Tesselaarsdal; The dorp that apartheid forgot

By Denis Beckett

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Tesselaarsdal was appealing from the start. When the family’s younger generation conscripted us parents to a Tesselaarsdal holiday at the Perfect Hideaway ‘Bella Rosa’, we thought they’d made up a euphonious Old Cape name in jest. No, they said, Tesselaarsdal is real, look it up. So out came Google and a big surprise.  We reckoned we knew our dorps, after all these years. Even dorps that one has never been to, you’d know the name. Nababeep, Matatiele… or dorps that died decades ago… Merriman, Putsonderwater (which was real, though it slightly disappointingly never actually meant ‘Pit Without Water’, a ‘put’ is a well).

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Tessies has a built-in brand, as distinctive as it is unheard-of.

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But Tesselaarsdal was virgin, despite not even being remote. Barely 20km from Caledon, not much more from Hermanus. That’s practically under the shoulder-blade of the Mother Mountain. Was it mental block, that we’d never heard of it? No. No-one we know has heard of it. Imagine future branding consultants licking their lips as they home in on ‘The Dorp You Never Heard Of’.  But wait, truth is stranger than branding. Tessies has a built-in brand, as distinctive as it is unheard-of. It’s the Dorp that Apartheid Forgot.

The first I heard of that was from Tesselaarsdorper Barry, and it lodged straightaway in a file that’s permanently open in my head, the file called ‘Hype’. But, hmm, the taste of humble pie grows on me. It turns out that Barry – incidentally himself a nice story, co-owner of the plot/farm where his forebears were hereditary labourers – is not alone. Everybody has a version of the tale of Tessies trumping Apartheid.  But oh boy, versions vary, especially on motive. Truth is a tricky ol’ lizard here. You can agree on the facts but if you get motive mangled you go flinging undeserved blame around. Or in rare cases like this one, possibly undeserved credit.

Here’s a very agreed fact: Tessies is and has always been a higgledy mingle, not big on title deeds and surveyed boundaries and so on. Erfs are loops and curves and crooked little fingers of land, with minimal fences. Here’s another agreed fact:  the human pattern befits the land pattern. The many children of founding father Jan Tesselaar were evidently so diverse they could qualify for a 21st-century beauty pageant. After them came 200 years of lusty lives lived on these fertile fields, unguided by Identity Documents or Immorality Acts. So, when the Group Areas Act in 1950 defined which persons of which complexions may occupy which portions of South Africa’s soil, allergic reaction occurred in Tesselaarsdal.

What followed is, of course, confused. But one agreed fact shines bright. A Supreme Court judge named Helm van Zijl made a ruling that exempted Tesselaarsdal from the Act.  Why? On the face of it this was a staggeringly bold thing for a court to do. It’d be bold for the Chief Justice, never mind a puisne (ordinary) judge. One school of thought maintains that this judge had decided, No, damn, these 128 families are living a peaceful life in a peaceful place, I will take liberties with the law rather than do wickedness in the State’s name. 

But it would mean more than that too. This may have been the most appealable judgement ever. The State did not appeal. Does that tell us that as well as an unsung apartheid-era judge standing up for humanness, a critical mass of Staatsamptenare, officials, looked away?

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More unearthing is required here. [I hear the whooshing sound of someone suckering himself into a job.] But even while the optimistic interpretation remains moot, I pass it on as a testament to what Tesselaarsdallers say. And because it’s delicious.

However, don’t take it too far. Apartheid was hundreds of Acts and thousands of regulations and, most of all, an attitude, a sanctioning of one breed of people looking down on another breed of people. Some one-third of Tessies householders were eligible for subsidies that others were not, bursaries that others were not, jobs that others were not, and this could be a very long sentence…

Tessies wasn’t pioneering a post-racist world, let alone the real post-racism  waiting for when Black Empowerment    has met its own oblivion and the black/white thing counts as much as tall/short or fat/thin.  In fact a living Tesselaarsdaller gave me – in 

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Annelize Mouton’s neat sweet book on the town – a race-issue whack that I had never properly registered, being still uncomfortable calling white people by their first names. Geez, what a shock! And I’d lived in that. Everyone my age knew the time that one party was Jack or Jim and the other was Baas or Master. What was shocking was realising that those echoes could still ride high.  It was also more evidence that the branding guy ought to stick to ‘The Dorp that the Group Areas Act Forgot’. But in honesty that phrase doesn’t fully grip the emotional windpipe. I for one will live with a little hyperbole.  happy. We could stay forever—well, in my case, at least a week!

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Anyhow, Tessies seems to be handling here-and-now ethnic stuff way better than the nation as a whole. Which is to say: hardly anyone raises it. They raise much else, though.  Alfred is big on this being the only dorp that has no signboard to it. He insists that nowhere on any road from anywhere to anywhere else does anyone see a Tesselaarsdal signpost. He insists that no other town suffers that humiliation. He’s researched it, asking people from “everywhere, even as far as Clanwilliam”. He’s mollified that at least when travellers get to the T-junction (that they later discover is the centre of town) there’s a sign assuring them they’ve arrived.

Next to the T-junction is another uniqueness, Postkantoor. At which you do not groan No, man, the word is Poskantoor.  For 200 years this was one of hundreds of Postkantoors-with-a-T. But then it died before all the others dropped their T, so it still officially had its T when a few years ago it was resurrected as a private-sector restaurant.  Now the Postkantoor Restaurant is to the Theewaterskloof what the Mountain is to Cape Town, the number one  repository of pride, revered from Karwyderskraal to Baardskeerdersbos .  And things are looking good. Proprietor Sonja tells me that her brother-in-law was here in 2015 and counted 8 cars per hour, now he’s just been back and it’s up to 18, how do you like that?

Brian’s perspective is similar. From his stoep you used to see two houses, but in 1996 that leapt dramatically, a whole 100%, and now since 2016 it’s been a tsunami, look, nine.
“Nine, Brian?”
“Ja, man, kyk daar doo-oor, that’s a stuk of red roof there by that third koppie”.

Neville, too, testifies to growth, 184 families have settled in over five years. I say I count 88 homes in total. Neville laughs: do I think everybody has a house and garden and running water; I must come on a school day and see kids converge from thin air.

Mooka joins the progress chorus: The general dealer is going great under a new immigrant from Pakistan. The other half of retail, the bottle store, has always done fine. And with Postkantoor sailing that’s 100% of the commercial sector happy, “I don’t think Johannesburg can say that, hey?”

Gerald in the zippiest car in the Overberg sees the same phenomenon through a different prism “I came here because McGregor was turning into New York. Now Tessies is going the same way and I’m starting to look for proper peace and quiet”.

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Tessies leaves a rich spread of gorgeous memories – green, green, rolling hills thick with amiable mense and carefree walks forever wherever. One strikingly poignant memory, too, the lady who can’t call white people by their names.   Back in suburbia I told that tale to someone, saying I’d found it jolting. He said: “To be honest part of me would like those days back, when we were respected”. That showed a litmus that I hadn’t known, or articulated. Some feel reduced by losing the premium status of old days, some feel relieved that compulsory deference is replaced by two-way human respect. I get the feeling that if the worried guys looked through the unworried guys’ prism they’d lose their worries, seeing the old era’s artificial status as an embarrassing memory and finding enrichment in the breadth of humanness.

Thanks, Tessies, for all-round hospitality, and for handing me this nice new bit of grasp on our time and place.

P.S. Our introduction to Tessies was also my introduction to Perfect Hideaways. We stayed at their Bella Rosa, of which as we set out, we knew nothing but a dot on the GPS. Turned out, too, that the dot was a tad optimistic. The GPS lost its head in the kaleidoscope of tracks as we closed in. Which meant actual human query coming up like in pre-internet days, locals putting painstaking effort into drawing you maps in the dirt with a stick. That can get you fond of where you’re going before you know whether it’s an apartment block or a pondok or what, and so it was with Bella Rosa.

Which fitted the arrival. This house is grace plus space. You don’t always get either, in my experience. While it’s common to find that your weekend retreat has disappointingly skimped on the tiles, the crockery, the fridge, the furnishings, the something, the opposite is also known. You can think you’ve bumbled into a movie set, things designed to look gorgeous for the camera rather than let the tenants feel at home.  Bella Rosa rang the right chords for me, 0% of that skimping feeling plus “grace” twice, gracious plus graceful. This hideaway gives Space a capital letter all-round, and a bold capital for me and my co-oldie of 48 years’ matrimony. We scored senior citizen status and the lordly main suite, and had such a great time  that the conversation on the way home began with ‘So, when can we all return?’.

Find out more about Bella Rosa, click here.

All images by Henrique Wilding @henriquewilding