Being connected is arguably the most imported reason while the world still keeps functioning at this time of Covid-19. After South Africa went into lockdown on 27 March cell phones and computers were the only ways to stay in contact – and helped many to stay safe and sane.
People suffering through plaques in ancient times did not have this privilege and that is probably why whole communities were wiped out when plagues such as the Black Death devastated Europe in medieval times.
The earliest way of staying in touch for our forebears were by post. Even while the Great Trek was in progress, the local Voortrekkers exchanged letters with groups in the Northern Cape and Natal by way of messengers. It was a very primitive postal system.
Gawie van der Walt, local philatelist, who co-presented a lecture on the postal history of Potchefstroom, said:
The postal arrangements of the South African Republic prior to the year 1868 were in a very primitive and unsatisfactory condition; the country was sparsely inhabited, the towns were few and unimportant and separated by great distances.
Of railways there were none, and the roads were rough cart tracks. The only industries were agricultural, or rather pastoral, and correspondence, both internal and external, was quite insignificant. At this time there were twelve post offices.
The inland post offices were connected by native runners, and for external postage, fortnightly communication was kept up with Kroonstadt, the nearest post office in the Free State.
During a meeting of the Lydenburg Volksraad on 27th May 1850 it was decided to instruct the landdrost of Potchefstroom (Lombardt) and Lydenburg (J de Clercq) in collaboration with the field-cornets to establish a postal system with the use of couriers. The first regular route would be from Lydenburg via Renosterpoort and Suikerbosrand (Heidelberg) to Potch.
The first postal law was approved by the Volksraad on 24th September 1859 with immediate effect. This law entrusted the administration and control of postal affairs to a Postmaster General who also served as postmaster of Potchefstroom.
The first postmaster of Potchefstroom was Mr Hermann Jeppe (1819-1892), who was appointed in 1859. In 1860 Mr Hermann Jeppe reported that the post office handled 4 626 letters and 6 990 newspapers. Some other postmasters succeeded Hermann Jeppe, until his brother Fred became postmaster in 1866 and Postmaster General in 1868.
According to Gawie van der Walt, Fred Jeppe made it his objective to improve the postal facilities. Amongst other incentives, he began by starting mail carts on the main routes between Pretoria, the Orange Free State, and Natal; he also provided stocks of the postage stamps of the Cape Colony and the Orange Free State for the convenience of the public.
Main post offices of Potchefstroom
The first government building, also serving as post office, stood on the old market square. The site, on Church Street (Walter Sisulu), about 30 metres north of the crossing with Retief Street is currently the garden of Standard Bank. The building was erected shortly after the move of the town from Oudedorp and was described as long clay building with a thatched roof and “a small misshaped building”.
It mainly housed the office of the magistrate and those of the clerk of the market as well as the prison. These government offices were relocated to the west of the Church Square in the late 1850’s.
At the time the former residence of President MW Pretorius on Church Square in Greyling Street (OR Tambo) was used as a government building and also served as post office. During the First Anglo-Boer War of 1880/1 the building was damaged in skirmishes between the Boers and British soldiers, who took refuge in the magistrate’s office in the same building during the Siege of Potchefstroom.
Repairs were made to the building after the War and Mr Izaak van Alphen was the postmaster. As Jeppe, he also later became Postmaster General of the ZAR. Private post boxes became available in 1887.
One of the duties of the postmaster was to blow on the horn of a kudu to announce the arrival of the post! Ernest Jenkins wrote that at the time there was no such thing as town delivery, one had to call personally at the Post Office for expected letters or newspapers.
During the early 1890s the Landdrost-, Post and Telegraph Office was built and inaugurated in 1895.
In 1910 a government building was officially opened on the site of the former government building. This served as post office until the new post office was opened on the corner of Wolmarans and Greyling Streets. The current main post office of Potchefstroom was designed by the architect Nardus Conradie and was inaugurated in 1966.
1880’s – First telegraph line installed
Potchefstroom became directly connected to the outside world for the first time in the early 1880s.
Telegraphy is the long-distance transmission of textual messages where the sender uses symbolic codes, known to the recipient, rather than a physical exchange of an object bearing the message. The decoder would write the message on a piece of paper which was delivered to the recipient.
The first telegraph line, between the Natal Border and Pretoria, was erected by the British military authorities. A subsequent extension was made from Heidelberg to Bloemfontein via Coal Myn Drift (later Vereeniging). It was constructed by telegraphists who at one time were members to the Royal Engineers, but retained in the service of the Republic (ZAR). Potchefstroom was linked up a few years later.
1909 – First telephones
The 1st February 1909 was described by the Herald as “a red letter day in Potchefstroom’s history, that being the date of the inauguration of Potchefstroom’s telephone service”.
The local Chamber of Commerce started negotiations with the Post Office in July 1905 to acquire the service. With over seventy subscribers, when it was started, it was the largest installation of a telephone service in the Transvaal outside the Rand and Pretoria.
The first call was between the mayor, Mr MA Goetz and the Post Master General, Mr J Frank Brown.
The Potchefstroom Herald of 5 February 1909 reported that when it became known that the service was operational. The exchange, manned by the chief engineer, Mr Norman Harrison, was kept quite busy.
At first the telephone hours were between 8 am and 6 pm with no service on Sundays and public holidays.
Potchefstroom’s first telephone guide was published in the Herald shortly after the telephone service started. The list was not in alphabetical order but in numerical order with the number of the shop or residence and the name of the holder next to it. If you rang the Potchefstroom exchange and ask for Number One, you would be connected to the shop of J Tod Suttie. The list reads like a who’s who of Potchefstroom from the time.
The all-night telephone service was inaugurated on 1 March 1913. This became necessary in view of the increasing use being made of the day service. The automatic telephone exchange was put into operation on 14 January 1962.
1967 – First computer
When the first computer made its appearance in Potchefstroom, is not known, but the Potchefstroom University took the lead with the installation of computers. In In U Lig, about the history of the university from 1951 to 2003, it is said that the possibility of installing computers was first mentioned in 1960 during discussions about the possibility of opening an engineering faculty.
An alumnus of the university recalled that Prof Hannes de Beer was one of the driving forces behind the acquisition of the university’s first computer. Prof De Beer visited Durham in England in 1966/7 as part of his research in cosmic rays, where he first encountered a computer. He wrote back to the university to say that they should buy a computer, otherwise he would resign.
In 1967 the IBM 1130 system was installed at the university.
1971 – First television set
1994 – First cell phone
“It is here, the first and best Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM)!” This is how the Herald of 6 May 1994 announced that cell phones were for sale in Potchefstroom. Vodacom and the car dealer Kyalami Motors collaborated to provide this service to the people of Potchefstroom.
This new service was announced in a full page advertorial. Ten different models of phones were available. Much trouble were taken to explain how voicemail works. It is also explained that calls can be rerouted to another phone – one of the wonders of the modern world! Cell phone users were assured that nobody would be able to listen in on their calls.
Another novelty was that an answering service can save messages – and wonder above wonder – this can also happen when the phone is switched off. “This excellent service will make you wonder how you ever were able to manage without it.” And: “Vodacom will revolutionise your business. Not only will it improve efficiency, convenience and information security, but ultimately profitability as well.”
Sources other than mentioned in the text:
- EH Jenkins, Commercial section of Potchefstroom History in WJ Badenhorst (ed), Potchefstroom 1838-1938 (Potchefstroom, 1939).
- G Kampher and G van der Walt, The postal history of Potchefstroom. Unpublished Maj Ian B Matthews Memorial Lecture of the South African Philatelic Federation, 2008.
- G van den Bergh, Die geskiedenis van Potchefstroom (Potchefstroom, 1988). Unpublished manuscript held in the Archives of the Potchefstroom Museum.
- WJ de V Prinsloo, Potchefstroom 150 – grepe uit die geskiedenis van Potchefstroom by geleentheid van die viering van die 150e bestaansjaar van die dorp in 1988, (Potchefstroom, 1988).