OLIVE SCHREINER and the Karoo – Dr Dawn Gould

Olive Schreiner showed her care and affection for the Karoo when in a letter to WT Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette dated  15 March 1891 she wrote, ”All I need to make my cup of happiness full is the Karoo…”

Parts of the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and the Northern Cape Provinces are known as the Karoo.   Low arid scrub bushes and succulents dominate growth.  Farming in the meat industry raises mutton, beef and for the clothing industry, wool and mohair.  The word Karoo, it is thought, came from a Khoi word meaning desert. Weather-wise it has a low rainfall and a mixture of great heat and at times, extreme cold.

Olive Schreiner was and remains one of South Africa’s great writers and for her observations, statements on social matters, politics, feminism. She was born in 1855 at the isolated Wittenbergen Mission Station, south east of the Cape Colony and died in 1920 at Wynberg, a Cape Town suburb .

Her parents were poor and at the age of 12 she began her movements around the Karoo when she was sent to Cradock where her brother Theo was the head of a school.  The Karoo was where part of her life had started and from there on she would become somewhat peripatetic.  Cradock is known as the centre for the South African wool industry, for dairy and fruit farming.  The Olive Schreiner House Museum is an attraction as is the Mountain Zebra National Park, a short distance outside of the town.

For a while she would care for children of families in the Eastern Cape. Then in 1872 she visited her two brothers Theo and Will and sister Ettie at the New Rush (later known as Kimberley) diamond fields and helped work the family claim. It was at this time that Schreiner began to write.

Kimberley became, in 1994, the capital of the Northern Cape. A constant reminder of the diamond fields is the Big Hole, a former mine dating back to 1871. It is 463 metres wide, 17 hectares covers the surface area, and it was excavated to a depth of 240 metres. Today it is an important tourist attraction

Time moved on and so did Olive Schreiner when she visited her sister Alice,1873-1874, in Fraserburg another part of the northern Cape Karoo.  Fossils have been found in the area. Prehistoric footprints have also been seen on rocks.  The town that can be very cold in winter only became electrified in 1983.

Towards the end of 1881 Schreiner left South Africa for England to study nursing and midwifery. Unfortunately this ended when she suffered a chest infection and asthma attacks. During this time Olive became friendly with Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx.  Before returning home she also visited Italy and Switzerland.

Schreiner’s writing had continued over the years and it was during this period in England that her first book The Story of An African Farm was published in 1883 by Chapman & Hall under the nom-de-plume of Ralph Iron. The story line is set in the Karoo and it would become one of the first feminist novels.  The author returned to Africa in 1889 spending much time at Matjiesfontein hoping that it would help her asthma attacks. It was a part of the country in which she seemed to enjoy living. James Logan had built an hotel there and catered for the railways on route for Johannesburg.

In 1894 she married Samuel Cronwright (he took the name Cronwright Schreiner). They moved to Johannesburg where she gave birth to a daughter in 1895. Sadly the baby died shortly thereafter.

When the Anglo Boer War (South African War) got under way Schreiner was living in the small village of Hanover. The English soldiers stationed there were not pleased with her taking sides with the causes of the Afrikaners.  Her house was burned down as were many of her manuscripts.  Once more Schreiner moved on and spent the years of the first World War 1914-1918 in England. After returning to South Africa her health appeared to deteriorate and she appears to have become rather isolated in the small Wynberg private hotel where she lived. After her death she was buried in Kimberley but later her estranged husband had her body exhumed and was re-buried together with her unnamed daughter and small dog Neta, on the Mountain side of the Buffelshoek farm 15 kilometres south of Cradock.

It could be argued today that Olive Schreiner is best known only for The Story of an African Farm. Possibly that is true but she did write more: Dreams 1890, Dream Life and Real Life 1893, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, Women and Labour, From Man to Man, Undine.  Olive Schreiner lived in a period when women were slowly, very slowly gaining greater legal and political attention. Female franchise was a strong and constantly discussed subject in parliament.  She spoke to the politicians of her day- Jan Smuts, CJ Rhodes and others as well as those in Britain. She spoke directly of her beliefs and understanding of politics and she spoke as an equal.   When one looks back to her day, one can still find that some of her ideas are perhaps still not totally in practice.