Institute’s new offices honour first owners of house in ‘Die Vlakte’, Stellenbosch

A photograph of Pieter JA Okkers, taken around 1930, in ceremonial dress (with chairmans collar) of the Free Gardeners

As a way of remembering the 3 700 residents who were uprooted from central Stellenbosch as a result of the Group Areas Act, Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Africa Open Institute for Music, Research and Innovation (AOI) will officially name its offices after the first residents who lived at 7 Joubert Street in Stellenbosch.

This particular street later became known as the eastern border of an area that was called Die Vlakte. The property at 7 Joubert Street, which belonged to the Okkers family, will now be known as the Pieter Okkers House – named after the first resident, Mr Pieter J.A. Okkers (1875-1952).

The naming event took place on Tuesday October 9, at the old Lückhoff School building in Banhoek Road, Stellenbosch. The third reprint of the book, In Ons Bloed, which was authored by Idas Valley resident and historian, Hilton Biscombe, was celebrated at this event.

The SU rector and vice-chancellor, Professor Wim de Villiers, and Dr Jerome Slamat, the executive manager: rectorate, were the guest speakers. The house in Joubert Street was visited on conclusion of the ceremony in Banhoek Road.
The AOI resorts under the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at SU and is an interdisciplinary music research institute founded in 2016.

The institute developed out of the Documentation Centre for Music (DOMUS), to which it remains connected through its funding of the DOMUS archive, its intellectual and creative programmes, curating activities, archival collection initiatives and core vision of creating in DOMUS the largest open-access archive for music on the African continent.

The intellectual and creative programmes of AOI focus on music, research and innovation, which includes music research, research innovation and innovative approaches to music-making.

Relocation

In 1964, Die Vlakte, as it was referred to by those who lived there, was declared an area for so-called white persons, leading to the relocation of many families between the years 1964 to 1971.

Die Vlakte stretched from Muller Street in the north of Merriman Avenue in the south, eastwards to Joubert Street and then to the west in Bird Street. The relocation affected six schools in the community as well as a mosque, a cinema and at least 10 businesses.

In 2017, when the institute moved into the university-owned property, it did so with the intention of celebrating their “new premises with an inauguration and a naming of the house”.

“However, this was not possible,” says Dr Marietjie Pauw, postdoctoral researcher at the AOI, “without first engaging in research about the history of the plot, the built structure, the area, and possible connections to people who had lived there”.
“We were lucky,” says Dr Pauw. “Early on in my search, a friend who is also a heritage consultant, Lize Malan, sent me a document that indicated that ‘P. Okkers’ purchased two sites adjacent to one another in Joubert Street in 1903, when the erven were first opened up. When I asked Hilton Biscombe whether he knew of a P. Okkers, he immediately referred me to the Okkers descendants, Pieter and Sarah Okkers, now living in Erasmus Smit Street.

“Pieter is a great-grandchild of Piet Okkers. However, there was more: Hilton’s wife, Colleen (born Gordon), had a story to add: her mother, Rosina (Sinnie) Gordon, had been born in Joubert Street. She had always asked the children to take her to Joubert Street to see in which house she had been born. Sadly, Ma Sinnie passed on only a few months before the research on the property had begun.”

A year after the Joubert Street property was bought, Piet Okkers passed away. The properties were then transferred to his son, Pieter James Andrew Okkers, who proceeded to build a house at 5 Joubert Street (in 1926) and 7 Joubert Street (in 1927).
The Okkers family lived in these premises until the houses were sold to the Conradie family (5 Joubert Street) and the Du Toit family (7 Joubert Street). The exact year of their relocation to Erasmus Smit Street is not known, but it may have been as early as 1946, when their grandchildren twins were born.

Visual redress

The naming/re-naming of buildings at SU is guided by the applicable SU policy and the application to name the house went through the necessary institutional processes – with full consultation and final approval by the Executive Committee of the SU Council.

Linked to the naming processes, the Visual Redress Committee worked closely with AOI in order to visually represent and contextualise the name.

“Visual Redress at SU has as aim to visually represent our stories, histories and experiences in a number of ways. As such it goes hand in hand with the naming processes,” says Dr Leslie van Rooi, senior director: Social Impact and Transformation.

“The Pieter Okkers house will be the first of many houses in Die Vlakte that will be contextualised as part of restoring the stories of the houses and the broader historic neighbourhood. SU will thus enter into conversation with many other families to visually represent their stories in relation to many others over generations.”

“This is one attempt (of many others) to restore the historical relations between the SU community and the broader Vlakte community,” says Dr Van Rooi.

Dr Pauw says the naming of the house was important to the AOI, because the Institute wanted to honour the first person who built the house and who lived there.

“Pieter Okkers is today considered to be a man who brought about much good in this town. He was a founding member of the politically radical Volkskerk, he was a founding member of the Spes Bona Soccer Club, and he was a Chairman (for the period 1927-1930) of the Free Gardeners organisation when they first opened an Order in Stellenbosch (the fourth order in South Africa),” says Professor Stephanus Muller, director of AOI.

“He is also honoured for the provision he made for his family and descendants. To this day the Okkers family is proud to be associated with him and his wife, Rosina. Heidi Okkers, great-grandchild of Pieter Okkers, plans to begin an online blog on which family and friends can post photographs of members of the Okkers family and the wider web of relations, documents, and stories.” (Heidi may be contacted at okkersh@gmail.com)

Over the years, a number of initiatives honouring those who were displaced from Die Vlakte have been carried out by SU, which owns many of the old homes that formed part of this community, and new buildings that later replaced the demolished properties.

The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences hosts a permanent installation that includes panels with photographs of the area depicting the everyday lives of the people who lived there, as well as testimonies from former residents, their children and grandchildren and a write-up of the historical context of the time.

In 2016, SU also established Die Vlakte Bursary Fund by allocating bursary funding to children of the families who were removed from the area.

“The Africa Open Institute office will in future form part of the walking tour of Die Vlakte that is being planned by the SU Transformation Office and the Committee for Visual Redress. Uniform wall plaques with information and photos of former residents are planned for buildings in Die Vlakte, curated by Dr Van Rooi and Prof Elmarie Costandius of the Visual Arts Department,” adds Dr Pauw.