Whose Colesberg?: towards a more inclusive history

MAEDER OSLER / A major community project has been launched to compile a more inclusive history of Colesberg. According to the organisers, the project is aimed at correcting the skewed perspectives embedded in dominant accounts of Colesberg’s past.

Among other things, the project will seek to pay greater attention to Colesberg’s precolonial history, by tracing the origins of its Coloured, Xhosa and Sotho inhabitants. It will also seek to chronicle their historical dispossession; the town’s early history; the era of the Group Areas Act and forcible removals; the era of political resistance; and the era of inclusive democracy, including the activities of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Sources would include oral histories from members of the broader community.

While it is meant to be a collaborative project, the driving force behind the initiative is Jefferey Rademeyer, a son of Colesberg, where his family is nestled. The project is eventually meant to result in a book with lasting value.

The project was carried forward at a Round Table discussion held in Colesberg on 16 December 2023, aimed at sharing the idea with community members, soliciting buy-in, and sharing work in progress.

Welcome message

A welcome message to participants said the aim was to make the project as inclusive as possible. At the same time, it was not a vehicle for engaging in politics, unless this was in a historical context, and any political discussions would be censored.

‘We need to strive by all means to use this platform to unite Colesberg around its heritage. Everybody’s views shall be respected and valued, and no form of debate shall be stilled.’

Hopefully the dialogue would culminate in a heritage project that could be a game changer. ‘Let us embrace a common set of values of respect for one another, tolerance for one another, and collaboration with one another. But also, to dedicate and commit ourselves voluntarily without expecting anything in return.’

The message emphasised that this was a community project and that no individual could claim rights of ownership. It was also multilingual, and people could express themselves in any language. All barriers and stereotypes should be avoided.

The programme

Mr. Solomon Mntubu started the Round Table with a prayer. Following this, the proceedings were formally opened by the program director, Mr. Thembile Falata.

Next, Jefferey Rademeyer delivered a detailed overview of the Colesberg History Project. This was based on a document circulated at the Round Table, part of which is summarised below.

Those present were mostly older inhabitants of Colesberg who had experienced the worst forms of social exclusion and marginalisation yet lived together in harmony with one another in the ‘Old Location’, also commonly referred to as ‘Old Boks’.

A highlight followed when participants from Kuyasa, the ‘Old Location’, Riemvasmaak and Lowryville introduced themselves and began to reminisce about the town’s history in different eras. They relived aspects of the past with intensity and passion. There were lighter moments, but also deeply felt moments of hurt and pain. Ms. Mama Fisher delivered a closing prayer, after which participants engaged in open conversations and networking.

According to Jefferey Rademeyer, the project was embraced by those present, but they emphasised that it would require extensive consultation, and encompass all of Colesberg’s people. The next step would be to produce a concept paper that would outline the project in detail, and how it would unfold.

‘Everyone is invited to contribute, and nothing should stop anyone from sharing anecdotes as well as proposals on how to enhance this project.’

The debate about history

Today, there is a renewed debate in South Africa and elsewhere about the nature and purpose of history-writing. Fresh minds and fresh eyes everywhere are looking to what this is and should be about. Much of this movement revolves around attempts to correct previously biased or exclusive accounts, typically focusing on the activities of dominant elites rather than reflecting broader social realities, including the lives of subjugated peoples and groups.

This trend is reflected in the title of a base document setting out the parameters of this project, which likens the production of a corrective history to the swing of a pendulum.

Indeed, there is no shortage of ‘histories’ about Colesberg. These range from romantic accounts such as Microcosm by Thelma Gutsche to the more realistic The Forgotten Front: Untold Stories of the Anglo-Boer War in the Karoo, by Belinda Gordon and Michael de Jongh. Prof De Jongh has also written a ground-breaking book on the Karoo Nomads, titled Karretjiemense of the Great Karoo.

But inclusive social and political histories embracing the full scope of Colesberg’s past – and those of other Karoo towns – are still lacking. Therefore, this project has the potential to make a significant contribution to our individual and collective heritage.

Like those of other towns, ‘popular’ histories of Colesberg are typically written from a ‘colonial’ perspective, and recycle the same stereotypes. Among others, they invariably refer (with a sense of pride) to a thoroughbred horse stud in the district belonging to the famous golfer Gary Player. Even the Umsobomvu Local Municipality is no exception. In a recent Integrated Development Plan (IDP), it stated:

‘In a sheep-farming area spread over half-a-million hectares, greater Colesberg breeds many of the country’s top merinos. It is also renowned for producing high-quality racehorses and many stud farms, including one owned by legendary golfer, Gary Player, are nearby. …’

In reality, Gary Player has long since moved on, and the race horse breeding industry is a thing of the past. In the olden days, satin-clad jockeys raced horses on a dusty race track flanking today’s R58 – especially at nagmaal times. Today, there are extensive new residential areas – including RDP housing – along the N1 and R58, collectively known as Riemvasmaak, and the town encompasses vastly different and expanded commercial and residential areas. The main street is transforming, as are visitors to the town.

Instead of riding on horse carts with shepherds’ crooks, farmers are driving around in airconditioned bakkies and on powerful offroad motorbikes. A new breed of farmers is also emerging.

All this points to the fact that Colesberg has changed throughout its history, and will continue to do so. All these processes of change and transformation must be reflected by a changed conception of our history. Among others, the Karoo Development Foundation (KDF) and its innovative conception of a ‘Forgotten Highway’ is playing a groundbreaking role in unearthing the region’s ancestral and current histories.

Another notable effort has been an interdisciplinary research programme at Stellenbosch University, focusing on land and sustainable development and centred on the Karoo, partly encapsulated in a book titled Cosmopolitan Karoo, which is reviewed elsewhere on this website.

As the organisers realise, building this project with community participation and incorporating oral histories will be a slow and difficult process. Among others, it will require extensive engagement with older members of the Colesberg community, and a lot of committed voluntary work, hopefully with its own rewards. A summary of the base document follows.

History uncut: The Colesberg project


In a foreword, the document says the project is dedicated to:

  • The people of Colesberg, the current generation and past generations who are the scriptwriters and to whom the work is devoted;
  • The martyrs who not only shaped this history, but laid down their lives and paid the ultimate price;
  • The future generation, who seek to draw their inspiration from past generations in the course of efforts to create new pathways to prosperity;
  • South African History Online, for adopting a nuanced and balanced approach that cannot easily be distorted; and
  • The Camissa People, through their institute, the Cape Slavery and Indigene Heritage, for the way in which they eloquently articulate the history of the native people, particularly the Khoisan.
Purpose of the project

The purpose of this project is to start a conversation that will culminate in documenting an important part of the history of the communities of Colesberg. Unless this is done, the history of the town will have many blank pages, for many of those who have lived through past eras have passed on. This has prompted the idea to record what remains of our collective memory in the form of a book.

This is a community project and not an individual one. The narrative belongs to us all, and we are all writers of the script. Hence our clarion call to all those people of Colesberg who have a story to tell to join in the conversation. We owe it to ourselves to create a historical perspective that is inclusive, draw inferences from different perspectives, and create a tapestry and kaleidoscope.

Correcting a biased history

The documented history of Colesberg reflects the chasm between its social realities and the perpetuated idea of the town. It is a biased history, with little reference to communities who were once part of Colesberg prior to the imposition of the previous regime’s policy of separate development and forceful removal. It also focuses on primarily on the Anglo Boer War, to the exclusion of other communities.

Moreover, accounts of the formation of the town largely concentrates on the arrival of white settlers. Instead, many other people migrated to Colesberg over a long period, first via nomadic routes and more recently from farms and neighbouring towns.

We all have different perspectives of Colesberg in its early days. The question is: Was Colesberg ever integrated in the pre-apartheid era, or is this a misconception? There is a notion that Colesberg was once an integrated community, or the nearest we could get to an it, until the majority of its inhabitants were removed to ‘Ouboks’ and subsequently to Lowryville.

There are many good stories to be told, of how we once lived as a community until we were polarized. During the time of polarization, good stories continued, but also stories of resentment. Families were fragmented and established communities were disrupted, with far-reaching consequences for people’s lives.

All of Colesberg’s people come from somewhere, and its history will be incomplete unless those origins can be traced back to where the injustices started. One should also reach an understanding of the prejudices and other dynamics underlying social relations over time.

The people of Colesberg remain divided along racial and ethnic lines, including whites (mainly Afrikaners) as well as Sotho, Xhosa and Coloured people. Our social life today has also been shaped by material factors, linked to race and ethnicity.

To summarise, it is widely acknowledged that Colesberg has a rich history, but current accounts are incomplete. This is largely due to historians, popular authors and other researchers concentrating on the colonial era, notably the struggle between the British and the Boers. These accounts do not reflect the presence and roles of indigenous people. It remains unclear whether this is deliberate, or the result of a certain perspective and field of interest. Either way, it is time for this imbalance to be corrected.

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