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Institute’s new offices honours first owners of house in Joubert Street
Author: Lynne Rippenaar-Moses
Published: 11/10/2018

​​As a way of remembering the 3 700 residents who were uprooted from central Stellenbosch because of the Group Areas Act, Stellenbosch University's (SU) Africa Open Institute for Music, Research and Innovation (AOI) on Tuesday officially named 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 known as Die Vlakte.

The AOI falls under the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at SU and is an interdisciplinary music research institute founded in 2016. The Institute developed from 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.

The property at 7 Joubert Street, which belonged to the Okkers family – many of whom live in Idas Valley today – will now be known as the Pieter Okkers House at the request of the family. The house is named after the first resident, Mr Pieter J.A. Okkers (1875-1952).

Speaking at the event, Prof Wim de Villiers, the SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor said: “Stellenbosch University is this year commemorating its centenary. And in our Centenary year, we have been celebrating the University's many achievements the past 100 years – with appreciation to all who have helped build the institution into what it has become today. But, at the same time, we have been apologising unreservedly to those who were excluded from the privileges that Stellenbosch University enjoyed in the past."

“A very painful part of our history occurred here a half a century ago when residents of Die Vlakte were removed from this community supposedly because they had the wrong 'skin colour' according to the hated Group Areas Act of that time. This was the handiwork of the government, but the university did not object and later benefitted when some of the expropriated land and properties were transferred to the university.

“What happened then was wrong. It is why I am thankful that SU, already in 2000, said that “the University acknowledges its contribution to the injustices of the past" and that the institution in the same breath committed itself to redress and development," said De Villiers.​

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 who lived there between the years 1964 and 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 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 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 was 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.

According to Colleen Biscombe, the great granddaughter of Pieter James Okkers and wife of Hilton Biscombe – author of the book, In Ons Bloed, depicting the history of Die Vlakte – her mother Rosina, had often in her old age asked to be driven past the homes in Joubert Street.

“My only real knowledge of the properties in Joubert Street was the times my mother would ask us to remember to drive her down Joubert Street one day as there were two houses in that road that looked exactly the same, and she was born in one of those homes, she just couldn't remember which one. Thanks to Marietjie we now know Ma Sinnie was born in Joubert Street 5," said Biscombe at the event.

The naming/re-naming of buildings at SU is guided by the Naming Policy and the application to name the house went through the necessary institutional processes – with full consultation and final approval by 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. 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 Leslie van Rooi, Senior Director: Social Impact and Transformation.

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 Prof 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."

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. It was thanks to Mr John Abels, a former resident of Die Vlakte and an ex-learner of the old Lückhoff School, that the idea to set up such a bursary was first suggested.

The office will now also form part of a walking tour of Die Vlakte that is currently being planned.

“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 Pauw.

Photos: The Africa Open Institute for Music, Research and Innovation (AOI) on Tuesday officially named its offices after the first residents who lived at 7 Joubert Street in Stellenbosch. The house will henceforth be known as the Pieter Okkers House. It was first owned by Mr Pieter JA Okkers, who build the two similar looking houses at 5 and 7 Joubert Street. Here is Okkers (far right) in ceremonial dress (with chairman's collar) of the Free Gardeners in approximately 1930. His wife, Rosina C. Okkers (middle), is pictured with two of her granddaughters: Roslyn Brandt on the reader's left, and Elizabeth Olkers on the right. (Photos provided by Leonard Meyer and Elizabeth Meyer, born Okkers)

Pieter Okkers (far left), the great-grandchild of Piet Okkers, attended and spoke at the  unveiling of the AOI office's name. (Lynne Rippenaar-Moses)