Johannesburg, December 1889
Upon the completion of my schooling, I become a transport rider between Cape Town and Johannesburg. In doing so I did not follow any particular passion other than a general quest for adventure. I knew that the wilderness of the interior of South Africa was disappearing on account of the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley and gold on the Rand where a new city, Johannesburg, was fast developing.
Johannesburg would soon be reached from Cape Town by a two-day train ride. (1) I could see the advantage of this for the business man and for the material development of the continent, but I also knew that I was part of the last generation to ever see this land in a relatively unspoiled state.
Soon the vast herds of ruminants and predator animals will disappear completely from the solitary plains, hunted to the point of extinction for the trade in animal hides in Europe and the Americas. Vast herds of majestic animals will be gone forever from this once unspoiled land and I wanted to spend as much time in it as possible before it is gone forever.
Not only the animals but the way of life was changing for all the peoples who call this land home. There are the rugged Boers who farm in parts of this desolate land and who live semi-pastoral, semi-hunting existences. They are becoming completely subjected to European laws and customs. Soon, the only features that will set them apart from European trends will be their almost universal disdain for the English, their strict Calvinist religion, and their language.
I have heard stories, no doubt exaggerated, as these tales are, of Englishmen who lost their way and when they happen upon a Boer homestead, being turned away without food or water only to die in the wilderness. I wonder if these stories were fact or only fables intended as a warning for English would-be travelers to these lands. Theologically, they remained isolated and free from the softening that took place in Europe and England of the harsh positions following the reformation. In a way, it was much on account of their faith that they were able to endure the hardships of the frontier, as was the case in countries like America.
In any event, I wanted to travel through their lands and experience their warm culture, their openness to strangers (as long as you don’t speak English), their perseverance of their faith and their dedication to their own family and kind, before their way of life as frontiersmen change forever.
What is true for the Boer, was true for the indigenous African tribes. Their cultures have been in decline since the Dutch, German, French and the English arrived at the Cape of Good Hope and ventured into their lands.
Riding transport suited me. It was financially rewarding, satisfied my love of adventure and brought me into contact with first-hand accounts that others would only read about in newspapers and books. I was a good transport rider and I loved it. Setting out from Cape Town at dusk. The sounds of the wagon; the smell of the oxen; the crack of the whip. My business was built on direct transport to smaller towns along the way to Johannesburg. I could offer clients better rates than the railways to certain destinations and until the link with Johannesburg is completed, I offered a complete service from the Cape to the Transvaal. I knew that it was a business in decline, but it was good for my soul and there was still money to be made. Some years I was able to come home with as much as GBP4000 ($20 000) in my pocket, every 6 months.
Without knowing it, I was receiving a better education than any university could ever offer. I once stayed over on a farm in the district of Potchefstroom, owned by Petrus Jordaan. His father knew the legendary Boer leader after whom Pretoria was named, Andries Pretorius, personally. The Jordaan family was a traditional Boer family who lived exactly the kind of life that I wanted to observe up-close. The immediate and extended family all lived together. There was strength in numbers, something that was very useful in a frontier situation.
Everybody had their work for each day. There was no time to be idle, except on a Sunday, which was the Lords Day. Meal times was very important for the entire family. Everybody gathered for breakfast, lunch, and supper around Petrus Jordaan’s big dining room table. A bowl of water was poured and passed from one person to the next and everybody washed their hands in it.
Each meal was an elaborate affair with food that people from the city could only dream off. At night, after supper, one of the kids would run to fetch the big family bible. It was handed down from generation to generation, translated into old Dutch. Petrus would read a passage and pray. After bible reading, the family lingered at the table and shared stories from the day until either Petrus or his dad, Stefanus, would get up and announce that it was a hard day and time to retire to bed.
One such evening, Petrus’ father, Oom Stefanus Jordaan told me about Andries Pretorius. Under his leadership, a group of Boers tried to set up a republic south of the Vaal River. A struggle for independence followed lasting seven or eight years until the British won a decisive battle at Boomplaats and Pretorius fled across the Vaal with a group of his followers to set up the republic of the Transvaal (“Trans,” as in “across” and “Vaal,” as in “the Vaal river”)
I always had a keen interest in people’s beliefs and how this shape our actions. I desperately wanted to understand why a faction of the Boers seemed so preoccupied with slavery. My dad told me how the abolition of slavery was one of the big motivations for the trek (move) of Dutch farmers (in Dutch, a farmer is a boer and from this, the designation as Boers) out of the colony into the interior.
Oom Stefanus did not mind when I asked him the question about how the Boers in the Transvaal justified the continuation of slavery. He explained that Pretorius, and by implication, his followers, saw slavery as an inherent right and duty of the white man in this savage land. One of Pretorius’ favourite scriptures was from the Old Testament where Israel is commanded to either slay or enslave the surrounding nations. To him, the natives were the people of the cities who were “far off” and he had the Divine command to enslave them. His was the nation of God, the chosen, who would bring Gods light into a savage, godless land. The Boer had a God-given right to occupy the lands of these people. They were to him the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perezzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites whom the Lord had commanded to destroy. (2)
The policy has been carried out in a cruel and relentless way. Entire tribes were sometimes massacred. Adults were killed and children carried off and indentured on farms. Indenture was a savage replacement for slavery where the indentured person could be sold as a tradable commodity. They sometimes received a small allowance for their labour and sometimes not. The big supposed advantage over slavery was that the period of indenture had a definite end-date when they would be freed and when they would sometimes receive additional compensation for their labour, or sometimes, not. They would, sometimes, receive land from the farmer to settle permanently on at the end of the indenture, and, sometimes, nothing. Oom Stefanus told me how even leaders like Paul Kruger participated in these schemes and that the policy was almost universal in the Transvaal Republic. (3)
The English, despite their atrocities against the indigenous tribes of Southern Africa,were fierce opponents of slavery and Oom Stefanus told me bluntly that the continuation of the practice of slavery in the Transvaal was the spiritual motivation for the English to annex it and for the Anglo-Boer war of 1880 and 1881. (3)
Visiting Boer farms in the Transvaal left me with a bitter-sweet taste in my mouth. On the one hand, these people were the warmest and heartiest people I knew. Rugged, industrious and hard working with a faith that almost moved mountains. On the other hand, I was angry to see the little black kids, indentured by people like the Jordaan’s on account of the fact that they were caught on his farm or captured when the Boers raided native villages or bought as “black ivory” on auctions like you would trade cattle.
An indignation rose up in my heart against this cruelest of practices when I hear things like Petrus Jordaan’s wife says that after a few years, these young ones accept their fate and become accustomed to their new life, as the memories of their parents fade. They become so loyal to the Boer family that they are prepared to fight against the English with the Boers. When I hear stories like these, my mind wonders back to the Cape and the many black friends I grew up with and call my friends to this day.
These are however not the only stories I heard on my many travels through the interior of this vast land. I can honestly say that I have heard similar stories of regular, unspeakable cruelty perpetrated by almost every people in Southern Africa against neighbours. Hottentot’s who raided Bushman villages and killed the adults and carried away the children. The British, waging war against the native tribes, dispossessing their lands without compensation.
Of all the peoples of the interior, I feel closest to the Boers of the Orange Free State. Not only on account of the fact that they do not practice the indenture of native people but a family member on my mothers side, Oom Piet Rademan, moved to the Northern Free State and now farms very near the point where I cross the Vaal River on my way to Johannesburg. I made it a habit to set up camp at Viljoensdrift and then undertake the 12 hours horse ride to their farm, Rooiwal, in the Vredefort district to spend a few days there before I return to my camp and cross the Vaal River on my way to Johannesburg
Oom Pieter Jacobus Rademan (born on 13 September 1838) grew up in Swellendam in the Cape Colony and moved North, to the Orange Free State where he met and married Susanna Maria Geldenhuys from Kroonstad. He settled at Rooiwal in 1872 where they now live with their 10 children.
When I started the transport company, I used to camp on his farm and I would bring him building material from the Cape. These days, his barns and homestead are all build and I carry the tobacco for Oom Piet that my dad sends him and spices for Aunt Santjie in my saddle bag. The trip to Rooiwal is only a short and pleasant detour. Sometimes I will take Aunt Santjie thread from my mom or recipe books that she buys for Aunt Santjie from a dealer in Adderley Street. (4)
Oom Piet lived to the ripe old age of 99. I was, in later years, told the story that when Oom Piet was advanced in years, he thought that his dominie (pastor) did not visit him often enough (home visitation by the pastor was very important to the Boers). He instructed his workers to harness the horses and prepare the carriage. He drove to Vredefort where he stopped in front of the pastors house. Ds. Van Vuuren invited him to get down and come in, but he refused. He told Ds. Van Vuuren that he is an old man and may pass away any day now. He told the pastor that he is scared that he will die and when he gets to heaven, the Lord will ask him how its going with his servant in Vredefort and that he will have to tell the Lord that he does not know because Ds. Van Vuuren no longer visits him at his home! (5)
Oom Piet’s faith is of a milder nature than some of the extreme positions of the Transvaal Boers and more sincere, similar to that of my Uncle, Dominie Jan (my mothers brother), who was heading up the school where David de Villiers Graaff did his night classes in Cape Town. Oom Piet was a simple man who tended his Afrikaner cattle and planted his corn on the rocky hills surrounding his simple but functional home. His children are the backbone of his work force and the small number of natives who work for them are treated in fairness and allowed to live in the way that they have been accustomed to for hundreds of years, receiving a wage at the end of every week. (4) There are, for sure, stories doing the rounds in the family that him and his wife could he hard task masters if the workers did not perform their duties up to standard but of the practice of indenture there was no sign and they desired nothing else but the peaceful existence of all peoples.
Oom Piet’s farm became a place where I would have some of my happiest times ever. I visited there as often as I could. In later years my grandfather, Oupa Eben and grandmother, Ouma Susan, obtained the farm next to him, called Stillehoogte and moved there. (6) The northern Free State became my second home and from their farms I could see the herds of wild animals starting to dwindle, even during the short time I rode transport.
Riding transport is by its very nature a lonely business and it afforded me much time to reflect on all these matters. I would sit at night, at my camp fire and realise that there is much bad and much good in this land. In the end, I would think to myself, it all goes back to the heart of each individual man and woman. How it is that some of the Boers, the English, the local indigenous tribes, the coloured people, Indians and even some Chinese can treat others with unspeakable cruelty such people can rightfully be called “savages.”
On the other hand, I have seen that there are many good people in this world like Oom Piet and his family who desire nothing more than to have a quite life, tending to their own business and living in peace with all humans. These are the meek who will inherit the earth; the pure in heart, who will see God and the peacemakers who will be called children of God. Theirs are not the stories that they write about in England and America but it does not make it less true than the stories of cruelty.
Evil is not restricted to one nation or one people. One faction among any people may have grown more accustomed to evil or may have a greater lust for it and may even make it policy, as was done in the Transvaal, but I realised that it is hard to call them more evil than the British or even some of the native tribes.
These did not remain merely matters of curiosity to me. They became the force that drove me into a very particular direction. In a few short years, I would turn my back on riding transport and embark on an entirely different adventure.
In the ebb and flow of human affairs I must determine my own place. I saw clearly that the seeds of the Anglo-Boer War of 1880 and 1881 were still germinating in the soil of Southern Africa. Despite the fact that the Boers were victorious against England, I could not see the pressure groups in London relenting on the issue of slavery. On the other hand, the Transvaal Boers’ view of the native was a matter of religion to them and I could not see this change easily. The powerful British Empire was dealt a bloody nose by a small group of Boers and this would certainly be redressed, especially in light of the discovery of gold at the Rand and the influx of English people (immigrants) lusting after the gold.
I saw many competing nations with many diametrically opposing goals and desires and much score to settle. I could not see powerful black tribes ever exist in South Africa, independently, alongside the powerful British empire or the Boer republic of the Transvaal. The natives tribes, on the other hand, were humiliated, their men killed, their woman and children carried off and their land taken. The resentment that is festering in such peoples can not be ignored or suppressed forever before it turns into war.
Whichever way I think about it, peace was not something I saw for this land for the near future and I had to think deeply about what I wanted to dedicate my life to and how to make a living. In any event, it would be foolish to think that one would be able to ride transport through this land, uninterrupted while clouds of war gather.
As these things were becoming clear to me, I embarked on another trip to the Transvaal from Cape Town. Little did I know that this would be the trip where a most fortuitous event would occur. A problem that would lead to a meeting which would lead to a plan that would result in the rest of my life. On this trip, I met the most interesting Boer from Potchefstroom, Oscar Klynveld. This trip became the transition into the greatest adventure, ever, born from the seeds of war!
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) The railway linking Johannesburg and Cape Town was completed in 1892.
(2) Recorded by Trollop in his history of South Africa; cited in a newspaper article about slavery in the Transvaal. Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), 30 December 1880, page 4, “The Revolt of the Pro-Slavery Boers.”
(3) From an article, setting out the case for the First Anglo-Boer war of 1880/ 1881 and the continued annexation of the Transvaal; published in The Times (London, Greater London, England), 22 Feb 1881, page 9.
(4) Information supplied by Nerine Rademan Leonard and Jan Kok.
(5) The story was told by Oom Jan Kok, my mothers oldest brother. Oom Pieter was their grandfather on their mothers side, which makes him my great grandfather. My grandmother, Ouma Susan, was taking care of Oom Piet till his death and was only allowed to marry my grandfather, Oupa Eben, after Oom Piet passed away. The day of his death, his pipe was still warm. He smoked till the day of his death.
(6) Stillehoogte was the farm of my grandparents, Oupa Eben and Ouma Susan. Every long-weekend and every school holiday we spent on the farm in the Northern Free State.
Stillehoogte belonged to Oom Piet Rademan and Ouma Santjie inhereted it from her father. My Ouma Susan Kok inhereted the farm since she had the Rademan (Geldenhuys name – Susanna Maria).
Aunt Meraai (Oom Sybrand and Oom Michiel Straus’s mom) had inherited the farm Leeuspruit because she had her Grandmom Uys’ name and Leeuspruit belonged to Oom Giel Uys.
As far as Oom Jan knows, the farm Stillehoogte was a farm on its own and not part of Rooiwal. The other Rademan children also inherited land in this area. Oom Jan is also not sure if this was part of Rooiwal. Oom Freek got the farm Rosebank. Oom Attie got the farm Goudinie , Oom Lourence the farm Windhoek. All these could have been one farm because they boarder each other.
The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio), 1 November 1908, Page 31.