Westoe to Sigurwana

22 Dec 2021

Bookended by those two great queens, Victoria, and Elizabeth II, in a span of nearly 200 years, this is a rollicking ride of family fortunes stretching from the Industrial Revolution in England to a non-racial, black-led republic in South Africa. It is the sprawling saga of the Wright family starting in the small village of Westoe on the banks of the River Tyne, northern England, with another start in 1896 in South Africa. Business ventures feature prominently; they are many and varied: shipping, milling, baking, farming, agribusiness, poultry, logistics and trucking, flying tourism, art galleries, a café, publishing, and a wilderness guest lodge in Limpopo. The managerial challenges are multiple. It is a tale of considerable success and achievements; there are also losses, heartbreaks, and tragedies. It is life to the very brim. It is also the autobiography of Neil Wright, born in 1943 in the Eastern Cape.

The canvas is large and colourful. Within the bounds of South Africa, the centrepiece is the Eastern Cape and the Highlands District not far from Grahamstown/Makhanda, with a century of proud Wright farms – ‘Milburn’, ‘Westoe’ and ‘Ellesmere’. Then it stretches out to the Northern Cape, Namibia’s Diamond Coast, the University of Cape Town, the winelands of Stellenbosch, the business district of Montague Gardens to Kloof in KwaZulu Natal, the suburbs of Johannesburg and the heights of the Soutpansberg. The family spawns branches Down Under and wider-a-field. A branch connection relates back to the French Huguenot settlers. Another connection takes in a famous painter of American birds. There is much wider travel. The canvas is vast.

The political content is never far away – humming quietly but consistently in the background. Dutch and British Empires, Colonisation, Afrikaner-nationalism, brutal wars including the nasty Border War of the seventies and eighties (in which young Peter Warrener lost his life), the horrors of apartheid rule, new-found democracy, the rainbow nation of Mandela and Tutu, reconciliation, and hope, only to crash and burn with the misguided myopia of Zuma-backed state capture. Now perhaps shaping towards a greener political future. It is a large tale in and of itself – nor are the pandemics ignored: the 1918-1920 Spanish flu, poverty un-tackled, AIDs denialism, then the 2020-2022 Covid-19 threat, lost lives. There are more aspects humming almost silently in the background: the operation of lawyers – some good, some bad.

This is of course a story from the upper reaches of the social order: white males, elite schools, top universities, business success, managing director, owner, boss, leader, wealth, and prosperity. But it has another side; these are ordinary people, farming folk, working souls. There are struggles in life as for all of us. There is much hard work and effort; there is dedication, reliability, and loyalty. There is an early warning about the danger of too much pride and arrogance.