Oudtshoorn, the "ostrich capital of the world", is a town in the Western Cape province of South Africa. Two ostrich-feather booms, during 1865-1870 and 1900-1914, truly established the settlement. With approximately 60,000 inhabitants, it is the largest town in the Little Karoo region. The town's economy is primarily reliant on the ostrich farming and tourism industries. Oudtshoorn is home to the world's largest ostrich population, with a number of specialized ostrich breeding farms, such as the Safari Show Farm and the Highgate Ostrich Show Farm.
The first European explorers to the area were a trading party led by a certain Ensign Shrijver, who were guided there by a Griqua via an ancient elephant trail in January 1689. The expedition reached as far as present-day Aberdeen before turning back and exiting the Klein Karoo valley through Attaquas Kloof on 16 March of the same year. However, it was only a hundred years later that the first farmers started settling in the region.
The first large permanent structure of the Klein Karoo, a church of the Dutch Reformed denomination, was first erected in 1838 on the farm Hartebeestrivier, near the banks of the Olifants and Grobbelaars rivers. The village (and later town) of Oudtshoorn gradually grew around this church, and nine years later, in 1847, Oudtshoorn was founded. It was named after Baron Pieter van Rheede van Oudtshoorn, who was appointed Governor of the Dutch Cape Colony in 1772 but died at sea in January 1773 on his return voyage to the Cape. In 1853, the Dutch Reformed church was officially established as a kerkplaats (church farm). Originally part of the district of George, Oudtshoorn was proclaimed as its own, separate division in 1858. The first British settlers settled the area in 1858. Also in 1858, van Rheede van Oudtshoorn's granddaughter, Ernestina Johanna Geesje, married Egbertus Bergh, a magistrate of George.
A small one-room school was opened in 1858, followed by the formation of a municipality and the founding of an Agricultural Society in 1859. During the same year, work was also started on a larger church to replace the original small one.
The limited supply of water in the area limited the settlement's growth. In the early years, water was transported to the town in barrels, which were sold for sixpence per bucket. Forced to cope with the lack of water, many of South Africa's earliest irrigation experts hailed from the region. Fruit and grain were produced in large quantities, but the local economy was based primarily upon tobacco and ostrich farming. A severe drought in 1865 persuaded many of the settlers to move to the Transvaal. The 1865 census indicated that Oudtshoorn had a population of 1,145.
First Ostrich Boom
Oudtshoorn's ostrich industry dates back to 1864. The main reason for the surge in Oudtshoorn's prosperity was the ostrich, whose feathers had become fashionable accessories among European nobility. Feather exports saw a sharp increase from the Cape Colony during the mid-1860s, which is generally accepted as the launch of the industry in South Africa. By 1870, feather auctions were being held in Mossel Bay. In 1875, the census counted the town's population to be 1,837. Between 1875 and 1880, ostrich prices reached up to GBP 1,000 a pair. The value of ostrich feathers, per pound, equaled almost that of diamonds. The farmers of the region, realising that ostriches were far more profitable than any other activity, ripped out their other crops and planted lucerne, which was used as feed for the ostriches. By 1877, feather auctions were also being held in Oudtshoorn itself. The rising wealth also finally allowed for the completion of the Dutch Reformed Church, which was opened on 7 June 1879. Such was the worth of the white ostrich feather, that it was dubbed "white gold".
Owing to overproduction, the ostrich industry experienced a sudden slump in fortunes in 1885; the town's misery was compounded when it was hit by severe flooding during the same year, which washed away the nearby Victoria Bridge, which had been built over the Olifants River only the year before.
The boom had attracted a large Jewish immigrant population of about 100 families, most of them Lithuanians from the towns of Kelme and Shavel, who were fleeing from the Tsarist pogroms. As a result, Oudtshoorn came to be known as "the Jerusalem of Africa". Two synagogues were built, the first in 1888 and the second in 1896, and the first South African Hebrew school was established in Oudtshoorn in 1904. In 1891, Oudtshoorn's population had grown to 4,386 persons.
Second Ostrich Boom
The ostrich industry recovered slowly, owing in part to the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902. Boer forces under Commandant Gideon Scheepers were sighted near Oudtshoorn on 25 August 1901, but moved on because the town was well defended. A second and bigger boom started after the war. It was during this period that "feather barons", ostrich farmers who had become rich, built most of Oudtshoorn's famously opulent "feather palaces", their houses, most of them on the west bank of the Grobbelaars River. The town grew even more, and in 1904 it claimed 8,849 residents in the census. This boom peaked in 1913, during which year the highest-quality feathers cost more than $32 a pound in 2012 prices. Ostrich feathers were outranked only by gold, diamonds and wool among South African exports before World War I. The market collapsed in 1914, according to The Chicago Tribune, as a result of "the start of World War I, overproduction and the popularity of open-topped cars, which made ostrich-feather hats impractical." 80% of the ostrich farmers were bankrupted, and the ostriches were set loose or slaughtered for biltong. Domesticated ostriches numbered 314,000 at the end of World War I, but had plummeted to 32,000 by 1930. The Jewish population of Oudtshoorn fell from 1,073 in 1918 to 555 in 1936, and only continued to dwindle.
The end of World War II opened new markets for ostrich leather and meat, and as a result the industry slowly recovered. For forty years, Oudtshoorn had been the most important settlement east of Cape Town.
The production of specialised agricultural seed is the biggest contributor to the region's wealth today, but ostrich farming remains an important business.
Through late 2004 to late 2005, South Africa lost R700 million in exports as a result of an avian flu outbreak, which also cost the ostrich industry 26 000 birds and 400 employees. The business arm of the ostrich industry, the Klein Karoo Group, stated that the recent ban on exports resulted in an increase of about 500% in local sales. Most ostrich farms recovered from the outbreak and continued to operate.
In April, 2011, a strain of bird flu, H5N2, broke out in Oudtshoorn. As a member of the World Organisation for Animal Health, South Africa was required under international law to slaughter infected birds that belonged to farms which had tested positive for bird flu; as a result 38 000 ostriches were culled. The European Union, which had been responsible for 90% of South Africa's ostrich meat exports, banned the import of South African ostrich meat. This resulted in financial difficulties for the region's ostrich farms. Farmers were offered financial compensation by the government in the form of R2 000 for each ostrich culled (about 80% of its worth) but this compensation was not enough; they were forced to fire employees, whose UIF (unemployment) benefits were depleted by December, 2011. The shortage of birds would also affect factories which depended on ostrich farming. Some ostrich farms managed to survive by selling ostrich feathers and leather, but the industry was losing R108 million monthly, and had lost R1,2 billion in total between April, 2011, and January, 2012. Tourism was also affected. Other farmers resorted to heat-treating the ostrich meat, which killed the virus but also reduced its price on the market.
As of January 2012, Oudtshoorn's population of more than 200,000 ostriches was the world's largest, and accounted for 80% of the world's ostrich products. The ostrich industry in the Oudtshoorn region had directly employed 20 000 people, and generated R2,1 billion per year. 50% of ostrich farmers had left the industry by 2013.
The first positive case of a bird flu in South Africa since 2011 was confirmed in April, 2013 on a farm near Oudtshoorn, as the H7N1 virus. Between the H5N2 virus outbreak of 2011 and the H7N1 virus outbreak of 2013, roughly 50 000 ostriches had been culled. The Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Senzeni Zokwana, said in October, 2014 that the outbreaks "in the past few years" had cost the country R4 billion.
In the years leading up to the 2013 municipal by-elections, Oudtshoorn had been subject to long-standing "acrimonious political battles" and the municipality was also being investigated by a Special Investigating Unit over allegations of malpractice and corruption. On 30 April 2013, Marius Fransman and other African National Congress (ANC) party members were forced to leave Oudtshoorn as a result of a protest against them. Following that incident, the powers of the ANC’s sub-regional politicians in Oudtshoorn were suspended, pending an investigation.
The municipal by-elections in August, 2013, resulted in the ANC losing its majority in the municipality of Oudtshoorn. The Democratic Alliance (DA) obtained 12 seats, which, with its alliance partner Congress of the People (South African political party) (COPE), meant that it had secured the municipality for itself. On 1 October 2013, George Kersop on behalf of human rights organisation AfriForum laid charges of corruption, fraud, and financial mismanagement against Ronnie Lottering, the acting Municipal Manager of Oudtshoorn, various officials, and members of the public, with the Hawks, the counter-corruption unit of the South African Police Service (SAPS).
The ANC delayed transfer of municipal power to the DA via legal cases funded through municipal funds, which DA Oudtshoorn caucus leader Christiaan MacPherson stated in July, 2014, had cost R13 million. The provincial leader for the DA, Helen Zille, speculated also that the ANC had been siphoning funds from the Cango Caves trust fund to finance the legal actions. John Stoffels, the Oudtshoorn speaker for the ANC, was ordered to pay the costs of the legal actions brought on behalf of the ANC because he had refused to convene council meetings to avoid motions of no confidence against the ruling party. The ANC began to suspend DA councilors on absenteeism charges. A court order prevented the DA from bringing a motion of no confidence against the ANC, Independent Civic Organisation of South Africa and National Peoples Party executive.
On 10 April 2014, AfriForum indicated that it had requested Helen Zille's intervention in the Oudtshoorn and Kannaland regions due to the "rampant municipal mismanagement". In July, 2014, Western Cape Finance MEC Ivan Meyer, and Local Government MEC Anton Bredell, probed claims that the Cango Caves trust fund was being misused for municipal purposes. It was claimed that more than R16 million had been moved from the accounts, which were intended for maintenance and infrastructure development of the caves.
The ANC and its political allies had yet to hand over control of the municipality to the DA and the COPE by July 2014. The DA, AfriForum, and the Oudtshoorn ratepayers association together filed a request with the Western Cape High Court that DA councillors who had been suspended be reinstated, and that the ANC mayor, speaker and town managers surrender their offices to the DA and COPE.
In October, 2014, Francois Human, Director of Corporate Services for the municipality of Oudtshoorn, compiled allegations against his ANC colleagues, such as incidents of corruption, bribery and intimidation, and forwarded them to political leaders, the South African Revenue Service (SARS), the Special Investigations Unit and the SAPS.