The Paarl Post is a local newspaper that is distributed throughout the Drakenstein Valley. I wrote a number of op-eds and articles for the Paarl Post between 2008 and 2012 on local history. The editorials focused primarily on local history, while the articles were based on personal interviews to document oral histories of the 1960s to 1980s. Oral history provides a rich, but very fragile layer to our personal histories and changing urban landscapes. Southern Paarl in the Cape Winelands is an example of a neighbourhood that has changed significantly in a generation, and even in the years since I wrote this article. When I was writing freelance articles for the Paarl Post (2008-2012), I was also involved in two oral history projects, both volunteer projects, one in Wellington—an initiative of the Wellington Museum—and the other in Paarl—a project of Paarl’s private archive, the Drakenstein Heemkring. I am passionate about telling the small, incidental stories that provide personal perspectives on historical events. Here are extracts from some of my op-ed columns.

To cross a river

Paarl Post, 5 November 2012

It is surprisingly difficult to cross a river, especially when it is the Berg River. Early morning traffic across the Oosbosch Street bridge is a nightmare at the best of times. So we all grumbled about the inconvenience for a couple of days, and then just as suddenly the traffic was once again flowing back and forth over the bridge, and the delays in fixing the Lady Grey Bridge was no longer the topic of conversation.

How different it was when the bridge was completed in 1853. All the pomp and ceremony! The Paarl Rifles were there – 50 infantry and 30 calvary – very smart in their new uniforms, as well as the Cape Royal Rifles, the D’Urban Calvary Corp and the Stellenbosch Calvary Corp. Three thousand spectators used the opportunity to say that they were among the first pedestrians to cross the river using the new wooden bridge made from Cape teak. The Lady Grey Bridge was named after the wife of the governor Sir George Grey, and was built for the princely sum of £3 017 … 

Stoepstories

Paarl Post, 1 Augustus 2011

Die geskiedenis bly maar ‘n bietjie soos puzzle pak. Mens kry nie sommer al die inligting op ‘n skinkbord opgedis nie. Nee wat. Mens moet hier krap en daar snuffel en ‘n terloopse verwysing in ‘n boek, kan ‘n hele storie laat ontrafel. Kyk nou maar na die liewe mevrouw Bruël wat in die eerste helfde van die 18de eeu hier in die Drakenstein gewoon het.

Ek lees die ander dag in Robert Shell se boek Children of Bondage oor hoe dikwels vrye burghers verhoudings met hulle slawe gehad het. Verhouding is seker die verkeerde word, want dit was meestal ‘n geval van persoonlike uitbuitery. Dit het natuurlik dikwels gebeur en indien die eienaar van die slaaf ‘uitgevang’ is, was dit die slavin wat vir haar onbetaamlike gedrag ‘berispe’ is. Maar, dat huisvrouens ‘n verhouding met ‘n slaafsou aanknoop was ‘n perd van ‘n ander kleur …

Broedertwis oor water

Paarl Post, 12 Julie 2010

Soms lewer die vaalste boeke wonderlike insigte in ons geskiedenis. So was dit in die geval van dekade-lange broedertwis in die Strooidakkerk oor die aanstelling van Thomas Arnoldus Theron as ouderling in 1771. En dít oor die steel van leiwater. Thomas Arnoldus Theron was die tweede jongste van sewe kinders en is in 1716 gebore. Sy pa Jacques Theron(d) was ‘n kleremaker wat op die ouderdom van 20 saam met die Hugenote in die Kaap aangekom. Theron snr het die plaas Minie langs die Palmietrivier in Klein Drakenstein ontvang. Teen 1716 het Thomas Arnoldus se pa onder andere ook die plaas Lanquedoc in Klein Drakenstein besit, en nog ‘n plaas, Le Rhone, in die Tulbagh omgewing. Die Therons was vermoeënde mense, en Thomas Arnoldus het soos sy pa ook as Heemraad gedien, en ook as ‘n burger-luitenant. In 1764—toe hy 48 jaar oud is—erf hy die familieplase Minie en Lanquedoc …

Fanie Bitterkos se snoek-koppe

Paarl Post, 5 Julie 2010 

Snoek-koppe was koningskos vir die kinders van Hopestraat. En Vrydagaande het die kinders van Hopestraat lekker geëet, want dan het die grootmense geld gehad, onthou Winnifred Joseph wat in die 1950s in Hopestraat grootgeword het. ‘Ons kos op ‘n Vrydagaand was snoek-koppe. Fanie Bitterkos het ‘n perdekar gehad, dan bring hy die vis. Hy het die pragtigste perde gehad. Hulle het so gespring en gepronk as die kinders uit hardloop en roep—”Hier’s ons vis! Hier’s ons vis!” Vis en patat het ons geëet. Dit was die lekkerste kos en almal was welkom in ons huis …

Almal het ‘n storie om te vertel

Paarl Post, 22 Februarie 2010

Dit is die klein stories wat kleur en diepte aan die geskiedenis gee. Party stories is net twee woorde lank, soos ‘onderveldse meisie’. Ander is ‘n resep, of ‘n potjie blou-botter-salf wat oor ‘n stuk flênnielap gesmeer word met ‘n knippie peper vir ‘n kind se swaar bors. ‘Ons het almal ‘n storie, ‘n verhaal, ‘n stukkie geskiedenis. Dit word net nie altyd opgeskryf nie, maar as ons nie ons gemeenskap se geskiedenis opskryf nie, dan sal dit verlore gaan,’ verduidelik Herman Bailey van die Wellington Museum se Om-die-tafel-stories projek. ‘Ons het al begin met die geskiedenis van die mense van Wesstraat, en verlede week het ons vier families van Terracestraat bymekaar gebring om hulle stories te vertel.’ In die 1960s is al die huise tussen Terrace-, Joubert- en Pentzstraat gesloop en die gesinne wat daar gewoon het, moes blyplek kry suid van Markstraat. Dit was die jare van Apartheid, die Wet op Groepsgebiede en die Wet op Agterbuurtes. Wellington se Markstraat is gesien as die skeiding tussen die bruin- en witdorp …

Oh, to be a wine farmer

Paarl Post, 30 November 2008

A wine farmer told me recently that a student selling a bottle of wine at a restaurant earns more in selling that wine, than the farmer who produced it. Times are not easy for our local wine farmers, what with high input costs, the depreciating rand, dwindling export markets and the perennial shortage of labour. Interestingly enough, Cape wine farmers would have had very similar concerns in the early 1800s. In a single generation farmers experienced one of the industry’s largest booms followed by one of its most depressing slumps. This particular drama began to unfold at the end of the 1700s.

War between the Netherlands and Britain had disrupted the Cape’s money supply, and to compensate for the shortage in minted coins, the government began to print money. The Riksdaalder (Rds) devalued, and prices at the Cape soared. A farmer who bought an ox wagon in 1794 for 150 Rds, would be expected to fork out 442 Rds in 1805. The price of an ordinary spade rose by more than 400% …

The flu epidemic of 1918

Paarl Post, 1 September 2008

Colds and the flu are no laughing matter. It was only while paging through my research notes that I released that this month in 1918 marks the start of one of the greatest flu epidemics the world has ever known. Historians believe about twenty million people died that year. It decimated the armies in Europe and effectively brought World War I to a close in November 1918. The first cases in South Africa were reported in Durban on 14 September 1918, then in Kimberley on the 23rd. Two days later Cape Town and Johannesburg too reported cases of the ‘Spanish Influenza’, as it became known. Within weeks half of the South African population had been infected, and by the end of October 140,000 people—mostly working men—had died. The impact on the economy was swift and devastating …

Paarl, the fashion capital?!

Paarl Post, 4 July 2008

I am no authority on fashion. To illustrate my point I am prepared to confess that at this very moment I am wearing a pair of crocs with thick woolen socks …

The Drakenstein Heemkring has a fascinating collection of taped interviews, and it was while I was listening to the all but forgotten Tape No.42 in the Heemkring’s archives that I discovered that a really famous couturier lived in Paarl in the early 1900s. Paarl’s ‘Christian Dior’ was of course Braam (Abraham Lochner) de Villiers of La Mode on the corner of Main and Hout Streets. The tape records a conversation between WA de Klerk and Marguerite de Villiers and her recollections provide a lively peek into Paarl before World War II. Braam de Villiers was born in the 1870s and was the eldest of six children and the head of the family after their parent’s early death. Braam showed his flair for fashion and design from an early age, and by the turn of the century he travelled regularly to New York, Rome and Paris to view the latest fashions …

Note: The cover photograph is of Henry Slamet, a shoemaker in Fontein Street, Wellington. I interviewed him in March 2008.