Two years after immigrating to New Zealand from South Africa, the Roodt family are proud to call themselves Kiwis and now call the southern city of Dunedin home.
“We are so grateful to New Zealand and its people - they are so good to us and we really appreciate that. It has been a wonderful experience.”
We’re Kiwis,” says Roodt family
“We’re not South Africans living in New Zealand,” former South African rocket scientist Dr Henk Roodt explains. “We want to integrate with the culture here. To do that we need to be part of the Kiwi culture and we’re working hard to immerse ourselves,” he says.
His wife Chrissie Roodt was “head-hunted” for her job as head of nuclear medicine at Dunedin Hospital in 2009.
The Roodts were looking for opportunities for their son Jan- Dawid to study overseas when Chrissie was approached to fill a job vacancy that had been open for three years.
“I really don’t know where they got my name from,” she says modestly, adding that her field of expertise is a relatively small community internationally.
Immigration required some tough choices for the family as it was the first time Chrissie had ever worked overseas. She was on her own in Dunedin for the first 11 months.
“The work is the same but the culture is so different,” Chrissie says. “That first year was extremely difficult starting a new job in a new country all alone. That wasn’t easy. I was homesick, but we made it.”
Jan-Dawid joined his mother to study at the University of Otago in Dunedin in 2010 and Henk arrived later in the year.
“I think if you come altogether as a family, that’s much easier,” Chrissie says. “It took us about 18 months to really settle in.”
Chrissie thrives on the professional challenges of her specialised work and has been able to introduce new ideas, new technology and new ways of doing things here.
Public hospitals in New Zealand are very different to the private practice where she worked in South Africa, but she is very impressed with the excellent service they offer.
Since she started in 2009, patient waiting lists have been reduced from five or six weeks to two or three days.
“I’m quite proud of that,” she says.
Chrissie and Henk both studied at university in Bloemfontein, where Henk trained as a physicist before they both moved to Pretoria. Henk then completed his doctorate in engineering science at the University of Stellenbosch.
When Henk grew up he always wanted to be a rocket scientist and his specialist skills have provided him a varied and rewarding career in that field.
He worked on a range of large national and international projects for the Council for Science and Industrial Research in South Africa.
Among his responsibilities was analysing the design and defence capabilities in large acquisition programmes for South Africa’s Department of Defence.
“I do understand a bit about rocketry and the design of rockets, but that was just part of what I did there,” he says.
“With the rocket project we worked to bring diverse fields of study to a certain problem, so I’m more of an engineer than a scientist,” he says. “It was lots of fun, long hours and big bangs.”
People speak English here, but they don't!
With the change of government in South Africa in the 1990s most large rocket-related research was stopped. Dr Roodt is now self-employed as a consultant in a wide range of fields involving systems analysis, simulation and modelling.
He travels widely in his work to Europe, the United States, Scandinavia, South Africa and the Middle East but would like to focus more on Australasia and the Pacific in future.
Jan-Dawid is now in his second year studying Information Science and Psychology at Otago and shares his father’s interest in artificial intelligence and neural networks.
The Roodt family says the immigration process was time consuming and involved a lot of paper work but they had a lot of support from Settlement Support, the Department of Labour and the Ministry of Immigration.
“We had to decide if we wanted to immigrate as a full family or whether Chrissie worked here for a year or two and returned to South Africa,” Henk says.
“At this stage of our lives you have to make these decisions rather quickly. You can’t just sit and wait because it has a major impact on your financial investments.”
“I think it’s a thorough process, a lot of background checks are done and I’m happy for that,” he says. “We’ll just go through all the hoops because it’s the same for everyone and that’s a good thing.”
Their family dog Jessie had a tougher experience during her four months of quarantine in Christchurch during the September earthquake.
Initially, one of the Roodt family’s most difficult challenges was understanding Kiwi accents, the southern dialect and some strange expressions.
“People speak English here, but they don’t!” says Henk, with a wry smile.
People are very friendly and have invited them to various functions, but the Roodts were totally mystified by such choice Kiwi phrases as “come for tea (not dinner)”, “bring a plate” and “see you later”.
The family are keen sports fans and rugby and netball feature highly on their list of leisure activities.
Total immersion in the culture has included a feast of televised sport during the 2011 Rugby World Cup, where their loyalties to both the All Blacks and the Springboks remained mercifully untested.
Two Dunedin snowfalls were the first snow the family had ever experienced. They love the freedom and safety to walk Jessie through the city’s native bush or to stroll along a beach without another soul in sight.
So is there anything they miss from South Africa? “I miss thunderstorms in the late afternoon and the smell of dry grass getting wet,” Chrissie says. “We miss a few friends but we have new friends here.”
“We are so grateful to New Zealand and its people,” she says. “They are so good to us and we really appreciate that. It has been a wonderful experience.”