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The African Car That Is No More




It is a Thursday evening in November at a friend’s exhibition in central Johannesburg, South Africa. This is where I meet a rather peculiar man, Ian Schwartz. We speak almost endlessly after being introduced to each other. He looks smart in a blue shirt, with the sleeves folded up, and jeans. The shirt has prints that look like vehicle emblems.

Schwartz is a 57-year-old engineer and photographer who recently wrote and published a book on racing cars that were produced in the 1950s in a workshop in Booysens, an industrial area close to the Crown Mines, 4kms south of Johannesburg’s business district. The book is titled Protea – The Story of an African Car.

Over bottles of beer, cars were the main subject of our conversation at the studio apartment exhibition.

READ MORE: Roads Without Drivers

In January, I ask Schwartz if we could catch up and possibly do a story on Protea, which was originally made from only two prototypes, the Mark I and Mark II­­. The first chassis was built at a friend’s workshop. The drawing of the Mark II chassis is dated April 28, 1957. Both chassis where built from scratch and fitted with different engines from older racing cars. This creation was called Protea; the first sportscar made in South Africa.

These cars were built from scratch, out of scrap, and were ‘special’ to the 60s generation in South Africa. They could not afford racing cars exported from Europe, so they constructed their own in their backyards.

Ian-Schwartz poses in front of the Protea in his garage with the book he published (Photo by Peter Hassall)

Revved by our previous conversation, we meet at his home in Parktown, Johannesburg, to continue discussing the car.

“There was a guy in Benoni, he had a business that made fibreglass cars and there was this thing parked in the corner, so I asked about it. It was a big Afrikaans guy and he said ‘ah, this is a Protea’,” Schwartz recalls.

He found it interesting and returned six months later. However, he found a different person in charge – an Indian man who was the business partner of the Afrikaans man.

It was 2011, and the first thing Schwartz asked about was the car. Luckily for him, it was for sale for R17,000 ($1,400). The car was engineless with nothing but a red carpet inside. At the time, he didn’t know it was produced in South Africa. He went on to research the history behind the Protea and its development, and to also bring the original body back to life.

A Protea Triumph leads a Jaguar XK140 through Clubhouse Corner at the newly opened Kyalami in the early 60s (Photo supplied)

Schwartz then found out about a man named Alan Grant who knew a lot about the Protea and even owned one. They finally met at the Kyalami racetrack on a Saturday soon after.

Because the Protea had never been documented, Grant asked Schwartz to write a book about it and would further introduce him to the mastermind of the Protea, John Myers; a 96-year-old currently living in Strand, Cape Town.

“When I heard he was still alive, I said it was such a bargain and I met him. He’s an interesting guy, he was 89 then and he said ‘look, you are invited to my 90th birthday down in Strand; if I don’t get my wings before then’,” laughs Schwartz.

While doing research, he learned there was a team behind the Protea, namely Alec Roy and Ronald (Bob) Fincher. Another two, Rob and Miriam Hudson, came in later and were the main financial backers behind the car.

Ronald Fincher, Alec Roy and John Myers pose with the MK II prototype chassis (Photo supplied)

Roy was an industrial chemist employed by De Beers at their diamond research laboratory. Fincher was employed by Hubert Davies Ltd, while Myers worked at Skylon workshop in Pretoria, before he became the only full-time employee on the premises, sleeping in the upstairs area of the workshop.

These were friends with the same goal of building a car that one could drive to work and still race on the weekends. Unfortunately, their dream couldn’t be fulfilled. Myers is the only one still alive to tell the tale of the first African sportscar.

“We used to put in about 16 hours a day working. I used to live in the flat above the workshop,” says Myers. “It was a dream, we had the dream but we knew we couldn’t keep on with it. We were all bachelors at the time, working all hours of the night; we couldn’t do that when we got married.”

The home of South Africa’s first production car. John Meyers stayed in a small flatlet upstairs (Photo supplied)

While speaking to Myers over the phone, although he talks slowly and I have to repeat myself now and then, he recalls everything as if it happened yesterday. He recalls overwhelming and horrific moments at the GRP Engineering Company workshop at the corner of 1st Avenue and 1st Street in Booysen’s Reserve.

“It was not a good place to be at night because I kept finding dead [bodies] lying about in the area,” he says.

He remembers a corrugated iron church nearby where they would often find the bodies of dead miners. In most of the pictures shot of the Protea, the church is in the background.

Despite the interesting details of the workshop, I was more excited to hear about his racing.

“I don’t drive anymore because my daughters won’t let me drive,” says Myers.

“One of the last rounds I made I had driven in the six-hour race in Pietermaritzburg the year before and we had come second. So we bought it back and took the running gear out and mounted it in one of the chassis. The others had fibre glass bodies but this one had aluminium. We finished that, we drove it down to Pietermaritzburg, won the race and drove it back again. No problem,” says Myers.

Ian Schwartz’s Protea arrives on a trailer from Benoni to his home in Parktown, Johannesburg (Photo by Ian Schwartz)

Myers says the car – that belongs to Grant – still races in historic events.

The Protea is unknown to most Africans. This might be due to the firm closing after the Receiver of Revenue knocked on their door and told them they did not have a customs duty clearance certificate for the vehicles they had produced and were selling. That was the death of the GRP Engineering Company.

John Myers and Ian Schwartz’s daughter Amy pose next to the MK II (Photo by Zunia Myers)

The Protea turned 60 last year. Myers is sorry that Fincher and Roy are not alive to tell their story and enjoy the attention of the media.

“For the car’s 60th anniversary they came and took me off to the Franschhoek Motor Museum. They took the car out of the showroom and gave me a ride in it because they have a little track, and that was lovely,” he says.

Some of these cars now live in museums across South Africa, a few are stored in collectors’ garages, all of them still live in the drivers’ hearts.

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Oliver Mtukudzi The Soldier With A Big Voice – Yvonne Chaka Chaka



In January, Africa lost Oliver Mtukudzi. His friend and fellow musician Yvonne Chaka Chaka fondly remembers the global icon. 

In October 2012, Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi, South Africa’s Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Kenya’s Suzanna Owíyo produced Because I Am Girl with musicians from around the world.

It was released to promote the global launch of Plan International’s ‘Because I am A Girl’ campaign, marking the first UN International Day of the Girl Child, on October 11.

READ MORE | Tribute To Oliver Mtukudzi – Zimbabwe’s ‘Man With The Talking Guitar’

Dressed in African prints, they sang together, spreading the word about the empowerment of the girl child.

Mtukudzi’s bass and Chaka Chaka’s soulful voice in harmony, they became more than co-artists; they become brother and sister. It was the first performance of many for the two.

Seven years on, Chaka Chaka is teary-eyed about Mtukudzi’s death 23 days into 2019, when not just she, but Africa lost a music legend.

In a strange coincidence, Mtukudzi died the same day the continent lost the father of South African jazz, Hugh Masekela, last year.

On the phone for this interview, Chaka Chaka describes Mtukudzi as a soldier at work.

“When he was on stage, he was a totally different man. When he had his guitar, it was like a soldier. Like a soldier who has a gun at work,” she tells us.

“I think there were two different people. Offstage, he was just an ordinary man, and on stage, people ate out of the palm of his hand.

“I’ve never known Oliver to never be fit. He has been a skinny man and he would just twist that body with a guitar and that gravel voice of his. A big voice in a small body,” she says.

“He has never called me Yvonne, he has always called me Fifi… Fifi means sister.

“The man was always humble, he never raised his voice, I have never seen him angry and all he has ever wanted is just to see Africa thriving. He wanted to see Africa beautiful. He wanted to see Africa with less disease, less hunger, less corruption, a happy Africa – that was his wish.”

One anecdote Chaka Chaka shares is when Mtukudzi was made a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in Zimbabwe in 2011.

“You know he sat there with me and asked, ‘so, what does this entail, my sister? You have been a goodwill ambassador for a long time. You will tell me what needs to be done. How should I act? How should I react? How should I do things?’

“And I’m like, ‘no, but you know, you are more of a star than me and you have been in this industry long before I’. He was just so down-to-earth and had no chip on his shoulder.” 

The last performance the two did together was in October last year in Harare during the Jacaranda Festival, attended by more than 2,000 people and other artists around the continent.

“Oliver was not in his changing room or at home. He stayed there and watched other artists perform, which was so great,” says Chaka Chaka.

“This year, he promised that we would do it [the Jacaranda Festival] in Bulawayo,” she said. They had planned to make it a big show and use their status as goodwill ambassadors to encourage and inspire more youth.

 But sadly, that promise will never be fulfilled.

“The legacy he will leave behind is a legacy of love, the legacy of pro-African and I think for me he was a pan-Africanist. That’s what he was,” she says.

READ MORE | Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi Dies At 66

To this day, Neria is still one of Chaka Chaka’s favorite songs by him.

 Mtukudzi, who died aged 66 of diabetes, was laid to rest on January 27 in his home village of  Madziwa.

Thousands sang and danced to the melodies of his songs.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared him a national hero, posthumously, a status that has previously been reserved for ruling party elite and independence veterans.

He may be gone but his music will live forever in the hearts of the fans that loved this legend who soldiered on until the end.

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What A Failed Johannesburg Project Tells Us About Mega Cities In Africa




Six years ago a major development was announced in South Africa. Billed as a game changer, it was meant to alter the urban footprint of Johannesburg, Africa’s richest city, forever.

The Modderfontein New City project was launched amid much fanfare, expectation and media hype.

Zendai, a Chinese developer, bought a 1600-hectare site north-east of Johannesburg for the development, which it quickly dubbed as the “New York of Africa”. Early plans showed it was to include 55,000 housing units, 1,468,000 m2 of office space and all the necessary amenities for urban life in the form of a single large-scale urban district. The cost estimate was set at R84 billion.

The developers believed that Modderfontein could function as a global business hub and would become Johannesburg’s main commercial center, replacing Sandton. The project would also change Johannesburg’s international profile by strengthening relations with Asian corporate interests.

But, despite the release of futuristic computer-generated images which led to significant publicity for the project, it was never built. Instead, the land was eventually sold off. Another developer has since begun construction on a much more scaled down project, in the form of a gated-community style housing development.

Modderfontein has faded away from the public consciousness. The story of why it failed has never been adequately told in the media.

Our research, which took place over the course of several years, sought to understand the factors which led to the project’s demise. We also wanted to find out how Modderfontein’s failure relates to the broader African urban context.

We found that the project was hindered by conflicting visions between the developer and the City of Johannesburg. Moreover, unexpectedly low demand for both housing and office space meant the original plan for the project was incompatible with the city’s real estate market.

The project’s trajectory also shows how African “edge-city” developments, which are generally elite-driven and marketed as “eco-friendly” or “smart”, can be influenced by a strong local government with the means and willingness to shape development.

Conflicting interests

Zendai’s aspirations to produce a high-end, mixed-used development did not fit with the City of Johannesburg’s approach. Rather than a luxurious global hub, the city wanted a more inclusive development – one which reflected the principles outlined in its 2014 Spatial Development Framework.

At the heart of the framework is the desire to reshape a trend that saw capital leave the old central business district for affluent Sandton at the dawn of democracy in 1994. This was accompanied by an upsurge in securitised suburbs further north towards Pretoria, the country’s capital city.

These spatial trends were incompatible with the ideals of South Africa’s new democratic government and its strategy to mitigate the effects of apartheid-era planning. During apartheid, black people were prohibited from living in more affluent areas, which were reserved for the minority white population. Instead, they were forced into sprawling “townships” on the periphery of cities, far from work and economic opportunities.

To this end, the city demanded that Zendai include at least 5 000 affordable homes in its plans. It also wanted to ensure that the development was compatible with, and complemented, Johanneburg’s public transport system. The city was willing to contribute funding for the necessary infrastructure and inclusive housing.

Yet Zendai remained steadfast in its commitment to its vision, eventually deciding against fully integrating the city’s wishes into its planning application. This saw the city draw-out the planning process.

Meanwhile, problems were mounting for Zendai. The owner, Dai Zhikang, was eventually forced to sell his stake in the project to the China Orient Asset Management Company. Rather than continuing with the project, the asset managers sold the land to the company behind the new housing development on the site.

Smart cities in Africa

Over the last decade, a variety of developments like Modderfontein, including Eko-Atlantic in Nigeria, New Cairo in Egypt, and Konza Technology City in Kenya, have been touted by both public and private sectors as panaceas for Africa’s urban problems. The thinking is that as the developments are disconnected from the existing urban landscape, they won’t be burdened by crime or informality. However, these projects can take badly needed resources away from the marginalised areas of the city.

To make them more palatable to domestic and international audiences, the developments are usually marketed as “smart” or “eco-friendly”.

But these developments can fail at the point of implementation. This is because, as speculative projects, they generally don’t recognise the need to fit in with the wishes of the local authorities or adapt to the existing city. In the case of Modderfontein, the city government had the capability to push back against the developers and, in the end tried to shape the project to better fit Johannesburg’s urban realities. – The Conversation

-Ricardo Reboredo; PhD Candidate in Geography, Trinity College Dublin

-Frances Brill; Research fellow, UCL

The Conversation

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4 Ways To Develop Employment-Ready Graduates




Chris Pilgrim, the new CEO of Transnational Academic Group West Africa and Lancaster University Ghana, on the potential game-changers in higher education on the continent.

It is to a verdant academic campus in Ghana   that Chris Pilgrim will be packing his bags from the dunes of Dubai. As the new CEO of Transnational Academic Group (TAG) West Africa and Lancaster University Ghana, Pilgrim will provide students across emerging markets access to post-secondary and executive education.

TAG currently owns and operates Lancaster University’s campus in Ghana, Curtin University’s Dubai campus, and South Africa-based ABN Training in partnership with the Australian Institute of Management in Western Australia.

Pilgrim, who has helped develop TAG’s expansion in Africa and has over 25 years of experience in the higher education sector, spoke to FORBES AFRICA about skills-building, STEM and job creation:

READ MORE | Education Quality and the Youth Skills Gap Are Marring Progress in Africa

1. Are more universities looking to set up here?

A. With over half a million African students studying abroad annually, the continent has the highest outbound student ratio (number of outbound tertiary students/total number of tertiary students) in the world. Along with this annual migration of students comes capital flight, increased brain drain, and a hesitancy to build further world-class higher education capacity on the continent.

TAG partners with globally top-ranked universities to provide the highest quality of higher education in emerging market nations, thereby reversing, albeit modestly, the flow of students.

Our campus in Ghana, in partnership with Lancaster University (ranked sixth in the UK), provides world-class higher education capacity for West Africans, and it has seen students from other countries, including outside of Africa, take up enrolment.

TAG’s Lancaster University Ghana is the only comprehensive UK university campus in mainland Africa, and while TAG is undertaking steps to open similar branch campuses in other African countries, other investors and top-ranked universities have not moved to open campuses in the region.

Chris Pilgrim, the CEO of Transnational Academic Group West Africa and Lancaster University Ghana.

2. How can Africa build skills, capacity and create more jobs?

A. While there has been a modest growth of employment in the formal job sector in some countries, many of Africa’s youth are more likely today to take up work in the informal sectors and in family enterprises.

Africa, as a region, has the largest youth population in the world, and with over 11 million young people expected to enter the job market each year, its economies are stretched to productively absorb Africa’s greatest asset – this youth population.

While the continent’s education capacities and output are integral to leveraging this youth population into a potential demographic dividend, investments, both private and public, into relevant higher education capacities, particularly STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) capacity, are limited.

In the long-term, addressing the underlying causes of unemployment and skills-gap lies in increasing enrolment in secondary and tertiary education, with a focus on STEM, thus enabling graduates to participate in the new economies and globalization emerging with the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship are fundamental to creating the jobs of the future.

3. What is the increasing role of STEM programs?

A. While the vital importance of STEM education to infrastructure development, healthcare, energy security, agriculture, and the environment are well cited over the past decade, the role of STEM and digital skills in preparing for 4IR are potential game-changers.

READ MORE | Kenyan Approach Holds Promise for Boosting Early Childhood Education

African nations need to develop “future-ready curricula that encourage critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence as well as accelerate acquisition of digital and STEM skills to match the way people will work and collaborate in 4IR” (Source: WEF 2017 The Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa).

Lancaster University Ghana has been delivering relevant computer science curriculum since its inception, and is set to launch programs in engineering this year, followed by additional programs in STEM disciplines.

4. How are you creating future leaders?

A. TAG Ghana works closely with Lancaster University to assure that our students receive an education that is relevant both locally, and in the global context. We work closely with industry and the community to understand their needs so our graduates are employment-ready.

Interviewed by Methil Renuka

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