A Jakkalsfontein Man

A short biography of
Mr. Abraham van der Merwe

I first met Mr. Abraham van der Merwe in the nursery at Jakkalsfontein, where he was potting seedlings. He is a man of quiet dignity, soft spoken and using the clean West Coast speech, forthright, plain and free of city slang.

Mr. van der Merwe was born near Kokstad in Griqualand East in 1941. His mother was Magdna van der Merwe. His father was David van der Merwe, who died in 1959. His father was a painter by profession, but also much in demand as a pruner of fruit trees. They are an old Kokstad family, who have been in that area for several generations. Abraham attended St. Mary’s RC School in Kokstad, and then joined his brothers, who were building contractors, in their business. When he was 22 years old, a recruiting agent came to their town, looking for labourers for the Railways and Harbours. He found employment with the Railways and moved to Cape Town in the hope of fair wages and a satisfying life. He lived in Bishop Lavis, and he remembers it as a very wet place, because Elsies River, Tiervlei, Bishop Lavis and all those suburbs were built on marshy land. He walked to the station every morning, and then took the train to the docks where he worked with the cranes that load and unload ships. And so back again, in the evenings. He was with the Railways for four years.

In Bishop Lavis lived a man named Frank Thomas, who had a business cutting firewood on the West Coast and selling it in Bishop Lavis and those places where there were still many people without electricity. He worked for him for a while, cutting rooikrans and Port Jackson, and transporting it to Cape Town. But there was a big problem, because Bishop Lavis was full of murder and other serious crime, and he was engaged to be married, so that he did not want to live there. In that business of cutting firewood on the West Coast he had met Mr. Basson of Rheeboksfontein, and Basson asked him to come and work for him. He stayed with Hannes Basson for two years, helping with the ploughing, sowing and harvesting of wheat, and also with the farm animals. Hannes Basson had a grazing post called Jakkalsfontein, some three and a half miles to the north of Rheboksfontein, which was his main farm, and they would transfer herds and flocks between the main farm and the grazing post when necessary. When Hannes died, about that time, his son Frank Basson inherited Jakkalsfontein.

It was Frank Basson who wanted him to come and live at Jakkalsfontein, and he was posted here with fourteen dairy cows, a bull, a horse and a number of piglets to look after. He was given a house near the farm house, they were the only people here. The main farm house, which is now the offices, stood empty most of the time. He does not know who built it, but it was there when he came to the farm. There was an old fountain near his house, which he opened and cleaned, and he put boards in all around so that the sides would not collapse. The boards are still in place, and the fountain gives sweet water all year round. That is the true Jakkalsfontein, the fountain that gave its name to this place. He planted a big garden for his family around the fountain, with all kinds of vegetables like tomatoes and potatoes, and fertilised the soil with manure from the stables. You can see the ditches there today that he dug to drain the rain water away, they show where the garden was. This farm never had a shortage of water. On Tuesdays and Fridays Frank would bring his food and his supplies of flour, meat and fish, and tell him what he wanted to have done.

The farm was divided into six fenced camps, and each camp had a name, so that people understood you when you talked about a certain place. There was Volstruiskamp for their ostriches (more or less where the Stonechat houses are now - and you will still see wild ostriches there to-day), then Huis se Kamp (around the main house), then Skoolkamp (which had that name because the footpath to the school on Rondeberg went through the camp. Three of his children, a daughter and two sons, attended that school, and walked the four miles in the morning and back again in the evening. The school was paid for by the Dutch Reformed Church. The teacher at that time was Connie Louw, and they had church bazaars at the school, and also church services by a visiting minister from Darling.) Then there was Dwarsrivier se Kamp on the farm’s northern boundary, Rietduin se Kamp, and See se Kamp. Those were the six camps, into which they divided the animals to graze the veld evenly. Because of the camps there was no shepherd, so the rooikat sometimes took two lambs a day, as well as fully grown sheep. They would set a baited trap, and if a rooikat was caught it was shot. He remembers that they shot 21 rooikat in a certain year.

Frank Basson liked to entertain his friends, and invited people to hunt during the season. His guests were businessmen, other farmers, and his relatives. In the old days the season was open from June to August, but later it was shortened to one month. Once a year the people would arrive and stay for three or four days, some in the house and others camping outside. They would set out early in the morning, walking side by side in a long row, with from twelve to twenty guns. The master of the hunt was Frank Basson himself. They shot duiker, steenbok and grysbok, and some whose guns were loaded with finer shot, fired at birds like fisant and tarentaal. They did not use dogs, except for Junior Duckitt from Waylands who had a retriever and only shot at birds. Abraham would follow some distance behind with a tractor and wagon, and they would load whatever had been shot on to the wagon. He remembers loading twenty-eight buck at one time and another time thirty. At the farm house in the afternoon, the buck were cut up for biltong, and in the evening they would barbeque the fresh livers of the game, with chops and sausages that they brought from town. The skins would be scraped, salted and pegged out to dry. The skins make wonderfully soft floor mats. He himself had a fine bladsak or satchel, with a strap to go over his shoulder in which he carried his food and water when he went into the veld for the day. Sometimes he had to stay in the veld until the sun set, to look for wounded animals, following their tracks and the blood on the bushes and on the ground. But in winter it gets dark early, and if it then rains it is almost impossible to find blood or tracks. He finds an old spent cartridge case from those days in the veld from time to time, and occasionally he still hears gunshots from neighbouring farms, but the last hunt on Jakkalsfontein was seven or eight years ago.

Mr. van der Merwe was still employed by the Bassons when Jakkalsfontein was sold to Fair Cape and by them to Propcor, who developed it into what it is to-day. He was, he says, “sold with the farm”. By then he and his wife had three daughters and three sons. He worked with the farmyard animals of the new Coastal Estate, cut up the rooikrans and Port Jackson trees that were to be eradicated, and cultivated cuttings and seedlings in the new nursery, that must supply the whole estate with indigenous plants. The veld can do it - he has seen great tracts of this farm covered with spring flowers, and of every kind you can think of. The soil is healthy and strong, and if it would rain like it did in the old days, people would be amazed at what grows here.

To-day he lives in the same house into which he moved as a young man, more than thirty years ago. The quiet, and the great stillness over the veld by day and night, has been his way of life. He has seen the farm change from a hunting field to a conservancy. He saw the buck and porcupines, the ostriches, striped skunk, grey polecat and lynx, the guinea-fowl and francolin, and in the old days he and his wife heard jackal calling at night, and he saw the three-toed aardvark, more than once. Jakkalsfontein is home to them. He is at peace here. He feels fit, but is concerned about his age, and what the future may hold for him and his wife.

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