The Wild Geese

The name Maccauvlei first officially entered the South African lexicon in 1844 when the area on the south bank of the Vaal River was bought from the Free State Republic government by a Voortrekker who rejoiced (or more likely brooded) in the name of Carel “Kwaai Augus” Pistorius. This formidable character had a particular mistrust of women and cheques. His mistrust of women, evinced by the fact that into his heavy wooden front door were carved the words “Women Deceiveth Ever”, did not stop him from fathering six sons, who played an unwitting role in the Maccauvlei saga. History does not record Mrs Pistorius’s view of men! Pistorius also purchased the farm Klipplaatdrift on the north bank of the Vaal, but built his house at Maccauvlei where he started farming sheep. The name itself came from a large wetland area populated by hippo and a wide variety of water birds including the magnificent spurwing geese, known as “Wilde Makoue”. The area attracted some hunters in those early years including a young man named Paul Kruger.

Kwaai Augus trekked to Pietermaritzburg by ox-wagon annually to barter products such as biltong, salted butter and cured skins for cloth, sugar and coffee. On one of these trips he brought back some acorns which he planted in front of his veranda. The oaks flourished and were to play a pivotal role in the future of Maccauvlei although ironically, the timber for Pistorius’ farmstead had to be brought up from the Natal capital by ox-wagon with great difficulty.

However, the destiny of Maccauvlei took another turn in 1878 when a pioneer geologist, George William Stow, prospecting on a commission from President Brand of the Free State Republic, discovered coal in the area. His initial find was opposite what is now Vanderbijlpark where the Taaiboschspruit meets the Vaal River. Floods over thecenturies had scoured away the overburden of clay to reveal a seam of coal.

Stow sank a shaft through 15 feet of solid coal, but an influx of water halted the operations. He then started test diggings at Maccauvlei and on the banks of the Leeuwspruit near where Sasolburg now stands, revealing even more extensive deposits. Stow realised that he had discovered a vast coalfield. But the Free State Republic government felt the discovery was of little value as the coalfields were too far from any major settlement to be viable, so Stow was paid off.

Meanwhile an energetic young Russian born entrepreneur named Sammy Marks, who had come to South Africa via Britain in 1868, had arrived in the area. After a short spell as a smous, Marks went to Kimberley and soon became a prosperous diamond magnate in the firm Lewis and Marks, a partnership with his cousin Isaac Lewis. He heard about Stow’s coal discovery in the Northern Free State and adjoining Transvaal and was quick to realise the importance of the find. He arranged to meet Stow and discuss the possibility of mining the coal and transporting it by barge down the Vaal River all the way to Kimberley.

The meeting between Marks and Stow resulted in the formation of the “Zuid Afrikaansche en Oranje VrystaatscheKolen en Mineralen Myn Vereeniging” in 1880 with the explicit aim of exploiting Stow’s find. The name Vereeniging was subsequently given to the township declared by President Paul Kruger in 1889, although the first erven were only offered for sale in 1892, which is now recognised as the founding date of the town. Marks then commissioned Stow “to purchase and develop all the farms on which he judged coal to exist”.

On November 16, 1880, six years before the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, Stow bought the farm Leeukuil from Jan Henrik Venter for 750 pounds. It was on this farm, on the north bank of the Vaal, that Stow began to mine coal at the old pit which became part of the Bedworth Colliery and ultimately spawned the massive coal based industrial complex stretching across the northern Free State and into Mpumalanga. The Maccauvlei coal seam later became the Cornelia Colliery.

Both of Kwaai Augus Pistorius’s farms were in the coal belt and it seems highly probable that the canny old Boer was well aware of the purpose for which Stow and Marks were buying the farms, and re-assessed the value of his properties.

When Marks instructed John G. Fraser, a well known Bloemfontein attorney, to negotiate the sale of Klipplaatdrift, the company bought the farm from Pistorius without too much fuss. Then they turned their attention to the purchase of properties on the southern bank of the Vaal River and Fraser started negotating with Pistorius to buy Maccauvlei. Legend has it that the old Voortrekker displayed a remarkable reticence to sell his homestead property, which he intended to leave to his six sons.

We can only imagine the protected negotiations that followed. The chronicles tell us that for 15 days Marks and Fraser camped in a tent under the shade of some of the now substantial oak trees on the property and negotiations were renewed daily with Pistorius. The Voortrekker remained obdurate.

Then Fraser advised Marks to offer a sum large enough to enable Pistorius to buy a farm for each of his sons. Pistorius finally agreed on a price of 15 500 pounds, provided it was paid in gold coins – no cheques. In those days this was a colossal sum to pay for a farm covering about 600 acres, particularly since it had been bought from the Free State Government 21 years earlier for 400 pounds. The exact details are not known, but it seems that Maccauvlei was acquired by the company in 1881.

Vereeniging Estates Limited

The efforts of Stow and the foresight of Sammy Marks, provided the initiative to attract a small band of pioneers, who, without adequate means of communications and beset by many technical difficulties, never wavered in their confidence for the future, and so began the mining of coal from the newly found fields.

For some time Marks and Lewis had considered the need for a special company to develop Vereeniging and its
adjoining areas. They foresaw that the new village would become a major industrial centre, and while the South African Coal and Mineral Association continued its mining operations, a new company named Vereeniging Estates Limited was established in May 1879, on a much wider foundation with capital of 730 000 pounds.

The new company aquired all Stow’s purchases of the farms in the coal area on both sides of the Vaal River. This covered an area of 126 621 acres – about 508 square kilometres, most of it with substantial coal deposits. The bulk of this land, 77 621 acres, was on the Orange Free State side of the river.