This is a memoir written in Afrikaans by Kobus de Villiers, a South African engineer who spent his working life on top secret government projects aimed at circumventing the arms embargo against South Africa during the period leading up to 1994. He recounts episodes in his life with a wry sense of humour and older readers will recognize many of the references to childhood and growing up in the South Africa of that era.
He was born and raised in Welkom, a dusty mining town in the Free State, in a typically conservative Afrikaner family that believed in respect for elders, attending church and hard work. Like most little boys, he dreamt of working on racing cars, airplanes and spaceships. He lived in his imagination and spent many hours sketching rocket engines and airplane wings. When he was still in primary school he converted a portable radio so that he could tune in to the conversations between Houston and the NASA spaceship crews. He built a rocket from bits and pieces found in his father’s garage, that exploded in the back garden and shredded his mother’s washing. Undeterred by parental wrath, he built another, which he strapped onto himself and launched off the garage roof. He landed in a thorny bush in the garden and suffered a broken arm. He tried to launch his brother’s pet white rat into space, and was perhaps successful, as the rat was never seen again!
After matriculating, he was drafted into the army and served in 6 South African Infantry (SAI) and 2 SAI battalions. He saw border duty and recounts life in the army for ordinary recruits with empathy and a rare talent for seeing the funny side of any situation.
He graduated from the University of Pretoria with a degree in engineering, recounted with more very funny stories of student life. They had a beat up and temperamental “Volksie” that often needed innovative interventions and was literally kept on the road with bits of wire and string. He built a racing car and started racing. He sold the car, which then won a Formula V race. After that, he was in demand to upgrade race car engines, which he enjoyed immensely as he found that he enjoyed solving the puzzles presented by engines not performing optimally more than driving the cars.
He started his post-university career in the South African Air Force. His particular puzzle-solving talents were soon recognized. When South Africa was forced to find ways and means to establish their own defence systems, most notably the Cheetah project, he was drafted into a team that liaised with similar teams overseas. He spent many years studying and working in countries such as Italy, Germany, France, Peru, Israel, Malaysia, Germany, USA, Singapore, the UAE and even the USSR where they worked on a top secret project to re-engine the Cheetahs and Mirages with Klimov engines as used in the Mig-29s; and later the abandoned Cava project to design an all-new South African fighter jet.
His accounts of what happened are hilarious. After 1994 he joined overseas companies that required his expertise. Through the years he made a major contribution to the development of new technology, but due to the strictly top secret nature of his work, his family and friends never knew where he was and what he was doing.
Now retired and living in Canada, he reflects on his various postings and projects and all the funny adventures along the way from a dusty Free State town to living in Leonid Brezhnev’s dacha in Russia, meeting the great grandson of Henry Ford, singing “Sarie Marais” at a karaoke evening in Japan and eating a Philly-steak at a table once occupied by Bill Clinton, among many interesting experiences, to finally living in Vancouver with his French wife and still tinkering in his garage.
“Uiters geheim en ander anekdotes” by Kobus de Villiers
Publishing World SA 2017
Soft cover, 547 pages