Coming out of the dark Middle Ages the Europeans started on voyages of discovery sailing the great seas of the world in little boats. Needless to say, many boats were lost at sea and many more lives as well before the technology of building better boats improved.
First the Portuguese navigators, then the Spaniards, sailed the vast oceans discovering ‘new’ lands and claiming them for their country of origin. Spices, slaves and gold were the mainstay of these discoveries. And so, a group of wealthy businessmen from the Netherlands, commenced a business called The Dutch East India Company which operated its business all over the world, trading from 1602 until 1800. The company moved 2.5 million tons of goods between the trade route to Asia in 4,785 ships. The company established in Indonesia, the capital port city of Batavia (now Jakarta), and continued their trade for nigh on 200 years paying an 18% dividend to their investors each year. In 1652 the company established a re-supply station at the Cape of Good Hope (now Cape Town, South Africa) and from there a fully- fledged colony and later a country of peoples emerged.
Migration came to Southern African from the sea over a period of 360 years by Dutch, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish and English peoples and from the north by the Bantu peoples. The original inhabitants of the south, the Strandlopers, the Khoi and the San were decimated by diseases brought in by the Europeans. The Dutch and their descendants, lusting for the naked natives and imported Asian slaves, created what was known for many years, as the Coloured Peoples of South Africa. Much of the mix of peoples in Southern Africa has been lost over time but careful research by dedicated historians has unveiled a truth that many would rather hide from. My ancestry comes out of this mix.
Willem Kempen(christened Wilhelmus Kemper in 1765), came to the Cape of Good Hope working as a soldier for the Dutch East India Company on the vessel Hoornweg. He set foot on Southern African soil for the first time in April of 1790. He was born, the 10th child of 11 children to Gerhardus Kempen and Helena Dresen in the town of Norf in Southern Germany. He married Anna Catharina Nel, a descendant of the French immigrant Guilleaume Neel(who later changed his name to Willem Nel), and Jeanne de la Batte.
My Grandfather Willem Hendrik Marthinus Abraham Kempen married Jacoba Magdalena Claassens. Jacoba was 7th generation descendant of Claasz Gerritsz and Sara Solor, both Asian slaves at the Cape. Claasz Gerritz, from the Jentiven Tribe of peoples in Bengal(now Bangladesh), was so named by the Dutch East India Company, his real name being lost forever. Sara Solor was a native of the Island of Solor in Indonesia. After they both were emancipated and given their freedom in 1685 she married Claasz in Cape Town on the 13th of March 1686. They had 4 children together.
I suppose I enjoyed an idyllic youth in the dusty regions of the Upper Karoo, the semi-arid region in the Cape Province of South Africa. My town of Victoria West, originally named Zeekoegat, was renamed after Queen Victoria in 1859. It was established in 1843 after the land was bought from the estate of the late Johannes Hendrik Claassens for the establishment of a township. The town grew steadily over the years. In 1871 there was a terrible flood through the valley. Rainclouds were about, and thunder and lightning in the west, was seen by Saturday night revellers at a dance. A cloudburst saw a rush of water come through the narrow gorge where the two hills meet, sweeping away the low retaining wall before it. A wall of water crushed the hall where the party-goers were and more than 60 people lost their lives.
In 1921 the opening of the Victoria West Dam Wall took place.It was a concrete concave dam wall which had been built with the intention of developing irrigation lands to the east of the town as well as holding back any flood-waters and to bolster the underground water supply. The dam came at a great cost to the community and in future years the debt owed to the investors of the propject had to be written off as the irrigation scheme had been a failure due to the lack of rain. During some years good rains fell but more than often there were droughts. According to Eric Rosthenthals’ Book ‘One Hundred Years of Victoria West’ a great miscalculation had been made as to the amount of water that would be stored in the dam as rains were inconsistent in later years. When I was a young boy, we children used to play in the side streets where an array of concrete water furrows ran through the town so that gardeners could water their gardens from the supply of water in the dam. There were many tadpoles and frogs to catch and play with in the cool waters of the furrows.
My family lived in this area from 1798, from when the progenitor of this family, Willem Kempen, went to teach at the JH Hattingh School in Graaff-Reinet, to 1999, the year my mother, Frieda Kempen, passed away at Victoria West. Now all that remains of the memory is the Kempen name on facades of buildings or street signs. The attorneys firm name of Kempen and Kempen was sold off in the year 2000 and changed to another name but has recently been reinstated due to public demand.
The name of our town appeared on the hillside one morning. Perfectly lettered and aligned iron stone rocks daubed with a whitewash mix. A local merchant and town councillor, Mr James Easton, used to while away his time on a Sunday afternoon on the slopes of the Victoria West koppie (small hill) and some locals wondered what he was up to but did not take too much notice of his activities. That was until that day when they awoke on a Monday morning to find the slope of the hill emblazoned with the words.
This event caused a bit of a stir in town, and, after much anxiety, by members of the public, Mr Easton was advised by his fellow councillors that he had to remove his name and his business name but that the name of the town could stay. It took quite an effort to get those rocks cleaned up again as the whitewash had set and was difficult to remove.
I started school in 1948 but became ill soon after and spent several months recuperating and so I restarted my schooling years in 1949. Like those before me, I served the normal 12 years of learning plus one more, on account of my lack of study through one senior year.
Hot summers saw us walk barefoot to school and in winter we were rugged up against the cold. On good days we white kids would meet up with the black kids and we would play in the hills looking for creatures underneath the billions of ironstone rocks which made up the surface of the hills. We used to roll rocks down the side of the hills oblivious to any potential source of danger. Some days we would take an old tyre up a hill and roll it down with great enthusiasm and joy as it careened and bounced its way to the dry riverbed below.
In 1948 the Nationalist Party won power in parliament and by 1950 had entrenched the system of segregation in laws such as the Group Areas Act, Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, and so on. To make matters worse the Nationaslists gave these policies a name…..Apartheid. This was a very strange concept to a seven year-old kid. Then we were indoctrinated and brainwashed by our Teachers who promoted the Apartheid line. I stood apart from this indoctrination and was severely chastised on occasions for my ideas of co-existence. The years passed and eventually I became of age and moved elsewhere and then overseas. Then as luck would have it my wife and I came home to live in Victoria West for a short period of time. Once again I put some energy into helping out where I could with the dwellers on the north side of the Seekoei River. This too was met with severe opposition from the white community. Life moved on and in the 1980’s one last chance came along to stay in Victoria West for about 18 months.
During our first sojourn in Victoria West Judith and I were involved, amongst other businesses with the local Apollo Movie Theatre. Here we showed films every Friday night, Saturday Matinee and Saturday night movies. We had leased the operations of the 1930’s Art Deco cinema and ran the showing of movies for our own account. These were in the days of segregation. White folk sat in the stalls downstairs where the seats were of padded leather. Upstairs to the left the Mixed Race folks were admitted and to the right those who were Black. On both sides of the Gallery there were hard wooden bench seats. As I recall we charged less for the Gallery seats and used to pack them in. In those days the operating equipment was Gaumont-Kalee projectors which burned magnesium rods to create the light for the showing of the films. At one stage of our operation the transformer burnt out and a local mechanic came up with the idea to run two Direct Current Welders in tandem to keep it going. It worked.
We left Victoria West for the last time in 1984.
The Town below the Written Mountain
This story was written by Sandile Dikeni circa 1993.
Sandile is the youngest child of Magdalena Dikeni. Magdalena was employed by my mother, as our family cook, for nigh on twenty years. Magdalena lost her husband when Sandile was quite young. Her eldest child aged 16 left school and went to work and stayed with his employer so that he would be able to fund all of his siblings to achieve a tertiary education. Sandile has become a well known and respected South African Poet, Columnist and Social Commentator.
“For those who lived on the wrong side of the Seekoei River, home sometimes was ‘Vicky Wes, Ma Vive’ and sometimes ‘Victoria West, the dogs nest’.
If one day the road to the Golden City should beckon, be careful to leave the Mother City in the early hours of the morning. Yes, leave in the morning so that the break of dawn meets you on the road. Then a nothing ness will embrace you and fill you with an emotion so good that it will leave you dumb. Because out of nothingness the Karoo sun will rise as a soft golden ball of fire painted on the wall of a distant horizon, and it whisper a sweet good morning to you on the breath of the awakening
skaap-bossies and herbs that decorate the koppies and hills.
Sometimes dark clouds will greet you, hanging above the Karoo plains. But soon they will break into silver crystals that change colour with every downpour. From orange to green and then to all sorts of colours in the prism of a sun that never tires of playing. In moments like these, the sun will paint a thin layer of gold on the ysterklip and the koffieklip which the rain will polish to a glitter that will amaze anyone with a heart for the beautiful things in life.
When all these things happen to you, open your window a wee bit and take a deep breath……you have entered the heart of the country. And somewhere here lie the fractions of my heart, between the prickly pear bushes, the aloe and the thorn bushes. But before you exclaim ‘Ah, but your land is beautiful!’ let me lead you into town…..
Somewhere amongst these bushes, this beauty and solemnity lies Victoria West. It’s not hard to find as it beckons to you in twelve whitewashed letters from the hillside facing the southeast. Oh! How many times have I said that name without a tear threatening to flood my eyes. How many times have I uttered that word without laughter cramping in the muscles of my belly in the memory of that place. And now here, with seas and mountains and time dividing us, I let my mind travel back to where the umbilical cord lies buried.
Sweet and sour times they were (never bitter) under ‘the written mountain’ as those of my hue and tongue used to call Victoria West. Sometimes when the poetry was not there in the soul because of a job lost or a lover eloped, they would call it simply, ‘iFitoli’. And many times after a few gulps of cheap wine they would sing it’s praises ‘Vicky Wes, Ma Vive’. But just as the wine helped them praise ‘their’ town, the babalaas blues woke them up penniless and foul tempered. Woe if you asked them the following day, ‘How’s life in Victoria West?’ The answer would often be a snap borrowed from Bantu-education English: ‘Victoria West, the dogs’ nest.’
Dogs’ nest indeed it was, except for the whites with their sheep and their wide landscapes. It’s amazing how the white folks never noticed us who lived and toiled with them under that Karoo sun. How they lived among themselves and only for themselves, in total oblivion of other creatures except the sheep and sometimes horses and cattle. The late Brah Mthunzi (Shadow was his name) used to say, ‘The white people of this town don’t know us, but we know them,’ and then he would burst out laughing.
And it is true-we knew them all. We knew their names. We knew their birthdays because our mothers hugged their kids when they were young. We even knew their lust as they committed adultery on the open veld where we used to walk home from circumcision school in the secret of the night. Not that they really cared. Making love in front of a black man and under the stars was a secret. But we knew them and they did not know us.
They only knew us on Boontjieshoek. Ja, Boontjieshoek. This was where the town came together for the birthday of Baas Henry ‘Boontjie’ Grobbelaar. Some townsfolk would say that his father was a better man, but I know different. I remember as a kid how I walked into Grobbelaars’ Spar, and the kleinbaas called me and asked if I was Magdalena’s child. I said ‘Ja, Baas’ and he asked someone to give me a sweet right under the disapproving scrutiny of Oumiesies Grobbelaar. Baas Boontjie that was, with the bleskop and tall and fresh from Stellenbosch or somewhere.
At Boontjieshoek we did the Zulu dance in the morning and had to leave when the boeredans took over with ‘fijool and trekklavier’. Sometimes we wanted to stay, but were chased away by the police who regarded themselves as sole guardians of the occasion. Sad times.
Go home times. But what is home? The false serenity of drunkenness and the forgetfulness of slavery on the other side of the stream called the Seekoei River that insisted on remaining dry as far as my memory goes. The river, when it had water, would flow from God-knows where towards the east and separated the blacks from the whites, and still further east, the blacks from the coloureds. I cannot recall the border between coloured and white but God knows there was one. We went home to these divisions.
But no river can divide the soul. No river can dictate to the heart. The crossing of the line was one of the favourite pastimes in my hungry days in Victoria West. Hunger forced the township dwellers across the barbed wire fences to borrow some sheep that grazed on the hill jus above them. Why anybody would graze sheep just a few metres away from a hungry town, beats me. But somebody did. And the predictable happened.
Not a single inhabitant of Skema, Die Witblokke or New Bright will come out to testify what happened next. After the township dwellers had helped themselves to the sheep, the white gods of the Karoo threw poisoned meat at us, and our starvation. Those who were there that morning said, ‘Last night meat rained from the sky’. Meat fell out of the sky and those who ate it, and those who fought the dogs for it, were rescued from death with milk and were made to throw up the meat with wolwegif.
My dog Rex died. I saw him in front of the city hall. There was foam on his mouth, but his coat still shone a silvery black and where the golden touches of his Alsatian ancestry showed I could see the labour of the day before when I had washed him and spoken to him (‘You are a decnt dog, you can’t go to the mountain, you eat at home, hear, Rekie, Rekie.’) He whimpered something and I was satisfied. But then my king of friends died the death of a township dog.
Victoria West, the dogs’ nest, where dogs and people died because we insisted on being apart. We even prayed apart, except in the Anglican Church ~ but it was probably because the town had so few English people that they rattled around in the church. Then we were invited to fill the pews on the left. I preferred the Presbyterian Church in the township. There we sang loudly in Xhosa and danced so hard that the wooden floor creaked under our joy for the Lord, and the birds of the Karoo sky joined us through the cracks of the crumbling church. Sometimes I imagined Jesus was smiling at us and for once his slumped head was lifted towards us and he was smiling through the pain, I could read his eyes. In those moments Jesus was black.
Baas Boetie Kempen was also black. The son of the Mayor, he used to come into the township with a tractor and make us clean up the streets for 5 cents a bag that we took to him. They say that the white people of the town did not like Baas Boetie: for them he was too weird. He had an Australian wife, Judy, a frail woman my mother loved, and they ran the local newspaper, The Victoria West Messenger, and the only movie house in town. I wanted to work for the Messenger but I was still too small when his father died and soon afterwards they moved, I don’t know where. I lost my appetite for the movies and the movie house lost its appeal. Soon it also disappeared from town.
What remained were stories from the period ‘when we used to go to the fliek’ . They were told by Solly ‘die Glydier’, master story-teller of all time. It was he who recreated for us Bruce Lee, Sidney Poitier or Peter Sellers, with no understanding of English but animating better than Hollywood. What remained was memory.
Sweet and sour recollections of times when the innocence of childhood combined with the venom of the Karoo sun forced us to the windmill on the outskirts of the town. All of us went there because the swimming pool in town was for whites only. Our names are Varkie die Taaibos, who died on a wine plantation in the Boland, with no autopsy; Skaai ‘the Doctor’ who ran around the rugby field in a white coat as a self-employed first-aid person, but died in his teens pf TB; Arnoldus alias ‘Harrie Harrie maak rou pap’, who dived from the windmills wing, hit the bottom of the shallow dam with his head and went mad; Tin Tin who burnt himself on the open field, and various others whom memory refuses to recollect for the sadness of the exercise.
Yes, when you go past Victoria West one day, stop at that windmill, and before the owner comes charging with a salt or pellet gun, take some water, if there is any, and let it drip slowly on the hard, dry soil as a tribute to these guys……. In doing so you might irrigate my thirsty soul”.
(Below is a Copy and Paste from Centre of Creative Arts, University of Kwa-Zulu Natal)
Sandile Dikeni was born in Victoria West, North Cape Province in 1966 and studied Law at the University of the Western Cape and Journalism at Peninsula Technikon.
Dikeni was active in the student parliament and served on the SRC at the University of Western Cape. Avidly drawn into the vortex of violent conflict during the mid 1980s, it was during his detention in 1986, that Dikeni discovered the power of poetry as a means to achieve political ends.
Readings in prison and at political and cultural events after his release, such as a public performance in London in 1990, made Dikeni an important poet of freedom.
At the turn of a democratic South Africa, Dikeni worked as a journalist and press spokesman, turning to broader human themes, which he would express in a distinctive style.
Dikeni’s articles have featured in newspapers such as the Cape Times and he has also published collections of poetry, including Guava Juice (1992) and Telegraph to the Sky (2002). Dikeni’s viewpoint on what it is to be human in South Africa has underpinned all his reflections on the society he yearns for. This perspective is reflected in the thought-provoking collection of Dikeni’s prose, Soul Fire: Writing the Transition (2002). With the launch of his latest collection of poetry, Planting Water (2007), Dikeni announced his recovery and return to his craft, after suffering an accident two years prior.
When Dikeni recites his poems in public, he always does it from memory, spontaneously, and with variations on the printed texts.
SCHOOL DAYS / SKOOLDAE
Onder 14 Rugby Span 1956
Sittend L-R: ?, Gert Cloete, Heinz Meissner
Knielend L-R: Garth Cloete, Espie Tredoux, Charles Stevens, Hennie Barnard, Johan Sinclair
Staande L-R: Okkerd de Lange, Isak de Vries, Christo le Roux, Boetie Kempen, Mnr Basson(Onderwyser), Chris van der Merwe, Bennie Hugo
Voor: Katriena Wilson, Greta Pienaar
Sittend: Janet Bakker, Drieka Loots, Monika van Druten, Andries Schaap(Onderwyser), Christine Meissner, Juliana Krugel, Wilna Rust
Agter: Tienie Ras, Stephan van Biljon, Boetie Kempen, Helgard De Jager, Neels Engels, Kobus van Schalkwyk
Voor L-R: Stephan van Biljon, Attie Labuscagne, Johan Scholtz, André Pienaar, Hennie Sinclair,
Sittend L-R: Gert Cloete, Mnr WAS Basson, Mnr Gaaf van Rensburg, Boetie Kempen(Kapt), Mnr JH Hofmeyr(Prinsipaal), Mnr Dropper Viljoen, Helgard de Jager
Staande L-R: Justus Marais, Fransie van Heerden, Chris le Roux, Neels Engels, Detlev Kunz, Heinz Meissner, Jan du Plessis.