Heidelberg, Gauteng, to host national heritage symposium

The Heritage Association of South Africa is pleased to announce that Heidelberg, Gauteng, will host this year’s annual symposium which will be held from 19 to 22 October.


The symposium will critically evaluate the heritage gems of Heidelberg spanning many centuries – some of which are seriously threatened and others entirely neglected. Various experts and academics will examine the history, archaeology and architecture of Heidelberg and many excursions and exclusive viewings of heritage sites form part of the programme.


The Suikerbosrand area of the Heidelberg district was home to late iron age communities of the 15th century. The BaFokeng inhabited stone-walled dwellings. The remains of these homesteads, together with pottery shards, are evidence of their presence. Between 1670 and 1780 CE, these agropastoralists left the region as the climate became cooler and drier. Conditions changed again in the late 18th century and Sotho-Tswana farmers returned. Molokwane walling – associated with the Western Sotho-Tswana and BaKwena – has been found in the Suikerbosrand.


By the early 19th century, drought caused increased competition for resources. The resulting strife led to displacement as well as new alliances being formed between groups. In the Klipriviersberg, a Barolong homestead has been found inside a BaFokeng settlement, while BaFokeng pottery has been found in BaKwena settlements, suggestive of the shifting identities during the upheavals.


Sotho-Tswana dominance came to an end in 1823 when Mzilikazi conquered the area. Iron age settlements are still being discovered by archaeologists from Wits University, using google earth and GIS-based technologies. This research shows a trend from small, dispersed, egalitarian homesteads to highly stratified, clustered towns. As many as 700 pre-colonial stone-walled structures have been documented in the Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve alone.


White occupation in the area dates from the 1830s, and by 1836 a number of Boer farms were already established (the Diepkloof farmstead dates from 1850). In 1864/1865 the first church building was erected and by 1866 the town of Heidelberg was formally laid out. The first school was built in 1867, followed by the gaol in 1869. Heidelberg was briefly the capital of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek with the triumvirate making use of the magistrate’s court as headquarters. Two of the most prominent structures in the town date from the last decade of the 19th century: the Klipkerk (1891) and the station building (1895) of the Nederlandsche-Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorwegmaatschappij (NZASM).


By the time of the South African War (1899–1902), the town was still relatively modest. During the war, Heidelberg was home to white and black concentration camps. After the war, many black survivors of the camps were barred from returning to their former workplaces on surrounding farms and formed the nucleus of what would become the town’s black ‘locations’ – later subjected to forced removals.


In contrast, the increasing wealth of the white farming gentry is magnificently on display on surrounding farms such as at De Rust (1906) and further away at the Baker-designed Welgelegen Manor (1912). Other prominent Heidelberg buildings include the Volkskool (1906) and Normal College (1909).


By the 1930s, Heidelberg was a bustling agricultural centre. New buildings included a new church (designed by Moerdyk and completed in 1932) and the town hall (also by Moerdyk, completed in 1937).  


Across these different periods, the town developed an impressive collection of Transvaal Wilhelmiens, Victorian, neo-classical and art deco buildings.


While the historic town centre has reasonably withstood the test of time, there are signs of urban decline. Shops and restaurants have been closing in recent years and new housing estates on the edge of town are luring investment out of the centre and historic residential areas. In 2003 the Heidelberg Transport Museum closed and there have been successive media reports about the mismanagement of heritage sites such as the AG Visser house museum – which is the subject of recent court proceedings.


If measures are not taken, Heidelberg may follow other Gauteng towns where cycles of decentralisation and disinvestment have left once vibrant historic centres depressed and decayed. Heritage tourism is but one opportunity that may assist Heidelberg in repositioning its town centre as a viable investment proposition and destination. This will however require that steps be taken to strengthen heritage oversight – particularly through strong civil society activism and drives to restore and manage sites such as the Heidelberg station (designed by V van Lissa) and the old gaol (by Wierda Sytze) in line with good conservation practices.


As the colonial and apartheid architectural legacies of Heidelberg are still dominant, a focus on heritage promotion and development must also create opportunities for the histories and heritages of marginal communities to come to the fore. There is a rich opportunity to create a better appreciation of the archaeological legacy as well as layered heritage of the town’s black communities.              


The symposium programme will be released at the end of August, when registration will commence. To secure accommodation, contact Liza Fulton on 016 349 2661 or 082 773 7902 or email lizav.tts@galileosa.co.za. For more information contact info@heritagesa.org.


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