, Lynne (my sister) got married to Kobie who she has been good friends with for the past couple of years. They are both very involved in their church, and Jason and my Mom seem to get on very well with Kobie too.
We spent Christmas Day at Lynne's house, and they showed us some video footage of their honeymoon in the Seychelles. It was quite a shock the next day to hear about the widespread destruction in that part of the world with the Asian Quake and Tsunami Disaster that has left tens of thousands of people dead.
The terrible events taking place in the world highlight the true value of family and friends, and we feel blessed to have you all as friends.
Rodney, Debbie, David, and Sarah