MAEDER OSLER  /  THE charming line drawing above depicts the historic waenhuis on Hanglip Farm – at least, in a relatively recent incarnation. (We have no visual record of what it looked like originally, though there are some clues in local oral histories.) To the irritation of its sizeable bat community, its rooms are currently filling with the jumbled records of a relatively short span of farm, family and local history, for further sorting as well as possible donation to the Colesberg museum and/other groups and institutions concerned with the past.

All this in the course of preparing the Groothuis itself for a new chapter in its long and storied life. (Among other things, we learn yet again that we never really own anything, including land – at most, or at best, we are temporary custodians. But that’s a story for another day …)

No doubt, given Colesberg’s — and the Karoo’s — rich and multilayered history, there are many rooms or buildings such as this one on surrounding farms and in surrounding towns, where documents, artefacts and other objects are being stored, sifted and selected – or patiently waiting for attention. When we get down to it, they open multiple windows on the past – and hopefully, as we argue below, new windows on the present and the future.

The shifting sands of identity …

This is because the past is not set in stone – our perceptions of the past shift continually, influenced by our conceptions of who we are, which groups or communities we belong to, as well as our changing convictions and beliefs. And all of this in the context of constant (and often bewildering) social change.

In many instances, our perceptions of our past are still skewed towards ‘colonial’ or ‘settler’ perspectives. Places and localities – including Colesberg – are ‘discovered’ or ‘established’ by white settlers, while in reality they have existed for thousands of years, in the full knowledge of indigenous people. Following the transition to democracy, these skewed histories are meant to have been corrected, but this hasn’t really happened.

Our constant challenge in (re)evaluating and (re)discovering our histories is to seek to correct these imbalances, and develop a new conception of our personal and collective pasts. This is not just an academic exercise – without changing our compartmentalised and exclusive perceptions of the past, we have little hope of developing the shared conceptions of identity and community we need to build a better future.

All this has gained added relevance due to the advent of the Colesberg History Project, initiated by a prominent son of the town, Jefferey Rademeyer, precisely to reclaim ‘missing’ parts of Colesberg’ s past. Among other things, this involves an invitation to residents to chronicle the history and development of some of Colesberg’s ‘hidden’ communities and settlements, including Kuyasa and Lowryville. Appropriately, the group held its second meeting last Thursday, on Human Rights Day. Its programme appears below, and Phakamisa Mayaba has written this article about what happened.

Collect, store, sift, sort …

So back to the Waenhuis on Hanglip Farm, where an ageing Maeder Osler is beavering away, amid the bats and dust, animal horns, bones and skulls; elaborately framed portraits of stern-looking ancestors; examples of stone age technology; photographs of horses, trophies, rebel assassinations, colonial and resistance occupations, engravings, stone gongs; remembering, representing and interpreting the names and the no-names.

We quickly discover that this sort of endeavour is more complex than it would seem, accompanied by puzzlement and many questions. Our identities are not fixed; we discover and rediscover them by asking a range of questions at various stages of our personal growth, such as: What is this? Who is this? When is this? Where is this? Why is this? How is this? And, especially, So what?

Our shape-shifting koppie …

Much of all of this starts with names and naming. Names may seem relatively permanent, but are also really a fragile and changeable part of identity, and the name central to our locality is no exception.

Colesberg’s name is linked to its conical mountain, which people could see from very far away. Over the years – stretching far back prior to settler occupation – it has been known as Coleskop, Towerberg, Toringberg or Toorberg. I have also heard it described as Intaba yomlingo, Intaba yeNqaba, Magic Mountain, or Coles se Kop.

A memorial stone ‘in remembrance of the 14 (Cole’s Kop) Battery Royal Artillery’, now held in the Colesberg museum. Not sure where that springbok came from.

… and our elusive founder

At least we know that the town – and its mountain – is named after a governor of the Cape colony, Sir Lowry Cole. But even this connection is shakier than it seems – he was governor for only five years, and I can find no record of him ever visiting Colesberg — not even for a cup of coffee on a local stoep.

Does this not mean that Colesberg is a ready case for possible name change? One could write to the Umsobomvu municipality – or the Northern Cape government – along the following lines:

Sirs, finding a decent picture of Sir Lowry Cole is more difficult than one would anticipate — it seems we need to go to a museum in London to find out what he looked like. It also seems the man never even visited Colesberg, and was a Colonial governor for only five years. So one might bravely say, time for a name change, I believe. …

Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole, painted by William Dyce. National Portrait Gallery, London. Image from Wikipedia.

Nevertheless, the town seems proudly part of the Umsobomvu municipality in the Northern Cape province (as defined in 1994) of the Republic of South Africa (defined in 1966), and popular – and often skewed —  versions of its history appear in potted form on the municipal as well as various tourism-oriented websites. Among other things, Gary Player and his mythical race horse stud still features prominently in the town’s Integrated Development Plan (IDP), despite the fact that this folded up almost a decade ago.

So who are we really?

As noted previously, all this leads to issues of identity. Identity is individual as well as collective. Individual identity – biological, physiological and psychological — is part of our origins, as amazing and unique as our fingerprints are claimed to be. We also identify with and through groups, communities and societies. Among many other things, this determines our political beliefs and, ultimately, our political actions – our attempt to set forces in motion that will shape our society the way we want it to be. It will be interesting to see how the Colesberg and similar history groups deal with this issue.

Ubuntu says, it takes a village to raise a child. Charles Jaques Rousseau claimed that we are born free, but everywhere we are in chains. The poet John Donne preached that no person is an island, we are all part of the main. Thanks to history, we know that the French revolution was followed by a reign of terror: that there are many contradictions around identity, both private and public, as well as the host of -isms and ideologies, not excluding ubuntu.

From this room with its expanding view, I am appealing for a wider conception of identity. Otherwise, what are we doing here in any case?  This is a question we need to ask our politicians prior to 29 May 2024.

The alternative — less inclusivity and greater polarisation – is too awful to contemplate — more of the same, divided to suit and moulded to fit: separate realities we can view from our separate rooms, far removed from our shared pasts, interests and identities.

The medium and the message …

But back to our drawing. Among other things, drawings such as this one can help researchers to identify times and places. In our case, we have a name and date, but the name of the artist is missing, and already increasingly difficult to recall.

The means of depiction also have a long and fascinating history, evolving from rock engravings to rock paintings to paintings and drawings on canvas and paper — the old and the new. Means of reproducing and disseminating them have also proliferated – especially with the advent of computers and cellphones. The media, as Marshall Mcluhan famously declared, is part of the message.

Then again, visual art and visual depictions are not the only game in town. More elusively, but just as powerfully, aspects of the past can be captured, presented and portrayed in the performing arts.

At least, help is at hand …

Other folk can ask themselves the same sorts of questions about their own places, their own pasts and their own identities. If they wish, they can share with us their own journeys of (re)discovery, or forward them to the Colesberg History Project.

While defining your own identity (or identities) is largely up to you, you could find a lot of help. Besides the History Project, there are many institutions and groupings involved in or concerned with processes of identification, presentation, and interpretation in our own countryside, elsewhere in the country, and even globally.

Just down the road, and within internet reach, we have the Karoo Development Foundation, headed by Dr Doreen Atkinson, and its associated initiative, the formidable Forgotten Highways group. There is a thriving Forgotten Museums group. There are oral histories groups. There are departments of arts and culture initiatives. There are a host of international organisations. Most of these share similar concerns, as does the young Colesberg group.

My own sister, Marguerite, recently surprised our family with a helpful and enticing family review of the past, which I hope to report on in the days ahead as one example of how things could be started.

A big decision I need to make is which records and artefacts to keep and which to donate to public institutions. This means we need to engage with local museums and similar institutions – in our case, the Colesberg Kemper Museum, run by a young and energetic team on behalf of the Umsobomvu municipality. Hopefully, they – and other active ‘stakeholders’ — won’t turn into a new generation of ‘gatekeepers’. Many other rural places have similar institutions and opportunities, which is how things should be in enabling services to local and wider communities.

So where are the gaps ?

There are many gaps to fill in our reinterpretation of history. The biggest gap by far is to attend to the mute testimonies of ‘prehistory’, really a misnomer for a human history of many thousands of years, which has left so many traces in this neck of the woods.

We are abundantly surrounded by stone age rock art, engravings, paintings, rock gongs and others which connect us to all this to the wider Southern African, and South African hosting of the ‘first peoples’ or the ‘people who came before us’, or other versions on origins of time and the environment.

Despite considerable evidence, the precolonial history of this area has hardly been recorded. The far shorter period of written history is marked by ‘colonial’ renditions in which much of the lives and witness of folk on the ground have been systematically ignored.

Not everyone is prepared to recognise this – indeed, some people regrettably living hereabouts go so far as seeking to obliterate traces of the past, in order to fuel their conceptions of identity and, ultimately, ownership of land and other resources.

The head of a trucking company which transported some of our sheep once told me that in their area of the Karoo – not very far away – some farmers were bent on destroying any evidence that pointed to other people ever having lived there. (Which strikes my outraged self as a form of violence.)

And then, history is not just a history of human beings; it is also a question of animals and environments, rocks and climates, dassies, dubbeltjies and dung.

However, as just about everyone knows, whether they’ve lived in the old South Africa, the new South Africa, or both – the gaps in our history are not only confined to the precolonial period. Indeed, much of our ‘mainstream’ history was and remains written from a ‘colonial’ perspective.

This is not just about the ‘advance of civilisation’ by intrepid trekkers and settlers in the face of hostile and backward indigenous people, but also about the forcible creation of migrant labour to fuel the rush for diamonds and gold; the resultant wars of greed; the silence about most of the victims of the Anglo Boer war; the Union of some, but not most; the steady march of separation; the silence about the rising violence and its suppression from the 1950s through to the 1990s; the wheeling and dealing at the ‘rainbow nation’ talks – and the convenience today of keeping blinkers on the horses of power.

This while South Africa’s history – its real human history – has always been plain for all to see when we do really look around and really interact. Sadly, our fresh insights and understandings come in fits and starts – sometimes, we really look and see, listen and hear, swallow and taste, touch and feel those gaps in perception. And then we regress once again, closing familiar ranks, contracting our identities, and reverting to our blindnesses, deafness and indifference.

The power of story-telling

In reclaiming our history, the power of story-telling should not be overlooked: stories in a sense  of biography, autobiography, ‘non-fiction reality’, even so-called ‘fiction’, and even as examined hearsay. Stories are essential to our wider identities, and vital and nuanced sources of information about the past – especially opening up alternative glimpses upon the past. Moreover, they often lend some humour and entertainment to what is often a grim and dismal story. Encouragingly, Jefferey Rademeyer and his collaborators intend to draw on oral histories as a means of building an alternative and more inclusive history of Colesberg.

As the writer Zadie Smith has put it an article titled ‘Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction’ (2019):

Our social and personal lives are a process of continual fictionalization, as we internalize the other-we-are-not, dramatize them, imagine them, speak for them and through them. The accuracy of this fictionalization is never guaranteed, but without an ability to at least guess at what the other might be thinking, we could have no social lives at all. One of the things fiction did is make this process explicit—visible. All storytelling is the invitation to enter a parallel space, a hypothetical arena, in which you have imagined access to whatever is not you. And if fiction had a belief about itself, it was that fiction had empathy in its DNA, that it was the product of compassion.

Back to the beginning …

And so we loop back to our line drawing of the waenhuis on Hanglip Farm. Hopefully, it will serve as an invitation to others to try something similar; to (re)examine their own records of the past, in order to (re)interpret the place where they are, as it is, was, and might be; at least as a way of starting to tell their own stories, and a means of illuminating who they have been, who they are, and who they might become.

And, above all, enable us to answer questions like the following:


Slowly he moves
to and fro, to and fro,
then faster and faster
he swishes up and down.

His blue shirt
billows in the breeze
like a tattered kite.

The world whirls by:
east becomes west,
north turns to south;
the four cardinal points
meet in his head.

Where did I come from?
When will I wear long trousers?
Why was my father jailed?

— Oswald Mtshali

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