The day I closed down South Africa
In the mid-nineties I lived in Pretoria, in Hill Street, close to Loftus. Loftus Versveld is one of the prominent Rugby stadiums in the country. This was in the years immediately following the establishment of a full democracy in South Africa with Nelson Mandela leading the government. I worked for a token-ring company named Madge Networks as a Technical Account Manager. It was in direct competition with Ethernet, which would eventually become the dominant technology.
One of my colleagues at Madge was Duncan Ogilvie. I was in contact with him when we stopped working at Madge and often braai lamb chops and have a beer sitting on the stoep. During the pandemic he took his own life. Never knew that he was having mental health difficulties. He was a great mate.
The Madge offices were in Rivonia. My trip would start early mornings before seven as with heavy traffic the journey might take up to an hour. One morning I was driving in to work and was listening to a CD and switched to Radio 702 just before 7. Nowadays people rarely listen to CDs. The presenter on Radio 702 was John Robbie, an Irishman. The headline news was about major delays at Johannesburg International Airport which is now called OR Tambo that was reportedly caused by a computer problem. The country was at a standstill. I had worked at the airport for a major national airline installing many switches and CAUs and was very familiar with the environment. CAUs were token-ring hubs. I was coming up to the Buccleuch interchange and decided to go left to the airport instead of right to the office. Maybe there was something I could do to help.
A few moments later my mobile rang. It was the major national airline's IT manager who had heard the same news broadcast and asked me to meet him at the airport. He was as much in the dark about the situation as what I was. The two of us arrived at much the same time at the departure hall of the airport. The crowd and queues were extremely long. We walked to the front counters to determine from the staff what was the issue. Many of the passengers threatened us as the assumed we were hopping the queue and told us to get back into the line. Having struggled our way to the front we duly learned from the duty controller that there was no connectivity to the mainframe. Since my companion had walked over from the headquarters building, he confirmed it was not a general mainframe outage as the systems were all accessible and working from that building.
I had my laptop with me, an IBM Butterfly (one of the best laptops I have ever owned!) I attached my laptop using my Smart token-ring adapter to the network and loaded a good old DOS application called RingManager. I looked in dismay as RingManager proceeded to tell me that there were well over five hundred nodes connected onto the single ring (maximum should not be more than two hundred). The laptop screen then froze. Being a typical techie and not believing it the first time I proceeded to do it a second time with the same results by turning it off and on again. I conferred with the guys from the national major airline and told them that it was my suspicion that someone had looped the rings at the airport together. There was only one location where this was possible and that was the main fibre patching room. We proceeded to the patch room and at first inspection all was in order. However, when we started checking the patches, they were totally incorrect with the diagram pasted on the wall next to the cabinet.
The security guards confirmed that a cable installer had signed in and worked in the room at one in the morning connecting a new voice switch. We deduced that the patch cables were in his way, so he unpatched them all. He then installed his new fibre cables and then randomly patched the cables back. We started patching the fibres back to their correct position using the diagram on the wall. The technician who pasted the diagram on the wall was diligent and in today’s modern data centres this is never done. Nowadays you will never encounter diagrams present in patch rooms. When it comes to resolving problems, they are crucial. The assumption is you have it available electronically, but the fundamental problem is they were probably never created and not documented.
The airport network slowly started coming online as we worked through the patches and the departures were able to move from manual boarding to full digital ticket check-in and boarding.
After the crisis was over at around ten that morning, we had some strong cups of coffee. I asked the guys from the major national airline why there was no escalation as the operators had a network management alert console. No one had the answer, so we decided to go over to the operations area to work out the reason. The operator was sitting in his office blissfully unaware of the crisis. The network management console had a total of eleven million unacknowledged alerts. When questioned as to why there was no escalation the guy said that no-one had phoned him. He only does anything when someone phones him and since no-one phoned there was not any problem. He did not realize that his job was to tell people there was a problem. I never knew what happened to the poor bloke but there were some pissed off people ready to strangle him.
I have repeated seen changes done in isolation and not in an end to end fashion. In some companies each business unit does their own thing and does not consult with any other stakeholders. Change management will fail and cause outages unless there is a transparent end to end process where all stakeholders and their vendors within an organization have visibility to these types of activities.
Too often the changes are done in a fashion of need to know. I need to know and will tell you about it if I think you need to know. Murphy usually conspires to bring two changes together at the most inappropriate moment to cause absolute havoc.
Whenever I sit delayed in some airport, I often have the urge to go and ask the airport personnel who messed up the change process, because that is the most probable reason. The problem is not limited to a single national airline, in this case, South African Airways, but also countries as a whole. Ironically, South African Airways would go titsup due the cronyism in the post democratic South Africa under the control of the African National Congress.
The best example of a politician who was able to handle and manage change was Nelson Mandela. When I was at school at Grey College, Mandela was banned. We had no sight of him as his picture and words were banned and there is a famous Johnny Clegg song about it, Asimbonanga.
On the honours board in the Reunie Hall at Grey College under 1934 was the name of Braam Fischer. Fischer was a white Afrikaner, who was Mandela's lawyer and friend. Every hall period my eyes would drift to that name on the board. I knew who he was, and his name was cursed by the apartheid government in power. Some would have liked his name erased, but the school refused. Many famous people have matriculated from the school including Laurens van der Post, Denys Reitz and countless Springbok Rugby players. Of all these Fischer's ideals matched most closely those of the school's founder, Grey. He had died a horrible death in prison for his convictions and would not die in the comfort and praise of the nation. But his contribution was immense. Here is Fischer explained in the words of Mandela, delivered in that same Reunie Hall on 28 November 1997, where I sat:
Bram Fisher tel ongetwyfeld onder daardie klas van goeie mans en vroue wat op die wyse deur alle Suid-Afrikaners in verering gehou sal word.
Ons weet egter dat dit nie altyd die geval was nie. In sy lewe het hy voor die moeilikste keuses te staan gekom. En sy uiteindelike keuses, het hom 'n uitgeworpene gelaat in sy eie gemeenskap en in die geledere van sy beroepslui.
‘'n Man so hartstogtelik verbind tot die wet en die gereg het gesterwe as 'n gevonnisde prisonier. 'n Afrikaner in murg en been, sonder verskoning of voorbehoud, was soos 'n melaatse behandel deur sy eie mense.
Aan die ander kant: die seun van een van die mees vooraanstaande en bevoorregte gesinne in die samelewing van daardie tyd, het sy lot ingewerp met die van die armstes onder die armes.
Dit mag klink na 'n verhaal van teenstrydighede. Daardie teenstrydighede was egter nie soseer in die man Bram Fisher nie; dit was die teenstrydighede van die samelewing waarin hy, en talle Suid-Afrikaners, moes leef.
Ons regstelsel het in botsing gekom met die ideale van geregtigheid vanwee die onderdrukking van die meerderheid, en die verwording van die wet om die geregverdigde weerstand van daardie meerderheid te onderdruk.
Dit was die gedwonge skeiding van mense en die ontsegging van basiese politieke regte op grond van ras en kleur, wat daartoe gelei het dat 'n mens se respek vir sy medemens in stryd kon kom met sy sy trou aan eie gemeenskap.
Bram Fisher se durf en moed in die wyse waarop hy hierdie moeilike keuses aangepak het, het dit makliker gemaak vir andere om op daardie pad te volg. Sy beeld, toegewydheid tot die stryd vir vryheid en menswaardigheid, aktiewe bevordering van nie-rassigheid - daarin le die fondamente van ons huidige pogings tot versoening.
Pause for a moment. The words are in Afrikaans. Afrikaans was the predominant language of what Mandela classified an illegal regime. Ironically, it was a language more associated with the kombuis than the voorportaal. It was the language of JT Elliot. What is implied by this is that it had its origins amongst the South African coloured population and not the boers (Dutch language farmers). They placed a higher regard on Dutch. Afrikaans was the language of Die Stem, written by Langenhoven who had been my oupa's neighbour in Oudtshoorn. It was only in 1952, the year after the establishment of Bible House, that my mom's aunt was the first one to be married in Afrikaans and not Dutch. Donald and Margarite Munro were the first to have the language used in a wedding officiated in the NG Kerk. But the language became hated as it was assimilated by the ruling governments who introduced systematic racism in the form of apartheid. The words in Mandela’s speech are amazing but even though it reflects on Fischer, it reflects more on the character of Mandela. Here is a leader who when imprisoned, learned the language of those oppressing him and when he came to honour his friend he did it in his Fischer's native tongue, even though it was a language he should have despised. Mandela was better and more fluent in Afrikaans than me. He was more an Afrikaner than what I would ever be.
We often debated politics at school. I was not shy to make my views know and was branded a kommunis. The word was generically used to describe any liberal. It was difficult to intellectually justify apartheid and we all realized it. I went to University and many of my friends participated in the border wars. Like all wars, it leaves its scars. Colloquially we refer to it as being bosbefok.
I am a liberal and in the language of the conservative world it is still misconstrued as it is identified as what they are not, while it should be identified by what they are. It is one of the fundamental reasons I always feel alienated as I am classified by what I am not, not by what I am. An example is the branding of people as disabled. I feel it is hugely insulting as people are physically or mentally impaired and they are not recognized for what they are! During apartheid there was the binary classification of white and non-white. This was abhorrent but the inherent bigotry in other areas has not been irradicated.
Unlike the other leaders I admire like Amundsen, Turing or Flowers, Mandela was still alive in my lifetime. While I was in the navy, a few thousand kilometres away from the border wars, I recall the speech by de Klerk when he announced Mandela’s unconditional release. I was travelling on the road between Muizenberg and Stellenbosch and listened to it on the radio. For me it was a defining moment, as I knew that my views and debates from ten years previously had been correct. I was driving past a fishing spot known as the hole.
The actual event I remember the most about Mandela was the 1995 World Cup. When he walked into the stadium with a Springbok jersey, he won over the complete nation, including many of his former enemies, and not just those of the black people. Then there was the 747 flypast by South African Airways, and we won the Rugby World Cup against the All Blacks, but that always seems of secondary importance. It was a simple gesture, but he was a great leader who understood that small and simple gestures can change the course of history and that he did. The event has been immortalized in the movie, Invictus.
When Mandela died, I was in holiday in Mauritius. We watched parts of the funeral on the television in out hotel bedroom. Ironically, the speeches by world and political leaders was not what I remember. A fake deaf interpreter named Thamsanqa Jantjie had been appointed by the ANC for the event. He proceeded to stumble his way through the proceedings like a drunk seagull directing traffic. This was only a minor indiscretion by the government of the day that was focused on full scale looting which would make Mandela tun in his grave.
That trip in Mauritius was notable in that we went on a fishing trip and bagged a sailfin, as well as a few Dorado and Barracuda! The sight of a sailfin break and jumping out of the waves behind the boat was an awesome and lasting experience.
I am not a Mandela. When I am suppressed, I have images of carving up my antagonist into little pieces with a sword. A good leader, negotiates and engages. That is what made Mandela a great leader. He was able to resolve a conflict situation in South Africa in a few decades where in other parts of the world, similar conflicts have continued for centuries. Leaders like Mandela do not come around often, and in our lifetime, we had him in South Africa.
In the Reunie Hall at Grey College, the Honours boards became filled, and a new row was placed above the old ones. Above 1934 is 1984. Look closely and you see a name, R. BARTELS. That is me! It is a great feeling to be the company of a hero like Fischer, who was honoured by the great leader, Mandela. I was honoured.