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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