Xhosa lore says that in the first half of the 19th century, the southern part of what is today known as Kwazulu-Natal was deliberately evacuated by the AmaPondo Chief, Faku, to form a buffer between his people and lands and the Zulu under Shaka during the Mfecane (“the crushing”) thus leaving a corridor bordered by the Drakensberg and the sea as an apparent “Nomansland”.
From a Zulu perspective, this land was cleared of people by the Zulu Impis (warriors) as they exterminated tribes in this region claiming any cattle found as their bounty.
Whatever the reason, some four decades later, the Griquas, who were under increasing pressure from the expansion of people moving out of the Cape Colony, were granted sovereignty of this area by Sir George Grey who was the British Governor of the Cape.
A Group of Griquas under the leadership of Kaptyn Adam Kok III set out from Philippolis in 1861 to take ownership of their new lands. The trek took 2 years and it is estimated that there were 2000 people, 20 000 head of livestock, 300 wagons, carts and other vehicles which all departed Philippolis for Nomansland. Avoiding British land, the journey passed through modern –day Lesotho and crossed the Drakensberg dealing with raids by the Basotho whose land they crossed and a severe drought, losing many animals to both. The final pass over the Drakensberg and down into Nomansland was perilous and the remains of broken wagons can still be found at the bottom of what has ever since been known as Ongeluks Nek (Misfortune or Accident Neck/Pass).
The initial site that the Griquas stopped at was on the slopes of Mount Currie where they outspanned their Ox wagons and built a laager as a temporary measure until a permanent site for their new town could be agreed upon by a majority. This temporary site was home for nearly 10 years before the new town was started. The alternate site to the one chosen was in the Umzimkulu District but on further inspection by the Volksraad (Council), it was discovered to be unsuitable as it was liable to flooding in very wet seasons. The Rev William Dower of the London Missionary Society had been invited to settle with the Griquas as their priest and he also added his voice to the argument in favour of the site on the banks of the Umzintlava River. Edward Barker, the Government Surveyor, surveyed the town between September 1869 and May 1870, laying out streets and water channels as well as 634 erven (plots of land) to allow one per Griqua family who had trekked from Philippolis. A flagstaff planted by Rev W Dower and his predecessor Rev William Murray was used by Barker as a central point for the new town. Voluntary manual labour under the direction of four men (Adam Jood, Nicholas van der Westhuizen, Sam Marais and Dirk Swartz) saw to the completion of a furrow to carry water from Crystal Springs to the new town. These furrows can still be seen running down Main Street although they now carry storm water away rather than bringing water to the town.
The Parsonage of the Griqua National Independent Church was the first building to be completed on one of the 6 erven set aside for the Church’s use and on 19 May 1971 Rev Dower and his family moved down from the Laager and into their new home. The school building and the church were then tackled, Rev Dower still had to drive up to the laager every Sunday and Wednesday for divine service and the children still attended school up there as many of the Griqua were nervous about moving to a new location. Near the end of 1872, Dower, with Kok’s blessing and in an attempt to force people to move off the mountain, began to hold services on the site of the new church in the open air, even this was not entirely successful as he now found himself preaching to 6 or 7 people rather than the 300 to 400 that had formed his congregation up at the laager. Adam Kok then hurriedly built a small sod house on his erf as a temporary residence and in March of 1873 after calling for an assembly of all the burghers (citizens) at the laager, he appeared in his military uniform (very much the Kaptyn) and ordered all the ammunition, powder, shot and all government property loaded onto ox wagons which he then led in a trek to the new town. The cavalcade reached the site of the new town in the early afternoon and he then addressed all those assembled after asking the Rev Dower to first lead them in prayer. His announcement declared that with immediate effect, the new town was now the seat of government where he himself would be living; all meetings by the council, the sitting of the magistrate and also church services would now be held in the new town. Rev Dower would, however, still hold one service per month at the laager, but only until the end of the year. The school would still be held at the laager, but also only until the end of the year in order to allow everyone to now build houses on their erven.
An announcement was then made by Charles Brisley on behalf of the Raads (Councils) that in honour of the Kaptyn; they had agreed that the new town should be called Kokstad (Stad being the Dutch / Afrikaans word for City)
Conditions in the village in the early months were somewhat primitive and at times unhygienic as cattle were kraaled in the main street and often soiled the water furrows. The many thatch roofs and number of livestock in the village contributed to a plague of fleas but the village was expanding rapidly, there were about 80 houses in 1874, in 1877 there were 120 and this number increased when new settlers began arriving after the official annexation of East Griqualand by the Cape government in 1879. (A kraal is camp used to corral livestock)
By this time, Adam Kok, founder of the settlement was dead, having been killed on 30 December 1875 while on his way to Umzimkulu to celebrate the New Year with his family. While crossing a drift the wheels of his wagon struck a rut and he was thrown from the vehicle, landing under the front wheel which ran over his chest. He died within hours and his body was returned to Kokstad the next morning and buried on his erf. A memorial monument was erected on his grave and can still be visited next to the police station.
Sadly, Adam Kok died with no heir to take on the role of Kaptyn and the result of his death, especially combined with rumours of annexation by the Cape government caused unrest and the resultant arrival of the Frontier Armed Mounted Police (later to become the Cape Mounted Rifles).
In April of 1878, there was fighting between rebels and a combined force of the FAMP and a troop of 300 men raised by Donald Strachan, an old friend of Adam Kok’s from Umzimkulu. More trouble occurred in 1880 when an attempt to recall weapons from all those who had worked in the Kimberly Diamond Fields led to a rebellion by the Makwais Basotho in September, this drove the entire countryside into Laager (fort) formation and the result of the uprising was much bloodshed over the following months.
Farmers and shopkeepers returned to devastated farms and businesses after the war.
1897 saw the last rebellion by Le Fleur and his followers over claims that money was owed to the Griqua from the sale of their properties in the Philippolis area. A Mr CG de Bruin was eventually appointed headman of the Griquas in July 1898.
In more recent times the Greater Kokstad Municipality was incorporated into the Sisonke District Municipality, one of newly formed Transitional Regional Councils within the province of KwaZulu-Natal. This change to municipal areas was started in the final years of the Apartheid Government in order to incorporate rural areas outside of existing Transitional Local Councils. The boundaries of many councils were amended and Sisonke has now inherited parts of what had formerly been Ndlovu and Ugu Transitional Regional Councils. A name change to the District was proposed in 2013 and the result is that the district is now called the Harry Gwala District Municipality.
Harry Gwala consists of 5 local municipalities – Greater Kokstad, Matatiele, KwaSani, Ingwe and Ubuhlebezwe these having previously been known as Kokstad, Matatiele, Cedarville, Underberg, Himeville, Ixopo and Creighton Transitional Local Councils. Plans are underway to merge KwaSani & Ingwe.