Building Hartbeespoort Dam – The Dutchman who wouldn’t budge

by Willie Meyer – from his book “Magaliesberg Kaleidoscope”

Large bodies of water like Hartbeespoort Dam have an aura of timelessness as if they have always been there and will always be there – like mountains. 

But like any man-made feature, they are conceived in the mind of a man and it often take years of deliberation, negotiation and planning before the structure takes shape and becomes a permanent feature of the landscape.  

Hartbeespoort Dam is a fairly recent feature in the Magaliesberg. Shortly after the Anglo Boer War one of the possibilities considered was a dam to supply water to Pretoria and the Witwatersrand. The Transvaal Department of Irrigation worked out a provisional scheme entailing a dam which included some 13 000 ha of land under irrigation.

The scheme was shelved with the formation of the Union in 1910 The outbreak of the First World War prevented an immediate full scale effort to build the dam but a start was made with the infrastructure such as access roads, a suspension foot bridge with a span of 60 metres in the Poort, and accommodation.

According to documents in the Hartbeespoort Dam Snake and Animal Park collection the Government started to expropriate land for the storage area of the lake between 1914 and 1916. Tough negotiations ensued and the Schoeman, Scrooby and Pretorius families refused to sell. They were prepared to grant the Government “servitude of storage”. The issue ended in a court case which the government lost and the families retained their land, the submerged areas included. Johan Schoeman got power of attorney from his family, and eventually sold most of the submerged areas to the government. 

The land, described by one evaluator as “some of the finest irrigation land in the country”, was evaluated at £85 000, but with the war and the economy in a depressed state, the State could only offer Schoeman £35 000.  To make up the difference, Schoeman could retain all the commercial and riparian rights on the water and foreshore — rights which he later put to good use when he established the townships of Schoemansville, Meerhof and Kosmos on the shores of the lake. He ceded some of the boating and fishing rights to buyers of stands in these townships and registered the commercial rights on properties in Schoemansville and Meerhof, which he kept for himself and only sold in the early 1950s when he retired to his farm at Nefdt where Pecanwood is today. 

Having resolved the property issues in the dam basin didn’t mean the end of the Government’s legal problems as far as building the dam was concerned. On the northern side of the Poort the ground belonged to a cantankerous Dutchman, Mr Adriaan van Maarseveen, who was not about to be intimidated by Government officials. The property included the land which today forms Mount Amanzi and the Johann Rissik Estates. The Government needed only a small portion of the land for the infrastructure necessary to start building the dam wall. There was no access to or through the Poort from the south — the present road only came much later and the existing road went up the Moot, not to or through the Poort. The access road had to be made from the northern side. 

Van Maarseveen didn’t take kindly to the Government officials arrogantly starting with the construction of a narrow gauge railway line over his farm from the railway siding where the town of Brits would arise later.  Efforts to negotiate a settlement for the expropriation of the land failed and in January 1917 Van Maarseveen’s lawyers informed the government of his intention to obtain an interdict to stop all work on the project. All equipment and personnel were immediately removed from the site.

The issue ended up in court in November 1917 where judgement was given in favour of the Government. Van Maarseveen immediately appealed but the Government resumed work on the property it wanted to expropriate. To counter Van Maarseveen’s objections, the Government undertook to compensate him for all proven damages in case they lost in the appeal.

Van Maarseveen’s appeal was upheld in April 1918 and he claimed £5 000 in damages for the encroachment on his farm.  The Government offered £100. Immediately, even before the issue was settled, the Government introduced a short bill in parliament to legalise the expropriation of Van Maarseveen’s land. The bill was passed by parliament and became law in May 1918.

A week after the act was promulgated the Government informed Van Maarseveen that it intended to expropriate 93 morgen (about 80 hectares) and offered him £1 per morgen. At this rate he would have got less than £100 and he refused. The matter was referred to arbitration. Before the arbitration court went into session, Van Maarseveen tried to settle for £15 000, but his offer was rejected by the Government. He then increased his claim to £30 000, claiming in court that the actual valuation was £90 000 but that he wanted to be reasonable.

The arbiters could not agree on a figure. Van Maarseveen’s representative arrived at £13 500 and the Government’s arbiter at £500. The umpire in the arbitration court, Mr Patrick Duncan, accepted the Government arbiter’s figure. After a long and costly dispute the matter was at last brought to finality in September 1918.

Van Maarseveen later sold the rest of his farm to Johann Rissik, a prominent government official in Pretoria, after whom Rissik Streets in Johannesburg and Pretoria were named. The picnic site next to Mount Amanzi on the Crocodile River still bears his name.

By now the Great War was at an end, soldiers were returning from the front and South Africa, like most of the world then, was in the grip of a recession and large scale unemployment. It was also during this time that the country was ravaged by the Great Spanish Flu epidemic, which resulted in 140 000 deaths countrywide and more than 50 million worldwide.

The “Poor White” problem was a major issue and the public was getting impatient with the slow rate of progress at the construction site, which was supposed to be an employment project for whites. White labourers wanted the poverty relief but where loath to perform manual labour, resulting in many delays and disruptions of the schedule. Labour unrest and violent strikes that broke out on the Witwatersrand mines further complicated matters. The situation at the dam improved only when the management got permission to employ black labourers and the white workers realised that they had to change their attitude or lose their jobs.

In 1921 the project suffered a major setback when the heavy rains washed away a good deal of the construction work. A major reorganisation ensued. A new engineer was appointed, the dam wall was redesigned and in what must go down as a major engineering feat, the construction was completed within the next two years. In September 1923 Hartbeespoort Dam was handed over and became a landmark and one of the distinctive features of the Magaliesberg as we know it today.

A copy of the book by Willie Meyer is available at the Kormorant office.

Also see:

The building of the Dam Wall

Dam of dreams

The engineer who saved the Dam