Winds of Change
by Vincent Geffroy
Senior Underwriter at Consort
This was the title of the famous speech by the former British Prime Minister Harold McMillan whilst in South Africa in 1960. He was referring to the political changes that were to sweep through the African continent at that time. Indeed, the continent has experienced many changes then and since then especially the southern part, in particular, South Africa. The above title could very well have been used to describe the sweeping changes we were to experience in the field of science and technology and how it has impacted on our industry.
I joined the industry in 1977 when computers were unknown. The only automatic machine was an old mechanical calculator used by a colleague, Tony, to work out the treaty returns and figures for our head office. The whole floor would vibrate whenever he cranked the machine! A few years later he was presented with an electronic calculator and the company offered him his old machine as a souvenir. Tony could hardly hold back his tears at having to depart from his old friend.
I started at the research institute in Mauritius after school and did some courses at the Agricultural College of Mauritius, now incorporated in the University of Mauritius. Calculations were done the long, hard way and for more technical calculations we used logarithmic tables. Later when I moved to South Africa I bought myself a slide rule. In 1975, when I pursued my diploma in Engineering I bought what was one of the first scientific calculators, now a few years old but still in good working order.
In 1984 I started a B. Com degree with UNISA and purchased one of the early PC models – an XT computer. Early programming was done in Basic which at the time was just that…” basic”! This PC had 64Kb of RAM and a 20Mb hard drive. The drive alone weighed more than 2kgs. Not long after that, the “new improved” version came into the market and this was the AT computer which had 128Kb of RAM and a 40Mb hard drive. This almost immediately made the XT version obsolete. These early versions used a single core processor and the DOS was on a floppy disc which had to be inserted each time the machine was started.
Today most entry-level personal computers have 4Gb of RAM with at least dual-core processors but processors like AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper have as many as 32 cores. Solid-state memory is phasing out the old mechanical drives and allowing thinner, smaller machines and storage capacity exceeding 500Gb is common with storage going as high as 10 petabytes (i.e. 10 ^15Gb or 10^9 times bigger than the original XT machine capacity).
We have not had a chance to fully consider the impact of such changes on our lives and in the industry although it has done so at almost every level. Many departments have become redundant and information is now exchanged at lightning speed via the internet or via mobile phones. The first computer policy came into existence in the early 80’s when machines were bulky and expensive and had to be housed in special air-conditioned rooms. When I moved to Cape Town I inherited the insurance account for Southern Life, now a defunct company, which had a computer policy with a sum insured approaching R320 mil. Soon after this, they upgraded their systems with the “latest” and “fastest” technology of the time at a cost of under R40mil. Hence the buzzword, they expanded their business and moved to smaller premises.
Whilst all these technical changes were impacting us, political changes added to the challenges of life and our industry has not escaped the impact of these changes. New laws and legislation are constantly changing the face of the industry and impacting greatly on the older staff members. To add to it all, the global changes have had its impact as we have seen companies merging to follow their parent company overseas Information technology is pushing us into unchartered waters allowing for existing barriers to be broken into various fields such as medicine, management decision making, finance, astrology, outer space…all creating a new environment into which the human psyche must adapt. All that have reduced the chores of everyday life but somehow left us with less time for leisure and community life.
As I reach the end of a long and enjoyable career in the insurance industry it has provided me with many challenges and, as it is an industry where we are forever exposed to the various aspects of our commercial and industrial sectors, I have continued to learn and develop along with the times and can only wish the younger generation the very best in a most exciting industry as they face the challenges of the future.