The Clock-Watchers of Nieu-Bethesda
For nearly 20 years, farmer Peet van Heerden and artist Albert Redelinghuys of Nieu-Bethesda have looked after the tallest timepiece in the village.
For many years, it has been retired farmer Peet van Heerden’s self-appointed job to maintain the NG Kerk’s steeple clock in his hometown of Nieu-Bethesda.
“In decades gone by there was no radio. No one was really quite sure of the time, which was mostly measured by the sun. But there were a few from Nieu-Bethesda’s congregation who took pride in getting the time right, by riding on horseback to Hanover. That’s where they’d find the coach from Cape Town. The driver always set his pocket watch by Cape Town’s noonday gun just before he left.
“So that was considered the ‘freshest time’ – die varste tyd. In other words, it was deemed to be the most accurate,” recounts Peet.
The first thing he looks for when he drives into any town is the steeple clock of the Mother Church. “If it’s still keeping time, then I think there is hope. There is still a heartbeat, and someone who cares.”
The Bell Chiming the Hour
For most of his life, Peet has been maintaining the giant gears of the church clock.
But it is local artist Albert Redelinghuys’s duty and joy to wind the clock every week. It takes 56 vigorous turns to keep the clock going for six and a half days. “This is a wonderful space to enter. I often come here just to listen to the ticking of the clock, the bell chiming the hour, looking at the light changing through the windows.”
Albert loves the space so much that in 2021 he exhibited some of his paintings in this rather unusual space. One of them still lurks there, accessible only via a steep staircase – a stunning diptych of the Karoo from the air.
Short History of the Church
Nieu-Bethesda, this village in the lap of the Sneeuberge, is the perfect example of a Victorian-era settlement in the agricultural rural areas of South Africa.
First came the formation of a church congregation, then the tuishuise (townhouses) and then the seriously big church building. In the mid-1870s, a few years before Nieu-Bethesda was officially established, local Sneeuberg farmers used to worship in the landowner’s wagon house. The Church Council ran village affairs, and were strongly opposed to the granting of liquor licences in Nieu-Bethesda. In 1890, however, the council relented. They decided to keep and sell brandy “for health reasons”.
The gleaming white Moederkerk you see today was only built in 1905. In 1914, a certain Mr Erlank motivated for the financing of a hearse, and some years later, was the first person to be carried to the graveyard in it. The hearse is now parked in the voorportaal of the church.
The Ultimate Arbiter
For a semi-desert town, Nieu-Bethesda is rich. It has water. The Gats River that flows through the valley is fed by perennial Sneeuberg mountain streams. Strong spring water is diverted to run, clucking and gurgling, through the furrows along the streets. Every household in the part of town that has “nat erwe” is assigned a share of water in return for a modest annual payment. Water is diverted via sluice gates and smaller channels on a strict timetable on a stipulated day and between certain hours.
When quarrels have broken out between neighbours over allocation times, the local water bailiff or chairman of the irrigation board is called in to sort out the squabble. In arguments about going over one’s allotted time because a wristwatch was slow, the church clock is always used as the ultimate arbiter.
Whistle and Light
Nieu-Bethesda got electricity in 1991 – the last town in South Africa to be lit up. Until then, Oom Taafi had to pump the organ. His signal was a short blast on a whistle from the organist. The congregation (which used to number several hundred, now only 26), would rise as one at the commanding toot.
There was once a time when many buildings in this country and the rest of the world were lit using acetylene (welding gas). As soon as safer methods were developed, acetylene lighting was mostly abandoned.
Nieu-Bethesda’s church is the last building in the Eastern Cape that is still rigged for it. Once a year, on a day in early December, Peet lights up all the acetylene lamps, using long torches to ignite the gas.
“They make a ‘plop’ sound as they light up,” says Peet.
Peet has faced an extraordinary series of personal tragedies since 2020. But when we contacted him, he was still focused on the church and its clock. “I am in the process of rebuilding one of the church’s gas generators. The church clock is also on my must do list.” He mentioned that he was still recovering from double back surgery, but: “Believe me that the clock and lights serve high on my to-do lists.” DM/ML
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In case you missed it, also read The Karoo art of Nieu-Bethesda