Community News

RICHARD MAY AND KOBUS van EEDEN – CELEBRATING THE PEOPLE OF SWELLENDAM

TWO FAILED POLITICIANS, WHO REMAINED LOYAL AND SUCCESSFUL COMMUNITY SERVANTS Kobus van Eeden Richard May 1925-1987 1923-2000Occasionally it happens that the most unlikely human beings meet and strike up a friendship that lasts for many years. This is what happened to Richard May and Kobus van Eeden. They met as adults and developed a relationship that consisted of regular tea/coffee sessions at their residences to discuss local matters and affairs of the world. Kobus obtained a BA degree at Stellenbosch University, where he served as the chairperson of the Youth League (Jeugbond) of the United Party. Members of this party were called Saps (“Sappe”) because the UP was preceded by the South African Party (1911 to 1934). His grandfather was a member of Parliament representing this party. Consequently, most of his family were regarded as Blood Saps (“Bloedsappe”) and Kobus was steeped in the politics of the country. He settled on Rheenendal, the historic family farm and established himself as a farmer and leader. Richard was a member of a poor family that lived in Berg Street in the Nuwe Dorp (New Town). His father died when he was very young and his mother a few years later. After his father’s death he could only attend school until 12:00 because he had to go and work in the afternoons to provide an income to his family (consisting of his sickly mother and three young children). Remarkably, he managed to regularly be first in his class academically. Unfortunately, by the time that he completed Grade 8 he had to leave school to work full-time for someone who had a small cooldrink factory, which he later managed on his own, and required him to buy and sell fruit. He had no knowledge of party politics because there was no provision for a political home for people who were not classified White at the time. However, he was deeply worried about the plight of most inhabitants of the area that lacked basic resources. Furthermore, he did not foresee a change in the political landscape in the near future and decided to get involved in the limited space which apartheid provided to him. Cobus married Suzanne Pellissier, a teacher, who stemmed from the well-known Pellissier family, who was involved in education and the founding of the Volkspele (South African Folk Dancing). Richard married Christine Vollenhoven, who completed Grade 9 and worked at a local hotel for a short while and later as a volunteer librarian at a local library depot which he started for people not classified as White and as a shop assistant in his café in Railton. Cobus believed in what he called “participatory involvement”. Accordingly, he had very little patience with those who remained on the side-lines and were not prepared to dirty their hands. Consequently, he was very involved in various community activities, including the following: – Founded the Swellendam Farmers’ Association and served as the first chairperson;- President of the Swellendam Agricultural Show;- Member of the school committees of the Swellendam High School (chairperson) and the Swellendam Primary School;- Founder and chairperson of the Swellendam Berry Growers Society;- Chairperson of the Bushman’s River Cheese Factory Co-operative (for 17 years) and led the Cape Dairy Co-operative to become the second largest milk processing company (Bonitas) in SA;- Chairperson of the Board of Directors SACCA (the largest distributor of dairy products);- Served on the Milk Board and the Dairy Board; – Chairperson of the United Party in the Southern Cape; – Vice-Chairperson of the UP in the Cape.Richard could also not reconcile himself with the notion of remaining in safe territory and merely criticizing those who were prepared to work in the community. As a result, he was also involved in a range of community activities, which included the following; – Helped people who had to apply for government pensions and grants. He did not only fill in the forms, but frequently took the documents to the government offices in Cape Town and Worcester;- He assisted youth who had to go to high schools outside Swellendam (because they were unwelcome at the local high school), by approaching the principals of schools in Worcester, Genadendal, Caledon, and Riversdale and making sure that all the forms were completed. Therefore, many young people who would not have received education beyond Grade 8 got the opportunity to further their studies. – Assisted youth who wanted to become teachers to gain entry to a relevant institution; – Chairperson of the Swellendam Ratepayers’ Society;- Vice-chairperson of the Education Board of the Worcester Region;- Head of the Swellendam branch and the South Western Districts Region of the IOTT (an organization that promotes temperance). He believed that alcohol was a destroyer of families, especially in the poorer areas, those whom he identified most closely with. Accordingly, he annually travelled to attend the sessions of the Liquor Board in Mossel Bay to oppose any attempts to start a retail outlet in Railton until he realized that the battle was in vain;- Organist of his church until the age of 76, when he was impolitely told that his services were no longer required.- Choir master of his church for more than 30 years.- Was often asked to give tributes at funerals, especially to people who were disregarded by society. Miraculously he managed to find words, often too many, to make some rather naughty souls look like angels, without being dishonest. Both failed to be elected as political representatives. Kobus tried several times to become a United Party member of parliament but was consistently unsuccessful because the National Party was too strong. Richard’s attempts to become an elected member of the tri-cameral political structure for so-called Coloureds were equally disastrous. Many friends and foes were totally against this apartheid creation. He eventually served as a nominated member for a very short while and worked hard to make a difference, but this merely led to alienate him from some community members. Notwithstanding, there always was a significant band of people who recognised his worth in other spheres. The two could never comprehend why their leadership and services were acceptable at other levels, but politically they were treated like pariahs. For example, Kobus could not understand why his wife was still friendly with people who refused to vote for him. Some of Richard’s family wondered why he helped people who came to him in the dark of night, after publicly rejecting and insulting him during the elections. The reality is that both gentlemen backed the wrong horse and nobody could change their minds. Nevertheless, they did not stop doing good in their community. They continued to serve, changing the lives of people who desperately needed their assistance. The vote against them was not personal but related to the party or approach they supported. Consequently, their memories live on in the hearts of many Swellendammers because of the selfless way in which they made their contributions. Fortuitously, Judi (Kobus’s daughter) met Basil (Richard’s son) at a meeting years after their fathers had passed. They connected and have remained in regular contact with the aim to jointly endeavour to acquire financial and material resources for the youth of Swellendam behind the scenes. As a result, unexpected assistance has been obtained for the benefit of individuals and groups in Swellendam. Fortunately, there are several other members of the community who also quietly toil to make life better for human beings who would never know who their benefactors are. Both deeply cared for people and were fond of humour. Kobus loved to make jokes and Richard enjoyed the funny stories told by others. Richard exited this world suddenly and quietly. At his funeral people with the red sashes of the IOTT accompanied his coffin from his house. Kobus, who died at a much younger age, chose certain elements of his funeral beforehand. The one was that while the coffin was leaving the church, “Cruising down the river” was played. That reflected part of the life of this colourful person with his stentorian voice and independent mind. We acknowledge the contribution of Kobus and Richard, who approached life in their peculiar ways and had a work ethic second to none. Similarly, we salute the present-day mavericks who leave their mark on society in their unique ways and expect nothing in return.

Article by Basil May

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *