We were recently in South Africa and while strolling through Stellenbosch, an attractive Cape Dutch town, we came across this Huguenot Commemorative Relief. It’s outside the Public Library, set into a long wall in a pretty little garden.
This commemorative plaque is one of four monuments in South Africa that illustrate the culture and outlook on life of the French Huguenots. It was inaugurated on May 6 1942.
The Huguenots were members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France. By the end of the 17th century, roughly 200,000 Huguenots had been driven from France during a series of religious persecutions. The Cape was one of the places where they were relocated. These three panels tell the story of oppression, departure, war, relocation and freedom.
The other monuments are in Wellington, Paarl, and Franschhoek (which means French corner). The largest and best-known of the four monuments is the Huguenot Monument in Franschhoek, which was inaugurated on April 7 1948. Many of the French Huguenots settled around here in Franschhoek and were instrumental in developing South Africa’s famous wine industry, as they brought their French wine-making skills and knowledge with them.
The people of Franschhoek still remember and honor their French Huguenot heritage, especially around Bastille Day (July 14). At that time, Franschhoek paints the town red, white and blue at its weekend Bastille Festival. Notable are Farmers’ Markets in the Town Hall and the NG Church grounds (10am-5pm), and the Food and Wine Marquee (noon-5pm), on the grounds of the Huguenot Monument. Entertainment usually starts on the Friday with a Golf Day at Pearl Valley, and covers the spectrum from the Bastille Ball, and French Film Festival, to the Franschhoek Boules Tournament, the Porcupine Ridge Barrel-Rolling Competition, a chefs-and-waiters race, and float parade. There are also bike races and trail runs, and many special music events and carnival performers.
Another aspect to this celebration is one linked to Nelson Mandela, the beloved late South African President. One year, in 2007, the Franschhoek Bastille Day Festival decided to add something different to celebrate freedom. The Franschhoek Wine Valley is the place where the French Huguenots sought refuge from persecution. It is also the area with the prison from which Nelson Mandela was finally released in 1990.
So, there was a Long Walk from Drakenstein Prison (formerly called Victor Verster Prison) to the Huguenot Monument in Franschhoek to commemorate Mandela’s release.
The background to this: In 1982 Mandela was transferred from max security prison on Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison in Tokai, Cape Town. Then on December 9, 1988 he was moved to the then-Victor Verster Prison, where he lived in a private House for another 14 months till his release on 11 February 1990. The house is now a National Heritage Site.
That Long Walk was led by one of Mandela’s Robben Island comrades, Tokyo Sexwale. Sexwale, a patron of Franschhoek Wine Valley Tourism, was bestowed the highest French order, the Legion d’Honneur, by French President Mitterand. These days, Sexwale is a high-powered South African businessman and politician—he was the Minister of Human Settlements from 2009-2013.
The walk was accompanied by decorated floats assembled from farm tractors and trailers, each celebrating some positive aspect of South African history or life. Any interested South Africans and other nationals were invited to participate. It must have been a very interesting event to watch or participate in.