Yes, for all those residents of a more recent vintage, Hermanus did indeed have an airfield, with its own hangars, control tower and club house for the flourishing flying club based there. Built on municipal ground, it was located between the industrial area and the Kwasa Kwasa section of Zwelihle.
Unfortunately, over time, membership of the club dwindled and finally the airstrip and its accompanying buildings were abandoned. Whatever could not be stripped away, was left to rust and moulder away. Eventually, the area was rezoned for 1 500 houses for new Zwelihle residents.
Of course, when Theo de Meyer and his wife, Stella settled into their retirement home in Sandbaai, which they called the House of Peace, he knew nothing of the existence or history of the airfield. After a lifetime of service at a senior level in the public sector, Theo did know two things about his future in Hermanus: one was that he was definitely not going to sit on his stoep drinking coffee all day and the other was that he had so much to be grateful for in his life that he now wanted to pay some of his good fortune back to a less privileged section of the community. But he wasn’t sure where, what or how to begin.
He was good with his hands, though, so he offered his services to Child Welfare as a handyman. Well, they were certainly not going to look a gift horse in the mouth and in no time, he had progressed from handyman to Chairman of the organisation, which he remained for the three years. From this platform, he was able to gain valuable insights into the needs of underprivileged members of the community and indeed to get to know them personally.
In a sea of poverty, it soon became clear to Theo, however, that there were two sectors of the community that were in particularly dire straits – the homeless and the youth, both aimlessly loitering about with no recognition or purpose. Existing organisations did not appear to be taking up their cause and it seemed to him that he was being given a divine commission to alleviate their plight. If he was prepared to answer the call, he would be given the means to carry it out, he believed. The next thing that happened seemed to reinforce this belief.
Driving home to Sandbaai from the New Harbour one day, he decided to take a shortcut on a dirt track through Zwelihle and there he came upon this collection of rag-tag buildings, stripped naked and falling apart. There were no doors or windows left and both the plumbing and electricital piping had been ripped out. Straightaway, he knew this was what he had been looking for. Having consulted with a number of people in the Hermanus and Zwelihle communities, he successfully sold his vision to the Overstrand Municipality, and was ready to take on the massive task of creating something useful out of the derelict buildings. He was given one year to see what he could do.
Setting to work immediately, he rounded up between 10 and 20 ‘bergies’, providing them with a small daily stipend and a meal of fruit and bread. They began by clearing up the huge amount of rubble on the site and patching what was salvageable. During this time, Theo gave a talk about the project to the Rotarians of Hermanus, and as he had been promised, things continued to fall into place. At just that time, in May 1996, some old sheds at the Hermanus Station (which wasn’t really a station) were being demolished to make way for the new Checkers development. The Rotary Club successfully tendered for them and passed the materials, together with some basic building tools to the ‘madman’ and his project. By that time, the municipality had granted him a 99-year leasehold on the property and the enterprise had been given a name – Hou Moed (loosely translated: ‘Don’t give up’).
This provided the ‘bergies’ not only with on-going work opportunities, but also, eventually, a place to stay and a cooked meal each day. What finally emerged was a home for the homeless and an aftercare centre for the youth, with a wide range of sporting and cultural activities and a computer centre to keep them productively and creatively occupied.
Eventually, the number of homeless people in the area diminished and it was decided to terminate that project and to replace it with two others: the beginnings of an ECD centre – Yomelelani – and the Swop Shop which created an opportunity for children and unemployed women to collect recyclable waste materials in the community and be rewarded in kind for their efforts.
Each of these projects operated as separate entities with their own management structures under the umbrella of the Hou Moed Centre for Youth Development and Recreation. By this time, what Theo called his A-Team of 20 young people had taken over from where the ‘bergies’ had left off and helped him to carry on building and repairing the premises, as well as preparing about 70 cooked meals at the centre every day. More classrooms were added for Yomelelani and thanks to growing financial support, both local and foreign, they were able to purchase a bakkie and a small bus. Approximately 60 – 70 young people participated in the continuously expanding after-school programmes and another 30 – 40 pre-schoolers were accommodated at Yomelelani.
In 2012, as he was approaching his 80th birthday, Theo felt he should hand over the day-to-day management of Hou Moed to a larger, more structured organisation. Eventually it was decided that Child Welfare would become its custodian. Sadly, this venture did not have a happy ending and its steadily downward trajectory culminated in the closing of the Hou Moed project.
What had been described as ‘an oasis in a sea of misery’ became the misery itself, recounts Theo, who was heartbroken by this turn of events. Known as ‘Meneer’ by all and sundry in Zwelihle, his mission had been to be a friend to the poor, the needy and the underdog and he was not going to allow his vision to be trodden underfoot. So, now well into his 80s, he was able to organise the resuscitation of the project in a different format. Thanks to a very generous foreign donation, Yomelelani was able to spread its wings even further and Theo and his A Team converted a remaining hangar into a large hall adjacent to the centre. The Swop Shop continues to operate on the site and the Red Cross has taken over some aspects of the youth development project.
In addition, in his personal capacity, he has assisted several promising youngsters with their education and ‘adopted’ one of them, Patrick Zakheli Mbhadeni, now married and with a family of his own, who has become a flourishing entrepreneur and remains an integral part of Theo’s extended family. Several of the members of his A Team currently hold leadership positions in Zwelihle Renewal, including Gcobani Ndzongana and Theron Mqhu.
He expresses his sadness about the violence with which this movement has been associated, but based on his many years of experience with the people of Zwelihle, he has full confidence in the community’s potential for success. “You can see signs of it already,” he points out. “People are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps – they have an unstoppable drive to improve their own lives and those of their children; many of them have already moved into the middle class. All they need is a bit of a boost – and equal educational opportunities, of course.”
The recipient of numerous awards, which are all neatly filed in his memory book, Theo remains a self-effacing hero. A welcome visitor to all the projects that have sprung from the battered airfield site (now surrounded by houses and shacks), he feels a sense of deep satisfaction at having stuck unwaveringly to his commission.