On a recent trip through the Overberg, I took a detour to the little town of Elim. With a population of just under 2500, Elim is the oldest settlement in the district, and is very close to the southernmost tip of Africa, not far from the larger towns of Napier and Bredasdorp.
After negotiating a gravel road through stunning fynbos for which this region is famous, I suddenly crested a hill and there lay Elim in the distance. Surrounded by fields of grazing sheep, this unusual little town looked very peaceful and pretty.
Elim – which means ‘place of rest’ and is a biblical reference to the Israelites – is unusual in several ways. It’s a town wholly owned by the church and is a national monument in its entirety. Established as a Morovian mission station in 1824 by Bishop Hallbeck, the entire town is registered as a farm belonging to the Morovian church. All inhabitants are members of the church. When slavery was abolished in 1834 in the Cape, many freed slaves came to live here and in 1938 a memorial to the emancipation of slaves was erected. It is the only such monument in South Africa.
One of the last working water-mills in the country is here. Engineers will delight to see the way it is built and how it functions. The mill was declared a national monument in 1974 and was formally opened in 1990. Sadly, it is in desperate need of further restoration but lack of funds and much confusing bureaucracy stand in the way of this. As I arrived I was greeted at the door by the very friendly curator of the mill, Emile Richter, who trained as a tour guide in order to offer historical tours of the mill and the village. Emile is passionate about the town’s history and wants to do all he can to bring in revenue.
Unfortunately, from a financial point of view, Elim is a very poor community – aside from farming there is little other activity and it is isolated. It’s not on any main road so is unlikely to receive much in the way of passing visitors.
Another unusual aspect of this town is that only members of the church may live there and only descendants of slaves, i.e. ‘coloured’ people as they are known in South Africa, may live there. There are no white inhabitants and no black inhabitants. Inhabitants may not own land but they can rent a piece of land from the church and build on it. They can sell or bequeath a building but no sales to outsiders are permitted.
Very little has changed since 1824 – there are no modern buildings and almost all the houses are picturesque white-washed with thatched roofs. The townspeople are renowned for their high-quality expert thatch work, the thatch craftsmen being sought after by builders far and wide – they are currently engaged in thatch work in Dubai!
This was an interesting visit and well worth the detour! Next time I’ll explore the surrounding wine region.