Can we wait for Miracles – Piet Opperman – October 2017 newsletter piece
I first become aware of the possibility of a career in computers in late 1965. I was being interviewed for a bursary at Iscor — I was about to write my matric exams. There were a number of other boys there, and they warned me that the interview panel would try to test my resolve by suggesting that I should follow another career rather than my chosen vocation — engineer. So, I was fully prepared when, after spending a morning doing aptitude tests, the panel strongly suggested that I should consider a career in computers. I said “No thanks.”
Fast forward. Five years later I was the assistant to a real engineer. It did not seem to me that what I was doing was anything that would be considered “engineering” — but I did not care, I was in love. I was in love with a great big lump of iron and electronics and spinning things downstairs — an IBM 360/40. My engineer boss taught me how to operate this beast, and later how to make it do my bidding through Fortran and, later, COBOL.
For a young man, these were exciting times. We had to become very creative, everything had to be figured out from scratch, or else passed on by word of mouth. Pretty soon I discovered that the Computer Society of South Africa (CSSA) was an invaluable resource for help, advice, and education. The power of the CSSA was in its Special Interest Groups (SIGs). That was (and hopefully still is) where you could debate and discover and learn from your peers about all kinds of subjects. Some of the SIGs came and went, as interest in a particular aspect waxed and waned. I remember that the Data Communications SIG under Peter Davies became (quite rightly) enormously popular and therefore powerful within the CSSA.
At the head of the CSSA were the giants of the computer industry in South Africa; I recall JJ van Rensburg, who went on to found InfoPlan; Hennie le Roux; Colin Palmer of Reader’s Digest, one of the major users of IT in South Africa at the time; Herman Nel of Iscor; Gert van der Veer, later to become head of South African Airways, and Adrian Schofield, who, along with JJ van Rensburg, has been serving as President of every single IT association over the decades. There were also academics of note: Keith Mattison, Prof Cees Roon, Dr Jonathan Miller and Professor Basie von Solms come to mind.
And many other luminaries, please forgive any errors and omissions.
Keith Mattison persuaded me to play a more active role in the affairs of the Society. Up until then I had concentrated on being useful in the IS Management SIG, where, under the stewardship of Dawie Louw, we had a lot of fun and figured out a lot of answers (some entirely wrong) about how to manage information systems. Keith persuaded me that the CSSA needed more “young Turks”, and that he considered me to be such. I now regret never quizzing him about how he came to such a conclusion.
I was President of the CSSA during an exciting but also difficult time. South Africa was going through tremendous upheavals. My thoughts at the time were expressed in a speech that I made to some students in Durban on July 1 1991. Thanks to my dear departed mother’s collection of everything that I ever did, a copy of that is below.
Later that year, we had the honour of hosting the President of IFIP, Blagovest Sendov at our annual conference and President’s Banquet. The SABC wanted to interview him and we were on a relatively tight schedule. going from place to place, and I drew the short straw — driving Sendov from place to place at high speed. Eventually, I was the one running late for my opening address at the conference. I was so flustered that I was carrying the portable phone that I meant to leave in the car with me into the conference. This thing was a black monstrosity the size of a small dog, and it weighed a ton. For decades afterwards, people would look at me and say: “Oh yes, I remember you, you’re the guy who had that crazy phone.”
Things didn’t get better during the speech. I do remember that at one stage I meant to say: “The electrification of the communities should be prioritized.” However, some sort of Freudian slip caused me to say “The electrification of the communists should be a priority.”
I wish the IITPSA all the best in their future endeavours.
by : Piet Opperman