Phineas Magwale in October 2006, with his lawn that reached the dam before the house was completed in the background.

 Before we tackle the New Year and the new decade, I want to pay tribute to two men who passed on to the great garden in the sky during 2009. Both of them played a huge role in shaping Sequoia Gardens as it exists today. Both retired during 2008, having scaled down their active involvement during the previous years. I originally wrote on them at mooseyscountrygarden.com and you can find them in context here and here.

Phineas Magwale was the foreman on the farm for over 25 years. At least 50% of the really worthwhile stuff I know about gardening on a large scale I learnt from Phineas. When, in ’89, both my father and I started building, Phineas said to my father: “My lawn will be down to the dam before your house is finished.” It was. Part of Phineas’s plan was a set of erratically spaced round beds in the lawn. They go against all the ‘rules’. They were Phineas’s idea.  In part at least they will stay for ever in his memory. At the time my father was alarmed. “He is making the garden much too large,” he said, “I pay him to manage the plantations and all he wants to do is garden!” So guess who gets blamed for the fact that the gardens got a little out of hand around here…


The view from the terrace is unimaginable without Phineas' effort!

  I include a complete article published in our local paper a few years ago. It is transcribed verbatim and with the minimum of editing from a conversation I had in Afrikaans with Phineas. Some Afrikaans is retained, but the story remains clear without understanding it. I’ve added a few (=…)translations. There should really have been a follow-up or two, but ‘life happened’ and eventually the paper ceased publication. It is a fascinating tale from the days when black people were often looked on as possessions, and at best relations were distinctly paternalistic.

I must add how Phineas came to us. Back in the early 80s the old foreman was due to retire and my father battled to find a replacement. We had just started gardening on the farm. We all lived in Johannesburg, 400km away, so we were a weekend presence, on at best a fortnightly basis. Eventually he decided to look for a gardener in Johannesburg who was a rural man disillusioned with city life. He asked Patrys, their Joh’burg neighbour’s gardener, to ask around. Within two days Patrys arrived with Phineas in tow: Grey Mists where he had learnt his trade is barely 5 km from Sequoia! He had been in the city only a few months … 

Here is the article: 


PHINEAS MAGOLE tells his story to Jack Holloway
You want to hear why I know so much about the mountain and its people. Its because I listen and I remember. From when I was a young man I listened when we were walking across the mountain at night to go and hit the drums at someone’s place. People would talk about the farms we crossed over, and their owners and their people.
Phineas shows a large map he has drawn on a piece of cardboard for our talk; names of families and places indicate relative positions and the Broederstroom flows through it. Names like DoBilsclof (Duiwelskloof), Lein Flip (Lionel Phillips) and Kholins (Collins) appear on it.
No, he laughs, I didn’t write it all myself. Jan helped me. I am still learning with the teacher from Thusaneng, but it is difficult for an old man to learn to read and write. You see me doing my homework during the lunch hour. 

The world that Phineas describes. Sequoia lies in a valley on the very left near the horizon.

But you ask how I came to the mountain. I was at Mooketsi, at Olyfberg, where I was born on a farm. I saw I was working for nothing, ek kry nie geld nie, ek kry niks nie, so I ran away. Then when I run away I go to another place, I look for work, they chase my father away. They say if your child goes away, you too must go away. Yes, I was still young, ek was gegroei, maar ek was nie so baie groot nie.(=I was grown, but not so much.)

So we went to another place, and my father stayed there, but I went to Grey Mists, I went to visit my oompie {=my uncle), then my uncle went to the owner, Mr. Mackenzie, and said the piccanin (=young man/boy) of my brother is looking for work. I grew up there; I arrived and I didn’t know what I could do.

So my Uncle went to Baas(=Boss or Master) Grey Mists and said the piccanin is working on the farm, and if his baas comes for him you are going to fight. But Mr. Mackenzie said I don’t mind, I will tell him I am paying you, he is not paying you. Then one day that baas of mine, he came, he sends my father, he says my father must come and fetch me, but Baas Grey Mists says “no, you can’t have him,” so he says “why can’t I have him?” So Mr. Mackenzie says “because he’s my boy. You don’t pay him. You give him nothing.” And its true. I had to wear a stertriem (=traditional loincloth), I didn’t have trousers. And I told him: “How can I work? I work for nothing. I don’t get money. I don’t have land. I don’t have chickens. I have nothing like that.”

Then they took me to court. I go, I win at the court, together with Baas Mackenzie. We won the court. So it came that I stayed there. He won together with me at the court and then I stayed with him. He said he would do every thing for me, I also had to stay with him. I said to him: “Baie dankie.”(= thank you very much)

I worked for him in the garden, I worked for him in the garden, worked in the garden, I saw I was winning in the garden. I said one of these days I will learn in the house. I learnt in the house, when I was finished in the garden at the end of the day, I went inside, I washed the dishes. I learnt, I learnt, I came right. One day they said “Cook!” I now start cooking, I learn to cook, they say I must waiter. I waited there.

Now I stayed there a long, long time, until he died. Then I stayed there a long time with Mrs. Mackenzie, but that is another day’s story.  


Phineas in April 2003. He never had a driver's licence and his sit-on lawnmower was his pride and joy!

Frans Seale helped me more than any other person to realise my garden dreams. And I must admit: if South Africa was not a country with cheap labour and poor job opportunities, much of what we have on Sequoia would not be possible. Also – as I realized when I was in Europe – European taxation would make it impossible for a man of my income to live like this!  

We usually have several labourers on the farm. They are mostly only semi-literate (neither Phineas nor Frans could read or write much more than their own names). Our staff are quite willing to do the right thing, even if sometimes they just don’t understand what is going on in the white man’s mind, leading to some frustrating misunderstandings. Inevitably when one finds someone more literate and more aware they end up moving on to better paying jobs, and I have helped and encouraged them to do so. In fact one young man who used to work for me during his school holidays is now an aircraft technician and owns a house in Johannesburg. When he comes to visit his parents – labourers living on the neighbouring farm – he sometimes brings his wife and son and pops in for a visit. Staff who have joined us over the last few years are more literate perhaps, but I find they are much less able to instinctively do ‘the right thing’ by the garden, even if they are easier to train in the theory of what they are doing.


I love this portait I took of Frans; it captures his gentle olde-world quality.

Frans Seale (see – ha – leh) was  my right hand man. When I started building my cottage in 1989 I asked Phineas to find me an assistant. Two days later he arrived with Frans. He met him passing by in the road. Frans was unemployed, having last had a seasonal job in a tomato canning factory 40km away. He seemed to me too old and overweight for the tough building job I had in mind. I asked if he could dig foundations. Very quietly he replied: ‘I can try.’ His foundations were perfect; works of art. And Frans stayed. Any job demanding unhurried patience and a good eye he would tackle and complete perfectly. Don’t get him to work too much with others, don’t make him a manager. But give him a (verbal) list and enough time and he would quietly, proudly and joyously get the job done.

Long before the cottage was finished I started planning life after the building. I asked him to take cuttings, showed him how, and waited. Only afterwards I found out that some of the cuttings he’d been striking were from plants that really don’t lend themselves to such propagation… I would often not get to the farm for as long as six weeks at a time. I always knew that Frans would look after things as well as I could myself. And Frans obviously loved the quiet rural life. 

Back in late 2003 the nusery was very much still Frans' domain.

Frans is of the Balobedu tribe, famous for being the tribe of the Rain Queen, Modjadji. A few years ago a new Rain Queen was ‘crowned’ in mid-winter, and a strange, unexpected thunderstorm (a summer phenomenon) swept through the area during the ceremony; several years ago she died, leaving only one female heir aged two years… so we are still uncertain when the next Rain Queen will be announced, and many people, white and black, say that is why our rainfall patterns have been so unpredictable of late… 

One of Africa’s most mystical figures, the Rain Queen is said to have been the inspiration for Rider Haggard’s famous novel ‘She’, the story of a mystical and powerful African queen. Read more about her history here


Queen Modjadji VI. The hoto appeared with her obituary in the Sunday Times of 19 June 2005.

I am certain that this background goes some way towards explaining Frans’ almost mystical serenity, and some of his strange habits and little rituals. His son, who worked for me for a short while, then went off to study to be a sangoma or ‘witch doctor’ and a source of immense pride to his father. 

I had just one problem with Frans. He never quite understood the link between names and labels. As long as a plant has a label, all is well. The result is that we have had some strange losses, some mystery seedlings and trees – and I still can’t safely let strangers loose to choose plants in my nursery. But mostly,  locked away in his non-reader head, was a vast store of information about the plants and the activities on the farm. I ask him, he taps his temple, his face contracts, and then he either shakes his head in sad bewilderment, or he smiles proudly and gives the answer. And it is seldom wrong.







12 thoughts on “LOOKING BACK ON ’09 – A TRIBUTE

  1. I enjoyed reading your post and the glimpse into another culture. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to have a wonderful foreman work with me for years and I learned much about his culture and enjoyed teaching him about plants and how to care for them.

  2. It is in so many ways a different world, Noelle, but I think I learnt much more about plants and nature from these two old men than they ever learnt from me!

  3. Our casual gardener, who comes to help the Ungardener with the heavy work, told me proteas won’t grow here. It is too hot. They grow up on the mountain. And sadly I watch my plants die, one by one. Only Pink Ice survives.

  4. Your narrative about these two fine men, and their families brought a tear to my eye, Jack. The thought of the lives they and others in the US led a long time ago brings me great sadness. But there is great joy in your tale too, and respect in your voice. It offers hope. Your farm is wonderful, so full of history and potential for the future.

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