Stellenbosch- A town of hope?


This week I have been in Stellenbosch.  Stellenbosch was one of the earliest areas of South Africa to be settled by the Huguenots.  You can see it in the architecture, which locally is called Cape Dutch.  However, to a European eye, it is very reminiscent of a small scale Vienna or Prague or one of the other great cities of the Austro–Hungarian Empire.  One of the delights of Stellenbosch is that town planning does not appear to have been left in the hands of dullard, municipal bureaucrats who reduce everything to a series of standards, making it their goal to use conformity to achieve dull uniformity and from uniformity comes monotony and a deadness of spirit.


Could be Windermere in the Lake District!

Here a premium has been placed on aesthetics and it makes the town different, alive, imaginative. There is something to stimulate around every corner and down every tiny alleyway. Even the washing is turned into an installation.


Airing your dirty washing in public can be colourful for those who witness it!

Stellenbosch was described to me by one local as your typical Afrikaans town.   It took a very long time for people here to begin to accept that in the new South Africa then perhaps people needed to live differently, together and not apart. Stellenbosch too is beginning to change and is now beginning to become more multi-racial.  Property prices look cheap, my small two bed flat in London, would swap for five, beds, two garages and a swimming pool here and a good view. They are expensive by local standards and I have no need of such space.


The town of Stellenbosch is famous for three things, it is a wine town, there are the most wonderful vineyards here.  Even in winter they are attractive with the golden rust of the vine as it dies and goes into hibernation for a few brief weeks before bringing new life in the spring and wonderful fruit in the autumn.  Stellenbosch is also famous as a university town, it vies with Pretoria to be top of the academic tables, it has been the seat of Afrikaans learning for many, many years.


Wine the source of old wealth in Stellenbosch


Wish the weather had been good enough to get this pic myself!

Like the best university towns, people are drawn to study from all over the world.  I heard many American voices and also saw many African faces among the students in the town. I heard western people speaking fluent isiXhosi, so skilfully my African friends could not fault it.  So here in Stellenbosch the old divides are being broken down by a new generation that has know first hand knowledge or involvement in “the struggle’” I sense they will demand very different things from their political masters in the not to distant future and will govern very differently when their generation becomes of age.

All of this makes Stellenbosch a creative place, with the best of African art, fine art gallerys, displaying delicate bronzes draw the tourists into a wonderful café culture.  Stellenbosch was a place you could come to in Africa and not “have to deal with Africans’” as one African quipped to me, but that is no more.  The café culture is staffed mainly by students, who are keen.  They have to be keen and a little pushy when you arrive.  They work on a commission only plus tips basis.  If no one turns up there is no pay.  Most eating establishments operate that way here.  I was thankful for one Cafe owner, Yvette, who allowed me to turn her small cafe into and office for some of the week, so I could work, fuelled by red wine, macadamia cheesecake, glitter covered carrot cake and exceptionally strong coffee.

Of course, Stellenbosch, draws the plastic, pretentious both academically and artistically, it would not be a university town otherwise.

It is fun to go into fine art gallerys and say what a “joy” a bronze is and then listen to ten minutes of inane bovine scatology about the artist and their struggle.

This statue, made of clay and straw pictured left, did leave me impressed, from the ground we came and to the ground we return.


The down side of Stellenbosch is the weather.  People talk about the weather here just as they do in England endlessly, which must mean it changes often.  For my first three days, I soon realized I was in one of the coldest places in Africa.

The student halls, called Minerva and normally the exclusive home of female undergraduates who had been turfed out for half term, had no heating.  Even with three blankets, the nights were cold.  I was thankful for the room.

I passed a number of people sleeping in door ways with fewer than my three blankets. If it was cold for me, it must have been unamiganbly cold for the visiting Zimbawians and Zambians delegates for whom this must have felt like the middle of Antarctica itself.  Some walked the streets with blankets over their coats!  For a few days, the sun came out and we were warm again. Even cafes here provide blankets for visitors to use whilst they sup coffee.

The students are away this week and the Presbyterians are in town. The Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa whom I have been travelling with this last three months are having their General Assembly.  This is the main decision making “court” of the church, it happens every two years.  Two hundred leaders have flown in from across South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe to take decisions on the future of the Church.  And a court it is.  It is governed by a “Moderator” elected by his peers, to guide but, not lord it, over the other Commissioners.   The Moderator is the last person to enter the room.  When the clerk to call cries “Moderator” all become quiet and all stand awaiting his entry and the instruction to be seated.  Just like school assemblies.  I have attended many similar local courts of the Church in recent weeks.  Some are more formal and stuffy than some.  You have to bow to the Moderator if you leave the room.  If you wish to depart early, for whatever reason, then it is put to a vote of your fellow commissioners.



Rod Botsis- Leadership in the style of a Greek Orthadox bishop.


The session started with the Ordination of the Moderator with over 500 people packing a local church burrowed for the occasion.  Communion was served using blue pottery cups, hand made especially for the event.   In this case, the Moderator, was not stuffy over formality, he is an interesting man called Rod Botsis.  His antecedants are greek and he governs the assembly, with the patience and wit of a Greek Patriarch, full of humour one moment, in control of the detail in the next moment and stern with those who step out of line in the net.  He gets angry when people refuse to say thank you, thunderously angry, it is a strong point of his culture.  Being neither Afrikaans, English, xhosai, Zulu, Matebele or Shona will probably be to his advantage.


Communion for 500

Having travelled to 15 lower courts, Presbyterys and Synods and holding workshops with over 600 people in three different countries this last three months, the time was here to present my final report.

Decision making used to be by European style debate.  A proposer moves the report, it is then seconded and debated on before voting.   Here a newer model is in use, the consensus model.  It starts with a listening session, in which the report is presented.  The floor is only able to ask questions of clarification.  Upon completion of this phase, it is referred into “Insaka” groups. Groups of about ten people with no executive role in the church, who review the report and if they disagree put forward alternative recommendations to those in the report.


Blue and Orange Cards are used to reach a consensus decision

Finally, the report returns to the floor.  Commissioners to the Assembly show an orange card if they feel happy with the proposal and a blue card if they are unhappy. Those waving blue cards, then if they so choose, have their voice heard. Before the report is put again.  This will sometimes lead to slight changes in the proposals until in 95% of cases consensus is achieved.  In about 5% of cases people said they were happy that there voice had been heard, accepted that most others felt different and chose to accept the view of their peers. On two occasions where one or two still dissented their dissent was recorded.  I felt on balance, letting people shape the recommendations, they were agreeing too, was less adversarial and produced better recommendations. I am pleased to say that my report went through the process and my proposals were adopted.  The Presbyterians have chosen for themselves, a renewed vision, mission, values and mission priorities and it has been fun working with them to achieve this. On the journey, I have learned much about Africa, it struggles and its people.  Africa can sneak into your blood, if you stay here to long.

My task at the Assembly, was to produce a daily newspaper- The Assembly News, in the small hours after each night.  It gave me carte blanche, to be nosy, ferret out gossip, be mildy critical and poke my camera to the front of the throng.  It is the role of the press to expose weakness, such as when the report on Justice and Social Responsibility was seeking to instruct that the Church Central Offices purchase daily newspapers for visitors but brought no challenge to the fact that Education Authorities in the Limpopo had presided over chaos leaving children without text books for nearly a whole year and in other parts of South Africa, children learning under trees because the buildings had fallen down.  The Presbyterians seemed to enjoy my reports which were posted on the web so that those not there could keep in touch with the proceedings.  In South Africa the press is struggling to remain free.  The ANC often intimidate free speech.  A bit like Margaret Thatcher did with the BBC,


Text books which should have been in the hands of Limpopo schools children months ago dumped in warehouses

On Wednesday night, the local churches provided the entertainment.  A traditional African dance troop kicked off literally, a marimba band whose hands moved so fast they were impossible to photograph and a choir of the Western Cape twenty of them audible hundreds of yards from the hall they were singing in.  Here are some of the pictures.


The Wesrern Cape Choir – no need for microphones.  These Presbyterians seem different to their Scottish counterparts, in the Outer Hebrides, they believe God is a tough as old boots and behave like it!


At the close of the Assembly when most had departed, I was given one of the pottery Communion cups especially made for the occasion.  Some things are worth more than diamonds, silver and gold.  This is such.  I am not sure when I will use it, but it will remind me of some of the adventures and the wonderful people, I have had the honour to work with this last few months.  Stellenbosch is a town of hope, hope for a different southern Africa and hope for the church I have been working with.

Now, I leave the wealth of Stellenbosch, the formality of the General Assembly and the comfort of the cafes and wine bars, I am off to Grabouw, home of impoverished orchard workers the subject of a future blog.  Africa is full of contrasts, it gets into your blood without you noticing it.

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