Desperate housewives of Empangeni

2009-01-30 00:00

In 1969, a large group of Swiss managers, engineers and technicians started constructing the very first industrial plant in Richards Bay, the Bayside Aluminium Smelter (Alusaf). The men worked very long hours and the women organised their own amusement.

The Swiss were accommodated in newly constructed houses in Empangeni. The top management lived in David Glennie Avenue which overlooked the golf course. The size of their houses and the price of their motor cars clearly reflected the relative status of each manager on the payroll.

The Swiss wives soon formed a close expat community in Empangeni. They became a jolly lot and organised tennis matches, wine tasting events and parties, they went on excursions to the game reserves and they generated funds for charities such as Sonskynhoekie, a home for handicapped children. They also introduced fondue cooking to the South African housewives.

The general manager in charge of the Construction Management Organisation of Alusaf was Walter Capitaine. He was an engineer from Alusuisse, then one of the largest aluminium companies in the world. It had a 22% shareholding in the project. Capitaine had only one objective: to finalise the construction of the plant on April 1, 1971, and to be within budget. He succeeded brilliantly in realising his objectives. He drove a powerful white 1970 Valiant VIP motor car with a black vinyl roof.

The desperate housewives of Empangeni fiercely defended the status and pecking order of their husbands. The competition among the wives was strong. An invitation to have tea with the wife of the top boss was a major event in their social calendars. This competition was intensified with the arrival of Danie van Vuuren and his wife, Tini, from Phalaborwa. It was Van Vuuren’s job, as the new general manager of the Permanent Management Organisation, eventually to take delivery of the completed plant from the Swiss construction team on April 1, 1971. Unfortunately, he wrongly assumed that he was already the top boss and in charge of Capitaine.

The scene was set for bitter and often amusing social conflicts. Van Vuuren almost immediately summoned all the Swiss managers to his office for a takeover meeting. The Swiss ignored him. He was furious.

The Van Vuurens were from Phalaborwa, which was a small mining town. At Phalaborwa, the general manager of Foskor ruled the place like a king. He made most of the decisions, treated employees like his personal underlings and he even ruled their sports life as chairman of the local club. His word was final and his wife was the “ex-officio” leader of the social scene. Snub the wife of the boss and you could kiss your career goodbye.

The first problem started with Van Vuuren’s new company car. The Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), the major shareholder, ordered a new Valiant VIP sedan complete with a black vinyl roof and air conditioning. Van Vuuren refused to take delivery of the new car because the car was identical to Capitaine’s car. Van Vuuren duly ordered a very large Pontiac Grande Parisienne sedan with air conditioning and a sound system. It truly was the biggest car in Zululand. Capitaine continued to drive his Valiant.

Van Vuuren then pulled rank. He appointed a chauffeur complete with a uniform and an impressive cap. Every day he arrived at the plant sitting in the back seat of the large Pontiac wearing his large formal Battersby hat and reading from his Transvaler newspaper. The Swiss managers were amused because the uniformed chauffeur would stop the large Pontiac, jump out, open the door for his boss, take his briefcase and the newspaper, close the door and follow the boss to his office. This ritual was repeated in the afternoons, stopping at the Central Café in Empangeni to buy a new Transvaler. The townsfolk looked on in astonishment.

The second problem was that Capitaine’s house in David Glennie Avenue had a swimming pool. Van Vuuren’s house in Paul Avenue had no pool. Tini was unhappy about this. The IDC pointed out that the Van Vuurens’ future house at number two David Glennie Avenue would have a large swimming pool, certainly bigger than that of Capitaine. The new house was completed and it resembled the giant mansion of an American cotton plantation owner. The Pontiac Grande Parisienne was proudly parked right in front of the large house.

A telex from Dr Sieg Kuschke, chairman of the IDC, announced a visit from the directors to the plant. This news galvanised the desperate housewives of Empangeni into action to organise the smartest social event in the history of Zululand: a formal dinner and dance at the Empangeni Club. Everyone talked about the directors’ visit. All the housewives wanted to participate in this event.

It was said that Tini saw the visit by the chairman and directors of the IDC as a unique opportunity to impress the directors as well as the Swiss wives with her ability as the future events organiser for the new industrial giant in Zululand.

“You must go to the club and clean the place, including the toilets. The Zululanders are a dirty lot. They are not like our people in Phalaborwa. I will give you the menu. You must supervise the chef at the club. You must order enough Roodeberg wine because ‘Boykie’ only drinks Roodeberg. You must also prepare name tags for the guests and hand the tags to me. I will decide where each person will sit at the main table.” That was Tini, the wife of the new boss, on the telephone giving me instructions.

I am a humble man from the country. As the new personnel manager of Alusaf, I had no experience of catering for the elite. I was advised to do my best because: “Tini will destroy your career if you cross her.” I was afraid. When I arrived at the club a few days later, Caren Capitaine, the wife of the real boss, greeted me in her usual sweet manner. She had also prepared name tags for the main table in her own handwriting. She said: “Please place the name tags on the main table. There is no special order. Mix our guests a little bit.”

I placed Caren’s name tags in random order on the table and I waited in fear for the arrival of Tini.

Then the directors arrived. They were in a jolly mood. Walter Capitaine had served them a few tots of whiskey in his office after the plant inspection. The directors were full of praise for Walter. They had a few more drinks in the lounge of the club. I presented the waiters with new white gloves to add some class to the occasion. The toilets were spotless, complete with red roses that I had ordered from Durban. Tini looked pleased with me and I looked forward to a promotion in the future.

However, all hell broke loose when Tini spotted Caren’s offending name tags on the main table.

“Is this Capitaine’s doing?” she shrieked. “Remove the tags.”

Tini then placed her name tags on the main table. She used a strict pecking order according to her perceived rank of each guest. She placed her husband’s name tag on the right of Kuschke and she then placed her own tag on the left of Kuschke. For some strange reason, she placed the name tags of the Capitaines on the opposite end of the long table, virtually excluding them from close contact with Kuschke. I saw a bad moon rising. Kuschke would immediately spot the snub to the Capitaine couple: his guests of honour.

I had to make a plan to avoid a social blunder among the desperate housewives of Empangeni. So I secretly removed all the name tags, went to the toilet and dumped them in the rubbish bin.

The directors enjoyed their first function in Empangeni. They enjoyed the food and the Roodeberg wine. Kuschke praised Capitaine and his charming wife sitting beside him. He thanked them for building a modern smelter in the middle of a marsh next to the lagoon of Richards Bay.

“A magnificent achievement,” the chairman said.

Very late that night, the Swiss managers and their wives sang a number of songs. They shared pungent Swiss Raclett cheese with the chairman and they launched a hot-air balloon to celebrate their success.

They also danced until the early hours of the morning to the hit tune, Midnight Snack.

Sadly, very early in the evening Tini developed a “splitting headache”.

The Van Vuurens then quietly left — sitting in the back seat of their large Pontiac Grande Parisienne.

J. C. van der walt

Dr J. C. van der Walt (73) has been a resident of Richards Bay since 1970. He took an active part in the community as one of the first general managers of Bayside Aluminium. He was a founder member of the rugby club, the country club and the technical college. Despite his outspoken liberal views, the community elected him as their first independent mayor for three successive terms.

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