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June 13, 2013

How to skydive at 96, and other life lessons

Ninety-eight year-old Georgina Harwood marches to the beat of her own drum. Photo by Lynnette Johns

Everyone needs purpose in their lives, something to which to strive. It may be a career, taking care of your family or loving your city.

For Georgina Harwood, it is all three. Born in 1915 – yes, that's almost 100 years ago – Harwood stood out. One of a handful of women who went to university during the 1930s, she was a career woman, still single until the ripe old age of 28, and then a devoted wife and mother.

She was 92 when she jumped from a plane in a tandem skydive, and she repeated the feat four years later. Two years away from her century, Harwood remains active: she plays bridge, and croquet at the Woodside retirement village in Rondebosch, where she lives, and at Kelvin Grove.

Driving remains one of her passions, and trips to Fish Hoek and the occasional drive out to Hermanus are favourites. 

Her father was a noted medical doctor, JA Mitchell, who played a huge part in managing and treating people during the 1901 black (bubonic) plague that swept the Cape. He went on to become a world-renowned speaker on public health.

Harwood's late husband Ted was a prosecutor, eventually becoming the Cape's attorney-general. This story, however, is not about the men in her life, but about her and the role she played in a developing Cape Town.

The eldest of six children, Harwood was born in Newlands in 1915. Their house in the Main Road has since been demolished, and a large office block now takes up the space. Most of her formative years were spent between Cape Town and Pretoria: her father was the first secretary of public health, which meant he spent six months of the year in Cape Town when Parliament sat, and six months in Pretoria.

Harwood loved playing on St James beach, and remembers being served tea by the family maid. Photo courtesy of smee.bruce

Like most middle-class families of that era, the family had a cook, nanny, maid and gardener. She remembers carefree days as a young girl. "We lived in St James and we could go down to the beach. The railway lines had not yet been built, and the beach was much bigger. The maid would bring tea down to us on the beach."

She matriculated at 16 and was accepted at the University of Cape Town to study a BA. She qualified as a teacher in 1931, and while there she was one of the founding members of UCT's mountain club. She spent many hours climbing Table Mountain. By then the family had bought a Herbert Baker-designed house in Rondebosch, which had until then been St Paul's Anglican Church's rectory.

Her eyes light up at the memory, she chuckles, shakes her head and launches into how badly Herbert Baker had been at designing family homes. "Yes, the facade was beautiful, but the house was so badly designed," she says.

"The front of the house faced west, one room faced north, the main bedroom had windows on the west and south. The verandahs were on the south side of the house. This meant we had no winter sun and we had the south-easter wind in summer. We could never use the verandahs," she sighs.

The house was eventually demolished to make way for the Black River Parkway.

The William Street sign is one of a number immortalised in the District Six Musuem. Photo courtesy of thomas_sly

Before deciding on her future, Harwood decided to take a gap year, picking fruit in Elgin. "I was 18 when I finished my degree. That was in 1934 and I didn't want to teach, so I took a gap year," she says. Four months later she enrolled at a secretarial college and had intended to visit England for a holiday. But a cousin convinced her to go to Burma to visit her uncle instead, a decision she never regretted. A stint at an aunt's farm in Natal, now KwaZulu-Natal, was the culmination of her gap year: "I was footloose and fancy-free."

Her first job was as a secretary to a professor of commerce at UCT, but when a friend suggested she go into housing management, she says she "jumped at the opportunity".

It was 1937 and Cape Town was tackling a housing problem. They had to build houses for the poor, and her role was to help people who had moved from slums to brick houses. Driving a green Baby Austin, she travelled around the Cape Flats to new areas like Bokmakierie, Alicedale and Retreat. 

She also collected rent in William Street, District Six, where families paid two shillings a week for a room.

"I was not a welfare officer, but if people were in arrears with their rent I would go and visit them to see if they needed any assistance. There may have been sickness, the husband may have left; I would then refer them to the necessary welfare office."

Harwood is candid about her job, saying she also had to do regular maintenance checks and even went as far as inspecting how clean the bathrooms were. The people of District Six were law-abiding, she says, not wanting to talk about the forced removals that would come a few decades later.

Her life was busy and she had no time for boyfriends. Besides her job, she ran a girls' club two nights a week; it was a place to knit and to do exercise.

The view of the coastline from a skydiving aircraft. Photo courtesy of Kyle Taylor, Dream It. Do It.

It was at a party in 1936, organised by her mother Ilene, where she met Ted Harwood. it would take Ted years, including him shipping off to war, before Georgina would agree to marry him. Her eyes light up at the memory of her husband, who died a few years ago. He had been a lovely man, a good husband and father, she says.

"There was no such thing as boyfriends back then. Ted did become a good friend of the family and my mother would invite him over to play tennis, but I was never interested in him. I laughed the one time he took me to the cinema and asked me to marry him. I was not interested. I was interested in work," she says emphatically.

When Ted returned from World War II in 1944, Georgina was 28, an old maid by 20th century standards. Most women her age had long since married and were raising children. "I had to decide – to carry on with my career in housing, or to become a housewife."

UCT remains one of the best universities in Africa. Photo courtesy of 4thethrillofit

It was a difficult decision, but she acknowledges that she had "gotten fond of him" and he had had an interesting war career. She married Ted and continued working, giving up her job a week before her first child, Susan, was born. 

Over the years Ted worked in Kimberley, Pretoria and Grahamstown, "but every year we would come down to Cape Town for Christmas". Even though they had a house in Betty's Bay, they spent lots of time with her mother. "We had to be home for dinner at 7pm, even though we would rather have been on Muizenberg beach," she said.

She has always kept active and even now, aged 98, her life is a full one. She plays croquet, bridge, goes for drives, knits and bakes.

Women today may scoff at her perceived lack of ambition, giving up a career to be a wife and mother, but it is something Harwood will never regret. She had what many people search for today, a loving family, a husband who loved and respected her. She understands that it is almost impossible for women to be stay-at-home mothers, saying that you cannot fully devote yourself to either your career and your children: "It is the children who suffer."

It was her son Jim, who used to be a paratrooper, who persuaded her to do her first tandem skydive. She was 92. "I knew I was in safe hands, I was strapped to a highly qualified instructor. When we jumped out of the aeroplane I couldn't stop looking around me. I could see Cape Town, the sea and the mountain. I couldn't hear anything," she says.

She remembers that she had to land on her knees and her ears had "popped" due to the sudden drop in altitude. A few years later Susan, and her daughter Georgina, persuaded her to jump again. She shrugs her shoulders; who knows, she may jump one more time if she lives to celebrate her 100th birthday. But in the meantime, she will continue living her life, being as active as possible and not letting anything get her down.


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