Hid­den gem The Ste­un­mekaar farm shop has traded for over a cen­tury.

Half­way be­tween Bloem­fontein and Fau­re­smith in the Free State, the dirt road passes Ste­un­mekaar, a farm shop where ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties and sto­ries have been traded for more than a cen­tury.


It’s mid-De­cem­ber and the heat is vi­cious. The south­west­ern Free State takes shal­low breaths. The veld is white. The hori­zon quiv­ers in the haze. And, with the pant­ing of the west­erly wind, red-brown clouds of dust swirl in the air.

How has a hum­ble farm shop be­tween Bloem­fontein and Fau­re­smith re­mained stand­ing in this des­o­late place for more than 100 years? Is it be­cause you could al­ways buy every­thing but the kitchen sink here? Or be­cause it’s the only shop in quite a large area? Or is it be­cause lo­cals live up to the name of the shop, which trans­lates di­rectly as “sup­port each other”, and lean on each other out of ne­ces­sity?

On the stoep, a group of kids are shout­ing: “Fa­ther Christ­mas! Fa­ther Christ­mas!” Just when you start to think the sear­ing heat is caus­ing them to see things, Santa Claus pulls up in a horse­drawn cart, wear­ing his thick red jacket. The chap clearly feels hot but he laughs and chats, reach­ing for a suit­case full of gifts. Some of the kids start to cry. It’s the first time that Fa­ther Christ­mas has stopped at Ste­un­mekaar.

IN THE KITCHEN at Help­mekaar, his farm a few kilo­me­tres from the shop, >

Her­man van der Merwe talks the hind leg off a don­key. “Peo­ple started set­tling here be­tween 1800 and 1830,” he says. “The Van der Mer­wes were among the first. They of­fered the Voortrekkers cof­fee as they passed through.

“The orig­i­nal name of this farm was Hulp Makaar (‘help each other’), and that is also when Ste­un­mekaar be­gan. Around the end of the 19th cen­tury, be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, this be­came a gath­er­ing place for folks who lived in the area. In the end it be­came so busy that the farm owner at the time, To­bias de Vil­liers, of­fered a sec­tion of his land for the build­ing of a shop, post of­fice, po­lice sta­tion, smithy and school. The com­mu­nity cen­tre, as the lo­cals called it, was chris­tened Ste­un­mekaar be­cause there was al­ready a Help­mekaar near Win­burg, but the name of the school re­mained Help­mekaar.”

Her­man says he grew up in Steen­bok­fontein – “about six miles and nine gates from the school”. “The prin­ci­pal and his wife taught all the classes. Mrs Du Toit took Sub A to Stan­dard 2 and Mr Du Toit taught Stan­dards 3 to 5. There were al­ways be­tween 20 and 30 chil­dren. You could take pi­ano lessons with Sergeant Nel’s wife at the po­lice sta­tion, and when we played rugby, Sergeant Nel was also the ref­eree. Mostly we played with a ten­nis ball and we never had rugby goal posts – when we had to kick for goal, two boys would stand with their arms ex­tended to form the poles.

“The school had a stage and, at the end of the year when the school closed, we pre­sented a con­cert and re­ceived Christ­mas presents. We never caught a glimpse of Fa­ther Christ­mas, though. In those days I think the Bible was the only thing peo­ple be­lieved in.”

FA­THER CHRIST­MAS’ CASE of gifts is empty. While the chil­dren un­pack their brown pa­per bags filled with sweets and toys, the man in the hot red suit knocks back a cold Coke in the kitchen.

“To­day the sun is out to kill,” he says and ex­tends his hand: “Ja­cob Kamele,” he says. “I work nearby on the farm Frances Home. The shop own­ers asked me to play Fa­ther Christ­mas to­day so that we could have a Christ­mas party for the lo­cal farm chil­dren.”

Tanja Marx and her hus­band, Jakkie, re­cently took over the Ste­un­mekaar shop from Ma­ri­etjie Pi­eters, who owned it for years.

“We didn’t even know about the shop,” says Tanja. “We worked on a farm near Fau­re­smith but the drought and tough times meant the farmer had to let peo­ple go… in­clud­ing us. We did some scram­bling around and made plans, but things just wouldn’t work out. In the in­terim, the com­mu­nity of Fau­re­smith sup­ported us won­der­fully, and then Tan­nie Ma­ri­etjie phoned one day and asked if we’d be in­ter­ested in tak­ing over the Ste­un­mekaar shop. I was quite scep­ti­cal about a farm shop here on the plains, but when we came to visit I dis­cov­ered that the shop and Tan­nie Ma­ri­etjie are leg­endary.

“The shop is very im­por­tant to the com­mu­nity be­cause it’s the only place where they can stock up. Fau­re­smith and Bloem­fontein are far away and most peo­ple only get there oc­ca­sion­ally. The shop won’t make us rich but it was a so­lu­tion when our need was great. It keeps us alive and it also feels as if we also mean some­thing.”

Jakkie says they now live on a farm near Ste­un­mekaar. “We love it here be­cause we are not city peo­ple. We en­joy the folks who pop in – like Judge Faan Hancke, a lo­cal farmer. When he walks in, I know I can fetch his guava juice. He al­ways buys one. We also had to learn the lingo used by the lo­cals. A litre of al­co­hol is a ‘bomb’, 750ml a ‘straight’ and a small bot­tle is a ‘nip’. A quart of beer is called a ‘10 triple one’ and any roll-on is known as ‘Mum roll’.”

On the wooden shelves, along with the Mum roll, you will find Mi­nora ra­zor blades, tooth­paste, air fresh­ener, toi­let pa­per, Zam-Buk, light­bulbs, tubs of Vase­line, soap, tomato sauce, chut­ney, cook­ing oil, pow­dered soup, tinned food, cus­tard pow­der, vine­gar, >

“When for­mer judge Faan Hancke walks in, I know I can fetch his guava juice. He al­ways buys one.”

pick­led beet­root, Boxer and BB tobacco, Su­per­glue, tea, cof­fee, sugar, spices, can­dles, matches, chips, cooldrink con­cen­trate, caster oil and Grandpa headache pow­ders. There is a shelf dis­play­ing new clothes and shoes; on the counter are large jars of sweets – from tof­fees at 20c each to Chap­pies for 30c; and there is a small bot­tle store next door.

The place smells like a mix­ture of all it con­tains, plus 100 years of lean­ing against the wooden counter, point­ing out what is be­ing asked for, find­ing out how things are go­ing, chat­ting about the weather, jack­als, and ewes in lamb. A con­sta­ble from the po­lice sta­tion just a few hun­dred me­tres away ar­rives to buy two loose cig­a­rettes and two litres of Iron Brew. Farm work­ers turn up to pur­chase rolls of polony, Omo, Black La­bel and Mum roll. Her­man van der Merwe (a dif­fer­ent one), a young lo­cal farmer, buys a whole chicken, Rus­sians, a packet of tobacco, matches and Coke. He talks about the drought and seems tired of hav­ing to sup­ple­ment his an­i­mals’ feed con­stantly.

Juandi Ja­cobs, a farmer’s wife, and her two daugh­ters, Marizanne and An­so­phie, say hello and tell the story of a young farmer near Ste­un­mekaar who re­cently mar­ried a woman from the city. “He told her there’s a mall near the farm.”

Then Judge Faan Hancke comes in – and, yes, he buys his guava juice.

In the mean­time, Fa­ther Christ­mas has cooled down and must hit the road again. He waves and the horses turn the cor­ner in the di­rec­tion of Fau­re­smith. One of the boys keeps watch­ing un­til the red jacket dis­ap­pears in the bar­ren­ness.“I can’t be­lieve he knew we were here at Ste­un­mekaar.” AT THE KITCHEN TABLE at Help­mekaar, Her­man van der Merwe is still talk­ing: “Look, things have changed a lot but the Ste­un­mekaar shop has al­ways been there. It’s a bit of a mon­u­ment and a bit of a church. Mem­bers of the Na­tional Party and South Africa Party hit each other with chairs on the stoep back when pol­i­tics was like that. And there has been much pray­ing for rain here. In those days, Oom Apie van der Merwe was the owner of the shop and the farm.

“Oom Apie was king and you could buy every­thing at his shop, but the al­co­hol sec­tion was his of­fice. He ab­horred al­co­hol. At the time of his death, he was ap­par­ently in a lot of pain and the doc­tor rec­om­mended a spoon­ful of brandy to help ease his suf­fer­ing. Oom Apie re­fused, re­port­edly telling him: ‘I don’t want to die an al­co­holic.’

“Oom Eli Bitzer owned the smithy next door and his son Willem erected all the Cli­max wind­mills along­side it. The Ste­un­mekaar shop is the only rem­nant of those by­gone times. If the shop dis­ap­peared, our sto­ries would prob­a­bly go with it. But we shouldn’t worry our­selves about the fu­ture. You know, there was havoc when the price of petrol went from 7c to 9c in the 1970s. We all said, ‘We can’t live in this coun­try any longer.’ And look, we are still here.”

“If the shop was lost, our sto­ries would prob­a­bly turn to dust along with it.”

ABOVE LEFT “You can no longer get petrol here, but these carts of ours are light on juice,” Nel­son Ma­thetha jests. RIGHT Two maps are on dis­play in the small bot­tle store: one with all the farms in the area and this one, de­pict­ing the Voortrekker routes circa 1836. OP­PO­SITE,

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT All dressed up to shop; on week­days, only the ra­dio keeps Tanja and Jakkie com­pany; Ste­un­mekaar is the near­est place where farm work­ers can get gro­ceries; jars filled with sweets on the counter; Ste­un­mekaar has only one cash reg­is­ter – so you wait pa­tiently and catch up in the queue; small change still has value here; Fa­ther Christ­mas’ visit was quite an event; goods like loose can­dles and yeast make it clear this is a true farm shop; Jakkie in the bot­tle store, where the rule is: “Pay and be on your way.”

1 Her­man van der Merwe in front of the class­room where he was taught at Laer­skool Ste­un­mekaar. 2 The bell hasn’t rung here in years, but the school’s two class­rooms seem to hold on to mem­o­ries of spell­ing, maths and Bible lessons. 3 Jakkie and Tanja Marx re­cently took Ma­ri­etjie Pi­eters’ place be­hind the wooden counter. Their daugh­ter Imke (cen­tre) helps out over school hol­i­days.

An­other Her­man van der Merwe from the area. “Around here we are more com­mon than blue this­tles,” he says.

4 Juandi Ja­cobs and her daugh­ter Marizanne came from their farm nearby to get a few things and trade the lat­est sto­ries. 5 Tumelo Mo­leta opens his sis­ter Sue-Ann’s cooldrink.

6 Fa­ther Christ­mas on his cart, ready to brave the Free State heat on the way back to the farm… par­don, the North Pole. 7 Faan Hancke, a for­mer judge, and his son Hen­nie are reg­u­lars at Ste­un­mekaar.

More horse-drawn carts are parked at Ste­un­mekaar’s shop than For­tuners and dou­ble cabs. ABOVE RIGHT This was Fa­ther Christ­mas’ very first visit to Ste­un­mekaar – get­ting all the lit­tle ones used to the man in the strange red suit took a good while.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.