Dear Oom Schalk,
There is something quite wonderful about a steaming cup of coffee, held close in cupped hands, as one survey's the diminishing shadows of dawn on a winters morning. There is also a period of silence, just before the birdsong, that allows safe passage for old thoughts and memories to emerge and frolic in concert with one's imagination - it is one such memory that gives legs to my letter to you today.
I was in King Williams Town savouring a double Klipdrift with the legendary hotelier Jack Rosenberg when the news broke that the Independent Republic of Ciskei (One of the Apartheid era creations, designed to lend credence to social engineering) had launched Ciskei International Airways amidst great fanfare!
The newspapers were full of it Oom Schalk....A photograph of President Lennox Sebe was on the front page of the Daily Dispatch, in full colour, complete with the gold plated spade that was used to turn the first sod that heralded the construction of the "International Airport" at Bisho.
His speech, faithfully reported in the accompanying story, spoke of great inbound tourism potential for the Ciskei, it alluded to breaking the monopoly held by SAA in the area of overseas travel and hinted at the possibility of a tax friendly industrial export zone being established in the Ciskei...
In truth it was nothing of the sort! It was simply a crazy game of "one-upmanship" where Sebe of the Ciskei got one over Matanzima of the Transkei and had the whole charade funded by the South African Government who were intent on bringing credibility to flawed desire!
There was little love lost between these two puppet Presidents and an Airport in Bhisho that could handle a Jumbo was an immense boost to the ego of Lennox Sebe... and a kick in the crotch for Kaiser Matanzima!
Construction Tenders were concluded and an aeroplane ordered. Runways were fashioned and from the bowels of the barren veld there arose an Airport, of immaculate construction, that made the existing state of the art look positively ancient! It was grand, Oom Schalk - a glass edifice with a very straight driveway and a snow plough... just in case!
The same could not be said of the aircraft for which it had been built. It seems that the practice of "tenderprenuership" that bedevils our country today, can trace its origins back to that time! President Sebe had a cheque book that was sponsored and guaranteed by the Nationalist Party Government. He wanted a "Jet" to give substance to his egotistical dream. John Robinson, an American Used Jet salesman and opportunist par excellence, needed money... The two of them had little trouble convincing each other that the possibilities were endless!
Robinson, with a cheque safely cashed and stashed, went shopping in the biggest "Used Jet Graveyard" in the world - the Mojave Desert in the good old US of A! Ja Nee Oom Schalk, it was like buying a used Beetle from a scrap yard in Benoni - the only thing you could be sure of is that there would be no rust...
A Convair 880, circa 1962, was dusted off and cobbled back into shape. It eventually hobbled across the pond they call the Atlantic, southward to Africa and having found its way, it never took off again!
I won't bore you with all the reasons for this Oom Schalk, save to say that whilst air worthiness was a fairly big factor, the main concern was the lack of seats for passengers. It turned out that it was not a passenger aircraft at all, but a VIP Transporter, complete with luxurious lounge, entertainment and bedroom areas. John Robinson had pulled the great “double play” sale’s trick – give the client what he really wants, not necessarily what he actually ordered!
President Sebe, whilst outwardly furious, became possessively curious as time passed. The old 880 had a very imposing interior... Its previous owners had been the Rock group, Jefferson Airplane, prior to that it was used by none other than John Denver...
Possibilities by association found fertile ground in the imagination of the President and were only tempered by the deep rumblings of discontent emanating from the bowels of the Union Buildings in Pretoria.
Sebe was reminded - diplomatically - that the construction of the Airport was central to the success of their dream, that the script of their dream called for an Airline Company that owned jet aircraft that carried passengers... their reminder ended with a quaint Afrikaans translation of the Italian word – ‘Capiche’...!
John Robinson, hurriedly forgiven by His Excellency and armed with fresh finance, returned to that well stocked desert supermarket in America. A Convair 990, complete with seats, was procured and made ready for delivery resplendent in the colours of Ciskei International Airways. It made it as far as Belgium... It must have been a Tuesday! It parked there for some considerable time with its emblem a Crane - the National Bird of South Africa gazing ever southward as the tragic black comedy unravelled.
Ja Nee Oom Schalk - Ciskei International Airways - two aeroplanes, an airport, an airline that never flew.... They had a marvellous marketing slogan however; "Ciskei's the Limit"...... very apt in a Monty Python sort of way!
Some years later, Oom Schalk, I sat under the wing of the same Convair 880 and enjoyed a marvellous dinner in the company of its new owner, Billy Nel and my good friends, Berry Mills, Roy Parker and Des Nel (Billy’s brother). Billy had bought it at auction for a pittance and promptly took the wings off and towed it, from Bhisho, down the freeway to a beach resort that he owned at Kwelera, just north of East London. He then reattached the wings and cleverly, enclosed the area underneath them, creating a very large and elegant home – connected by staircase, to the existing upstairs bedroom, cum playpen, luxuriously designed for its original “Super Star” owners!
In enclosing the area under the wings, Billy used a fair amount of plate glass. In doing so he, inadvertently, captured the look of the Airport at Bhisho. The architect of that failed edifice of Apartheid had used a lot of very fine reflective glass as a structural element in its construction.
Talking of the Airport, it fell into disuse, but remained fully staffed as no one in the Ciskei Government or for that matter, Pretoria, wanted to accept the responsibility of admitting defeat! With little else to do, except wait for aircraft that were never going to land, let alone take off, the Airport Manager and his staff, faithfully manned their posts and received their salaries as regularly as clockwork for many years thereafter.
To while the time away, they would carry out regular inspections of the plant, buildings and machinery, sending reports to “Head Office”, the like of which could find a home as a script for The Goon Show!
The people at Public Works, who received said reports, would dutifully acknowledge receipt thereof. The Airport Manager, upon receipt of the acknowledgement of receipt, would, with great care, append it to the original report and file the matter appropriately – that is until he noticed an alarming new development...The panes of structural plate glass situated at ground level were inexplicably beginning to crack!
The faithful Manager was galvanised into instant ‘can do’ mode and a detailed report, complete with photographs, was soon en route to the powers that be at Public Works... the envelope marked – Highly Urgent!
Whether this added credence to his request for a prompt response, will never be known, save to say that the arrival of a team of experts to investigate the matter, on the following Thursday, one day prior to a long weekend, was a welcome departure from the norm.
Picture the scene Oom Schalk! After a suitable cup of tea to welcome the inspection party, they were led to a table, set up outside, on the tarmac directly in front of the offending windows. The experts proceeded to pour over the original construction plans and the specifications of the glass, their puzzled reflections perfectly mirrored on the wall of glass in front of them.
A group of young herdsman, who for some months had used the well grassed areas around the runway and the apron as an ideal grazing area for their goats, began edging closer, fascinated by the flurry of activity.
The experts were totally baffled! This was the first reported failure of this nature, for this form of construction, using this type of glass, anywhere in the world. The warmth of the mid-summer sun finally drove them inside the building, where after enjoying further refreshment, they reconvened to puzzle further.
The young herdsmen not wishing to be deprived of this cameo of entertainment, moved closer, as did their goats, hoping to catch a glimpse of the goings on within.
With the experts looking outward in search of solution and the herdsmen looking inward in search of entertainment, Mother Nature took it upon herself to reveal the frailty of human endeavour in a most visible manner... A large Billy Goat, clearly the head boy of the herd, saw an equally large Billy Goat that he recognised as a threat to his leadership and did what a man has to do when a man has to do it..!
He adopted a threatening pose and lowered his horns in a violent display of manhood, his eyes fixed on those of the uninvited interloper. With his opponent adopting a pose that intimated a stance of equal malevolence he was left with no option but to charge forward and lock horns with this ‘pretender to his throne’.
As his fearsome horns crashed into the reflection of himself in the window, the glass cracked forming a spider web of multiple reflections...The group of ‘Experts’ wide eyed in amazement, on the other side of the glass, came to a unified and unanimous conclusion - The Ciskei was indeed very limited - and left to begin the long weekend a little earlier than anticipated.
The Goat, expecting a field of victory before him, lifted his head and seeing, not one, but five opponents staring back at him, decided that discretion was far preferable to valour and retreated to greener pastures, leaving the Airport Manager to compile a report to Public Works on the events of the day and await confirmation of receipt thereof.
Ja Nee Oom Schalk, I remember that dinner under the wings of the aeroplane that was meant to give flight to the political dreams of a motley crew, united only through mutual expedience.
Perhaps Sebe and the ‘brains trust’ in Nationalist Pretoria should have named their airline company - Red Bull – when you mix it with sufficient Klipdrift you really can fly!
My regards to the mampoer manufacturer’s behind the Dwarsberge,