An offer you can't refuse

Over a Cuppuccino at Smokey Joes, Carlo Di Mezza,“ A local who was actually born here” brought up the subject of Italian prisoners of war and their contribution to the Eastern Free State and Clarens/Bethlehem in particular. I left thinking that this would be a great story and immediately headed home and Googled “Italian prisoners of war in South Africa”. After reading number of pages and finding a couple of books in my library at home, I soon realised that this story would need to be in two parts, one being on the relationship between Italians and South Africa prior to the Second World War and the other on the contribution those prisoners who came to South Africa made in the Caledon valley

In the 17th and 18th century there was only a small number of Italians in South Africa, this was to change in 1880 when numbers increased due to the Gold Rush South Africa experienced, not all Italians that came to the country were labourers among them were shop owners, doctors and lawyers and is estimated that by 1900 between three to four thousand Italians had made South Africa home. When South Africa became a union in 1910, the building industry boomed, with Cape Town and Pretoria having to be provided with public buildings. Many Italians were involved with the building of the Union buildings between 1910 –1912 as stonemasons, bricklayers and decorators

After the great depression South Africa the early1930’s saw a boom in the industrial, commercial and agricultural sectors and the Italian community also flourished with the following families leading the way

1) Carleo – (Mechanical industry)

2) Lupini – (Building materials)

3) Gallo – (Railroad construction)

4) Rossi, Lambardi and Beretta – (Farming)

Not many people are aware that a number of Italians were also involved in the building of the Voortrekker monument in the late 1930’s, there was also involvement with the laager wall as well as the casting of the Van Wouw statue of woman and child in front of the monument. The twenty-seven panel marble fresco was chiselled from Italian marble in Italy and shipped to South Africa, “just as a matter of interest the panels weigh over one hundred and eighty tons. An interesting fact from this research is the story of the Italian hero at the battle of Bloukraans. An Italian lady called Theresa Viglione was a trader camping near to the trekkers to do business. On the 17th of February 1838 she risked her life to warn the Boers of the attack, her warning saved lives and after the attack she also helped nurse wounded children, this drew great respect from the Boers. Her bravery and compassion is honoured by being depicted on panel 15 that show the trials and tribulations of the Great Trek.

South Africa played a huge part in wresting the East African Colonies from the grasp of the Italian Empire and the restoration of the Emperor Haile Selassie to his throne in Addis Ababa, vast numbers of Italian prisoners of war (P.O.W) taken in North Africa were detained in South Africa. In February 1941 the first P.O. W’s landed in Durban, as more men were taken prisoner there numbers increased. The South Africans were not ready or organized for this large influx and after a initial amount of confusion and disorganization order was restored. A camp was established forty kilometres from Pretoria called Zonderwater, (near to present day Cullinan) that was to become the largest P.O W camp throughout the Allied territories, to put it in to context in 1942 Zonderwater was as large (white population wise) as the town of Benoni, by December 31st 1942 the camp had over sixty seven thousand men living in it, by the time it closed in 1947 apart from the accommodation for over one hundred thousand men, it also boasted a huge hospital, seventeen theatres, sixteen soccer fields, six tennis courts, eighty bowling alleys, seven fencing halls, volleyball fields, boxing rings, gymnasiums, sports clubs and almost thirty nine kilometres of roads within the camp itself.

From the beginning accommodation for both camp staff and prisoners was in tents and a vast tent town arose virtually overnight, later solid accommodation in the form of huts were built of clapboard, brick, concrete and corrugated iron, the labour used being that of the prisoners themselves. At its height the camp consisted of fourteen blocks, each block having four camps, in addition there was also a transit camp, disinfectant camp and a hospital that had one thousand six hundred beds, making it at the time one of the largest hospitals in South Africa.

A large area of irrigated and un-irrigated land next to the camp, all that had been fallow ground was put under cultivation and within a short period the farm was producing a wide variety of vegetables, including field crops, all used for the feeding of the P.O.W’s. The camps also looked after the prisoners religious, sporting educational and social needs with the camp assisting in educating over ten thousand illiterate Italians, as well as teaching many more useful trades that they could use after the war.

To relieve the camp numbers the SADF decided to allow certain prisoners (those with essential skills) to be released in the care of South Africans who would provide jobs for them. Four thousand South African employers responded and provided employment (mostly in the agricultural sector), many coming to the Eastern Free State and the Caledon Valley in particular; with over a thousand being allowed to remain in the country after the war had ended. I cannot wait to research this subject here in Clarens and find buildings that were actually built by Italians, some who became part of the Community, such as the Di Mezza’s.

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