Ottosdal and Letsopa
Ottosdal and Letsopa - Artwork by Laurence Stewart

Precolonial and Early History

Almost four hundred years ago, Khoe-San people moved into the interior of South Africa from the Cape (what is today the Western Cape). A branch of the Khoe-San was the Koranna, who moved onto land which was later to be known as Ottosdal (located in the North West province). They lived as hunter-gathers and cattle herders and made spiritual and cultural markings on rocks on farms surrounding Ottosdal, most common are the ones on a farm called Gestoptefontein.[1]

The Koranna lived in this area from 1700 until the early 1900s and before Ottosdal was established as a town, the area was called Korannafontein (Koranna Fountain). By the 1840s white settlers who moved from the Cape began to live in Korannafontein. They fought wars with the Koranna near Zeerust and probably in Ottosdal too.[2] White settlers moved from the Cape and took land from black people to establish farms – many of these farmers still own the same farms today (some of the original owners were compensated, see below).  Some farmers that moved onto the farm Korannafontein were farmers like the Coetzees and Ottos – the town is named after the Otto family. Black people, including Koranna and Tswana people, began to work on large maize and cattle farms around the 1880s.

The Beginnings of Town and Township

From the 1880s Korannafontein had a few shops and by 1910 the area had been connected to a telephone line and had small schools for the children of farmers and white townspeople. White people wanted to remove black people from Korannafontein. An example of this dispossession is the case of Godfrey Mokaleng. He stayed in Korannafontein since the 1800s and was removed with 234 other black people in 1907. They were relocated under the Township Act of 1907 which stated that black people must live in segregated townships.[3]

The town “Ottosdal” was established in 1913 when white farmers decided to set up a Dutch Reformed Church, which stands at the centre of the town today. It was members of the church council (kerkraad) who more energetically helped establish the town.[4] By 1917, a member of the Ottosdal Town Committee, J. J. der V. Joubert, stressed the need to create a black location. He said that the creation of a new location is a “matter of emergency” and that he wanted to “stop black people sowing mealies so that [white people] can access their labour”.[5] Over time a black location called Makweteng was established. Makweteng was later demolished and people were moved to Letsopa.

Land dispossession meant that people stayed in crowded locations in Makweteng. The location started with just sixteen residents who shared one toilet and one water well. The toilets for the location were extremely dirty and no clean water was supplied. This was the case even though everyone (whether they had a job or not) was made to pay 2 shillings per month for these terrible conditions – or face being evicted.[6]  As many more black people moved into the location, living conditions became worse and the quality of life was poor. If people could not afford to pay the monthly amounts, they were summoned to court and evicted by the local government.

The Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union Grows in Makweteng

The poor conditions in Makweteng prompted intervention from the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU). The ICU in Ottosdal was led by a man named Jason Jingoes, who had previously been a Basotho chief and was now a labour organiser and activist for the ICU. He held a meeting in 1929 and then stayed in Makweteng in 1933 and 1934.

Jingoes entered Makweteng and complained that the water provision and toilets were in an “awful state”. In different letters to the government, he explained what was happening in the location. One example was the then superintendent of the location had been using residents to do his work; they were forced to transport diamonds, sourced from the alluvial diamond diggings close to Ottosdal, without getting paid. Jingoes and his fellow activist JL Diniza organised a petition to stop this practice and were thereafter told to leave.[7] Jingoes also helped workers on farms who were being cheated by white farmers. In one instance, a man named Klaas Mota had his livestock stolen from him by the farm-owner. Jingoes went to represent Mota in a court in Wolmaransstad and won the case.[8] One person who remembered the ICU is Thetheletse Thys, a sharecropper and member of the Native Advisory Board. Thys recounted hearing Jingoes speak in 1929 where over two hundred people were present at the meeting. Thetheletse did not join because he was too young, but he recounted some of what he heard at the meeting:

“He [Jingoes] said that the law was coming. People should join him (because) he will help solve their problems… He said that the law would come, it would find that he had fixed everything up. People would get their farms, they will get their cattle.” [9]

The local government in Ottosdal hated the ICU and began swearing at ICU activists and the residents of Makweteng. They tried to get rid of Jingoes and the ICU. They told him that he was not allowed to live in the location and tried to evict him. ICU members were intimidated and directly targeted by the police. Jingoes wrote to the local government, and then the national government, that the Ottosdal police were targeting him and other ICU members unfairly by intimidating them and deliberately targeting the ICU.[10] After he was evicted, Jingoes turned his attention to the diamond diggings in Klerksdorp, Makwassie and Ottosdal and began organising workers for higher wages. This drew the anger of the local police and Jingoes was prohibited to be anywhere near a diamond digging. When he went to speak to workers near the Makwassie diamond diggings, he was followed by two policeman who arrested him for contravening the banning order . He was sentenced to six weeks hard labour.[11]  

The Growth of Local Industry

By the early 1950s, impetus grew for the removal of Makweteng. The Group Areas Act dictated that certain areas were to be declared as spaces for white occupation only. In his letters from Robben Island, Ahmed Kathrada notes that his relatives, the Kola family, were removed from Ottosdal to nearby Bantustan Itsoseng because of the Group Areas Act.[12]  Furthermore, Makweteng was sandwiched between a farm and two railway lines and was getting too full. The government planned for a new township to be created.

Part of the government’s thinking was for new “properly planned townships”, which were supposed to be zoned by people’s ethnicity, have a grid structure for better surveillance and have pass laws enforced. The new township needed plans for water and sanitation; new boreholes were in the process of being sunk to provide water and cement toilets were being installed. The new township, today is known as Letsopa, was established officially on 21 September 1956. By 1958, 1134 black and coloured people were living in Letsopa, and between them there were only 12 public toilets.[13] The new location was not an upgrade – Letsopa was created to move people from Makweteng because it had been declared a “white area”.

The increasing population in Letsopa was to provide labour for the industries surrounding the town. Industries like brickworks, steelworks, mining and farming all had labour demands. There used to be a business called the Ottosdal Engineering Works which made steel sheds and another called the Ottosdal Brick Making Factory, which was just 3km out of town. The brickmaking factory had about 31 workers and provided them with shocking hygiene conditions.[14] These were managed by what was called the government labour bureau, which sourced workers from surrounding areas, including the Bantustans (a territory set aside by the Apartheid government for black people of a particular ethnic group), and directed them to industries short of labour.   

Wonderstone, a pyrophyllite mine, started in 1937. This is the same rock that the Khoe-San had been etching images into. Wonderstone rock was initially used for pots, plates and cups by white farmers and their families, but the company began to make larger profits because they began exporting their special rock overseas. The mine sourced workers from Letsopa, who were predominantly Tswana, and workers from Malawi and Zimbabwe. As the mine made larger profits, they had to set up living quarters for their workers. Conditions of work were difficult on the mine; strikes took place during the 1950s over “new work methods” that were brought into the workplace, over the injury of a foreman and lastly when the mine manager assaulted one worker – a scene which the Native Commissioner of the time visited.[15]

Another large company, which still operates today, was Senwes Ko-operasie. Senwes employed workers at Lakensvlei and in Letsopa. Senwes made sure that only single men could work on the agricultural co-operative and sent women, who were staying with their husbands, to the Itsoseng Bantustan.[16] Workers were made to stay in Bantustans and were employed on contract labour for three months, just like today. 

Unrest in the 1980s and 1990s

During the 1980s unrest characterised South Africa. Community organisations fought together with the African National Congress (ANC) and the United Democratic Front (UDF) to challenge the Apartheid government throughout the 1980s and 1990s. These clashes were based in townships across South Africa. It was generally calm in Ottosdal and Letsopa during the 1980s. White residents of Ottosdal organised into “commandos” and used systems of communication and control to surveil and stop any political activity.[17]

By the 1990s the Group Areas Act was slowly being eliminated in parts of South Africa – but in Ottosdal, it was being strengthened. The local government tried to start a new “coloured” location next to Letsopa. They also focussed attention on evicting Indian traders who were doing business in the white town. One Indian trader, Ridwan Moosa, was told to move his business because it was in the white part of town and, according to a local white businessman, was taking away business from the white-owned shops.[18]

As the country approached 1994, political unrest grew in Ottosdal and Letsopa. In 1992 there was a consumer boycott led by residents of Letsopa. This manifested in the throwing of stones at vehicles of white townspeople and boycotting of both white and black businesses opposed to political change.[19] According to the town’s sake kamer (a business collective which replaced the commando system), the boycott had been “100% effective” as the town was completely dependent on black consumers. An ANC spokesperson suggested that the reason for the boycott was because the local authority had on three occasions denied people the right to have a protest in the town, where the police and local commando were siding with the town council. The boycott was proving to be “very powerful”.[20]

Again in 1993, there was opposition to the town allowing the “freedom of the town” to the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) Wenkommando (this gave the AWB the chance to use the town as a base). The ANC in Letsopa called the decision “undesirable and provocative”, suggesting that another consumer boycott from the town’s “chief customers” would be started if the town council continued to allow this. No-one from Letsopa had been consulted about the AWB visitation where rate-payers’ resources were being used to honour “people who are opposed to peace, social and economic stability in the country”.

Leading up to the 1994 elections, the political scene was plagued with violence, particularly between the National Party (NP), AWB, and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) on the one hand, and the to-be-government, ANC as well as other smaller organisations on the other. The AWB stockpiled weapons in Ottosdal and surrounding areas. There are photographs from 1993 of Ottosdal right-wingers and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) members fighting against ANC hostel dwellers in Katlehong (a township in Johannesburg).[21] Ottosdal was a useful communications base for the AWB as they stayed on farms there. Around 29 attacks were committed in Ottosdal during the first two months of 1994. In one of the attacks in 1994, petrol bombs were thrown into ANC offices destroying most of the assets inside, this also occurred in the Indian business section.[22] The ANC leader in Ottosdal suggested that the spate of attacks was directly in relation to the distribution of election posters a few weeks prior. 

Ottosdal after Democracy

The developments in Ottosdal after democracy were related to difficult conditions, including drought, which occurred during the late-Apartheid years. In the early 1980s, farmers in Ottosdal were called “potential millionaires” because of the prosperous farming conditions in the area; farmers upgraded their houses and bought new tractors preparing for good conditions.[23] By 1982, a massive drought hit South Africa and many Ottosdal farmers were deeply in debt and unable to keep farming. This drought lasted until 1987 and many farmers went bankrupt. It is estimated that over 1.2 million workers lost their jobs across South Africa; in Ottosdal, workers were forced off farms and back into the Bantustans.

Relating to the drought and the political change in the country in the 1990s and early 2000s, the social life of Ottosdal changed. White Ottosdal residents used to attend the Buite Klub in the 1990s where they could swim and play tennis; there was a club called “El Grottos” where people danced and drank alcohol. By the 2000s, these activities died down. Young people no longer wanted to farm and moved out of town for better opportunities. Today, there is very little for young people of any race to do in Ottosdal.[24]

Jobs in Ottosdal have changed since the early 2000s. Farming has undergone changes over the past 25 years. From the 1990s, farms have increased in size because smaller farmers went bankrupt – mechanisation and the use of the combine harvester have become more common and this means farms need less labour. Workers tend to be employed on contract and temporary work (generally between March and May each year for harvest). Evictions are common on farms and those who have been evicted have moved into Letsopa. The farming environment is very violent as well. Diamond mining and Wonderstone do provide jobs, but these are generally more skilled and are not enough to cater for the growing populations in Letsopa.

Despite there being some work in Ottosdal, a 2018 South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) report suggested that only 28% of the working population were employed. Any job that becomes available are generally given to those connected to political elites from the ANC.[25] In July 2019, massive protests erupted in Ottosdal where municipal offices and the library were burned.[26] People were tired of corruption in the municipality; it was said that a R5-million corporate social responsibility package was stolen by municipal leaders (which was intended for Letsopa residents) and that municipal workers’ salaries weren’t paid.   

In order to alleviate the social stress of unemployment and its ramifications, social interventions like trauma-counselling centres, disability centres and special schools have emerged. The informal economy has grown; some people fix cars, sell fruit and vegetables and build houses. A very prominent informal economic activity is beer brewing. Beer brewing has a history in South Africa; Zulu king Cetshwayo once said that beer “is the food of the Zulus; they drink it as the English drink coffee”. Beer brewing is an activity that has been imported from farms – many women who live in Letsopa had brewed beer like Umqombothi before. In Letsopa, men also brew beer. The beer brewed in Letsopa includes Gemeri, Monanti, Memela and Khadi. Beer is drunk in taverns. For some, it is relaxing to drink this home-brewed beer, but for others, it is a social problem. Beer brewing provides an economic opportunity for unemployed people. They buy ingredients and make creative recipes which their customers like. Those who brew beer have a difficult time from the police; brewers are harassed, given fines and forced to bribe the police in order to operate.[27]  

[1] Jeremy C. Hollmann, "The'cutting edge’ of rock art: motifs and other markings on Driekuil Hill, North West Province, South Africa." Southern African Humanities 19, no. 1 (2007): 123-151 and Jeremy C. Hollmann, "Exploring the Gestoptefontein-Driekuil complex (GDC): an ancient women's ceremonial centre in North West Province, South Africa." South African Archaeological Bulletin 68, no. 198 (2013): 146

2 De Jager, Pieter. Die Korannafonteiners: stories oor Ottosdal en sy mense. Protea Boekhuis, 2008, pp.246-248.

3 Commission on Restitution of Land Rights, annual report for year ended 31 March 2006, “Ottosdal Urban Claim”, accessed at: http://pmg-assets.s3-website-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/docs/2006/060920annualreport.pdf on 9 March 2019.

4 Cornelius Johannes Kriel, Goue Jubileum: Ned. Geref. Gemeente Ottosdal, 1913 – 1963, Paarl Drukpers Maatskappy, 1963, pp.8-30.

5 National Archives of South Africa (NASA), Secretary of Native Affairs (1880 - 1975) (NTS), 4394 313/313 316/313, Letter from JJ der V. Joubert at Ottosdal to the Minister of Native Affairs at Pretoria, 20 of May 1917.

6 NASA, NTS, 4934, 316/313, Letter from the South African Police at Ottosdal to the Magistrate at Lichtenberg, 27 October 1927.

7 NASA, NTS, 4934, 313/313, Letter from JJ ka Jingoes and JL Diniza to the Native Affairs Department, 14 August 1933.

8 Jingoes, Stimela Jason. A chief is a chief by the people: the autobiography of Stimela Jason Jingoes. Oxford University Press, 1975, p.109.

9 Historical Papers Research Archive, Interview with Thetheletsa Thys, 09 September 1987, University of the Witwatersrand.

10 NASA, NTS, 4934, 313/313, Letter from JJ ka Jingoes to the Native Affairs Department, 4 September 1933.

11 Jingoes, Stimela Jason. A chief is a chief by the people: the autobiography of Stimela Jason Jingoes. Oxford University Press, 1975, p.119.

12 Robert D Vassen., ed. Letters from Robben Island: a selection of Ahmed Kathrada's prison correspondence, 1964-1989. MSU Press, 1999. 

13 NASA, NTS, 4394, 316/313, Census compiled by Town Clerk F.V.D Otto, 12 September 1957.

14 NASA, HKW, 1/1/98, (8) N3/12/2(8) W. Tvl, Letter from P.J. De Jager and D.J.R. Du Toit to the Town Clerk at Ottosdal, 28 February 1963.

[1]5 For an example of this evidence, see: NASA, HKW, 1/1/98, (8) N3/12/2(9), W.Tvl, Letter from the Head Bantu Affairs Commissioner at Potchefstroom to the Wondertone Company at Ottosdal, 30 May 1963 and NASA, Department of Labour (1917 - 1967) (ARB), 1204, 1042/56/1957 1042/72/1957, Correspondence referring to a Mr. Fick who brought in “new work methods” and to whom the workers reacted, 28 May 1957.

[1]6 NASA, BAO, 2608, C31/3/1527/57 Vol.1, Letter from the Department of Bantu Administration and Development (the Director of Bantu Labour) to the General Manager of the Sentraal Westelike Ko-operatiewe Maatskappy Beperk at Klerksdorp, 5 January 1970. 

17 Pieter De Jager, Ottosdal Kommando, p.172.

[1]8 NASA, Archive of Regional Office, Johannesburg, Department of Community Development (1980 - 1990) (JGB), 124, 13/1/4/4045-4052, Letter from the Regional Director to the Station Commander at Ottosdal, 23 March 1990.

19 Citizen Reporter, “Cars stoned, consumer boycott at Ottosdal”, The Citizen, 10 October 1992, SA Media Online.

20 Citizen Reporter, “Cars stoned, consumer boycott at Ottosdal”, The Citizen, 10 October 1992, SA Media Online.

21 South African Historical Archive (SAHA), The De Wet Potgieter Collection, AL3283, Doug Lee Photographs, C01_111, October 23 1993 

22 Louise Laubscher, “Reeks ontploffings ruk Wes-Transvaal weer”, Beeld, 4 February 1994, SA Media Online.

23 Alan Crosswell, “No Respecter of Apartheid, Drought Scorches All”, New York Times, 16 March 1984

24 Interview with Hennie*, conducted by author, 18 August 2019, Ottosdal and Interview with Janneke*, conducted by author, 16 August 2019, Ottosdal.

25 “Letsopa Community Accused of Nepotisms”, “SABC Digital News”, 28 February 2018, accessed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTP40ih8C2g on 17 May 2019.

26 Andile Sicetsha, “Ottosdal protests: North West local municipality sinks in financial debt”, The South African, 12 July 2019, accessed at: https://www.thesouthafrican.com/news/ottosdal-protests-north-west-municipality-financial-debt/ on 8 October 2019 and Molaole Monthso, “14 people arrested for public violence, arson in Ottosdal”, Independent Online, 12 July 2019, accessed at: https://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/north-west/14-people-arrested-for-public-violence-arson-in-ottosdal-29085321 on 8 October 2019.

Makweteng
An empty plot of land where Makweteng used to be. Photo taken by Laurence Stewart, 20 October 2019.​​​​​​
Geolocation
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References

Books and Journal Articles

• De Jager, P. Die Korannafonteiners: stories oor Ottosdal en sy mense. (Pretoria: Protea Boekhuis, 2008). • Pieter De Jager, Ottosdal Kommando 1949-1989: Animo Et Fide, (Potchefstroom: Ottosdal Commando, 1989. • Hollmann, J. "The'cutting edge ‘of rock art: motifs and other markings on Driekuil Hill, North West Province, South Africa." Southern African Humanities 19, no. 1 (2007): 123-151 • Hollmann, J. "Exploring the Gestoptefontein-Driekuil complex (GDC): an ancient women's ceremonial centre in North West Province, South Africa." South African Archaeological Bulletin 68, no. 198 (2013): 146. • Kriel, CJ. Goue Jubileum: Ned. Geref. Gemeente Ottosdal, 1913 – 1963, (Pretoria: Paarl Drukpers Maatskappy, 1963). • Jingoes, Stimela Jason. A chief is a chief by the people: the autobiography of Stimela Jason Jingoes (London: Oxford University Press, 1975). • Robert D Vassen., ed. Letters from Robben Island: a selection of Ahmed Kathrada's prison correspondence, 1964-1989. (Michigan: MSU Press, 1999). • Stewart, L. The Ferment of a Rural Economy: Beer Brewing and its Socio-Historical Context in Ottosdal (Wits University, Honours Dissertation, 2019).

Internet Sites

• Commission on Restitution of Land Rights, annual report for year ended 31 March 2006, “Ottosdal Urban Claim”, accessed at: http://pmg-assets.s3-website-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/docs/2006/060920annualreport.pdf on 9 March 2019.

Archives

National Archives

  •  NASA, Secretary of Native Affairs (1880 - 1975) (NTS), 4394 313/313 316/313, Letter from JJ der V. Joubert at Ottosdal to the Minister of Native Affairs at Pretoria, 20 of May 1917. • NASA, NTS, 4934, 316/313, Letter from the South African Police at Ottosdal to the Magistrate at Lichtenberg, 27 October 1927. • NASA, NTS, 4934, 313/313, Letter from JJ ka Jingoes and JL Diniza to the Native Affairs Department, 14 August 1933. • NASA, NTS, 4394, 316/313, Census compiled by Town Clerk F.V.D Otto, 12 September 1957. • NASA, HKW, 1/1/98, (8) N3/12/2(8) W. Tvl, Letter from P.J. De Jager and D.J.R. Du Toit to the Town Clerk at Ottosdal, 28 February 1963. • NASA, Department of Labour (1917 - 1967) (ARB), 1204, 1042/56/1957 1042/72/1957, Correspondence referring to a Mr. Fick who brought in “new work methods” and to whom the workers reacted, 28 May 1957. • NASA, NTS, 4934, 313/313, Letter from JJ ka Jingoes to the Native Affairs Department, 4 September 1933. • NASA, HKW, 1/1/98, (8) N3/12/2(9), W. Tvl, Letter from the Head Bantu Affairs Commissioner at Potchefstroom to the Wondertone Company at Ottosdal, 30 May 1963. • NASA, BAO, 2608, C31/3/1527/57 Vol.1, Letter from the Department of Bantu Administration and Development (the Director of Bantu Labour) to the General Manager of the Sentraal Westelike Ko-operatiewe Maatskappy Beperk at Klerksdorp, 5 January 1970. • NASA, Archive of Regional Office, Johannesburg, Department of Community Development (1980 - 1990) (JGB), 124, 13/1/4/4045-4052, Letter from the Regional Director to the Station Commander at Ottosdal, 23 March 1990.
  • Wits Historical Papers
  • Historical Papers Research Archive, AG2738, Interview with Thetheletsa Thys, 09 September 1987, University of the Witwatersrand. South African Historical Archive 
  • South African Historical Archive (SAHA)
  •  The De Wet Potgieter Collection, AL3283, Doug Lee Photographs, C01_111, October 23 1993
  • Newspapers
  •  Citizen Reporter, “Cars stoned, consumer boycott at Ottosdal”, The Citizen, 10 October 1992, SA Media Online. • Citizen Reporter, “Cars stoned, consumer boycott at Ottosdal”, The Citizen, 10 October 1992, SA Media Online. • Louise Laubscher, “Reeks ontploffings ruk Wes-Transvaal weer”, Beeld, 4 February 1994, SA Media Online. • Alan Crosswell, “No Respecter of Apartheid, Drought Scorches All”, New York Times, 16 March 1984 • Andile Sicetsha, “Ottosdal protests: North West local municipality sinks in financial debt”, The South African, 12 July 2019, accessed at: https://www.thesouthafrican.com/news/ottosdal-protests-north-west-municipality-financial-debt/ on 8 October 2019. • Molaole Monthso, “14 people arrested for public violence, arson in Ottosdal”, Independent Online, 12 July 2019, accessed at: https://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/north-west/14-people-arrested-for-public-violence-arson-in-ottosdal-29085321 on 8 October 2019. • “Letsopa Community Accused of Nepotisms”, “SABC Digital News”, 28 February 2018, accessed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTP40ih8C2g on 17 May 2019.

Interviews

  •  Interview with Hennie*, conducted by the author, 18 August 2019, Ottosdal.
  •  Interview with Janneke*, conducted by the author, 16 August 2019, Ottosdal
  •  Interview with MaNomsa, conducted by the author, 11 May 2019, Ottosdal
  •  Interview with Palesa, conducted by the author, 14 May 2019.