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Wupperthal: First the residents of this historic Western Cape village fought the flames; now they fight for their homes
Nearly three years since more than 50 homes – as well as communal properties – were burnt down in the historic mission village, residents are still waiting for their houses to be rebuilt. Heritage requirements and legal procedures are holding up progress, they say.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
When the historical Western Cape Moravian mission village of Wupperthal burnt down on 30 December 2018, more than 50 homes were destroyed, along with significant historic buildings central to community life. And with Covid-19 having snaked its way into the isolated provincial heritage site, it’s been a hard few years for the inhabitants, who are still waiting for their homes to be repaired.
“I had just returned from buying stock for my café,” says Oom “Woeka” Jurie van Rooy, “and was returning to my place after dropping off a friend. I was passing the communal area around the church and guesthouse. There were these flames. It was shocking. Four rows of houses were burning simultaneously. A person can’t describe it.”
Turning 82 this weekend, and long retired from a 25-year career working in the Wupperthal glove factory, Oom Woeka is recalling the events of that day, when fire tore through the heritage village, deep in the Cederberg mountains.
Apart from 52 homes, among the historic buildings destroyed were many of those in what locals call die werf, a communal area comprising the community hall, the school hostel, Lekkerbekkie restaurant, the butchery, ‘the’ guesthouse, a rooibos cosmetics shop, the C Louis Leipoldt museum and the church minister’s parsonage.
“Everybody ran this way, pointing north in the direction of Langkloof [the next village up the valley],” recalls Oom Woeka. He says someone called him and said: “Your house is on fire.”
“It’s hard to explain what it feels like, watching your home, that your father built with his hands, burn. I still struggle to talk about it.”
He gestures to the grey skeletons of the three poplar trees that stand in a pasture, framed by the mountain behind. “I looked at those every day, I miss that view.” But it wasn’t all he lost.
Back in his parents’ home
“Ek het ’n klein kafee gehad [I had a small café],” says Oom Woeka. He has just come from church, and still has his tie tight around his neck, and a Liverpool face-mask below his chin. He says it’s a gift from a nephew in Johannesburg – and adds that he neither supports nor knows anything about soccer.
“It was a typical café, next to the Leipoldt museum. They both burnt down completely. Like my home, I had no insurance; now I’m staying here, in my ma en pa se huis [in my mom and dad’s house].”
We are speaking in the lounge of Oom Woeka’s temporary home, which once belonged to his long-deceased parents, and is now owned by his sister. Conditions are a bit cramped.
Oom Woeka is seated on the couch, his granddaughter, Ru-ann Zass, is leaning against the doorway and three other women (relatives) are crowded around a cellphone at the kitchen table in the adjoining room.
He says the fire stopped two houses away from where we sit, his childhood home. Outside is the low burble of conversation and community in the street.
“It’s a funny feeling being back in my parents’ house. I was last living here in 1979.”
Apparently his sister, who lives in Cape Town, has allowed him to stay here with Zass and other relatives, until his house has been repaired. Zass adds that four other Wupperthal families were also absorbed into relatives’ homes.
The rebuild: progress or not?
“But most of them didn’t have anywhere to go after the fire,” she says, adding that most went to Cape Town until the temporary housing was provided, while waiting for their homes to be rebuilt.
In stark contrast, the rebuilding of die werf, according to Pieter Kotze of the Rupert Foundation, which funded its reconstruction, proceeded at relative pace.
“It took a little less than 18 months. We used no cement, rather clay bricks [and] poplar beams, paying extreme attention to heritage detail.” Kotze says the situation regarding the houses is difficult. “The sad part is that the houses haven’t been done, because the church owns the houses, not the people occupying them, which means they don’t have the title deeds to their properties.”
And therefore they cannot start rebuilding themselves – even if they had the money to do so.
Kotze says the foundation is helping to get the properties transferred from the Moravian church to the occupants’ names, with the church’s approval.
Prefab huts in a heritage village
While securing tenure to their homes is good news, the majority of those whose homes were destroyed are still living in temporary accommodation on the village rugby field.
Wupperthal maths teacher Raymond “Ernie” Wynand and his wife, Cheronne, are one such couple.
They have been living in the prefab huts since they were erected over a year ago. Wynand says that his house, maybe 500m from Oom Woeka’s, was the first to burn.
He says he is lucky that his two children are at school in Paarl, so they don’t have to squash into the hut. Wynand says there is a strong belief in the village that the rebuilding, “sponsored by the Rupert Foundation”, will begin on 1 October. While Oom Woeka says he expects to move into his repaired home by Easter next year, the teacher says they have to accept that it will take time to rebuild the 53 houses.
The architect, heritage and delay
Yet the reconstruction of the 53 houses is the subject of almost daily debate.
We walk down the sand street to the remains of Oom Woeka’s house, one of a row of burnt historical shells. I ask why he thinks the reconstruction of the houses has taken so long.
“There has been a delay,” he says. “The heritage [Heritage Western Cape, HWC] inspector said not all has been done correctly.”
Kotze says some of the residents, “understandably gatvol” with the lack of progress and using limited monies apparently made available by the church, had started working on their houses themselves.
“If it’s not done according to HWC specifications, then they say it must be redone,” says Oom Woeka, “that if we don’t follow the rules then we will not receive assistance.”
He says they were told they must all put in wooden window frames. “But the houses that did not burn have metal frames. Yet we must all use wood?”
A source close to Wupperthal’s reconstruction says that Oom Woeka and other occupants who had started work were acting illegally, as each occupant had individually been consulted on and agreed to the rebuilding process.
“They had signed building plans, prepared pro bono by the Cape Institute of Architects, which had followed a consultative process and been approved by Heritage Western Cape.”
Gatvol and Covid-19
HWC CEO Michael Janse van Rensburg says the organisation would prefer to facilitate a solution to the existing problem of some householders effecting repairs, rather than deal with its legality.
“Our responsibility is to ensure that the plans submitted to the HWC, and which have the occupant’s signature on, are compliant with the National Heritage Resources Act, as Wupperthal is a provincial heritage site.”
Van Rensburg cites the residents being worried about thatch roofs as just one of their concerns, which the HWC discovered in a recent online discussion.
“The HWC council will either approve deviation or if deviations aren’t possible, will try to facilitate a conversation between the stakeholders, to rectify the repairs that have already been effected.”
He stresses that some of the repairs fall foul of not only heritage legislation, but also of municipal bylaws.
Wynand, meanwhile, says four people in the temporary homes have died, before they got the chance to see their homes again.
One who did see his home again was the former school principal. Wynand says he had not waited for funding, but instead had used his savings to rebuild his home himself.
“He moved in to his home in 2020, but sadly died in July, from Covid.”
It’s almost as if Covid-19 is unknown in this isolated valley. But Oom Woeka, assisted by his neighbour Natalia “Tilly” van Rensburg, who was sitting in the kitchen during our interview, says Wupperthal has recorded 30 cases.
“Thirteen got sick, with three deaths. The former principal and his son died, and then a tannie from Langkloof [an outlying village].” A clinic in the town does testing, with results usually back within 24 hours, they say.
I ask what the next step is with the reconstruction.
“I don’t care anymore,” says Oom Woeka. “We just need our homes back.”
Kotze says this is the Foundation’s mission. “We want to drive the whole process, all aspects. We must get people back in their homes, the guesthouse facility, the hostels… they must all open.”
Lack of funds, tenure to the houses and legal procedures have thus far prevented Oom Woeka and his fellow Wupperthal residents from moving back into their homes.
Kotze reminds me that, with an election coming up, and existing tensions between the church and the ANC-run Clanwilliam municipality in a DA province, life is not likely to get easier.
“We are waiting for [the provincial government] to come to the party.” DM168
A town’s historic mix of religious devotion and agrarian productivity
Wupperthal has been a Moravian mission station since 1865, although its origins are Rhenish, with the name derived from the Wupper River in Germany.
It is from there that two missionaries, Theobald von Wurmb and Johan Gottlieb Leipoldt (grandfather of the writer C Louis Leipoldt) arrived in the Cape in 1829 to spread the Moravian interpretation of the Gospel among the indigenous people in the area at the time.
The two missionaries settled among seven Khoikhoi families in the valley, as Georg Schmidt did with the first mission established in southern Africa at Genadendal, almost 100 years earlier in 1738.
Like Schmidt, the two men focused on the spiritual upliftment of the families and on farming.
Wupperthal’s population swelled shortly after slavery was abolished in 1838 and many formerly enslaved people arrived from nearby farms.
Many will agree that its significance lies in the continuation of traditions passed down since the arrival of Von Wurmb and Leipoldt, such as the agricultural productivity, religious devotion and the historical buildings, a mix of thatched-roof cottages and community buildings.
The small town is well-known to tourists for its production of rooibos tea and velskoen. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.