Crumbling stone houses tell an important story

PHAKAMISA MAYABA / “History’s first draft,” they say of journalism, the so-called Fourth Estate. Although many stories have been written about Colesberg since its early days as a vulgar frontier settlement, they have mostly been confined to colonial history and the traditionally “white” side of town.

The stone court house, the Kemper Museum, the Anglo-Boer (South African) War, brandy-guzzling bootleggers and highwaymen have continued to feature. But the history of the black township of Kuyasa – the product of an era of segregation and apartheid – remains shrouded in mystery.

When you read earlier publications, you’d swear the township — or ‘Ou Boks’, as it was first known — didn’t even exist. That the other side of the koppie separating the dorp from from the kasi was just barren land covered in bush and populated by locusts.

The last years of the former regime saw the advent of Toverberg Indaba, a community newspaper that sought to tell everyone’s story. It fashioned itself as the town’s most inclusive and accessible voice – one that bravely ventured into places and issues that its predecessors and rivals had skirted. Still, as is often the case with indigenous African history, the intimate history of Kuyasa is mostly to be found in the oral stories told by residents of a certain generation.

One such raconteur is Ndoyisile Manzi. Born in 1953, the man is an amicable fossil who walks with a straight back and sturdy legs. (A lifetime of physical labour will do that to you). Long retired, he still mostly wears a crisp blue overall that serves as a reminder of those long years on the grind. He speaks slowly, less from speech impairment than an inclination to emphasise, and always introduces himself by his clan name, Dhlomo – the impeccable Madiba.

According to Tat’ Manzi, his borough, Diep Hoek, one of the earliest settlements in the township, was a hasty and haphazard ruffle-up. The roads – really nothing but glorified thoroughfares, and some too rugged or too narrow to accomodate vehicles– are unpaved, the products of shovels and people’s feet.

Tat’ Manzi grew up at a time before apartheid’s mad planners took to their agenda in earnest, when coloured and black residents used to call the area home. Afrikaans, Xhosa and tsotsitaal, the multilingual mash-up of the streets, were the lingua franca. Then, areas like Zwelitsha, Bongweni and Khayelitsha were still vast expanses of trees and veld – perfect territory for Manzi and his young friends to whistle up the dogs, go hunting for rodents, and torment the bird population with their slingshots.

The streets of Ou Boks are not always easy to navigate. Image: eParkeni.

Manzi’s Xhosa name was an impossible tongue twister for his former European employers. As a result, the anglicised “Solly” appeared on his ‘dompass’, the despised identity document blacks were obliged to carry on their persons at all times in those stupid years.

Lowryville, the ‘coloured’ township, was established on land where budding farmers of colour kept their livestock. There was no Towervallei or Ringvasmaak. Most of the houses in Diep Hoek were built from stones from the surrounding koppies, and plastered with mud. These simple structures were in vogue at the time, and cheaper to build. They may not have seemed like much aesthetically, but they were strong and refreshingly cool in the harsh Karoo summers. Although few remain – mostly dilapidated or abandoned – they are really are treasures of Colesberg’s forgotten history.

When one resident recently demolished his stone dwelling, a local businessman lamented that this was tragic. He’d read somewhere that some of these houses were so old and important that they should be considered for heritage status. Regrettably, it would seem, residents themseves don’t accord them the necessary weight – they just regard them as featureless and unfashionable relics from an era that many would rather forget about.

However, a cursory Google search turns up some interesting things. Take No 1 New Street. for instance. Back in the day it was the local ‘kroeg’. Next, it housed a medical practice. More recently, it has been revamped into a Clicks Store with huge glass windows and gleaming floors. Although much of the building was flattened during reconstruction, the two “bow-fronted wings with hood mouldings over openings” were preserved. Why? Formerly owned by one Fleetwood Rawstorne (Snr), an ex-army officer, it’s considered a heritage site, and could therefore not be altered. Interestingly, Colesberg boasts at least 80 heritage sites, but none of them are in Kuyasa.

No 1 New Street, one of Colesberg’s 60 heritage sites. Recent developers had to retain some of its architectural features. Image: eParkeni.

According to Mbulelo Kafi, a former town councillor, there have been several instances where a property developer would find his plans to develop a particular area thwarted by legacy issues. Although the council would almost always side with the investor, especially when the project in question would create jobs and inject much-needed funds into the local fiscus, this is always difficult terrain to navigate. As such, it often results in lengthy discussions as well as stalled projects.

History aside, it is quite apparent that a lot of education is needed if Kuyasa’s unique history is to be preserved. Of course, endeavours of this nature will require not only the community’s buy-in but knowledgeable individuals to step up to the task. One such pioneer is Jefferey Rademeyer. After an illustrious career in politics in various parts of the country, he wants to plough back into the community of his heart, notably by creating a new, more balanced and inclusive history of Colesberg, built from contributions by community members. Through this project, he hopes to retrace and hopefully resurrect the rich history of the various once-marginalised communities. (For a report on his project, click here).

A street in Lowryville. Image: eParkeni.

But back to the old timer in the overalls beneath a tree. When Tat’ Manzi’s own stone house gradually fell apart, he thought it would be better to build a house of corrugated iron than to tryh to maintain the old structure. For him, concepts like legacy are more appropriate for others than for people of simple means. And therein lies two familiar rubs: land and perception. The general consensus about the stone houses is that they are symbols poverty, of a time when people were struggling simply to keep a roof over their heads. They are too old, and everybody seems to want a modern house with plastered blue bricks and a tiled roof. A stone house makes the owner look not only poor but also backward – not refined enough to keep up with the new trends.

Land or the lack thereof is also evident. In Diep Hoek, Six Penny, New Brighton and surrounds, the erven are cramped. Houses are leaning on (or crumbling on to) each other. And so are the roads. This was partly why the now stalled Ou Boks housing project was conceived. But we all know how that turned out, leaving people like Tat’ Manzi to live in these homes hardly big enough to accommodate a batchelor.

Ironically, the further one moves into Kuyasa from these earlier settlements, the bigger the yards seem to be. And the houses, formerly shacks or state-built matchboxes, been developed and extensively worked over. Although there are some impressively refurbished homes in New Brighton, most of the yards are too small to allow the owners to work appreciable magic on their properties.

It’s amazing how something as seemingly trivial as a crumbling stone house can spill onto so many facets of a community – a ripple effect that forces us to see how joined up it all is. For instance, unlike Ou Boks, the ‘coloured’ township of Lowryville was a “planned” settlement. Most of the houses are uniform, built in the matchbox style of the previous era. None of the “original” homes fall out of step, except those that have been altered in later years. There are fewer stand-alone shacks, and the roads are better. The one blotg on the neighbourhood is the Plakkerskamp, haggard and teeming with shacks, in the distance.

The Plakkerskamp near Lowryville from a distance. Image: eParkeni.

One must wonder how those people came to live there — far away from everything and everybody. And how – if we are to take Tat’ Manzi at his word – did the ‘coloured’ community, who once upon a time were neighbours with baSotho and amaXhosa people, find their way up here, to Lowryville? Were there District Six-like scenes? Government officials pulling up, pencils in hand, for the infamous ‘pencil test’? Were the ones through whose hair the pencils would not slip duly bundled up with all their possessions and pointed to the new township on the other side of town? Were wailing babies yanked from their mothers’ backs, based on the test’s outcome? Was this our own case of forced removals? A Sophiatown in the Karoo.

These are the sorts of questions that Mr Manzi and his venerable ilk can answer, and for Mr Rademeyer and his colleagues to document.

FEATURED IMAGE: An old stone house in a Colesberg township, plastered with mud. Image: eParkeni.

  • This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Pkamamisa Mayaba’s website, eParkeni.
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