Stellenbosch was founded in 1679 by the Governor of the Cape Colony, Simon van der Stel, who named the town after himself. Stellenbosch means “(Van Der) Stel’s Bush”.
This beautiful village is situated on the banks of the Eerste River (First River), so named as it was the first new river Van der Stel reached and followed when he went on an expedition across the Cape Flats to explore the territories towards what is now known as Stellenbosch. The town grew so quickly that it became an important local authority in 1682 and the seat of a magistrate with jurisdiction over 25 000 square kilometres in 1685.
The Dutch were skilled in hydraulic engineering and devised a system of furrows to divert water from the Eerste River in the vicinity of Thibault Street through the town along Van Riebeeck Street to Mill Street, where a mill was erected.
During 1690 some Huguenot refugees visited and settled in Stellenbosch. They planted grapes in the fertile valleys around Stellenbosch and soon it became the centre of the South African wine industry.
In 1710 a fire destroyed most of Stellenbosch, including the first church, all the Dutch East India Company property and 12 houses. Only two or three houses were left standing. When the church was rebuilt in 1723 it was located to what was then the outskirts of the town (now the top of Church Street) to prevent a similar incident from destroying it again. This church with its New Gothic tower was enlarged a number of times since 1723 and is currently known as the “Moederkerk” (Mother Church). Part of the mahogany organ cabinet as well as the front pipes of the organ are still the originals from 1863.
Driving through historic Dorp Street, you will notice many buildings in typical Cape Dutch architecture with thatched roofs. Stellenbosch also has thousands of oak trees lining the streets and visitors can enjoy the public art on display throughout the town centre.
But the history of this scenic town is so much richer than what is usually portrayed in tourist brochures. The Stellenbosch Municipality includes a diverse range of communities – from Franschhoek, Pniel, Johannesdal and Kylemore on the Helshoogte Pass road, to Klapmuts and Cloetesville, Ida’s Valley and Kayamandi closer to Stellenbosch. During the forced removals of the apartheid years, coloured people had to resettle in Cloetesville and Ida’s Valley. Many of the families living there today are the descendants of slaves brought to South Africa by the Dutch East India Company centuries ago. Kayamandi developed as a residential area for African migrant labourers who were not allowed to live in the “white” areas under apartheid. In the past five years, many more people have moved into the Kayamandi area and started to develop the shantytown Azania.