Monday, 26 November 2012

Rietfontein: the last word.

To say that Rietfontein and its cemeteries has been an obsession these past few weeks would be telling the truth. What started out as a excursion to photograph a few graves turned into a whole series of discoveries. 

My recent excursion, on Sunday 27th November, was to find the cemetery on the eastern bank of the river. Poor weather made me wary of taking a walk, but in the end the day turned out to be quite pleasant, if not a bit hot and steamy. I was not too sure of where the cem was, but was working off information off Google Earth, as well as what Dave had told me. Finding the river was easy enough, it pops out from under the highway and rambles more or less parallel with the highway until it reaches a bridge which I then had to cross to be on the highway (eastern bank) side of the river. 

The bridge over the river
Once over that bridge I then had to cross a small stream a bit further on that flowed into the river before coming to the area where the cemetery was supposed to be. Early Google Earth images revealed that this was a grove of trees prior to the March 2004 image. Since then the trees were cut down and fires had burnt the stumps down to small black projections that can easily be mistaken for headstones. The area was flat with an embankment on one side and the river on the other.  In the distance was Sizwe Hospital, Edenvale Hospital and Modderfontein Road.


Headstones were scarce, and finding them was very difficult as most were toppled and hidden in the grass. Sometimes there was only a slab or the remains of a headstone. I could only pick up five identifiable headstones, with roughly 8 grave remains, there were probably a few mounds present too. These graves dated from about the turn of the century, the oldest seemed to be 1898. Given their position in relation to the hospitals and river I suspect these may be from the original Rietfontein farm. 

Having taken my pics I head up towards the hospital to investigate two structures that we originally thought were 2 crematoria. However, on closer inspection they it seems that they were probably incinerators.


My next target was the "terraces". There are two sets of these, one is a very large area and is between the end of the hospital and Linksfield Road. My original thoughts were that these may be related to erosion control, but the fact that it is rumoured that between 7000 and 10000 people are buried in this area leads credence to this being one of two possible mass graves site. From the ground there is not much to see to prove or disprove anything, 

One of the terraces, looking South East
My verdict is "inconclusive", but that is just because I cannot see any physical evidence of  this being a gravesite. I investigated the other terrace which is below what we call "Rietfontein 4/4" and returned to the burnt log that I mentioned in the previous blog post about that area. Again the only  comment I can make is "inconclusive". However, if I look at the Google Earth images of the hospital I see similar terraces inside the grounds, and this makes me return to my original hypothesis about them being some sort of erosion control.

The burnt out log in the "terrace"



I then returned to try ascertain the extent of Rietfontein 4;  in my previous investigation I had found that this African section was roughly within a square block of trees, but there was no real way to know how many graves were here. There are at least 30 graves with headstones,  which extend for quite a long distance down the hill towards the terraces.

Looking North from the corner of Rietfontein 4
What I did discover was possibly the Southern boundary of the cemetery; a row of quartz stones were propped equidistant in at least 3 rows. This was not a natural occurrence, but it did give me some indication of  where the cems starts, and where it ends.  Numbers? I don't know. There is no real way of knowing. An early GE image revealed what looked like rows within this area, and they extend in a northerly direction and based on that I can surmise that this area alone may hold as many as a 1000 graves.  Some of the graves date from the 20's to 50's, although the upper boundary of this area did reveal one previously unseen stone which was dated 1906, and had the number 49 on it. 
There is also one very tantalising marker there, a small simple rusty cross with "Mabena" stamped into it. In my reading I had seen metal markers mentioned, but so far this was the only one I had actually seen in any of cemeteries in this site.


The records I have from a possible headstone transcription for what we now call "Rietfontein 2" revealed that there were 8 identifiable headstones and 4 unidentified ones (one of which was toppled), 12 graves are not accounted for (no headstone found), of which we can allocate 4 of the toppled stones to, which means there are still at least 8 graves still unfound in the area of Rietfontein 2. They have probably been  buried under builders rubble.

That pretty much wound up Rietfontein, and until such time as we can find more information there isn't much to do except wait for Winter when the grass is short, or a fire which which will reveal a lot about what is buried in the undergrowth. It has been an interesting journey,  and I feel that at least now we know more about the cemeteries here, and can at least name some of the people that came to rest here, probably killed by diseases that today we can combat. 
There are more questions though, but I don't think the answers are within our reach.  There is no doubt that this is a very pretty unspoilt area, but who knows what is buried underneath the grass there, all it really takes is for an unscrupulous developer and a bulldozer to ruin it forever. 

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