Bethulie

Patrick Mynhardt did something incredible – he introduced the world to his hometown in the one-man show, “The Boy from Bethulie.” Obviously, I had to go check what this place was about. Armed with a lot of history, and established around the countries most important water source, this town, well, disappoints. Driving into town, the town’s façade is dreary – the main street has the eerie feel of a town with so much potential but doesn’t know how to show this to the world. Maybe my expectations were too high!

Bethulie houses two extremes of humanity. Two kilometres north of the town, is a wire sign in Afrikaans reading: Bethulie Kampherhof. To the uninformed and those not fluent in Afrikaans, this would be one of those signs you see on a road and forget it a few seconds later – just like those hand-painted signs for painters and tree-fellers that adorn many robots. To those in the know, this is home to South Africa’s worst concentration camp…

Concentration Camps were not solely Nazi run for the non-Aryan. These camps have been utilised in war long before World War 2 as effective tools to control the enemy. During the South African War that occurred at the turn of the 20th century, the British set up several concentration camps where civilians were placed and tortured – most of the times, to death. The camp at Bethulie was the countries worst. Here, mostly Boer women and children were brought (concentrated) and kept in subjection. Countless names adorn the walls of the monument signalling that this was not just a camp for control and work – it was a death camp. Overall, 26 000 Boer women and children and about 15 000 Blacks were killed in these camps. In contrast, about 3 000 Boer soldiers were killed in battle…

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Whenever I attend funerals, visiting the cemetery is always a real hard experience. This is not even done at night when most of your “scaredy-catness” comes out. Places of death hold so many stories – lost to this world. Places of mass-murder are worse. The founding name of the town was Moordenaarspoort… Okay, I really can’t put more words to this…

The amazing thing is that the victims here had no connection to me whatsoever. Nor could I relate to their suffering and oppression. Yet that feeling persists…

Two kilometres from the Bethulie turn-off in the OTHER direction is one of the greatest feats of South African engineering. The Bethulie Bridge connects the Eastern Cape and Free State. It is 1152m long concrete structure spanning over the convergence of several rivers that drain into the Gariep. Viewed from afar, it’s immensely huge. Driving across it, it doesn’t fell like it though. In this desolate region, your car is the only automobile for miles. You drive onto the bridge doing 120kph and 30 seconds later, you’re over the bridge. Only by peering over at your odometer will you notice that a whole number has changed because of this crossing! It’s also a very boring looking bridge – typical late 60s/ early 70’s South Africana.

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Both these monuments are of extreme importance and showcase our humanity. The bridge showcases our local engineering brilliance in its most extreme form. The camp, a showcase of the inhumanity and disrespect humans can have when interacting with other human beings. However, both these monuments have no awe surrounding them. As I mentioned, if you don’t know the history behind these two and you are on your way to Oviston or Burgersdorp on the other side of the dam, you probably won’t even notice the camp and after 30 seconds, the bridge will be just another bridge that you’ve driven over. I don’t know – my opinion is that these two are important to all South Africans and should be made so. There are so many less important monuments in the country that have such fanfare and hype built around them that when you see the actual article, like an 18th century kitchen knife, your mind tells you that you should be in awe because this is really important. Maybe the Free State authorities will, one day, realise this…

Bethulie has the vibe of an artist’s town. It is full of inspiration – it’s perched on the banks of a great lake, the koppies around it are magnificent and there is untouched greenery at the end of most roads. Even the litter bins are hippy-inspired, multi-coloured spectacles.

Adjoining Information is an unmanned book-shop. The wall has several cut-outs and photocopies detailing the history of the town. Small towns always have these second-hand bookshops where you can pick up so great literary pieces. I found Olive Schreiner’s “Story of an African Farm. “ I felt that I had to get this book here in the land she wrote about – well, not really but I mean, buying it at Exclusive Books in Sandton is just so bland. The Honesty Box was a great touch – the sign that this is not Jozi.

I stayed at a new Bed & Breakfast called Old Watchmakers. Again, I surprised the owner with my Indianness but she really tried hard to make me feel welcome. It is a new place and in time, it should be a really great place to stop. Rates were very affordable and they also make excellent cakes for your afternoon tea.

I spoke to a local antique shop owner about the town and the hospitality industry. Small towns like Bethulie rely heavily on the city folk coming through town and spending their corporate Rands here. The economic recession has hit the smaller towns that normally got alternate holiday traffic. He told me that I was probably the town’s only visitor on that particular day whereas normally, most of the B&B’s in town would be at least half full with this changing to fully occupied during the high season. With less money being available for people to spend, their holidays are either forfeited or they go to the traditional centres where they either have a holiday home or family. The thing is that coming to this town (except for the petrol costs!) is very reasonable. The prices here are not inflated and staying in the accommodation is the fraction of the cost of any traditional holiday centre and the hospitality is orders of magnitude better.

The problem with this town is that my first impression still stuck. It’s really a great town. It’s welcoming and has so much to offer – I only touched on a few elements of what the town has to offer. However, the town needs to really show visitors the personality it has. Maybe it’s just me! I still recommend this town. Do take a visit – you will be surprised 🙂

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22 thoughts on “Bethulie

  1. I think i missed some of your earlier musings — how is it exactly that you came across this town?

    🙂 thanks for a good read tho….

    • Ye, I’ve been documenting my trip through prior blogs – do take a look through them 🙂 Bethulie is a pretty small town but with a lot of history. So I basically went there because I could!

  2. I agree with you — Bethulie’s great! But it’s a pity you didn’t meet the guy who owns the Royal Hotel. He’s a writer and he gives an AWESOME tour of the town. If you go back, get him to tell you about the Louw Wepener commando.

    • I’m planning a road trip to Bethulie and, you guessed it, to the town of Wepener and the monument. I was told by my father Ernest Lodewyk Wepener that Louw Wepener was a great-uncle. I’m hoping to confirm that fact when I visit in a few months. Looking forward to meeting all the interesting people who have knowledge of Louw Wepener and his family.

  3. Thank you for taking some of your time to visit my home town, Bethuli.

    If you were to recmmend a way to improve Bethulie (i.e. Tourism, the way it looks, etc.) What would it be? and why?

    • It was a pleasure visiting hey 🙂 I think I did mention, or at least allude to a few points. I want to think about this before I reply proper!

  4. Hi Shahilj,
    Next time you pass by Bethulie, please pop in and visit Tony and myself. Tony is renovating the “Old Royal Hotel” in Bethulie and his house across the road is a library of over 250,000 LP vinyl records and as many books!! Every wall of the house is lined with bookcases of either books or records – it is an unbelievable collection!!! He is doing the same with the hotel.
    Best Wishes
    Di

  5. Hi Shahilj,

    I’m one of those old white birds doing the unimagined for a living in England in order to spend time with my offspring in the diasporra – and I yearn incessently for the good soil of home. I’m working on family history and called up Bethulie because I think my grandmother was held there with her mother and siblings. I’m interested in transgenerational trauma and my grandmother had particular difficulties in the camp, being an English speaking Boer kid of 3 with an English surname – she spent most of her time hiding from the other kids for fear of having her head dumked in the latrines. Her brother died of interic fever in the camp and the fear of those years stayed with her, making her a very angry woman. The impact on our distaff line was significant.

    Enough of the heavy stuff – I’m not picking at scabs so much as interested in establishing facts, because there is a story worth telling. I value your photographs because I’ve never visited Bethulie. Thank you for these and for your words.

    Estelle

  6. Hi,
    You don’t now but I’m still looking for my first couch surfer in Bethulie sinds last year.
    Thanks for putting Bethulie on the map.
    Bgrgds
    Christiane

    • Hello Shahilj,

      Our family has a strong connection with bethulie

      I spent most of my december school holidays in Bethulie. My grandfather Petrus Jakobus Fourie had a farm there(Mooifontein) and had a house in town(14 Joubert st) It was a huge house with lots of rooms and flatlets and it was traditional for all the children and grandchildren to be there for Christmas.

      My grandfather lost his mother and his kid brother in the Bethulie death camp as we got to know the place. He devoted his life to the cause. He first put the Farm Mooifontein back together and was then heavily involved maintaing the “Kampkerkhof” and finally relocating it to its new site when the Verwoerd Dam was built.

      He wrote a diary or rather a story book about his time in the concentration camp, and also left me with another book written by an ossociate so I have a reasonable image of the hell these camps were.

      I pass thru town as often as I can going to JHB on business trips. Takes me back to my roots. On the last trip I cleaned up the town cemetery as much as I could around his and my grandma’s as well as other family members graves.

      I have a reasonable amount of knowledge about the town and the concentration camp so if Estelle Downing communicates with me I will help her as much as I can

      P J Fourie

      • Mnr Fourie, ek is so jammer ek lees nou eers jou opmerking. Ek het verlede jaar ‘n boek gepubliseer, Bethulie en die ABO, en ek het ruim van jou oupa se herinneringe gebruik gemaak.Ek sou graag ‘n foto van hom wou publiseer onder die hoofstuk bekende mense waar ek iets oor hom geskryf het. Ek beoog tog om oor ‘mn jaar of wat ‘n 2de uitgawe uit te gee, moontlik kan ek dan ‘n foto my jou kry? Ek hoor graag vna jou

      • hi P J
        id love to access more information on Bethulie – my great grandparents came out from the UK in 1905 and after 3 months in Westmister they moved to Bethulie where my greatgrandfather worked at the Empire Hotel – which i believe is no more. i would love some of the ‘local’ feeling and old pictures so that i can connect with that time
        Carol

  7. Hi. So glad that I came across this website, as I am looking for information about Bethulie, for two reasons, firstly I am thinking of moving there, and secondly my husband and I are planning to write a story about the concerntration camps in South Africa ( my great grandmother was a survivor, but lost her Dad, and sadly was very bitter, just about all her life about the ill-treatment). I do not know too much about the personal tragedies, but only have what I can find on the internet.
    So to PJ Fourie, if I could contact you somehow, to get some personel insight, and other info, it would be wonderful !
    I do agree with you, that more should be said and done, about this aspect of the South African history, as this terrible event, shaped South Africa, to what it was, and is today !

  8. I have just stumbled upon your Bethulie page – what a pleasant read – i felt as though i was chatting with a friend. Great! Thank you

  9. I grew up in Bethulie and the town has changed a lot since then, although living in Scotland now I do like looking back and try visiting when were in South Africa! My grandfather was in one of the concentration camps as a child in the Boer War, and still lives in the Freestate. Blessings to all!

    • Hi Cornelius – Ek gaan in Okt hierdie jaar gaan kuier van Ldn (UK). Ek is verlief op alles te doen met die Boere Oorlog. Wat kan jy voorstel asb?

      • Hi Cornelius. Ek gaan Okt daar n draai maak – ek is lief oor die Boere Oorlog. Wat kan jy my voorstel?

  10. Hi PJ,
    i am trying to locate the farm Vaalbank in the Bethulie area which was owned by my great grandfather x 3, Kommandant Gideon Daniel Joubert, who also owned the farm Hebron near Colesburg. I read somewhere that the farm Mooifontein was originally part of Vaalbank. Would appreciate any info if you have it. Roni

  11. Great write-up! And wonderful to see the links to history in the people commenting!
    I will be visiting Bethulie for the first time on Sunday – and can’t wait! 🙂

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