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OOn the slopes of Table Mountain, above the suburb of Rondebosch, sits an old white house with an eclectic mix of pillars, barley-sugar turrets, and wrap-around verandas. The house was originally part of the Dutch East India Company’s grain storage system, hence its name, Groote Schuur, which when translated means Big Barn. By the late 1800s it fell to ruins, and was bought by Cecil John Rhodes to be used as his personal home.
Rhodes hired a young and unknown architect (at that time) called Herbert Baker to turn the slightly dilapidated building into a functional residence. When the house was completed, it had a warm Rhodesian teak interior, white-washed walls, colonnaded gables and typical Cape charm. The gardens were a riot of colour with plumbagos, hydrangeas, roses and fuchsias. People would picnic on the lawns on weekends, and grand parties were thrown in the evenings with the likes of Rudyard Kipling and the Duke of Westminster in attendance.
FFor years, the house was used as the main home of the prime minister of South Africa, with a number of famous faces taking up residence there. The last prime minister to live there was FW De Klerk, who was instrumental in getting the ball rolling for the country’s eventual freedom.
Groote Schuur Building
OOn 4 May 1990, then President FW De Klerk and Nelson Mandela sat down at Groote Schuur to begin talks on how to disassemble apartheid. The ANC was at the time still banned, although one of the outcomes of the talks at Groote Schuur was to unban ANC cadres and other anti-apartheid activists. At the Mandela Minute talks, it was decided that political prisoners would go free, political exiles would be allowed to return, and the nation-wide State of Emergency that was in effect would be gradually lifted. These were the beginnings of a democratically free South Africa.
The building sits on the same piece of land which houses both the Rhodes Memorial and UCT. One can now visit it as a museum with prior arrangement. When Mandela took over presidency of the country, he used the nearby Westbrook as his residence, making Groote Schuur more of a monument.
TThe house remains very much unchanged today with its great stone bath carved from a single piece of Paarl granite still in the grand bathroom. Many of the interesting antiques and books, which have been added to the house’s collections over the years, are still in pristine condition. Walking through the now quiet passages and rooms, one can imagine all the things that this house has seen.
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