With slavery abolished back in 1834 in South Africa, the mission of Pniel in the Stellenbosch Winelands is to celebrate and enjoy its freedom and peace.
Story goes that the Reverend Johan Frederick Stegmann, first incumbent of the Congregational Church in Pniel was a bit of a tyrant. He would go out on his horse at night and whip anyone he found out on the streets after 9pm. Well that was back in 1843, when the Apostolic Union declared it a mission town, but the caution seems to have stuck because it’s seldom you’ll find anyone out late at night there. “We’re a very law-abiding community,” Randall Jefthas tells me. “Another rule was that there would be no liquor store here, and it still applies.” Randall is studying business management at Stellenbosch, but right now he’s doubling as the Pniel Museum’s tour guide – and he’s full of great stories. As is Pniel, which means Face of God (Genesis 32:30). “And Jacob called the name of the place P[e]niel – for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”
“We were the originals in the rainbow nation,” explains Randall as we walk around the museum, a circa 1 700 house that was traditionally the manse, home of the resident minister. “Blacks, whites and slaves all went to church and school peacefully together.” Appropriate displays include a schoolroom set-up, a kitchen with all the nostalgic cookabilia and, prominently placed, a list of the names of all the slaves purchased for the region by Willem Adriaan van der Stel between 1699 and 1707, distressingly including children as young as one year old. But the origins of the town itself date back to 1842, when Huguenot farmers Pieter Isaac de Villiers, Johannes Jacobus Haupt and Paul Retief donated land to the newly freed slaves. Later, another farm called Papiermolen was incorporated, and it’s on this site that the museum stands today. The land was divided so the former slaves could build their own houses and start fruit and vegetable gardens.
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Directly opposite the museum, the original werf or Freedom Square is where the little town wears its history on its sleeve. There’s the bird-shaped Slave Memorial, and the Ubuntu Monument in the form of a tree trunk in memory of the old Klokboom or oak tree where the Slave Bell was originally mounted. Today the klok is proudly installed in a pillared arch giving it a sort of dignity.
What not to miss in Pniel
Across the road at the church, a truly beautiful and cherished piece of architecture, Bernadette Adams is polishing the pews, “It turns 174 years old this September – and we have a regular congregation of around 2 700.” Not bad considering the entire population of the town itself is a little over 3 000. But there are of course many who have passed and the well-cared-for hillside cemetery is fast running out of space.
Usually visitors to this fertile Dwars River Valley area snake through Pniel at the rate of knots as they descend the dramatic Helshoogte Pass into the valley before turning right to Franschhoek. But a slower drive or a stroll through, not just the main road of Pniel, but the side streets to the left and right, turns up some fine and tender scenes. Like magnificent views across the valley, women sweeping the streets clean, children playing, some old, some new small cottages built in vernacular style. Off the well-worn Winelands track, it’s a peaceful diversion.
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Back at the museum there’s a room dedicated to some of the successful sportsmen Pniel has spawned – Ivor Myburgh, Trevor Adams, Henry Davids, Henry Williams, among others – but a sport at which it seems Pniel excels these days is boules – or pétanque. And way at the top of the town is the Pniel Boule O’Drome with a spectacularly distracting view of the valley. From here you can walk into the Simonsberg mountains, or take yourself back down to the museum and feel free to enjoy a reviving cup in the leafy Tea Garden courtyard courtesy of proprietor Lavona Alexander.
Pniel is proud of its past – but there’s every bit to be proud of in its present.
Pniel Museum: 021 885 2645 / 083 324 7691
Words: Nancy Richards