Reflecting on the Sarel Marais Homestead


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By the early 1800’s, there were thousands of Boer farmers who had settled on the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony. They became increasingly dissatisfied with the British Colonial Government. The Boers were displeased, among other things, with the continual interference in their affairs by the Colonial Government, the ongoing raids on their farms by the Xhosa and the long delay in being granted self-government (Britz, 2012).

This resulted an organised emigration of thousands of Afrikaner frontier farmers and their labourers from the Crown Colony of the Cape to the northern and north-eastern sectors of southern Africa order to escape the Imperial oppression and the consequently settlement of the area north of the Vaal River, later to become the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) (Fraser, 1986). Sarel Marais and his family were one the first families who settled in the Transvaal. Sarel bought the western portion of the farm Rietvlei where he constructed the family homestead (Britz, 2012).


When emigrants relocate themselves they have three sources for their building culture, namely tradition, innovation and borrowing. The Voortrekkers, born on African soil, trekked from the Eastern Cape, an area with a particular building culture, into the hinterland occupied by indigenous pastoralists with their own traditions. Although the Trekkers maintained trade links with the south, the terrain was rugged and transport difficult. They therefore resorted in using locally available materials wherever possible. This in turn influenced the techniques of construction (Fisher, et al., 1998).


The portion of the Rietvlei farm where the Marais’ settled had ample grazing, fertile soil, plenty of water and an abundance of game. Sarel constructed the farm house from bricks made from clay that was found locally, on the banks of the Bloubosspruit, which is one of basic building materials Transvaal (Britz, 2012). The clay was prepared by wetting, kneading, (where dung and chaff might be added) and adding limestone. The clay mixture was then moulded and dried to form clay bricks (Fisher, et al., 1998).

The window openings were constructed with wooden lintels and were initially covered with a piece of cheesecloth dipped in grease to keep out dust and to give a degree of privacy to the resident. This was a result of the unobtainability of glass as it broke on the journey by wagon inland from the coast. Shutters were later added when the residence became more permanent. The floor made from clay mixed with cow blood with a thin layer of cow dung to protect it. Such a floor was also often adorned with peach pits that were laid in the wet clay is pressed and polished with aloe juice or wax (Fisher, et al., 1998).

The roof was thatched which then as now was tied in bundles with the grass seeds uppermost. Once fixed by stitching with rawhide thongs to the laths beneath, the bundles would be beaten parallel to the pitch of the roof with a “dekspaan” or thatching spade or shove. This technique has subsequently became prevalent and is known amongst some black people as "Boer" (or sometimes “Afrikaner") thatching (Fisher, et al., 1998). The thatch was supported by yellowwood beams and rafters. This was an indication that the Marais’ were relatively wealthy as the yellow had to be ordered and delivered from Cape Town by wagon.


What are important about these settlements is to remember that prior to living in proper "dwellings" or "houses", the Trekkers lived in ox wagons that really only protected their most intimate belongings and offered privacy for sleeping and none for living indoors. These buildings were stripped of all extravagance reflecting the pioneer settler’s real needs for shelter and protection (Meiring, 1985).

We should not attempt to interpret the vernacular building traditions of the seminomadic and first phase pioneer settler from a modem perspective. Also that these individuals had a vision of a large dwelling or "house" and that they pursued this vision as soon as they settled on a piece of land. In many instances it is clear that building a "house" with many rooms serving all or at least the bulk of the needs of the family at once was not a priority. Needs were served as they arose, depending on the approval of the father or patriarch of the house (Fisher, et al., 1998).


What can be further deducted from the above observations is that to the pioneer settlers, "open space" was more important than "closed space". Distance between activities and closed spaces were more important than clustering and the economic linking of spaces. These spatial concepts lie at the heart of the early vernacular architecture in rural Transvaal (Fisher, et al., 1998).


In the Transvaal land tenure was to follow the same system of issue as in the Cape. Every original Trekker of sixteen years of age and older could select a vacant piece of land and request that it be surveyed and registered in his name. A fixed quitrent was then paid on every farm (Fraser, 1986). Prior to 1852 newcomers to the region were entitled to two farms: one either residential or crop farm and the other a bushveld farm for winter grazing. Surveying of farmland also followed the tried and trusted old Cape system. A horseback ride of halt-an-hour would be taken at a walk from a central point (usually a perennial water source where the farmstead would be located) in each of the four cardinal directions. Such a farm was not to exceed 3000 morgen* although larger farms could purchase additional land (Fisher, et al., 1998).

* A South African unit of area (now archaic in the Nederlands), equal to about two acres or 0.8 hectare. From the Dutch morgen (morning) thus the land which could be ploughed by a span of oxen in a morning (Fisher, et al., 1998)


The homestead’s ruins can be found in the southern part of Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve.


Britz, R., 2012. Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve Assosiation. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 14 March 2014].

Fisher, R., le Roux, S. & Maré, E., 1998. Architecture of the Transvaal. Pretoria: UNISA.

Fraser, M., 1986. Johannesburg Pioneer Journals 1888-1909. Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society.

Giliomee, H., 2003. The Afrikaners: Biography of a People. Cape Town: Tafleburg Publishers Limited.

Meiring, H., 1985. Early Johannesburg; Its Buildings and its People. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau.

Montgomery, C., 2013. Heritage Treasures of the South. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 15 March 2014].

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