Heroes of the Cape

Vian de Bod introduces us to a selection of prominent figures who have contributed to the history of the Cape

Vian de Bod


Vian de Bod


Jan 10, 2024

Heroes of the Cape

The Western Cape is, for all intents and purposes, distinctly separate from the rest of South Africa.

Not only have the people consistently voted for a different government for many years, but the very culture of the area itself is distinct. From the suburbs of Cape Town to the fishing towns of the West Coast, all the way to the lush greenery of the Garden route.

When you add the fact that a majority of people within the Western Cape support the call independence, or at least support a referendum, it becomes clear that the people of the Cape consider ourselves as a distinct from other groups in South Africa.

If we are to consider ourselves as a distinct people, then we must honour and celebrate the people who have helped to forge our identity. A people must honour the heroes of the past if it wishes to birth new heroes for the future.

The Cape creates strong, hardy people who have shaped the culture we find ourselves in. There are people in our history who deserve recognition for the contributions they’ve made to the current state of this region on the southern tip of Africa.

So it is with this piece that I wish to honour some of the people who have shaped the Western Cape. To bring attention to some of the people who helped create the place we know and love today.

Some of these figures may be controversial. Some may be relatively unknown. But each have played a role in forging the Western Cape of today, and for that they deserve our recognition.

Abdullah Abdurahman

Abdullah Abdurahman was born on December 12, 1872, in Wellington, Western Cape, to a Muslim family of Indonesian and Khoisan heritage.

His upbringing in a racially segregated society deeply influenced his later activism for the rights of Coloured people in South Africa.

He studied at the South African College (now the University of Cape Town) and later at medical schools in Scotland and Ireland, becoming a qualified medical doctor.

After returning to South Africa, he faced racial discrimination in his profession, which further fuelled his determination to fight against injustice. Abdurahman's political career began when he was elected to the Cape Town City Council in 1904, becoming the first person of colour to hold such a position.

He founded the African Political Organization (APO), later renamed the African People's Organization (APO), to represent the interests of the Coloured community. As a councillor, Abdurahman relentlessly advocated for the improvement of living conditions, healthcare, and education for non-white South Africans.

He fought against segregation policies, pushed for better housing, and campaigned for access to public facilities for Coloured citizens. Abdurahman's political activism extended beyond Cape Town.

He served on various government commissions and played a key role in negotiating better conditions for non-white South Africans. His efforts significantly increased representation for Coloured people in politics and laid the groundwork for future anti-apartheid movements.

Throughout his life, Abdullah Abdurahman fought against racial discrimination and inequality, leaving a legacy as a pioneer in the struggle for the rights and dignity of Coloured people in South Africa.

He passed away on February 20, 1940, but his contributions to the fight against injustice continue to be remembered and honoured.

Adam Small

Adam Small, born on December 21, 1936, in Wellington, was a highly influential figure in Afrikaans literature, cultural activism, and academia. He emerged during a time of apartheid, using his works to challenge social injustices and advocate for the rights of the Coloured community.

Small studied at the University of Cape Town, where he excelled in Afrikaans literature and linguistics. He later pursued postgraduate studies at the University of Amsterdam.

Upon his return to South Africa, Small became a lecturer at the University of the Western Cape and played a significant role in shaping the institution's Afrikaans department.

His literary contributions were groundbreaking. Small's poetry and writings often confronted the complexities of racial discrimination and cultural identity, challenging the status quo of Afrikaans literature and society.

His works, such as "Kanna hy kô hystoe" (Kanna, the Upside-Down Man), tackled societal issues and highlighted the struggles faced by Coloured people under apartheid.

Small was actively involved in cultural and political activism. He used his platform to critique apartheid policies, advocating for the recognition and empowerment of Coloured culture and identity within a broader South African context.

He was a key figure in movements that aimed to challenge racial segregation and promote social equality. Throughout his career, Small received numerous awards and accolades for his literary contributions and activism.

His legacy extends beyond literature; he played a pivotal role in reshaping the narrative around Afrikaans as a language inclusive of all South Africans. Adam Small passed away on June 25, 2016, leaving a lasting impact on Afrikaans literature and the fight against apartheid injustices.

His dedication to social justice, cultural inclusivity, and the advancement of Coloured identity continues to influence South African society and literature.

Dalene Matthee

Dalene Matthee, born on October 13, 1938, in Riversdale, Western Cape, was a renowned author celebrated for her literary contributions, particularly her novels set in the forests of the Garden Route.

Her upbringing in the rich natural surroundings of the Western Cape greatly influenced her writing. Matthee's works were deeply rooted in the landscapes and cultures of South Africa.

She gained widespread acclaim for her "Forest Trilogy," which includes "Kringe in 'n Bos" (Circles in a Forest), "Fiela se Kind" (Fiela's Child), and "Moerbeibos" (The Mulberry Forest).

These novels vividly portrayed the intricacies of the Knysna Forest, exploring environmental concerns and societal tensions while interweaving historical and cultural narratives.

Her writing not only captured the beauty of nature but also delved into social issues, including the complexities of racial identity and the impact of apartheid-era policies on communities living in the forest regions.

Matthee's literary achievements extended beyond her fiction. Her works were not only critically acclaimed in South Africa but also gained international recognition, being translated into several languages.

While her novels were her primary legacy, Matthee's environmental activism was equally noteworthy. She was a staunch advocate for the preservation of the indigenous forests of the Southern Cape.

Her passion for nature conservation was evident in her writing and her involvement in various environmental initiatives. Dalene Matthee passed away on February 20, 2005, leaving behind a significant literary legacy that continues to resonate with readers in South Africa and around the world.

Her literary contributions and dedication to environmental conservation in the Western Cape region remain a lasting testament to her influence and impact.

Dullah Omar

Dullah Omar, born on May 26, 1934, in Observatory, Cape Town, was a prominent figure in the struggle against apartheid and a key individual in the post-apartheid era. His life was dedicated to advocating for justice, human rights, and the establishment of a democratic and inclusive South Africa.

Omar was an active anti-apartheid activist from a young age. He became involved in various organizations fighting against racial segregation, including the African National Congress (ANC) and the United Democratic Front (UDF).

His commitment to justice led to his imprisonment and exile due to his anti-apartheid activities. Upon his return to South Africa after the unbanning of political organizations, Omar played a crucial role in the negotiation process that led to the end of apartheid.

He was part of the ANC delegation during the talks to transition South Africa into a democratic state. In the post-apartheid era, Dullah Omar held several significant positions within the South African government.

He served as Minister of Justice from 1994 to 1999 under President Nelson Mandela's administration. As Minister of Justice, he played a pivotal role in the transformation of the legal system, advocating for reforms that aimed to ensure equality and justice for all South Africans.

One of his significant achievements was his instrumental role in establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which aimed to address past human rights abuses and facilitate reconciliation among South Africans.

Omar continued to champion human rights and justice until his passing on March 13, 2004. His dedication to the struggle against apartheid, his contributions to the establishment of democracy, and his commitment to justice and reconciliation remain a crucial part of South Africa's history and ongoing journey toward a more equitable society.

Jan Van Riebeeck

Jan van Riebeeck, born on April 21, 1619, in Culemborg, Netherlands, played a pivotal role in the history of South Africa, particularly the Western Cape region. He was a Dutch colonial administrator and navigator, recognized for establishing the first European settlement in South Africa.

In 1652, on behalf of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape of Good Hope and founded a refreshment station at Table Bay. This settlement later evolved into Cape Town.

His primary objective was to establish a supply station for the VOC's ships traveling between the Netherlands and the East Indies. During his tenure as the first Commander of the Cape Colony, Van Riebeeck oversaw the establishment and development of the settlement.

He introduced agriculture, overseeing the cultivation of crops and the establishment of gardens to provide fresh produce for passing ships. This initiative significantly influenced the region's economic growth and became the foundation of Cape Town's agricultural industry.

Beyond his role in agriculture, Van Riebeeck's administration established relationships with the indigenous Khoikhoi people and engaged in trade. However, tensions between the settlers and the indigenous populations arose over time, leading to conflicts that would have longlasting effects on the region.

Van Riebeeck returned to the Netherlands in 1662, leaving behind a legacy of establishing the first European settlement that laid the groundwork for Dutch colonial rule and European influence in the Western Cape.

His establishment of Cape Town marked the beginning of significant European settlement and colonization in South Africa, shaping the region's history and cultural landscape for centuries to come.

And while Van Riebeeck is seen as a controversial figure by many modern South Africans, it can’t be denied that his actions and legacy shaped the very fabric of reality for Western Cape residents and South Africa as a whole.

The history of the Western Cape is deep and rich with detail. I hope that by highlighting some of the key figures in our past, it brings to light some of the qualities we was Western Cape residents pride ourselves on.

Innovation, creativity, a fierce opposition to injustice, and the willingness to explore and put ourselves out there even when the odds are stacked against us. They exemplify the strength of the Western Cape people and are a testament to the character of us as a distinct people.

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