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Inside the small West Coast fishing town where Friday n...

Maverick Citizen

ADRIFT IN VELDDRIF

Inside the small West Coast fishing town where Friday nights are still spent drinking wine and chewing on bokkoms

On the evening of Monday 14 February, families enjoyed the breeze on the Berg River in Velddrif on the Western Cape West Coast. Fishing is one of the area’s biggest attractions. Fishing is also a big employer in the town — it hosts several restaurants and takeaway spots that specialise in fish. It is also popular for its speciality called bokkoms — a salted and sundried small harder or mullet. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

The salted, dried fish known as bokkoms remains a popular snack in the fishing community of the West Coast town of Velddrif, but times are changing. The town’s picturesque harbour and well-preserved buildings have become its hallmarks.

Bokkoms are essentially mullet that are salted and left to dry in the sun. Sometimes referred to as “fish biltong”, it’s one of the main delicacies in Velddrif, a fishing town 156km from Cape Town straddling the banks of the Berg River.

The name Velddrif came into existence after a farmer, Theuns Smith, brought his cattle to graze on the far side of the river and needed to pass through a “drift” in the veld. The town was formally recognised in 1946 and was declared a municipality in 1960.

Western Cape Premier Alan Winde recently delivered his 2022 State of the Province Address in the town, which is known for its hospitality — but it continues to face service delivery challenges.

velddrif
The SA Fisheries Museum harbours a collection of memorabilia that encapsulates the fishing history in Velddrif as far back as the 1400s. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

The health benefits of bokkoms, according to Felicity Stroefveld, curator at the SA Fisheries Museum in Velddrif, were recognised as far back as the 1400s. Recalling the history of the town, she said that farmworkers sweated a lot while working out in the hot sun, and were given salty bokkoms by the farm owners to replenish the lost nutrients.

Turning off the main road into Velddrif, there’s a permanent stand offering bokkoms for sale.

Retired fisherman Dirkie Smith (75) told Daily Maverick: “I still remember the good old days on Friday nights at the tavern. There was nothing better after a hard day of work than enjoying bokkoms with a glass of Lieberstein. Today we still enjoy it with a glass of brandy.”

Stroefveld said that fishermen had informally named a road along a bank of the Berg River as Bokkom Laan. Of the 20 or so houses that were once strung out along Bokkom Laan, and whose occupants would catch and process the fish, only four remained in operation.

velddrif
Poverty is real and tangible at the home where 23-year-old Caroleen Andrews lives in Noordhoek in Velddrif on the West Coast. It is a constant battle for her to put food on the table. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

“Bokkom Laan is now a place where you have art galleries and coffee shops,” Stroefveld said.

Stroefveld said the bokkom and wider fishing industry was booming a few decades ago, but that it had become increasingly difficult for fishers to negotiate rights and quotas.

Velddrif’s main industries are fishing, tourism and salt production. There are two large salt works in the town that provide salt to most of the Western Cape.

Giving an overview of the history of Velddrif and the people who played a role in developing the town, Stroefveld said: “The building which houses the museum was built by Johan Carel Stephan, dating back to the 1800s.”

velddrif bokkoms berg river
The breathtaking sunset at Laaiplek beach is one of the natural wonders in Velddrif and is a drawcard that attracts tourists in great numbers. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

A member of the well-known Stephan family from St Helena Bay, he built something of an empire in Laaiplek near the mouth of the Berg River, establishing a trading route to transport grain from farmers inland via the Berg River to Cape Town. 

According to Stroefveld, Stephan also did business with Italian immigrants who still have family in Velddrif and Laaiplek. He built offices which later became the Laaiplek Hotel, which is still standing today.

velddrif
The Eigelaar group that helped shape and build Velddrif on the Western Cape West Coast were (from left) Edna Smith, James, Albert, Floors, Johnnie and Ernie. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

Another more recent family that left an indelible mark on the area was that of Johnnie Eigelaar. In 1961, the family started producing Bokkoms Biltong which is still being sold around the province and can be found in many fish shops.

velddrif
The Eigelaar family tree and path of success in the Velddrif goes back as far as 1958. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

In 1978, they bought the Laaiplek and Riviera hotels, which have become landmarks among the fishing community. The Eigelaars also built a post office in the area in 1993.

velddrif
Johnnie and Anna Eigelaar started as ‘trek visvangers’ (trek fishers) in Dwarskersbos in Velddrif on the Western Cape West Coast. They later become pioneer business people in the area. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

The Berg River, explained Stroefveldt, was an important food source for the Dutch Cape Colony in the 1700s. At the time there were no jetties and fishermen got permission from farmers to catch fish and store their equipment on a sandy stretch along the river.

Stroefveldt said that fishermen were no longer allowed to fish in the river and that the estuary had been declared a Ramsar site under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

The declaration came in the wake of World Wetlands Day on 2 February 2022. At the time, CapeNature CEO Dr Razeena Omar said that conservation of the ecosystems and species was dependent on the balance between freshwater and seawater entering the estuary.

velddrif business
Christiaan Engelbrecht (25) works at Charlie’s Brewery in Velddrif on the West Coast. The business includes a beer brewery and a gin distillery and employs about 100 people from the region. The business has endured several alcohol bans during the Covid-19 lockdowns, but now its manager says it, like many businesses in Velddrif, is beginning to recover. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

He said this balance had been maintained and it was for this reason the site had been recognised for its exceptional value in terms of ecosystem and species diversity.

It’s not only bokkoms that are synonymous with Velddrif. The annual Berg River Canoe Marathon is a popular event that starts in Paarl and ends at the Carinus Bridge in Velddrif. The first race was held in 1962 and has gained a reputation as being one of the toughest courses in the world.

velddrif fishers
St Helena Bay resident Freddie Kearns is one among many fishers left destitute due to limited fishing quotas. Kearns says he has lost count of the times he has been arrested for poaching, but says he keeps telling magistrates the reason he poaches is to put food on his family’s table. His family have been fishing in the area for generations, but now due to a lack of fish, the inadequate quota system and a lack of job opportunity, he says his son has become a drug addict. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

The history of the Griqua (Griekwas) who lived in Velddrif in the 1400s cannot be overlooked, said Aroon Messelaar, high commissioner of the Griqua Royal House.

“Velddrif was part of Saldanha where the Saldanhabaaiers lived in the 1400s. History shows that these people only became aware in the 1700s that they were part of the Griqua tribe.

velddrif fishers
Sheronise Smith, a resident of Steenberg’s Cove in the Saldhana Bay municipality, makes fishing and lobster nets to sell to fisherfolk. She sells the nets to people from as far away as Hout Bay in Cape Town. This is the only income she and her husband, a former fisherman, receive. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

“We live in the 20th century and it’s time that the history of Velddrif and the role the Griqua tribe played is written,” Messelaar said.

Henry Charles, former director of the Research Institute at the University of Western Cape, underlined that the omission of Khoisan history is something that needed to be remedied. DM/MC

 

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  • Reading this article, one pictures very backward, stuck-in-past little villages of Velddrif and Laaiplek.
    There is so much more to this area.
    Port Owen, a marina development created by Owen Wiggins, is a thriving up-market development that sports some excellent restaurants, a brewery and a gin distillery.
    The marina is home to scores of boats, both sailing and power.
    St. Helena Bay is a remarkable sailing area with calm seas and good winds for sailing.
    There is also an active Yacht Club and an independent boat yard with a crane capable of lifting boats weighing up to 10 tonnes.
    You might consider visiting this area sometime Mr. Cruywagen.

  • Felicity Strohfeldt. Not Stroefveldt. That is very disrespectful to a lady who does a wonderful job to preserve the history of the town.
    For all the poverty and poor people highlighted in your two articles, there is also entrepreneurs who brings new life to Velddrif. This ensures more jobs and more money (tax income and business income) for the town. It would be good if this could also feature.

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