Left: Johan Schoeman and his friend Monene after whom Monene St in Schoemansville was named, around the turn of the century
In the late twenties and early thirties during the previous century bad roads and the depressed state of the economy ensured the popularity of the railway line to Schoemansville siding, later called Meerhof station, for outings that must have been the height of social recreation. Johan Schoeman fully capitalised on this by providing boats to transport patrons from the station to his hotel (the Agnes Hotel which later became the Lake Hotel and today is Squires Restaurant) and later on to Kosmos. He also rented trains to transport patrons to and from Hartbeespoort Dam. Schoeman owned the Meerhof Cafe where patrons waiting for the boats for a round trip or transport to the Agnes Hotel could buy refreshments.
As the roads improved, the Lake became more accessible and more people brought their own boats. Schoeman still energetically promoted the Dam and seemed to have been in constant conflict with unidentified critics, nay-sayers and public servants who wanted to either discourage people to visit or invest in the area, or who wanted to usurp his rights on the Dam.
In 1927 he had again to threaten the department of irrigation with court action after they granted a license to a Johannesburg syndicate to operate a rival boat service on the Lake. The license was revoked and Schoeman’s sole rights to operate motorised commercial craft on the water were confirmed.
In 1930 he had to take action when the government wanted to authorise the use of the Lake for a flying boat service, which would have the effect that certain parts of the water would be closed to boats. (Schoeman’s successors in title had to take similar action in the late 1990s on the same grounds when another company wanted to use the Dam for the same purpose).
In an undated pamphlet, probably produced in the early thirties, Schoeman lashes out against the “many people who frankly do not like this beautiful place”. His ire is directed mostly at people who are negative about South Africa in general and to those whom the Lake “like its builder, J C Smuts, is clearly beyond them”. He also refuted claims that there was bilharzia in the water of Hartbeespoort Dam, stating that “three thousand snails have been tested and not a sign of the bilharzia germ was found ….. and …. the Cawston snail is not even ‘discovered’ here!”
Schoeman revels in the popularity of the Lake among the rich and famous. He quotes the Prince of Wales (who in 1936 abdicated as King Edward VIII) as saying, after a visit to South Africa: “Some of the most memorable hours of my South African trip were spent on the beautiful Hartebeestpoort Lake”. The Earl of Athlone, who was governor-general of South Africa from 1924 to 1930 “and his family visit the Lake whenever the opportunity offers”. It would appear that the governor-general also attended a New Year’s party aboard one on Schoeman’s craft, the Induna.
The completion of the Vaal Dam in 1938 as a rival water recreational facility and the outbreak of the Second World War probably had an impact on the area and no new townships were developed. When township development did start again after thirty years, they did not carry Schoeman’s guaranteed right of access to the water in their title deeds. By this time Schoeman had sold most of his properties around the Dam. His son, Lincoln, developed the township Ifafi on his portion of the original farm, while his other son, Tolstoi, went to farm in the Badplaas district.
The establishment of the Atomic Energy Board and later on the Uranium Enrichment Corporation (both succeeded by the Nuclear Energy corporation of SA – NECSA), as well as the bloom of the Brits industrial area, provided the stimulus for more residential development in Hartbeespoort in the seventies. The primary school (Generaal Hendrik Schoeman Skool) was expanded and the domestic science school for girls (Martha Human Huishoudskool) was transformed into the co-educational Hoërskool Hartbeespoort.
On the negative side, by the late sixties and early seventies the quality of the water has seriously degenerated as a result of high levels of pollution caused by industrial, agricultural and sewage effluent, especially in the Crocodile River and its tributaries, but also in the Magalies River.
The alien invasive water hyacinths were somehow introduced and starting spreading like wildfire. By 1978 eighty percent of the water surface was covered by the weed. Hartbeespoort Dam was literally choking and ceased to be an attractive venue for any waterborne activities. Anglers who did venture onto the water were advised to take blankets and a day’s supply of drinking water for in case the wind changed and they got trapped by the hyacinths.
All efforts to control the weed mechanically failed and the only option was to chemically kill it. Crop sprayer aircraft were used successfully, but when the hyacinths decomposed, they released all their captured nutrients to feed the ever present blue green algae which to this day is the scourge of Hartbeespoort Dam and one of the major targets of the Harties Metsi a me programme.
Hartbeespoort is not the weekend retreat and pristine rural hide-away that Schoeman so energetically promoted anymore, but one can’t help wondering if he would have been surprised at what has transpired around his Lake since he launched his first boat.
By Willie Meyer First published in Kormorant on 27 August 2009 © Kormorant 2012