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.