The year 1929 was a very important one for me. I was then in my third year at the University and so regarded as a senior student; this was reflected in my being elected for the first time to an office in a student body (Honorary Secretary of the UCT Branch of the Students’ Christian Association, SCA); on 26 May I reached my majority; in October we had the Centenary celebrations of the founding of the South African Athenaeum, later the South African College, which in 1918 became the University of Cape Town. But what made it really memorable for me was that in July 1929 I became a real Christian.
It happened in this way: towards the end of 1928 a small group of people,
mainly young, mostly from Britain and the USA, arrived in South Africa. They were the advance guard of a much larger contingent of Christians, later labelled by the Press the “Oxford Group” as so many of the original leaders came from that University. The advance guard visited all the big centres in South Africa, talking to meetings of ministers and young people, telling what a great change had come into their lives as a result of the working of the Holy Spirit through the Oxford Group. Early in 1929 this advance party was invited by my father to address our Young People’s Guild. There were, if I remember rightly, five of them under the leadership of that fine Highland ex-soldier and Oxford student, London Hamilton. With them were two South Africans who had been “changed” through the work of the Group: Donald Mackey, a businessman from Durban; and Miss Trudie Brock of Grahamstown, later Sr. Trudie of the Community of the Resurrection there. I remember listening to them and envying them; they were so obviously sincere, victorious Christians and yet bubbling over with the joy of living.
In June 1929 the main body of the team arrived, under the leadership of that wonderful man and saint of God, the Rev Dr Frank Buchman, a Lutheran minister from the USA, founder of the movement. They included people from all over the world, Canada, the USA, China, the Netherlands, Germany, Britain, etc. Among them was his fellow-American Sherry Day who, with London Hamilton, formed Buchman’s “inner group”. They held a big house party in a hotel in Muizenburg, where their open meetings, three times daily, attracted crowds of people, mainly young. As these were held during the varsity vacation I was able to attend most of them. Through these meetings I became convinced that my “Christianity” was but nominal and that my life needed changing. So I spoke to London Hamilton and made an arrangement to see him privately. I’ll never forget that interview: his kindness to me, an absolute stranger to him, his sympathetic hearing of my story, his advice to me and then his asking me to pray.
In that prayer I dedicated myself to God through Christ my Saviour and asked Him to guide me to use me as He saw fit. Then London prayed also, putting me under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It was a wonderful moment for me and I felt that my life was no longer my own, but belonged to my Saviour. Before I left him London gave me a warm handshake and wrote my name and address in his notebook.
Results of this change in my life were soon evident. I had always been very shy of speaking in public, but now I found that, when I prayed and sought God’s guidance, I could not only speak but also pray in public and not long afterwards was able to take part in and even conduct church services. Also I started something that has continued all my life since, a “quiet time” every morning, preferably before breakfast, in which I read a portion of the Bible (using a Scripture Union Bible reading syllabus), prayed and asked God to guide me throughout the day.
The next year, 1930, also had a big influence on my life. By this time I was President of the UCT Branch f the SCA and of the University’s Education Society and of the UCT Historical Society. I was also a member of the committee of the Day Students’ Society. In my first three years I had taken four subjects each year instead of the compulsory three and had passed them all but only in the Third Class. But in 1930 and 1931 when studying for the Bed Degree I obtained First or Second class passes in all my subjects.
In the June vacation of 1930 I was privileged to lead a strong team from UCT to an SCA conference in the Black University of Fort Hare. Up to that time my aim had always been to apply to my old school, Sea Point Boys’ High, for a post as History and/or English teacher for Stds 7 to 10 after I had graduated. Being a ship lover I hoped for a post in Cape Town where I could visit the docks, see many ships and study new ones. But at the Fort Hare conference on the last day one of the speakers, the Rev Cardross Grant of St Matthew’s Mission in the Ciskei, made an appeal to all of us who were becoming teachers to join the educational mission stations which needed them greatly. I remember looking around the group of students, wondering which of them would offer for work in mission institutions. I was at the time certain of getting a post at my old school as a prominent member of that school’s committee had assured me that if I were to apply he would see to it that I was appointed. But next morning, when I was having my “quiet time” before breakfast, I found to my
great surprise that my guidance was to apply for a post in a Black institution. Soon afterwards I spoke to a Fort Hare lecturer Mr Cliff Dent about what had happened and he gave me some advice which turned out to be very good: he said I should first get a post in a white school and stay there for some years so as to build up a standard to aim at in the Black school to which I would later be appointed. This seemed to me a very good idea so in August 1931 I applied to every school which had advertised in the current Education Gazette for a senior teacher in History and English. There were 11 of them. Later I heard that every member
of our BEd class had done the same thing. But none of our applications succeeded. This was during the Great Depression of 1929 to 1932 when School Boards could not afford to offer any new posts and almost all teachers who had posts in schools were holding on to them with all their might! We were thus all very dejected and started applying for any temporary post that offered our subjects which appeared in the Gazette. This was a really disheartening time. However, some weeks later, one of my Education professors asked me to see him after the class. I did so, wondering what exploit of mine could have led to my getting disciplined. Actually the professor was the “bringer of glad tidings”: he told me that the Principal of the Hottentots Holland High School in Somerset West had asked him to recommend one of his class who could deal with Senior Certificate History and English and he had recommended me! He told me to go and see Mr Ackermann on the next Saturday. I did so and had a long talk with my future principal. The ten incumbent had been allowed to leave at short notice as he had been appointed Vice Principal of a High School in Cape Town. Mr Ackermann kept on telling me what a fine man this teacher had been, what good exam results he always got, what a wonderful coach he was at both Rugby and cricket, not to mention athletics and so made me terrified that I would not reach the same heights!