Jaco and the Diamond Differential

I had met Jaco at the hotel in Windhoek where he was having a drink with my old school friend, Tini. At first I had though that they were casual acquaintances but as it turned out, they had known one another for some years and had met up in Windhoek by accident. Jaco and his elder brother Martin, were the directors of an import and export company dealing in foodstuffs. They were based in Johannesburg in South Africa and at that point in time they were dealing with a company in Luanda, the capital of Angola, with the view of importing fresh prawns into South West Africa and South Africa. Martin and his family, together with Jaco’s wife and child as well as his father-in-law were all visiting Angola as part of a holiday as well as looking for business opportunities. Or so they said!

Jaco was a smooth talker. Tall, about my height of six feet three inches, square cut face, smartly dressed in casual clothes, he cut a fine figure of a well to do businessman. As I said, he was a smooth talker, letting us know of his various successful business dealings whilst plying us with alcohol. We were seemingly impressed. The upshot of this meeting was that Jaco offered Tini and me a job in his company where we would be the intermediaries overseeing the export of the prawns to South West Africa and beyond. The pay was good and we were both offered an advance to take care of incidentals but the catch was that we were to start immediately and were to fly to Angola within three days or as soon as our visas were approved. For Tini it wasn’t a problem as his job with the earthmoving company had finished and he had been laid off for three months until the next contract was due to begin. I had a problem that I had to give a months notice but in the end I said that I was going anyway as this opportunity had arrived and the pay was three times that of what my employer could offer me. They weren’t happy with my decision but accepted the fact. Within four days Tini and I were on our way to Luanda with high hopes and high expectations for our futures. Little did we know!?

I still had my car with the mechanic in Grootfontein and he had been unable to find the right bearings for the crankcase in South Africa and they had to be ordered from England. This was going to take months. I told him of what I was up to and sent him a little money to tide him over and to keep him happy. I had now been without the car for two months and was getting used to it. Anyway, I would not need a car for a while.

We arrived at Luanda airport and stepped off on to the tarmac into stifling heat as it was now October and the build up to the monsoon season was starting. I had not spent too much time in the tropics before and this heat took some getting used to. Jaco and his family had rented a villa in the hills near Luanda. Tienie and I had to share a hotel room in a run down boarding place in the middle of the city.

Luanda was a culture shock to me. The Portuguese overlords who were in control of the country ran the society with and iron fist and did not tolerate any deviance from the norm from the African native population. At this point in time the Portuguese authorities were still well in control of the country but simmering resentment from the Africans would come to the fore in the years to come and plunge the country into civil war for a long time. The Portuguese Police would walk down the street in pairs, side by side, step by step, and swaggering and each with a machine gun slung across their shoulders. They were polite and friendly towards people with European features but towards blacks they were cool and remote if not uncaring. The blacks knew to stay out of their way. On the whole however the society moved along at a steady pace. Shops opened for business at 6am in the morning but closed down at 11am in the morning and did not re-open till late in the afternoon. Then they would trade once again until late in to the night. This was done so as to combat the tropical heat in the middle of the day.

Tini and I soon got to know the Luanda layout. We also became aware, quite early in the proceedings that there were spies everywhere. This was gleamed from an inebriated barman in our hotel one morning. He told us that just about every one who worked where there were foreigners around also worked on the side informing the police of matters which may require their attention. We had been alerted.

As things worked out, the business dealings with the view to buying and exporting prawns was quite genuine and we were soon to meet various businessmen and view their factory and processing plants. It was going to be a long job however as there were language difficulties and we were slightly out of our league when dealing with smart businessmen. We pressed on however working through the miles of red tape and government officials. About two months into our stay we were visiting a nightclub down on the ocean front precinct and we were having a good time dancing and having fun with the locals. On leaving the nightclub we noticed a vehicle following us, or so we thought. I was driving Jaco’s Land Rover. And I noticed the Peugeot car following us. I mentioned this to Tienie and started driving up and down unknown streets seeing if this car was really following us, it was! Soon we were getting lost and drove up a dead end street with no way out. I brought the Land Rover to a halt. Two men got out of the car and approached the truck and spoke to me in Portuguese. I responded in English saying that I did not understand Portuguese, which was then the official language of Angola. In flawless English one of them replied. They identified themselves as Detectives and asked us a whole lot of questions including our names, where we were staying, whose vehicle it was, who we were employed by and so on. Then we were asked to get out of the car and told to lock it. We were then asked to accompany them to the Police Station. We didn’t have much choice. My apprehension turned out to be unfounded as we were taken to a Police Station and treated very well. In a room full of Policemen we were asked hundreds of questions and after about two hours the Police must have decided that we were just innocent bystanders and told us that we would be returned to our vehicle. They also said that we would probably receive a follow-up visit from them at a later date.

We made it back to our hotel and fell in to a disturbed sleep. The following morning our desk reception smiled at us wryly and said that he knew what was happening. We were non-plussed as we made our way down to Jaco�s villa. What the hell was going on. We had hardly set foot in the villa when a Police car pulled up outside as well. A policeman in plain clothes asked to see Jaco and spoke with him out of earshot.

After the Police had left, Jaco came storming up the stairs of the house in a foul mood stating that they had been given 24 hours to get their affairs in order in Angola and a further 24 hours to leave the country. On top of that the Angolan Government would keep Jaco�s car as security against him leaving the country and he could then make application to have it shipped south at a later date.

Jaco turned to us saying “What the hell have you two been up to?”

“What!.? Us? Nothing!. Why?”

Jaco would not elaborate. We told him about the previous night but that there was nothing that we could have told the Police that would have had any significance to anything. We were still in the dark.

Then we found out that no one had any money. Jaco took his wife’s diamond ring. She started crying and asking in between sobs, about what had happened to their money. Jaco fobbed her off by saying he would tell her later. He left the house and drove down to the business district with the ring. He reappeared about an hour later and told everyone to start packing. Soon after that Immigration Officials arrived at the villa and stamped ‘Cancelled’ on all visas. We were at our hotel getting ready to move out and our visas weren’t cancelled but we had no choice in the matter. We paid our hotel bill, got into the LandRover and drove down to the villa.

Later that afternoon we piled in to the LandRover and set off on our journey south. There was Jaco and his wife and their infant child, Jaco’s father-in-law and Jaco’s brother, Martin and Tienie and myself. Not much was being said and it was soon apparent that we were being followed. Our ‘escort’ stayed with us for about a hundred kilometres and then, when pretty much sure that we were out of the city and built up areas, they did a u-turn and left us to our own devices.

It was the beginning of December and the monsoon season had started early. As we progressed south the tarred roads became worse as poor maintenance had left them in a bad state. We pushed on into the night driving in turns. I was behind the wheel just before daylight when I saw some fuel drums lying in the road. I slowed down to a crawl and then came the sound of a firecracker going off.

“Shit!!!!!!….someone’s shooting at us!!!!!!!!” Tienie yelled. I floored the accelerator, bumped some of the drums out of the way and we kept on going. Then the rear window shattered but did not implode leaving a hole where a bullet had entered. The bullet then imbedded itself in the hood lining. We had been hit. I kept the accelerator down and we picked up speed. I kept going for what seemed hours with nobody saying anything. We reached the town of Villa da Ponte and stopped at the Police Station. While we were trying to show the two policemen on duty at the damage to our vehicle and that we had had a near death experience they were more interested in seeing our passports. Once they saw the cancelled visas they shooed us off on our way and would not listen to anything. All they did was to point south and gesture “Go! Go!” We managed to refuel the Land Rover and have a bite to eat at a meagre fruit stall in this small town. A local asked where we were going and we pointed south and he shook his head. In broken English he said that there had been lots of rain and the roads may be flooded.

We pressed on. The road had now changed to dirt ruts with wet patches and mud holes. We were in four wheel drive mode all the way now. We were following a river bed that meandered across a floodplain. Now we were in wild country with the possibility of lions and crocodiles being about. We passed the town of Evale and by the time we reached Pereira de Eqa we were driving in water. The town had been abandoned some years before and there were ruins only.

It was nightfall and but Jaco decided that we should push on. I questioned this move but he told me to shut up and that he knew what he was doing. I shut up.

By ten o’clock at night driving was becoming precarious and even Jaco realised this and as soon as we found a dry spot we pulled up for the night. The ground was wet and we sat in the LandRover making the best of what sleeping position we could muster. The mosquitoes would not leave us alone either despite us spraying copious amounts of insect spray in the cabin.

Daylight saw us moving again and the terrain became undulating with sections of dry track and others where we drove for kilometres through half a metre of water just aiming at the hole in the trees as an indicator to where the road may be. Tienie and I sat on the roof rack for a while directing the driver where to go in this small sea. Progress was slow but eventually in the late afternoon we cleared the low lying areas and came to the border bridge at Vila Perez. Here the bridge spans the mighty Kunene River which divides South West Africa from Angola. The border guards stamped our passports and we drove across the river with obvious relief. We were smiling and laughing again making little jokes and saying how we would easily deprive ourselves of something for a cold beer. The immigration officials at the border post, Oshikango, stamped our passports and told us to drive over to the building in the shade of the trees for Customs. We drove over.

Six burly Policemen stepped out of the building as we arrived. We were instructed to leave the vehicle, to touch nothing and to go in to an air conditioned room to wait.

“We have been waiting for you.” they said wryly and proceeded to pull the LandRover to pieces.

There were enough beds in the room for us to lie down on and after downing a few cold beers which we were able to buy from a makeshift store at an exorbitant price we fell in to a deep sleep. Even protestations from Jaco’s young son could not wake us and we slept through till the morning.

Customs officials and Police had virtually pulled the Land Rover apart during the night but they could not find whatever they were looking for. What were they looking for? Jaco and Martin appeared to be just as dumbfounded as the rest of us. Then we were ordered in to separate rooms and a full body search was conducted on all of us. I had never been searched like this in my life and was very angry at first but was told in no uncertain terms that the alternative was 90 days jail in Tsumeb, a town about 300 kilometres to the south. I conceded defeat and the search went ahead. Nothing was found but by this time Tienie and I had an idea that the authorities were searching for illicit diamonds. Reluctantly the customs officials gave us clearance to leave. We were flabbergasted to say the least and Jaco and Martin feigned outrage at our treatment. There were recriminations and mutterings as we made our way further south. The track was still wet in places but the further south we moved the drier it became and we were starting to see lots of antelope, warthogs, wildebeest and zebras as we were now approaching the northern boundary of the Etosha Game Reserve.

That night we camped near the game reserve boundary and lit a big fire as there was lots of dried wood at hand. Even though we had had a good sleep the night before we were quite exhausted and our spirits were low again. Tini and I were broke and were wondering what the future held in store for us. The discussion went that way and Jaco piped up to say that he would look after us once we got to Windhoek. We had both funded our own stay in Angola and had even paid for some of the fuel for the journey south.

The night suddenly went quiet but we did not notice it until there was a might roar from a lion. It sounded so close and we were startled out of our reverie and all of us rushed to get back into the LandRover where we stayed for the rest of the night.

After that incident it was an easy if uncomfortable run in to Windhoek and both Tini and myself were feeling uneasy and we were pretty skint too boot. On arrival Jaco told us to meet him at the hotel the following day which we duly did. When we met up he thanked us for our contribution to the venture in Angola and said that the prawn business was still a goer and that we were to come and see him in three months time. He gave both Tini and myself a cheque for five thousand rands each and bid us goodbye for the time being. I was pretty happy with this outcome and went to the bank and deposited the proceeds. I was smart enough to obtain a special bank clearance for the cheque and within one hour the bank confirmed that my cheque had been cleared. I rang the mechanic in Grootfontein who told me that my car was ready to be picked up. All I had to do was get there and bring some money with me. I drew the cash and started hitchhiking to Grootfontein some two hundred kilometres away.

Two days later I was back in Windhoek. Tini had flown to Johannesburg to see the company he worked for prior to our adventure about a new contract and I decided that I had had enough excitement for a while and headed for home to spend Christmas with my parents.

It was a long drive home and I tried to do as much as possible at night taking care not to hit small steenbuck, which could dart in front of the lights. Once back in South Africa I called in at Wolmeransstad where Jaco’s father-in-law lived. There I saw Jaco’s wife and son as well and they relayed to me that Jaco and Martin had gone to Johannesburg on urgent business. I bid them goodbye and continued on my way south.

Christmas was a family affair and we all had a good time. I was busy organising myself another job in Cape Town and everything seemed to be falling in to place when my dad summonsed me to his office.

“What the hell have you been up to this time?” he yelled at me. I was taken by surprise not knowing what had happened. Then the story came to light.

The cheque that I had cleared by the bank did not have the authorised signatures on it and was not valid. “But”, said I, “the bank cleared the cheque and I have the paper work to prove it” My dad, being a lawyer, was very pleased about that, but in the end the bank demanded the money back. So as to avoid a court case and legal argument that could have run in to thousands of rands my dad demanded that I repay the money. Luckily I had not spent much of it and handed it over to my dad. Then, of course, there was a shortfall. So, my dad, who was a very imposing person, and whom I held in awe, took my car from me and sold it. After the balance of my debt to the hire purchase company was paid there was just enough left to make up the shortfall of the five thousand rands I owed. I was left with ten rands to my name. Back to where I started out some years before.

No wheels, no girl, no job, no money, no prospects.

Dad announced a day later that the insurance company, in which our family had a major share portfolio, was looking for a clerk and I was to be it and that I was leaving for Cape Town the following Sunday by train. Just like that! What choice did I have?

I went to work at the insurance company and lasted for six months at a dreary desk and a dreary job. The only highlight of my stay there was the company secretary who was three years my senior and who was sex crazy. She was engaged to be married to a bloke who was doing National Service and was away for months at a time.

After departing from my desk job I drove hire cars for a tour company for three months and in that time saved up my money and booked my passage to Australia.

It was some time later that I had a letter from Tini telling me that Jaco and Martin had indeed smuggled diamonds out of Angola and that had been the whole purpose of the visit there. Our employment in Angola had only been a smoke screen. Apparently the diamonds had been hidden in a specially made compartment in the front differential housing of the Land Rover. Customs never thought of looking there. The Land Rover was found abandoned at the wharf in Cape Town and word had it that both Jaco and Martin had ’emigrated’ to Argentina. Later he had sent for his wife and son but they refused to leave South Africa.

On 11 September 1968 I stepped off the MV Ellinis on to Australian soil at Fremantle and a new phase of my life was about to begin.

Posted in Life Stories.