Jan Heystek: Landdrost, Prisoner of War and Last Years (1)

1898–1926: Continuing with the last few stories from Oupa-grootjie Jan Heysteks’ autobiography.

For our Heystek family, life was tranquil and happy during the years that Jan was the Landdrost clerk in Rustenburg, according to his daughter Emmie’s letters that she wrote many years later. In 1898 five of the Heystek children were still at home: Emmarenske, Abraham, the twins Josina and Jacoba, and young Maria, although Emmie was engaged to be married later that year. Abraham was seventeen and not quite ready to leave home yet.


In April of 1898, Jan was asked to fill in as acting Landdrost (magistrate) for the Zoutpansberg region, office in Pieterburg—today’s Polokwane.


While he took care of business in Pietersburg, Anna Maria and the children stayed at home in Rustenburg. In September Jan was elected to the post of Landdrost in a general election, shifting things into top gear for the family: there was a wedding to plan and a house to pack up for the move to Pietermaritzburg. Emmie and Theunis du Plessis got married on October 5.


Jan travelled to Pretoria by “postkar” to meet with President Paul Kruger for his formal appointment on October 12. Jan remembers the president charging him with his duties, “Jij moet mijn mensen goed behandel”, upon which he answered, “President, ik hoop met Gods hulp mijn pligten te gaan doen”. (“You must treat my people well.”; President, I hope to do my duty with God’s help”.)


The Pietersburg chapter opened with much heartache, though. Within a few weeks of the Heystek’s move, Abraham died of “water” (emphysema?). He had been very sick for a while, but Jan remembered “with thankfulness” that Abraham could say farewell to his family while fully conscious. He lifted his arms with the words, “Come Lord Jesus, come quickly!”, and died peacefully. Abraham was buried in Pietersburg.


Jan’s service in Pietersburg included overseeing the local residents as well, so when a dispute broke out between a couple of tribes, Jan was tasked with investigation and reporting to the government about the affair. Despite being shot at by very nervous villagers as he and Commandant van Rensburg approached the kraal on horseback through a river (the villagers were quite scared of Jan, as it turned out), the conflict was resolved after a few days of proper communication between all parties. In fact, the chief of one of the parties was the sister of Sekukuni, the Bapedi paramount leader. That scary entry into the village no doubt brought back some unpleasant memories of the horrific attack Jan survived as a teenager in Natal… “Dat mijn gevoel op dat oogenblik een weinig koortsachtig was wil ik niet ontkennen…” (That my feelings at that moment were quite feverish I will not deny…).


On the 11th of October 1899, the Second Anglo-Boer broke out. Jan’s duties now included being a member of the War Commission, and he was responsible for provisions to the burgers. I have to smile at how Jan complained about the arrogant behaviour of some of the burgers, making the task of the Pietersburg administration as difficult as possible for their own gain: “Ik bedoel diegenen wien de schoen paste om aan te trekken.” (If the shoe fits, wear it.) I wonder if some of those people that Jan was still miffed at while writing his autobiography in 1925, were still alive... Jan describes one event where he got so exacerbated with the violent threats of a burger towards the commissary and himself during a heated argument about the war, that he got his revolver out of its holster, ready to shoot the guy in the head if he should try to attack Jan. Fortunately more men with cooler heads arrived and the uproar was defused. (May the cooler heads have included a man by the name of Lodi Krause?).


From a very surprising source I recently discovered a fascinating bit of testimony about the character of our Oupa-grootjie: “The War Memoirs of Commandant Ludwig Krause, 1899¬–1901” was written during a period of confinement in Johannesburg just before the author was shipped off to one of the P.O.W. camps in India. Ludwig (Lodi) Krause, a brilliant lawyer with four degrees, including an M.A. from Cambridge, was the youngest son of a German medical missionary and head of one of the founding families of the Orange Free State, along with the Steyns and Reitzes. Lodi Krause was also a military advisor to the Boer forces. 
Lodi wrote his diary in part to set the record straight about the first two years of the Second Anglo-Boer War, in particular about the corruption, incompetency and cowardice of some of the Boer officers. Krause felt strongly that the war could have been avoided, and was not a supporter of Pres. Kruger. However, he wrote that the Landdrost was his friend, and he mentions Jan quite a bit in his memoirs.


About the declaration of the war, Lodi describes Oupa-grootjie Jan’s reaction: “…the Landdrost, Mr. J. Heystek, hurriedly called me to his house. I found the old man all of a tremble with excitement. He handed me an official wire: “Read it,”, he said… “It is to inform General Grobler that he must advance at once and fight the enemy wherever he may find him. You must take it to him. Race. Not a moment to lose!” Lodi replied that he and another man would go on horseback as riding a bicycle was out of the question in the darkness. “Yes,” was the excited reply, “but hurry, man, hurry!” (Bicycles? This was 1899, I suppose…)


Apparently Pres. Kruger had a weakness for appointing his favorite friends to high positions during the war, some of whom were utterly unqualified for their positions. Such was the case with a certain “inordinately ambitious and vain” Barend Vorster, whom Kruger (unconstitutionally) appointed Chief Commandant over the head of the existing Commandant van Rensburg in the Zoutpansberg district. Lodi writes, “The dignity of his office rested so heavily on him [Vorster], that he wished everyone to feel its weight, and bow the knee to him. He came into collision with the Landdrost, Mr. J. Heystek, a good, honest, simple man, who only blundered when he did so through ignorance, but who was determined to maintain the dignity of his [Jan’s] office, and who possessed an obstinate will of his own.…Vorster blindly refused to see [the duties of the Landdrost], and he was determined to break the neck of Landdrost Heystek”, and “…That the Landdrost would not creep in the dust before him, made him so ill, that he was confined to his bed for several days.” The Pietersburg area burgers got so unhappy with this manipulative “hoofd-commandant” that some of them approached Lodi Krause with an offer to kidnap Vorster in order to get him sent to the Pretoria authorities... Lodi managed to calm them down.


For all of his bluster, “Hoofd-commandant” Vorster commanded no authority. He so badly wanted everyone to like him, honor him as their “loving father”, that he pretended he was given sincere apologies after confrontations, where in fact there was only disrespect for him. There was the episode of a drunk deserter, Paul Roos, who audaciously challenged Vorster’s authority to arrest him, and got clean away with it. However, in a subsequent confrontation when it came to Landdrost Heystek’s attention that this deserter had been “casting aspersions” on his financial administration, the Landdrost had Roos arrested and brought to his office, commanding him: “Take off your hat when you enter my office.” (Can you see Jan’s blazing blue eyes?) In astonishment Roos complied. With a witness’s sworn affidivit regarding Roos’ false assertions in hand, Jan continued, “Now, Mr. Paul Roos there are two courses open to me—one is to put you in goal—the other is to order you to commando. As your country requires your services as a soldier, I will send you to commando. But I shall keep this affidavit, and if you give me the slightest provocasion, or run away from commando, I shall make use of it and I shall place you in goal and have you whipped like a dog.” Apparently this rebuke had the desired effect on a thoroughly cowed Roos, who, as far as we know, never gave anyone any trouble again.


On oupa-grootjie Jan’s 51st birthday, November 21, 1899, he and Commandant van Rensburg were part of a Boer commando under Assistant Commandant-General Frederick A. Grobler, traveling to an area between between Chief Khama’s land, (now Botswana) and Rhodesia, called the Tuli block. The goal was to prevent the Rhodesian Volunteers (for the British Empire) from entering the Transvaal. Landdrost Heystek participated in one of the conflicts here that resulted in some casualties and much destruction from the Boere’s “pom-pom” cannon (a British Maxim-Nordenfelt.) When the Boer commando returned to Pietersburg, Jan found that some unknown person had reported him to the Kruger government. He received a telegram instructing him to report on the Rhodesia border situation, where he (or rather, Assistant Commandant-General Grobler?) had apparently been “without permission from the government”. It seems there was a lot of miscommunication between the commandos on the border and those in the Pretoria Volsraad! After sending a written report, Jan and Commandant van Rensburg went to Pretoria to discuss it with the Volksraad and President Kruger. Jan wrote that they were forewarned to be on their guard, as “hoofd commandant” Barend Vorster had made his way to Pretoria a day earlier—maybe to make sure he was not implicated in this apparently unauthorized action in the Tuli block? He was supposed to be the “hoofd commandant”, after all... (Vorster himself never participated in the war, as he was disabled, and he kept his family appointed in safe positions out of war’s touch.)


At the subsequent meeting in Pres. Kruger’s house with members of the Volksraad present, Jan was given a chance to defend his report on the Tuli action, with at least two witnesses there to swear to its truth. Vorster attempted to belittle Jan’s report, but one of the Volksraad members silenced him, as he had apparently heard enough from Vorster... President Kruger asked the Landdrost for “a suggestion” (possibly referring to the issues with Vorster in command), upon which Jan—in his own opinion quite humbly—stated that the burgers should be given the opportunity to choose their own officers among themselves, since there are “enough burgers on commando that are qualified to lead that are no pocket-patriots.” The president apparently listened, stayed quiet for a while, and then said he would give Vorster another chance. Jan answered, “Goed President, ik heb mijn pligt gedaan.” (Good, President, I have done my duty.”)


Previously published on: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Lampens/


To be continued