The impressive station building is the closest the town of Heidelberg would ever come to a masterpiece such as the ‘Mona Lisa’. This imposing building is designed by the architect, V von Lissa of the NZASM (the “Nederlandsche Zuid Afrikaanse Spoorweg Maatschappij”). Mr H Westenburg, the section engineer, lay the corner stone on 24 September 1894. The building was designed in the Eclectic ZA Wilhelmiens style, using sandstone blocks. The architecture is characterised by the “stairs and clock-like” facades. The beauty of the building makes us forget that this is the first stop on the Heidelberg “struggle route”.
The difference in opinion of where the building should be erected, was the first struggle. Some believed it should be in, or on the outskirts of the town. Subsequently, this led to an adjustment of the railway line, causing a winding section of railway throughout Heidelberg. The town fathers were favoured by larger tax benefits and the longer trajectory, which was then ruled by the old Law of the then Transvaal. One of the contractors, the Schuitmaker Brothers, suffered financial problems before delivering and had to be replaced.
The station was officially opened by President Paul Kruger on 10 October 1895. This railway line was supposed to encourage free trade between Johannesburg and Durban for the ZAR. (Zuid Afrikaanse Republic). The concession holder, the NZASM, was enforced by law to assist the ZAR Government in the Anglo Boer War. They had to transport prisoners of war. That they even had to sabotage their own railway lines. The struggle ended after the war when the British summarily cancelled the concession and their employees were repatriated.
On 15 November 1899, the prisoners of war from the derailed British train were transported from Frere to Pretoria via Heidelberg. Allegations were made that the prisoners were kept in the cellar of this building for the evening. One of the prisoners, was a certain Winston Churchill, a journalist from the “Morning Post’. He would later struggle for his own freedom by escaping from Pretoria. As the leader of Great Britain, he would later take up Genl. Jan S Smuts, who was well-known at the Heidelberg Station, in his war cabinet during The Second World War.
During the Anglo Boer War, Indians assisted the British as stretcher carriers during battles. A similar veld ambulance can now be seen at the old Heidelberg Station.
Their Indian leader would become a great “struggle” icon for their country. He also visited the Heidelberg Station frequently during journeys between Durban and Johannesburg. A photo was taken at the station in 1910, where he was welcomed with a bouquet of flowers. During these train journeys, Mahatma Ghandi was exposed to colour or racial discrimination. He improved the rights of Indians with his passive resistant movement. During July 1907, Ghandi, who led the first passive resistant movement, was supported by 1,000 Chinese under the leadership of Leong Quinn. He was a thorn in the side for Genl. Smuts and was arrested at the Old Heidelberg Station, as he did not have a valid permit. He was kept in custody at the home of the station commander until the following day where after he could continue his journey to Pretoria. Mr. J Moti, founded J Moti and Sons in 1908.
They are still in business today in Shalimar Ridge and is still run by the third generation of the Moti family. It was Mr Moti who saw after Ghandi dietary needs.
Ghandi and his followers protested against the pass laws by burning their passes in public. Later Alinah Mokoena, a resident from Ratanda, would build on the organising black women to march to the Union Buildings, protesting against the pass laws. Ghandi’s life here (1899 – 1944) prepared him to lead India, which was under British yoke, to independence.
On the other hand, President Paul Kruger was not so fortunate. His strive for free trade and independence ended in an armed battle. His ZAR Government was totally outnumbered, and he had to tel his home country with the aid of Queen Wilhelmina. He could not attend the funeral of his wife and died in Clarens, Switzerland. He kept the faith for independence until his death. When he was asked about his fate, he linked it to that of the Biblical Job.
In 1961, Dr H F Verwoerd reaped the fruits of an independent Republic. He became the premier of South Africa standing for the Heidelberg constituency. He officially opened the new station building in 1961, where after the old station building fell into disuse. Some time later many soldiers would visit Heidelberg on route to undergo compulsory military service during the “struggle” of power to the exclusion of many.
Under Verwoerd’s reign the Rivonia trial followed in which the ANC leadership was sentenced for life imprisonment.
During 1969, Dr Anton Rupert transformed the Old Station into a Transport Museum. On the 22ndNovember 1975, the premier Mr B J Vorster, declared the building as a historic building, opening the Transport Museum. In 1942, B J Vorster was also a prisoner at Koffiefontein for his involvement in the right-wing “Ossewa Brandwag” organisation. This detainment without a trial, would be entrenched in the law during the struggle period.
In later years the role of the Old Station would be the zenith of the freedom struggle.
The world’s most renowned struggle icon, Nelson Mandela, visited the Old Station on 29 November 1996. President Nelson Mandela was then rewarded the freedom of the town, and was presented with a souvenir. He is the personalisation of the struggle to a New South Africa, making this visit the highlight of the route.
The justifiable call echoes throughout these historic walls: “Long live the presidents. Long may they live!”