Common thread of a community

Joel van Niekerk.

Joel van Niekerk’s 70th birthday in April this year marks not only a milestone in his life but the last seven decades of Kuils River.

For almost all his life, barring a few months, Joel has lived in Kuils River, and since 1972 has been in the same house in Weber Street, Sarepta. In that time, he has witnessed many changes over the years.

Life started for him in Soneike, where his father, Cornelius van Niekerk, rented a smallholding.

“He was known as the daffodil man, as his lands near the Bottelary Road were filled with the yellow flowers, which he grew as part of his business,” says Joel.

His father also owned a smallholding in Highbury, at the start of Nooiensfontein Road, where he grew vegetables.

But in the early 1960s, under apartheid’s Group Areas Act, he was forced to sell the land. Many years later, the family filed a successful land claim for the Highbury property and won reparations in 2011, but the memories… and the pain are still vivid.

In 1972, the family moved from their rented property in Soneike to what was then the virtually barren land of Sarepta. “The railway line at that stage was the demarcation line between us and the white residents,” Joel recalls. “In Sarepta at the time, there were still dunes and the settlement was mainly bush and reeds. We used to play in the dunes. There was a gravel road from the bridge off the main road to the railway station.

“Then, only Van Riebeeck Road had businesses running along both sides, and it was in the 1970s that it started developing into what it is today. In the early days, the main road was a narrow road with two single lanes for each direction of traffic.”

Joel was a school teacher. He taught in Elsies River and later moved to Kuils River Primary in 1967.

He was also a prominent member of the United Reform Church (formerly the Rhenish Mission Church) and served on the church council from 1972 until 2000 when, he says, he had to stop as he had a bypass operation. “I was baptised in the church and am still an active member,” he says.

The road he lives on, just off Sarepta Street, is named after Friedrich Weber, one of the many German missionaries who worked at the church in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Julius Reuter, the man who baptised Joel, was at the church from 1932 until 1953. He also has a road named after him. In fact, many of the surrounding streets in his neighbourhood carry the names of the missionaries who served at the church, which is a few corners away from Joel’s home.

“Sarepta used to be a safe place and it was a closely-knit community. But about 10 years ago I had to put up security,” says Joel. He points to a waist-high iron padlocked gate that encloses his garden where spring flowers bloom. He says he is happy to be surrounded by his family, as his house and the three other plots around him belong to his two brothers and half-sister respectively.

“It’s great because I don’t have to travel far to kuier with them,” he laughs, before we say our goodbyes.

The nearby church bells toll 11, and he says he needs to go, as he has a 90th birthday celebration to attend. Despite the different times we live in, community and friendship are, thankfully, still all-important facets of life in Sarepta.