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The black people's camp at Springfontein

About 3 km west of Springfontein, there are about 250 graves of black people. This was a labour camp during the war, housing workers who were employed in various tasks on the railway line.

Springfontein originated as a mission station. In the winter of 1893, the missionary Christoph Sandrock arrived in Springfontein, a newly built railway station. Sandrock was sent by the Berlin Missionary Society to provide a permanent Christian ministry for (black) labourers involved in the construction and maintenance of the railway lines. This story is described by Dolf Britz (download here). Black people who accepted the Christian (Lutheran) faith and agreed to the ecclesiastical rules of the Berlin Mission were permitted to reside on the land. These residents were allowed a certain number of stock, for which grazing rights were given in exchange for a monthly contribution to the mission. There were about 13 families in 1898.

A church council was instituted, with several assistants working in the congregation. In the surrounding district a network of “outposts” was organised and received consistent ministry.  More than 50 communicants regularly celebrated the Lord’s Supper.20 On special occasions more than 200 people attended the services, and sometimes church bazaars were held. In 1899, there were 77 baptised members, 225 people present at the holy communion, and seven catechists or helpers.

Who were these black Christians?  Through the mists of time, Rev Sandrock's diary offers a tiny glimpse.  Cornelius Morogai frequently visited Donkerpoort, a railway station to the south. Petrus Lepuquane was training seven people in the catechism. Daniel Makoepe and Jan Gombici worked on the dams and built fences. Jan Molathloa was a catechist. Jacob Mohotete and his family were employed by Rev Sandrock. Samuel Sheba was an ecclesiastical assistant, who travelled along the railway line to minister to railway workers. Johannes Goliath worked at the railway station. Kieviet Veldmann was Köster (churchwarden). Moses Gaputhluila worked on the railways. Several people, such as Jacobus Maambe, Danie Veldman and Van Schalkwyk proclaimed the gospel to workers on the nearby farms.

The little community was non-racial. Wilhelm Pieterse was a mason and carpenter, and spread the Word among farm workers. Jan Jacobs was a blacksmith. Both were white people, living at the mission with their families.

As the chaos of war approached, thousands of Johannesburg refugees came through Springfontein, fleeing to the coastal cities.

Many members of the Berlin mission also left, probably to Lesotho.  By 1 October 1899 only 41 communicants celebrated the Lord’s Supper.  The school closed down, and for a few months, the mission barely existed.

Black people

in the war

 
 
The mission during the war

Springfontein became a rendezvous for black civilian victims of the war. The British soldiers cleared black people from the farms, after destroying their houses. These uprooted people drifted to Springfontein, and built shelters on the Berlin Mission’s land, in three camps. Many refugees brought their livestock with them.  Rev Sandrock appointed two spiritual helpers for these camps.

Many of the black refugees found employment with the military authorities, building blockhouses, securing the railway line with barbed wire, and some men were armed and used in espionage operations. Conditions in the three camps quickly deteriorated, Sandrock observed. There was no firewood, the accommodation was inadequate and food resources very limited. No medical doctor was available, and there was widespread illness, deaths, misery and distress.
 

Going home after the war

The end of the war came in May 1902. Soon the Springfontein camps were broken up. Rev Sandrock was ordered by the military authorities to inform the black people that they had to evacuate their camps within two weeks. In his diary, he wrote: "“The poor people did not know where to go. Their property was taken from them, they had no money, were empty handed. With just small bundles [of possessions] they had to disperse in all directions to find a place where they could build a shelter again. Hopefully they now realise that their imagined, dreamed of, golden freedom is nothing but mist.”

The Berlin Mission after the war
 

By the end of 1902, the Berlin Mission Society asked for official recognition as a mission station from the government.  Only a portion of its land, west of the railway line to Cape Town and south of the (eventual) line to Jagersfontein, received recognition. Therefore the the members of Sandrock’s church who lived east of the station had to move across to the recognised part of Springfontein (where the concentration camp had been). There they erected houses on both sides of the stream.

 

The Mission school by now had 150 children. Some of the old faithfuls were still active as leaders. Petrus Mathani, Willem Pietersen, Daniël Schalwyk, Samuel Shebe, Jacobus Dewu, Eduard Lefiki, Efraim Lebakeng, Jim Jansen and Johannes Kgompier assisted at the mission. Getrud Pietersen, Liza Lepokoane, Maria Mokobeti, Martha Mohule and Maria Pieters served as deaconesses in the church.  They entered a very uncertain century.