Saturday, 30 June 2007

Louise and Sonny du Plessis

Louise du Plessis


Impressionable, young, in UK a year
I visit the Tower of London
To see the largest diamond, ever –
Our very own Cullinan.

That mammoth, gem was from SA
It has been mined right here.
Across the whole wide world, it
Simply had no peer.

Of course the UK bought our treasure
They needed to revamp their crown
To glitter and shine on State Occasions
And stun all London Town.

Divided into sparkling gems –
Most beautiful ever seen,
Which now become the Crown jewels
And worn by every Queen.

The crown, scepter, the orb and necklace
A fantastic sight to behold –
All firmly set for ever and ever
In our SA gold.

I stood there staring with pride and all
Our Cullinan had done
I wanted to boast and shout, “I too
Am from SA, in the sun”.

Instead I turned now to the Cullinan
And wondered who had found it?
They’d made a model in glass in a case
And you could walk around it.
It was the size of a miner’s fist
A hand that dug all day
With sinews and knuckles on top –
The other half sheared away.

I’d heard it tell it came from far
All through the heavenly void
Hitching a ride through outer space
Upon an asteroid.

Which struck the earth with such a crash
It split the diamond in two.
The one half flew behind some rocks –
It’s twin into the blue.

Now, looking at it in disbelief
I heard a hollow laugh
“Some day” it rumbled on, “I know
You’ll find the other half!”

Oh that was all so long ago
But anchored in my mind
That somehow, somewhere the other half
I would most surely find.

So back in our beloved land
I got on with my life
And I did the things I had to do
As a mother and a wife.

I ran around supporting my boys
From early dawn till night
Attending to the three of them –
My pride and my delight.

My boys grew up so fast, my spouse
Atop the corporate tree
Depended for their daily needs
On burdened, busy me.

In spite of homework, food and clothes
And all that running around,
There lurked in my subconscious mind
That diamond to be found.

But when vacation time came around
We always went away.
Somewhere to swim, relax, have fun
Where boys could play all day.

No matter where we went for hols
The coast or anywhere
My search continued all the time –
Maybe it would be there.

To dig in mountain crags and caves
I had a metal pick –
When not in use to chop or dig was
Used as, a walking stick.

I had no luck of course, the gem
Remained inside my mind.
Maybe some-other time, I knew
That diamond I would find.

The years flew by, my beloved died.
The bys had kids of their own.
By now I was an old Grand-ma
And living quite alone.

But I had plenty to dream about –
I had traveled far and wide.
Criss-crossed our country too, but still
I had a secret to hide.

Oh yes, I had a mission still –
To find that precious stone.
Just lying somewhere, waiting for me
Now that I was alone.

At nigh I’d toss and roll around
And think of many ways
To finally find the other half
In my remaining days.

Well, that was it, I knew at once
The time was here and now
To go on searching, fulfill my dream
And find that gem, somehow.

Yes, no more castles in the air –
Now was the time to act.
So go out there and do something
It is a simple fact.

I’d often heard the people tell –
Explain and rant and rave
About the fabulous experience of
The “Singing Pebble Cave”.

“It’s true” they’d say. “We heard the pebbles
Sing their song of the sea
Inside the cave and lying down –
No closer could we be”.

I’d heard them say that hoards of pebbles
From right across the world
Gathered in there, hummed their song
When waves across them swirled.

Now that was something I’d never heard
Could not believe my ears.
That too, is what I wanted to hear
In my remaining years.

The cave was on our wildest coast
And miles form anywhere
So that is why in all my life
I had just not been there.

So go to the cave and hear for yourself
Convince yourself its true
And maybe you’ll find your precious stone
Just lying waiting for you.

With no idea just where it was
I had to consult a map.
Then phoned the towns nearest Band B –
A place to eat and nap.

The following day I packed my bag
Determined to get there.
I got into my car and hoped
I’d find that town somewhere.

I drove the whole day, map on lap
And found the little town –
At Band B where I had booked
I simply dossed down.

I had a deep and restful sleep
And with some petrol still
I sped off long before the dawn
My mission to fulfill.

I drove until the road ran out
Against a mighty dune
So, out I got and made the beach by
The light of a still full moon.

When on the beach, the moon went sown
The sun began to rise –
A truly breath-taking moment for me
Oh, what a magical surprise!

For, I was on a snow-white beach
Which filled me with emotion –
For on and on it went to where
The mountain kissed the ocean.

Now that is where the pebble cave
I had been told, would be
Between the sloping, plunging mountain
And the crashing sea.

My aim was now at last in sight
And well within my reach
I doubled my pace and hurried along
The snow-white sandy beach.

I made the spot where mountain and sea
Embrace and hug each other
And mighty swells turn into waves
Which follow one another.

To crash and smash against the rocks
Forming a rainbow spray
Which flies so high, it turns the sun
Into a rainy day.

I hurry now to find a pause
Before the next big wave
So, knock me down, I see right there
The singing, pebble cave.

I slip and slide across the rocks
And run for shelter inside
I shed my clothes and crawl right in
Away from the crashing tide.

The pebble cave is beyond the rocks
Against the mountain side
Obscured by crags and waving grass
A lovely place to hide.

For years it has been the gathering place
Of pebbles from everywhere
Around the world, tumbled and tossed and
Deposited right in there.

To form a multi-coloured carpet –
A most astonishing thing
For each one has a story to tell
As together they sing.

Now that I heard with my own ears
Reposing inside the cave
As every now and then there came
An unexpected wave.

Each pebble has its very own sound
Uniting them in song
When disturbed and moved by bigger waves
Which suddenly came along.

I had forgotten, a round full moon
Brings along Spring Tide
So that was why the waves now reached
The pebble cave inside.

Allowing each one to join in their
Mysterious song of the sea
Which I was now so privileged to hear
Oh lucky, lucky me!

Now suddenly the sun disappeared
And darkness filled the cave
Without warning we where now swamped
By an enormous wave.

Submerged and tumbled all I heard
Was “help, help, help”
Littered by pebbles, as I was trapped
By a piece of kelp

That piece of kelp was riding the wave
As it came crashing in.
It knocked me over and trussed me up
There was no way to win.

Propelled I was, now all the way
Till it was spent again.
Receded, with-drew and left poor me
Just one big mess of pain.

Right at the back of the pebble cave
Where rocks now tumbled down
I found myself right on my back -
At least I did not drown.

Escape I must and wondered how
I thought while lying down
When I was struck by a falling rock
Which hit me on the crown.

I saw a million stars, and thought
I must be surely dead.
Already I have a crown of rock
Upon my aching head.

But in a flash I sat up-right –
For there I heard that laugh
“Haw-haw, I told you once before
You’d find the other half”.

I grabbed the rock with both my hands
And brought it to my eyes
Could hardly believe just what I saw –
My biggest ever surprise.

The sparkling light, so dazzling and bright
Which beamed straight from within?
Came from the diamond, embedded in rock –
The other half of Cullinan.

I recognized it straight away
I’d seen its twin before.
In London Tower, so long ago –
I had to search no more.

Now cradling the rock against my chest
I had to get away
And show someone what I’d found
Before the end of day.

I crawled and struggled upon my knees
And one remaining hand,
Until I made the entrance and saw
The beach with white sea-sand.

The receding tide had hardened the beach so
I hurried to my car,
Still parked behind the highest dune
Luckily not too far.

I hopped into my car and sped away
Driving like a maniac for
The Cullinan upon my lap was worthy of
The speed of a Cadillac.

On reaching town, I drove to the bank –
The only place with a vault.
The fact that I looked like a tramp was
Certainly not my fault.

I burst in shouting, “The manager please”
“An escaping lunatic?”
The people ducked on seeing my rock or
“Maybe a robbery trick?”

“A rock instead of a stolen gun
Whatever will be next?”
I had them all wide-eyed with fear
And certainly perplexed.

The manager too, was struck quite dumb
Confronted now by me.
He thought I had been ship-wrecked
And washed-up by the sea.

With sea-weed dangling from my hair
I gave the boss my rock
“Oh please look at the heart of this –
I promise you a shock”.

He blanched at what he saw in disbelief
As my story unfurled.
“My goodness” he said, “Surely the biggest
diamond in all the world”.

“So what is it you want me to do
With this fantastic thing,
That you so un-expectedly and
Casually brought right in?”

“I request you call the Magistrate,
A lawyer and a Quack.
The latter will know – should I pass out
Just how to bring me back”.

“I want them here as witnesses
To what I have to say.
I have a mission to complete
Before the end of this day.”

His cell-phone squeaked and very soon
I was surrounded by folk
Who thought that this was just a silly
April Fool’s joke.

By now the time had come for me
To open my ,mouth and speak.
The articulate way in which I spoke
Convinced I was no freak.

With wrapped attention they listened now
To what I had to say.
My tale intrigued and stunned them all –
And certainly made their day.

I handed the rock to the Boss of the bank
I could no longer wait.
“Secure it in your vault and please
Inform the Head of State.”

I paused a while and then carried on
“ A diamond found is not
Your property, so here in front of you all
I donate my precious lot”.

“And tell him to auction it on the Internet
So find the highest bidder –
Across the whole wide world,
And then my plan to consider”.

“My plan is to build proper homes
With all that money in hand.
Yes, houses for poor and needy with it
Across our beautiful land”.

“Replace poverty, hunger and crime
With houses, mile upon mile.
And bring back to all our faces
Smile upon smile upon smile”.

“Now, let me sign what I have said
Your secretary wrote it down.
I must get back to Band B now,
Some distance from the Town”.

I shook them all by hand and said,
“Thank you for coming here,
To share my tale and see my gem”.
I even shed a tear.

To Doc. I said, “Quite some old doll
All of eighty seven.
Still treasure hunting with only one foot,
The others already in Heaven”.

“Well Sirs, that’s it, please see my plan
Is truly carried out.
No crowns for Queens, but homes for people
That’s what Cullinan’s about”.

“Good-bye”, I said, and left and drove
Towards the setting sun.
I’d had an exhausting day but still
Wanted to see that one.

The sun was going down behind
A far off lonely hill.
“You lucky chap”, I thought, “no aches no pains
And never, never ill”.

Why can’t we be like that, just rise
And shine to spread our light.
To make the world a better place
The sleep in peace at night?

Just then my car began to shudder
And grind to a dusty halt.
I had omitted to fill her up –
It was entirely my fault.

So there I sat, abandoned, alone
Too tired to be sad,
I Merely shut my eyes and thanked the Lord for
The incredible day I’d had.

Swathed in scarlet glory.
“Farewell all friends, Take Care, Full Stop”
Thus ends the Cullinan story.

Sunny du Plessis

SELDOM has a university owed more to the vision and bloody-mindedness of one man than Wits owes to Professor Daniel Jacob “Sonny” du Plessis, who has died at the age of 81 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Du Plessis became vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the Witwatersrand in 1978, at a time when there was a vigorous debate over the kind of institution it should become. There were 11 340 students, and the Milner Park campus could clearly take no more. One strongly supported argument was that Wits should make the best of this, and set it sights on a purely academic role. It should model itself on Oxford, and remain a small, elitist institution, sacrificing all other concerns to the purist goal of academic excellence. Du Plessis was totally opposed to elitism. He saw Wits as part of a developing country with obligation to the entire community. To realise this obligation, Wits would have to grow. But to grow it would need space. And here, it seemed to everyone except to Du Plessis himself, was an immovable obstacle. Other than splitting the campus, an option supported by his predecessor Guerino Bozzoli but rejected by Du Plessis, the only way to expand was to take over the show-grounds immediately West of the campus.

This was far easier said than done. Previous approaches had all met with a flat ‘No’. The grounds were owned by the Johannesburg City Council and leased on a long-term basis by the Agricultural Society, which, to add to these apparently insurmountable difficulties, had just obtained an extension of its lease.

Du Plessis commissioned academic, physical and financial plans for Wits to strengthen his hand against the government, the council and the Agricultural Society in the interminable arguing, persuading and negotiating that followed. Du Plessis was born into an Afrikaans family in Paarl on May 17 1918, and attended Paarl Boys High. There is no doubt that his ability to speak the taal helped make his relations with the government considerably easier than they were under Bozzoli, even if he refused, as much as his predecessor had done, to give an inch on matters of principle. The greatest example of this was his immediate and adamant refusal to countenance the government’s planned quota system, which would have severely limited the number of black students at Wits. Du Plessis made it clear to the relevant ministers that Wits would have truck with such registration, and in face of fierce opposition from other universities too, it was quietly shelved.

It was his ability to swap jokes – which he found hard because not a man of ribald, back-slapping humour – and talk business in Afrikaans no less than his steadfast refusal to accept deafeat, that finally won the day. Wits West Campus was born, and Du Plessis’s version of an inclusive university that would serve the community at large became possible.

By the time that he left in 1983, student numbers had risen to 15 790. They subsequently rose to almost 20 000, but have now dipped slightly to around 18 000. Without the West Campus, nowhere near such numbers would have been possible. Without Du Plessis, it is believed there would have been no West Campus. The qualities that enabled to accomplish this did not make him an easy man to get on with. His leadership style was hands-on and autocratic, and based on a confidence in himself that he was so unshakeable it verged on arrogance. He was reserved and sometimes appeared cold and distant. At weekly meetings with deputy vice-chancellors and registrars, he made precise notes in his diary of the tasks he expected them to complete. He would check each person’s report against his notes at subsequent meetings, and woe betide those who failed to deliver. He would roam the campus with white chalk every Sunday, marking anything he felt needed attending to with a cross. At 7am every Monday he called the estate manager, who then spent the rest of the morning rushing around looking for white crosses to ensure that whatever needed fixing was fixed before Du Plessis went for another walk.

He could rile his staff horribly when in the mood. One head of Department felt Du Plessis had cast aspersions on his honesty. He bounded up to the vice-chancellor’s office and told Du Plessis that if he ever spoke to him like that again, he’d knock his block off.

Du Plessis’s driving passion was surgery. He trained at the University of Cape Town and, while still a young man, first assistant to the professor of surgery, and senior surgeon at Groote Schuur Hospital. At age 39, he was appointed professor of surgery at the Johannesburg General Hospital. The department of surgery at Wits was a shambles; it’s clinical and academic status and reputation at rock bottom. He transformed it into one of the greatest surgery departments anywhere, an achievement attested to by a steady stream of distinguished visiting surgeons. Today the departments picture gallery is an international Who’s Who of surgery, with pictures of top surgeons from around the world who passed through the lecture halls.

Du Plessis attached enormous importance to research, and under him the number of scientific research publications soared. As well as being a top surgeon, he was a brilliant teacher, particularly at undergraduate level. A series of lectures to undergraduates in the last three month of their final year were on the ethics of medicine were always packed, although they came at peak swatting time.

Du Plessis fostered the idea of getting practicing surgeons to lecture part time and instituted post-graduate teaching, unheard of before. He started numerous publications and annual congresses that have played a critical role in advancing surgery in South Africa. Again his prodigious accomplishments were characterised by a dictatorial style that earned him the nickname ‘God’. One story is that he made some remark to Dr. Moses Suzman during a ward round and a student piped up: ‘Thus spoke God to Moses.’ Another student slipped a note under his door that read: ‘Dear Prof Du Plessis, tomorrow will be Tuesday, if you agree.’ These stories may apocryphal, but they reflect the way he was regarded.

He respected staff and students who stood up to him, but bullied those who showed weakness. During ward rounds he roasted students who had time to do the required tests on patients. To escape a tongue lashing during these rounds, students would sometimes deposit patients in other parts of the hospital, usually in the x-ray section.

Du Plessis was a captain in the SA Medical Corps during World War Two, serving in a field ambulance in the 6th SA Armoured Division in the British Eighth British Army and the American Fifth Army in North Africa and Italy. He is survived by two sons and his wife, Louise, born Wicht, to whom he was married for 53 years.

Chris Barron

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