For many years I have been captivated by the Witkop Blockhouse, located along the R59, in the province of Gauteng, South Africa. In my youth we would drive past it on family trips to the Vaal River. At the sight of the blockhouse my mind would drift away, contemplating the episodes of history the blockhouse had experienced and been privy to.
So it was, a few days before Christmas 2014, that I found myself able to take a trip to the blockhouse, in the hope of capturing this structure. And true to its charm of old, with the fancies it has always evoked deep within me; the blockhouse was once again to take me on an adventure of discovery.
Unfortunately, my nostalgia was soon to be replaced by a cold, hard reality.
In military science terms, a blockhouse is a small, isolated fort in the form of a single building. It serves as a defensive strongpoint against an enemy that does not possess artillery.
The first blockhouses were built on the orders of the British Commander-In-Chief, Field Marshal Lord Roberts, in 1900. The primary aim of a blockhouse was to protect railway lines, which were the main supply route for the British army, during the South African War, 1899 – 1902.
Blockhouses were typically two-story constructions built from stone. The entrance to the structure was through a door on the first floor, seven to eight feet off the ground. This entrance was made accessible via a ladder. Each blockhouse cost between 800 and 1,000 pounds and took approximately three months to build.
Blockhouses were always built on a rise, thereby ensuring the attendant troops the ability to survey the surrounding area.
The Witkop Blockhouse is a very distinctive design that is found along the railway line from Vereeniging to Elandsfontein (Germiston). A most unusual feature of this type of blockhouse is a pair of angle bastions at diagonally opposite corners; designed to provide for flanking fire along the walls, at ground level.
Sometime after 1985, the property was acquired by a Mr Robert Hewer. He built an additional structure, adjacent to the blockhouse, to be utilized as a shop and tourist center. Due to circumstances the property was sold on auction to a Mr Docrat.
During April 2012 concerned residents raised the alarm, when earthworks were observed taking place on site, levelling the kojpe around the blockhouse. The matter was reported to the local authorities. Such enquiries resulted in the following being advised by the Midvaal municipality, within whose jurisdiction the blockhouse falls: “The property is privately owned and the matter was being handled by the Heritage Authority. Concerned persons could register as ‘Interested and Affected Parties’”.
Feedback has been wanting and sketchy at best since reporting this development, although the current owners insist they merely own the land around the blockhouse and not the structure itself.
A subsequent review of the relevant title deed reports to indicate that the blockhouse is indeed included in the parcel of land owned by the current owner.
Of late, this proud structure has further fallen victim to vandalism. During August 2013 it was reported that the roof on the eastern side, including the door, had been removed. The current roof (what remains of it) is not original. The original roof, with corrugated iron chimney, was stolen during mid 2003 and was subsequently replaced with the current sheeting.
Damage to the window openings has further been caused by the removal of cast iron loopholes, purposed for the firing of guns.
The Witkop Blockhouse was declared a national monument in 1948 and is among the last fifty remaining in South Africa.
Our beloved South Africa is a relatively “young country” and as such, historical monuments and similar places of interest, are few. I would hope that these snippets of history that we indeed are fortunate enough to have, would be respected and form part of the vital, ongoing effort of nation building our country so strives for.
Whilst researching this post, however, I was shocked to note the extent of degradation the structure has endured. The toll being brought to bear on this heritage site is frightfully obvious, based on pictures I came across, when compared to the actual structure I had observed.
It fills my heart with an immense sadness that we, as fellow South Africans, indeed the very rainbow nation we are internationally renowned for, fail to respect our common heritage. And in so doing, reduce such an awe inspiring structure to its fundamental elements and deem it acceptable to remove these at will, thereby prematurely condemning the Witkop Blockhouse to the modern day equivalent of a stone age heap.