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News & Press: 2018 News Items

In Memoriam John Desmond Nel

Tuesday, 13 February 2018  
Posted by: Bert vd Heever
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PUNCHED AND MUGGED: JOHN DESMOND NEL, aka JACK NEL, QUANTITY SURVEYOR, retired senior partner of Nicholson & Nel, passed away in January 2018, age 89.

Google records: John Desmond Nel, born 10 July 1928, was a South African cricketer who played in six Tests from 1949 to 1957. He played 35 first-class games, top-scoring for his team on several occasions. He then went onto commentating on any matches played at Newlands alongside the greats like Charles Fortune.

Jack was also a past president of the Association of South African Quantity Surveyors.

“Punched and Mugged”? How does a title such as this befit a refined gentleman and an eminent QS? Well, let me explain by sharing two anecdotes, as I recall the memory of Jack.


In the late 1970’s De Villiers & De Villiers Inc. (abbreviated DV2) were appointed in association with Nicholson Nel & Partners (abbreviated NNP) for the quantity surveying services of the entire new Cape Technikon (now CPUT) Zonnebloem campus in Cape Town. At the time DV2 as a practice was experiencing major changes as one of the two De Villiers brothers decided to make a career change into farming up north and the other De Villiers brother was in poor health which resulted in him leaving the practice. This left four young, minor shareholding directors having to rescue the practice during a severe building industry slump.

As a result of our practice’s then current director composition, I became the DV2 principaI interacting with Jack, the NNP principal, for our joint QS Cape Technikon project appointment. I was in my early 30’s and still working at establishing my professional career while Jack Nel was in his 50’s, an eminent QS at the peak of his professional career. I sensed that Jack had no illusions about his senior status in our association, however he always treated me with respect. The then senior icons whose circle I had arrived in were, Dr Theo Shippey (rector of Cape Technikon); Gilbert Colyn, Attie Harris, Gerrie Steenkamp (architects); Charles Liebenberg, Ruben Stander, George Du Toit, John Wilkinson (structural & civil engineers); GH Marais (mechanical engineer); as well as all their senior deputies, et al. So there I was a professional “nonentity” among “bigwigs”. I was still somewhat “rough around the edges” and tended to speak my mind in project and consultant meetings. Jack, being wiser, did not enter a discussion or offer an opinion unless approached to do so.

After one frenetic project meeting Jack pulled me aside and quietly said: “David, if you lead with the chin you must expect to get punched!”

Well Jack, I have never forgotten those wise words. However, I must confess that while I heard your advice I have never fully heeded it. So, while I do have “scars” on my chin from being “punched” in my career, metaphorically speaking, I have avoided a number of brutal bashes by recalling your sage advice.


One day, Jack told me that he had been asked to address a meeting of built-environment professionaIs during which he was required to raise some thorny issues about architects and what they should do to improve matters. At the time there was a fad with car bumper stickers, such as, “Have you hugged your child today?”, “Have you hugged your pet today?”, “Have you hugged your pet rock today?”, etc. I mischievously shared with Jack a thought I had for some time about a bumper sticker that could read:

“Have you mugged your architect today.”

I expected a reprimand from him but he loved it and asked if I minded him using it as the title to his address. Of course I said yes, as my career would have come to an abrupt end if ever I tried to express such a thought in public, but Jack, in his inimitable gentlemanly manner, could pull it off without unfortunate repercussions.

Farewell Jack. You certainly left your mark on the Quantity Surveying profession, South African cricket, and elsewhere. But most of all, from the newspaper obituaries I read, you left a huge mark on your family and friends. You were not the literal “punching and mugging” type, as those that knew you expressed the opinion that you were a gentleman, honourable, kind, humble and generous. From my own experience I concur wholeheartedly.

Dave Lindenberg, Talani Quantity Surveyors (Pty) Ltd