Republic of Hout Bay celebrates 30 years

Thirty years ago this year, a group of canny Hout Bay business people and charities sat down to discuss the all-important matter of documentation.

This was, after all, apartheid South Africa, and access to everything was dependent on draconian policing and paperwork.

Though the men and women involved in this particular undertaking were ideologically far removed from the Nationalist demagogues in power, they nevertheless needed to conceptualise credentials that would bring home the message that their land was sovereign, a beacon of hope in a country gone mad.

Of course the intention of this storied conclave between Stanley Dorman, a member of one of Hout Bay’s oldest families, and public promotions gurus Ros Grierson and Heidi Kuhn-Jedicke, was largely satirical – the “next step” in Mr Dorman’s grand design to
lure more visitors to the seaside town.

The isolating policies of PW Botha and his authoritarian band were hurting business, and in a bid to lure tourists to Hout Bay and its latest attraction, Mariner’s Wharf, Mr Dorman came up with the
idea of declaring the town a republic, and “seceding” from South Africa.

With buy-in from the local Rotary Club, Round Table and Lions Club, it was not long before the wheels were set in motion to proclaim the new “country”. Town councillor Len Pothier was duly appointed president, while the harbour town’s Admiral of the Fleet came in the form of local resident and former seaman Charlie
Bates.

All that needed to be done was to give this ingenious commercial venture the official stamp of approval, and what better way to do that than an official Republic of Hout Bay passport?

In the excellent book Embracing Hout Bay: Over a century of making things happen from Dorman & Son to Mariner’s Wharf and Fisherman’s World, the reader learns how checkpoints were established on the three roads leading into and out of Hout Bay: “These were manned at weekends and on public holidays by volunteers from the service organisations, whose mission was to halt motorists and pedestrians
and persuade them to buy passports.

“These passports proved to be tremendously popular and over the following years proceeds from their sale were donated to the
local service organisations, charities, and for its upkeep costs and keeping Hout Bay in the limelight.”

However, not even the “cabinet ministers” of Hout Bay could have foretold just how far-reaching the little book would be. Indeed, in the deeply suspicious atmosphere of 1980s South Africa, it was not long before the republic’s shenanigans reached Pretoria, where Botha’s hawks took a rather dim view of proceedings.

Mr Dorman and his cohorts were readily marched off to Hout Bay police station, where they were interrogated by a lieutenant from security police headquarters. So formal was the questioning that their Republic of Hout Bay passports were even confiscated as evidence.

It was only thanks to the efforts of then station commander Warrant Officer Dolf de Villiers, who convinced the lieutenant that it
was all a prank, that they were released.

Internationally, the passport was also making its mark, mostly to comedic effect. One couple used it to enter Egypt, while Heathrow put out a directive warning immigration officials to keep an eye out for the passport. In the East, a conman tried to sell Hout Bay passports to the citizens of an impoverished Indian province.

The arrival of the republic was also extensively covered in the media, with cartoonists having a field day with the concept.

Three decades on, Mr Dorman sometimes still cannot believe the impact the passport has had on people around the world.

“I can’t believe it’s been 30 years already. People still share stories about their passports. I think they’ve definitely helped to push Hout Bay to the fore,” he told the Sentinel.

“The passport gave Hout Bay its personality. At the time, not a lot of people knew about Hout Bay when they came to Cape Town, but soon people realised they didn’t have too travel far to visit this great fishing village. We obviously were very much against apartheid, and we even came up with a little poem to poke fun at the regime, something like ‘One boat equals one vote’. It’s been amazing.”

Kerry Redelinghuys, marketing manager for Cape Coast Properties, which oversees the passport, said the document had a “proud history”.

“I think for me its importance lies in the fact that it came at a time when there was a lot of uneasiness in the country, yet here we had a very positive spin-off. It was a representation of the resilience of Hout Bay people at a difficult time,” she
said.

“It also makes the town stand out from the crowd. It was something silly and fun initially, but it has gone on to have great importance.”

Over the years, there have not been too many changes to the passport, aside from the odd change to specials offered by traders advertised in its pages.

“It has become a thing of its own. It works, and it would be silly to reinvent the wheel by changing the passport too much,” Ms Redelinghuys said.

* Sentinel News has 30 Republic of Hout Bay passports to give away. To enter, SMS SNPassport along with your full name and surname to 33258 before noon on Monday February 20. Winners will be notified telephonically.