Supernumerary in South Africa

Another in my occasional series about living on a ship – my first husband was in the Merchant Navy and I did four six-month trips with him during the first three years we were married.

Last you heard from me, we were heading out across the Atlantic from New York, on our way to South Africa.

It was a 21 day passage. There are no breaks at sea, no weekends, no nights off. Work was continuous. As Third Mate my husband worked 8am to 12 noon and then 8pm to 12 midnight, every day. With only eight hours between shifts, and allowing for time to eat, the guys never got quite enough sleep. It was pretty relentless.

I was prepared for the boredom this time – I had things to do.

I taught myself to type – in fact, I’m touch typing right now, and the only reason I can do it is that I taught myself all those years ago!! I ran the bar, I cleaned the swimming pool, I spent some time on the bridge watching the world go by.

And after 21 days we arrived in South Africa. Our first port was Cape Town.

The three deck officers would divide the cargo work between them – so depending on how many hours per day the port worked cargo, the guys would do 1/3 of it each. It meant that, just sometimes, we could manage a day off.

We managed a day off, and went up the road – we took the cable car up Table Mountain, we walked along Government Avenue, we ate ice cream and melon. We felt a bit like we were on holiday.

But – this was 1981. Apartheid was still in force. Mandela was still in prison. Sport was boycotted, no-one was trading with South Africa – and yet here we were, on a British ship, sailing on a regular run from the States.

Our radio operator’s wife was Indian and had decided not to come with him on this trip. They’d had abuse on a previous trip for just walking down the street side by side, and she’d decided she didn’t need that in her life.

There was a growing realisation, as we left Cape Town and made our way round the coast – Port Elizabeth, East London and finally Durban – that if you were a white man in South Africa then you had it good. Especially if you had a Motorola strapped to your belt. That made you a big guy.

It was a beautiful country – as long as you didn’t look too deeply. If you turned a blind eye to the barbed wire round the big houses, the signs saying, ‘Blacks Only’ or ‘Whites Only’, the segregation of the beaches, the taxis, the restaurants.

If you ate at ‘International’ hotels, didn’t wander too far off the main drag and chose your beach carefully, you could pretend that everything was OK.

Everything wasn’t OK.

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