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Peter Bills

Precious McKenzie: 'I thought, no way apartheid would end'

In one sense, at 4ft 9ins, there isn't a lot of Precious McKenzie. But it's a case of the old saying – there is more than meets the eye.

He comes cheerfully to greet me, this 1.47m man; eyes glistening, a bright smile and firm handshake. Oh, and the body of a 35 year-old. Not too bad that, given he is now into his 74th year.

Irrepressible is the word to describe McKenzie. He has confronted adversity for much of his life and simply laughed in its face. He's been far, far too busy to indulge in self pitying; for him, every day is a challenge, each moment of life a sparkling cause for celebration.

Of course, his story is renowned. He quit South Africa in 1964 together with his wife Elizabeth and their young family, for Britain. Revulsion at the apartheid system had driven him out yet he found 1960s England not exactly a haven of tolerance, understanding or subtlety.

Famously, landladies in the Midlands where many overseas workers were housed building some of the great motorways of England, used to put up signs in their windows if they had rooms to let. 'No blacks, dogs or Irish'. Charming………..

"We went to Northampton (traditional headquarters of the English shoemaking industry) and I would see an advert in a newspaper for a room" he remembered. "I'd phone up but the woman would hear my voice and say 'Sorry, it's gone'. This happened time and again."

In the end, he got wise to this. He phoned up, put on a terribly soft, plummy English accent and enquired 'Excuse me, but do you still have rooms available for rent, please'.

'Why of course' would be the reply; 'would you like to come and see them' ?

When he got there, they opened the door, took one look and said 'Oh sorry, they're now let'.

In the end, the McKenzie family was befriended by a Pakistani who let them a couple of rooms. Memories, such memories: they all seem a long time ago for the man who went on to represent Britain and then New Zealand at assorted Olympic and Commonwealth Games from 1966 to 1978. For Great Britain, he won gold medals at the 1966, 1970 and 1974 Commonwealth Games; for New Zealand, a gold at the 1978 Games.

Today, McKenzie is based in Auckland where he works as a back injury prevention consultant and the New Zealand Safety Council's Manual Handling Advisor. A weightlifter should know how to preserve his back and McKenzie has found his consultant services much valued wherever he goes.

But the greatest surprise of his life ? His mind inevitably drifts back to South Africa, the land of his birth, and the feared, hated apartheid system that drove him away. "I was very surprised when it stopped; I didn't think I would see that happen in my lifetime" he tells me.

"The trouble was, the world was supporting the apartheid system because of the gold in South Africa. I thought, no way would it end."

But when it did, was he tempted to return ? "I never thought about going back. When you have experience of a country that didn't want you, as my mother used to say, stay away. England wanted to open their arms to let me in; they judged me on merit, not colour. I know that England was partly to blame for extending apartheid but I still found England a tolerant country. And the fact is, when they changed their mind, the situation changed."

But McKenzie mourns what he sees as a new apartheid, an opposite of what was once unacceptable yet for all that, equally divisive and potentially disastrous for South Africa. "Now, we have exactly the same situation but in reverse. It is a new racism because it is the white man who is not wanted – look at the numbers who have had to leave to find jobs overseas. That shatters me, it is just as bad as we had before but in reverse. That is what I have been fighting for all my life. Equality."

In South Africa, he believes a new generation will change so much. Equality will mean the best being selected; no other criteria will exist. "I say this with sincerity, people should be judged on their merits. And as the country matures, these things will fade away. Attitude is to the key to so much and it matters hugely."

Although he no longer lives in England, McKenzie praises the British Prime Minister for his efforts to unseat Mugabe in Zimbabwe. It will prove, almost certainly, a fruitless task yet McKenzie acknowledges such efforts. "The fact is, a white man far away is fighting for the black people of Zimbabwe – I was proud of England when I went there and I still am."

New Zealand, he regards as a smart nation. They take the skilled people, a growing number of South Africans among them, and make it hard for others to settle there. But didn't he desert England, the nation that had offered him a life and a future ?

"No, it's just that in time I was offered something better in New Zealand. A better job, better prospects, everything. And this is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I enjoy my life and I am healthy. It is true what they say, your health is your wealth and the day I cannot work anymore, I will be near to the grave."

Sure, but there's work and work. McKenzie still travels the globe in his job, and he is off soon on a business trip to Australia taking in cities like Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne. He regards it more of a crusade than a simple job, for he asserts that the spine is the key to a healthy body. He calls it the motorway of the human body. So what is the general physical state of people he meets and helps around the globe ?

"Unfortunately, people's health is getting worse and worse. We have more and more mechanical things as aids: cars, trains, aeroplanes, computers etc. Children don't get to the park to play and man is getting weaker and weaker. It is all to do with the sedentary lifestyle. Computers in particular, do everything so man is getting lazier and lazier."

And the long term cost of that ? Billions of dollars. Those involved in the health business like dieticians are earning and will continue to earn vast sums of money because people will continue to get fatter, he fears. His own business dealing with companies, he believes, will grow and grow whilst people remain unhealthy.

But not this lean, slim 72 year-old. Whilst he sees myriad numbers of his fellow citizens around the globe decline in a physical sense, McKenzie retains his shape and fitness with an iron-like grip on his mental processes. He continues to train regularly, nearly every day of the week. He is determined to maintain a healthy mind and body and insists physical exercise is the key to that. These are the lessons he imparts to his audiences, sometimes 200 people in a day.

And just to prove his own fitness, the year before last, he broke five world records for weight lifting in his class, at his age.

An inspiration to others ? For sure. And now, as moves get underway to make a film of his extraordinary life story, Precious McKenzie confides to me one remaining ambition, a deep, burning desire that remains unfulfilled.

"My last wish before I die would be to meet the great man of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. I have been back several times but have never had the opportunity to greet him. It would be the greatest ambition of my life to meet him."

Maybe it could happen……as long as he doesn't sweep the beloved Madiba off his feet into his arms. 90 year-olds tend not to be too keen on that sort of thing.