The Genadendal Mission Station was initially established on 23 April 1738 when Georg Schmidt, a Moravian Church missionary, together with a small group of Khoikhoi, set up the first mission station at what was then called Baviaanskloof (Valley of Baboons).
During his time there, Schmidt built a house, taught his followers to read the Bible, write and grow vegetables.
The Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) did not take kindly to Schmidt’s missionary work and he was forced to leave the country a few years later after he baptised five of his followers.
Almost 50 years after Schmidt left, a chance encounter between a Moravian Church member travelling to Europe and a local priest at the Cape set things in motion to re-establish the Moravian mission.
In November 1792, the Moravian headquarters in Europe sent three men to the Cape. Hendrick Marsveld a 47 year old tailor, Daniel Schwinn a 42 year old shoemaker and Christian Kühnel a 30 year old knife maker.
On arriving at Baviaanskloof, Khoikhoi living in a kraal not far from the mission showed the men where Schmidt’s house had been. Some of the walls were still standing. They were also told that Schmidt had planted an almond, apricot and pear tree. Schmidt had given his classes underneath the pear tree.
To this day a pear tree still grows in the original location of Schmidt’s one.
The missionaries also met Vehettge Tikkuie who was Schmidt’s cook and housekeeper and had been one of the five baptised by him. After being baptised, she took the name Magdelena.
Before he left, Schmidt gave her a copy of the New Testament and asked her to take care of his flock while he was away.
For nearly 50 years Magdelena continued preaching and teaching others to read the bible and pray. She did so under the same pear tree which Schmidt had used.
She still had the copy of the New Testament that had been given to her by Schmidt.
The book is now kept at the Genadendal Mission Museum.
Magdelena told them that when Schmidt left, the converts returned to working at the farms and many of them had since died. Life had steadily gotten worse for the Khoi, who according to Magdelena, were not as poor as they were ‘now’. When the missionaries told Lena that they had come to continue the work in Baviaanskloof, her response was, ‘Thanks be to God.’
Magdelena continued to help at the mission until her death on 3 January 1800.
Life was not easy for those who went with the 3 missionaries to live at the mission station.
Initially, food had to be hunted or gathered. Some still owned livestock but most owned nothing.
Many worked for neighbouring farmers to earn a living but were treated poorly and were relunctant to go back.
Some Khoikhoi still continued to practice some of their traditional cultural rituals but once baptised they were expected to stop. Like with Schmidt, any member of the mission found ‘dancing and singing’ traditionally was excluded from classes and church meetings until they repented.
Converts were given a piece of land and the missionaries taught them to grow vegetables, make cheese and butter and to grind flour. Men would sell or barter their produce for other goods. Women would make items such as bracelets, necklaces, hats, tabacco pouches and purses which would be sold as curios to visitors.
By the end of the century over a thousand Khoikhoi had flocked to the mission station.
The Golden Era
After visiting in 1806, Governor Janssens, decided to change the name of the mission station from Baviaanskloof to Genadendal (Valley of Grace).
The Genadendal mission station again felt the resistance of the DRC who objected against the Moravians doing missionary work in a DRC district.
Initially not even a church building was allowed and the missionaries held services in another building.
Permission was eventually received to build a church but they were then prevented from ringing the church bell which the DRC, in a not so nearby town Stellenbosch, said was a disturbance.
Again special permission had to be granted to ring the bell, which Genadendal then took full advantage of, ringing it several times a day.
Mission stations were becoming increasingly important as educational centres in South Africa and this made it necessary to allow people to stay permanently. This required job creation at a local level.
The Genadendal mission station started manufacturing chairs, leather goods and cutlery (including the well known herneuter knives). These handmade goods became renowned for their high quality and were shipped throughout the Cape, in some instances throughout the world.
Genadendal became a self-sufficient community.
In 1837 the village acquired an old Gutenberg printing press and started printing various Cape and church periodicals and school textbooks. Bookbinding was a natural follow on industry. The Genadendal printing press was the only one in the Cape that could print music.
With the arrival of the British came the abolishment of slavery in South Africa. This, in the 1830’s, brought an influx of newly freed slaves from all over the Cape to Genadendal. Missionary Hallbeck, a church leader at the time, had the idea of starting a training centre to train up locals and have them assist with teaching and other church duties.
South Africa’s first Teachers Training College was established in Genadendal on 12 September 1838. Graduates received training on and were able to teach Dutch, German, music, woodwork, printing, church history and bible studies.
With education at the reigns, the village also established one of the largest and best public libraries in the Cape.
The “Golden Era” would not last forever though and slowly but steadily declined after 1860.
Demand for the high quality handmade goods, that Genadendal was so well known for, fell after the development of large scale production lines producing cheap inferior items.
In 1926 the Department of Public Education decided that it did not see the need for tertiary education for “coloured” people who, according to it, were better employed working on farms. After having flourished unhindered for over 100 years, the college was forced to close its doors.
The development of the personal computer and shortly after that the personal printer, started putting strain on the Genadendal printing industry and it too closed down in 2003 having been in operation for over 170 years.
Genadendal Mission Station Today
Today, some say that Genadendal is forgotten, remote and degraded.
In 1995, newly elected President Nelson Mandela renamed his offical residence to Genadendal after receiving a letter from Dr Isaac Balie, a resident “Genaaler”, former teacher and the curator of the Mission Museum which is a historic gem located in the heart of the village.
President Mandela visited the village in October 1995 and was given a tour of the village and the Mission Museum with its buildings dating back to the late 1700’s.
He visited the printing exhibition with it’s multiple printing presses, some of which are still functional.
In the building that used to be the Teachers Training College, he saw thousands of heirlooms donated by people living in Genadendal. He saw the hand made goods that the village was so well known for.
He saw where the 3 missionaries stayed, the imposing church and its controversial bell.
He stood under a pear tree planted where Schmidt and Magdelena had taught and walked among the Khokhoi hut replicas.
President Mandela saw that if you dig a little deeper, Genadendal starts to show you things. It starts to show you a story of struggle and triumph. A story of people from different backgrounds coming together and doing extraordinary things with little more than a hope and a prayer. A story of faith that can move mountains, taking control of your destiny, never giving up.
Like all stories there are trials and tribulations, good times and bad, mountains and valleys.
The Genadendal story is everywhere, the friendly faces of the people, the old and new buildings, the majestic mountains and trees.
You can see it, breathe it, feel it.
It resonated with Madiba because the story of Genadendal was his story. It’s your story. It’s our story.
It’s our history.
The story hasn’t ended. It’s still unfolding, still being told, still being written.
All in this amazing little, Valley of Grace.