The Herald (South Africa)
Oom Jan – 114 and counting
As a former grave digger and a one-time golf caddie, Oom Jan Steenberg of Colchester near Port Elizabeth has seen more than his fair share of holes in the ground.
But with a deep-throated chuckle and bright twinkle in his eyes, Steenberg swears his former occupations had nothing to do with his most recent death-defying achievement – that of reaching an awe-inspiring 114 years old.
“No, I have never been scared of the graves, that’s not what has been keeping me alive this long,” laughed Steenberg when The Herald met him at his home last week.
Smartly decked out in a grey waistcoat and matching suit pants, a still sprightly Steenberg was speaking from his armchair in the modest home on the corner of Kudu and another, signless, dusty street in the small village.
There is a small river boat laid up in the backyard, which under the circumstances of the visit, along with the fact that numerous well-fed dogs, and small herds of goats roam through the yard and the streets around his home, immediately reminds one of the equally long-living Noah.
With an ID book to prove it, and having turned 114 on December 31, Steenberg reckons it is likely he is the oldest person living in South Africa.
Speaking mostly in Afrikaans, interjected with short sentences of pristine English, Steenberg said he was born in an area called Village Board, which Google shows to have been within modern-day Korsten in Port Elizabeth.
“There were five of us. I had one brother and three sisters and I have one surviving younger sister, ” he said, going on to reveal that his other immediate family members include two daughters, two grandchildren and two greatgrandchildren.
Asked about his working life, the slightly built but clearly still strong man revealed a long life of physical work.
“I worked as a caddie and I used to dig graves for the Uitenhage Council. I also did lots of other physical work, building things and doing things like putting up fences,” he said.
“But even though working hard has kept me fit and healthy, it is God that has kept me alive this long.”
A staunch member of the Old Apostolic Church, he believes his faith – and a regular diet of sweet cold drinks and coffee, along with his love for “boeremusiek” – are the things that are keeping him going.
“I used to drink, but I gave that up many years ago. I think it was in 1975. It used to be a problem. I used to drink two bottles [of alcohol] and then I was ready to fight people for the third,” he chuckled.
As a grant recipient, Steenberg has a solid support base through his daughter Maria Petrus, 53, with whom he shares their home, but also through Colchester’s very own “Mother Teresa”, Ronell van Niekerk, who not only supports the elderly and needy in the village with food, medical help and grant collections, but who also feeds and nurtures the many animals in the area.
And so it was both Van Niekerk and Steenberg who shared a naughty chuckle when asked whether Sassa had shown any annoyance about his determination to keep on living.