WINBURG, between Bloemfontein and Kroonstad, right at the geographical centre of South Africa, is etched in my youthful white memory as a charming town with interesting people, great old architecture and beautiful gardens.
Last Friday, after many decades, I drove into the town again. It was a shocking sight: Winburg now looks like a post-apocalyptic ghost town.
On my way to what used to be the central business district I pass by God's Power Shop selling nappies, crimplene dresses and car tyres. The only people I see are a few men in caps and jackets standing in front of a worn-out old building with a sign that reads “Savanna": a liquor store.
Wait, no, there goes an elderly white auntie, looking around with weariness and fatigue in her eyes. I feel that look in my heart.
And that's it.
It's not a dirty town; it's just lifeless.
The Oos-Vrystaat Kooperasie's door is open, but I don't see anyone there. The two Dutch Reformed churches, the oldest being a magnificent sandstone cathedral completed shortly after the Anglo-Boer War, at least seem to be in good condition.
There's an old, yellow Cressida parked in front of Winburg Fish & Chips, its sign broken and its roof rusted.
The township outside the town clearly shows hardship and poverty, but the cluster of houses in the “white inner town" doesn't lift one's spirits either.
This is the world I come from. I grew up just over 100km away in Kroonstad, and my father's only sister lived in Winburg, so we visited here occasionally.
Winburg is not just another dilapidated town. It has a rich, centuries-old history, dating back to the earliest times when San/Bushman and Khoekhoen groups, and later Sotho-speaking pastoralists, lived there. It was the first Voortrekker town in the Free State, established in 1824. Only the mission station Philippolis is a few years older.
The last president of the Orange Free State Republic, Marthinus Theunis Steyn, and the first state president of the Republic of South Africa, Charles Robberts Swart, were born in Winburg, as was the famous Boer general Koos de la Rey.
The district's farmers were some of the most successful and prosperous north of the Orange River, with 19th-century records of pedigree rams and bulls imported from abroad.
In the last few decades of the 19th century, Winburg was a melting pot of culture and cultures. It had a Freemasons' lodge, a synagogue, Roman Catholic and Methodist churches, an open-air market. The Winburg Dramatic Society even staged Gilbert and Sullivan productions as early as 1892. In the early evenings, the townspeople, almost half of them English-speaking and dozens of them Jews from Eastern Europe, used to gather at the Social Club from 1862, all dressed up.
Once a month, farmers from the district would come to town with horse carts and ox wagons for Communion, gossip, exchange of information on health and illness, happiness and calamity, and to talk about the drought or the floods.
The library was built in 1880. There was a bridge club, and Saturdays featured horse races. The cooperative currently occupies part of the beautiful old building that once housed Bergstedt and Gerlach, merchants from whom you could buy the best and finest from Europe and America: silk, linen, porcelain, handcrafted Italian shoes, Harris Tweed from Scotland, elegant hats from England.
It was a bustling place. It is noted that 650 ox carts passed through the town in April 1889. A year later, the railway to Bloemfontein was officially opened by President Steyn — though the church frowned upon dancing, the formal ball after the station opening ended only at daybreak.
That's how the white people lived. The black people of Winburg were merely tolerated as cheap labour. They could live in the “location" only with permission, and for a long time they were not allowed in the town at night.
In 1835, the Great Trek leader Andries Hendrik Potgieter and 11 families “bought" the piece of land between the Vaal and Vet rivers for 42 head of cattle and a vague promise of protection from Chief Makwana of the Bataung clan. The land was actually under the jurisdiction of King Moshoeshoe.
But where would the town be established? The Trekkers were divided, and eventually a referendum was held. The group that proposed the current position won — and the town was named Wenburg, which was spelled Winburg in the official Dutch of the time. The town, proclaimed in 1842, briefly formed part of the Boer Republic of Natalia, with Potchefstroom and Pietermaritzburg.
The Anglo-Boer War and the British scorched earth policy had a severe impact on the people of Winburg. There were two concentration camps, one for whites and one for blacks.
The community was also divided, with the local Olaf Bergh's commando, the Bergh Scouts, and Commandant SG Vilonel of neighbouring Senekal's Orange River Colony Volunteers fighting on the British side.
The rebellion of 1914 followed, where a group of Boers refused to fight against Germany. The NG church in Winburg asked the rebels to leave and they eventually built their own church two blocks away. The Rietfontein Church, designed by Gerard Moerdyk, is still standing. I remember from my childhood that there was a “Sap Church" and a “Nat Church".
A Voortrekker monument was erected outside Winburg in 1968, with five tall columns representing the five groups of the Great Trek. The light shines through an opening onto a bronze plaque — well, it used to. The bronze plaque has since been stolen.
I drive out of Winburg with a heavy heart. I pass through Senekal, which is thankfully starting to show some signs of recovery, Paul Roux, which doesn't look too bad either, and Rosendal, where a handful of people are breathing new life into my old town. Someone tells me that Wepener in the southern Free State looks even worse than Winburg. I wonder how Koppies, Smithfield, Viljoenskroon, Marquard and Clocolan, all Free State towns I knew as a child, look now.
But Winburg must be saved. It absolutely must be saved. A place with such a rich history cannot be left to die.
Then I thought of what the government in Sardinia is doing: it offers residents up to €15,000 (about R290,000)to buy a house in one of the island's abandoned villages.
I think of the town of Cammarata in Sicily, which gives away houses for free with the condition that the new owners will restore them. The mayor, Vincenzo Giambrone, says: “I can't stand to see this gorgeous old historical centre empty and turning into a ruin. It hurts me."
I think of depopulated towns in Kansas, US, such as Marquette and Lincoln, which offer free plots to newcomers or grants for restoration.
And I think about how the Rupert empire saved and helped develop the hometown of patriarch Anton Rupert, Graaff-Reinet.
I see a decent three-bedroom house on 2,000m² in Winburg on the market for R370,000.
So here's my proposal: the state, or the province, the development bank, or a collection of wealthy benefactors, or all these groups together, should offer all the abandoned houses and buildings and vacant plots in Winburg for free or at a very low cost to people willing to restore them.
There could be conditions, such as the restoration plans needing approval, and the buildings should mostly be inhabited and not be sold within five years.
Fast, reliable internet should be made available if it's not already there, basic services must be guaranteed, and the green spaces should be made usable again.
If this is launched as a proper campaign, people will come, then entrepreneurs will arrive with a bakery, a coffee shop, a good restaurant, a boutique store, workshops. Artists, IT specialists, writers, musicians. Cycling fanatics.
Young people, older people, black, white, and coloured people, descendants of the Bataung, the Voortrekkers and the Koranna, people with or without Free State roots, who can work virtually or just want peace and a cheaper way of living, will come if it's done right. A new, integrated community intertwined with the current inhabitants.
“Build it and they will come," Kevin Costner said in the movie Field of Dreams when his character built a baseball diamond in a cornfield.
It will create a considerable number of jobs and make it possible to drastically improve the township's conditions, eventually ending the residential segregation.
The abundant town commonage should be properly managed and used, providing the whole area with fresh vegetables and herbs.
Towns such as Dullstroom, Clarens, Greyton and Barrydale have managed to reverse the decline of the countryside. Winburg will need a push; it won't happen on its own.
And then, it could become a model for other dilapidated villages.
What do you think of the plan? Or do we just sit back and do nothing?
♦ VWB ♦
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