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Historians’ articles now in a book

You have just published a collection of published articles on Hermanus history entitled For keeps. Tell us more about the format of the book, and why you chose it? Many people say they enjoy reading my articles in newspapers, magazines or on Facebook, but forget to keep them. The book “keeps” them in permanent form. Another aspect is the index; I wanted to write a serious book, but not an academic book –footnotes must fall! But readers will use it as a reference book, so I commissioned a comprehensive index. I know many of my audience will find that useful.

Why did you decide to write a book about the history of Hermanus? Hermanus has a unique history, with a lot of events, incidents and characters. I want to tell readers about all of these.

When did you start researching the history of Hermanus? I first came to Hermanus in 1978 and immediately read all the books available then. I came to know and respect S J du Toit once I moved here in 2001. But I did not start researching in the real sense until 2012.

What sources did you use for your research, and how much did you rely on information contained in the Hermanus Times archives (formerly known as Hermanus News)? Hermanus has had a local newspaper since 1949. At different times it was owned by different people, and had different names – Hermanus News, News of Hermanus and finally, Hermanus Times. I have read more than 200 articles from these newspapers over the years. Other sources include books on greater Hermanus and the Overberg, magazines, articles in academic journals, municipal records, material in the National Archives, my interviews with people for their memories and lots of searching on the Internet.

What role do newspapers play in capturing the history of a community? Newspapers cover events that are current, happening now. As time passes, the material becomes history. A paper stores the facts about a story while it is happening. The historian reassesses what was once current news, with a broader view than a newspaper reporter takes, and relates it to other events that occurred since it was news.

The book describes some very colourful characters that have played a big part in the history of Hermanus. Which one is your favourite, and why? My favourite character is Sir William Hoy. Strangely, he does not appear to have caught any academic’s eye, and there is no biography of him. But he was a remarkable man, developing the SA railway system from scratch after 1910, building a military railway into German South West Africa (Namibia), attending the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference with his friends Botha and Smuts, helping Smuts put down the 1922 miners’ rebellion in Johannesburg, building the first electrical generating plant in Durban and testing electric trains, being involved in setting up Escom (as it was first known), a strong supporter of the Kruger National Park, and commissioning the panes for the SAR from Pierneef. He was from a very humble background and related well with people at all levels of society.

The book describes some of the industries that helped to shape Hermanus into the town it is today; the perlemoen days, the hotels and the retirement boom. Which of these industries has had the biggest impact on Hermanus today, and why? The retirement boom is the most important. Retirees are regarded in most countries as the “industry” one most wants to attract to your town. They import capital into the town and stimulate economic growth and employment opportunities. They live quietly and peaceably, spend time helping charities and NGOs with their skills, do not need imported materials and don’t pollute.

Hermanus is experiencing urbanisation, and the need for development is growing. How should Hermanus develop to hold onto its history and to keep its heritage intact, while catering for current needs? Further development should be driven by an understanding of how Hermanus came to be as it is and in what directions this suggests we should go. We need to understand that tourists come here, not because the town is the same as any other. They come because it is different. We need to maintain that difference by limiting development out of scale to a two-story town, preserve what is left of our heritage in the built environment, and repurpose buildings that already exist, rather than build new ones. Then, develop an appropriate tourism strategy, aiming as far as possible at events that are high-impact, but not great consumers of our services, for example, cycle events in which we are one stop among several, while the participants take advantage of our entertainment offerings when they are here.

Now that this project has been completed, what is next? Are there any specific historic themes that you plan on researching next? I am working on another book, with two main themes: what is the best policy and strategy for economic growth in Hermanus that does not destroy the feel of the place; and, what kind of tourism will grow the town without destroying its natural environment.

Please tell us more about yourself. Where did you grow up? What did you study? Describe your work and family life, and how you came to live in Hermanus. I was born in Durban, schooled in Johannesburg, studied at the then Natal University (History, Political Science and English) and obtained my PhD at Wits (English). I spent two years in political exile in the UK in the early 1960s, taught at Wits on and off for 17 years, and worked for nine years at the Urban Foundation. My wife Anina (Conradie) and I married in 1969 and have two sons, both unmarried. We holidayed frequently in Hermanus from 1978-1995 and then decided to retire here, which we did in 2001.

When and where will your book launch take place? The book launch is at 16:30 in the Catholic Church hall on Thursday 12 December. Nicolette Johnson (former Mayor Nicolette Botha-Guthrie), and I will be speaking. Copies of three of my books will be on sale. No RSVP is necessary. Refreshments are available.

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