Elim is a Mission Station

Keep the Town Authentic

©Ann Gadd
Like Genadendal, Elim is a mission station, belonging to the Moravian Church. Unlike Genadendal, however, Elim is still very much as it was when first founded in 1824, on the farm Vogelstruiskraal. All the land in town still belongs to the church, and homes are only given to paid-up members of the congregation.

With one foot still kept resolutely in the past, visiting Elim is like stepping into a time warp. The small town is laid out in several neat, parallel rows. There are no shops, chain stores or take-out joints. The houses are all simple, whitewashed cottages with thatched roofs and jumbled gardens of wildflowers. While many of these homes were built quite recently, residents can only choose from one of three approved house plans, which date back about 100 years, and this architectural restriction helps keep the town authentic.

The Old Church

©Ann Gadd
Moravian Church in Elim, Western Cape.
As is to be expected, the focus of the town is the old church, which has pride of place in the centre of the settlement. This large but unfussy building is the spiritual home of this tight-knit congregation, and it boasts a lovely pipe organ and two ancient tower clocks that are driven by a single shaft. The mechanics of this timepiece are Swiss and date back 235 years, making it the oldest working clock in South Africa.

Our tour guide, Emile, took us inside the church and explained that the congregation is seated in sections according to gender, marital status and age. This is so that the pastor can tell at a glance which members of the congregation are in attendance, and which are bunking. He also told us that marrying out of the community isn’t really a problem as people tend to ‘take a sheep from their own kraal’.

Coming to Elim

©Ann Gadd
Next to the church is the beautiful old parsonage, and a leafy greensward surrounded by flowers and gently decaying buildings. An irrigation furrow leads to the old water mill, which has been restored to good working condition with the help of the Rembrandt Foundation, and is once again capable of crushing the community’s corn and wheat. Nearby, a new library and day care centre are evidence that things are changing in the little town, but the corner café where a young Emile bought his chips and sweets still stands proud. It is the only shop in town.

Nevertheless, like an advancing storm, the modern world is coming to Elim. A tarred road is currently being built that will link Gans Bay with Elim and Bredasdorp. This is part of the proposed asphalt link that will make the Agulhas Coast more accessible to tourists. Emile was a little bit concerned that the arrival of the road will destroy Elim’s character and independence.

Elim’s Voluntary Isolation

And it’s not just the new road that is ringing alarm bells. The regional council installed sewerage and water mains about 6 years ago, and the congregants of Elim are worried that the local government is about to demand the town be handed over to them. This would cause problems for the desperately poor community members, who are given free housing in exchange for their meagre annual church fees.

Furthermore, if the land was taken away from the church, outsiders would be allowed to move into the peaceful valley and start building garish holiday homes wherever they liked. This would be the end of Elim’s voluntary isolation, and the death of the town’s unique personality. I think the whole place should be declared a national monument, before it’s too late.

A Working Mission Station

©Roger de la Harpe
Rooi Stompie or Red Pagoda (Mimetes cucullatus).
At the moment, tourist facilities are basic in Elim, which is only appropriate as it is still a working mission station and not a theme park. Nevertheless, there is a coffee shop, a corner café and a community run B&B in the old parsonage.

When you get to Elim, stop at the small tourist info office and arrange a guided tour around town. This is not only more appropriate, it is also much more informative as the guides are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their village. While you are in the area, you might also want to take a walk through the nearby Geelkop Nature Reserve, which has several unique species of Fynbos found nowhere else on Earth.

By David Fleminger