The great Cape quake of 1969

Published Aug 7, 2014


Cape Town - This week's 5.5 magnitude tremor might have left the country shaken, but South Africa's biggest earthquake in recent history hit the Western Cape in 1969. Siyavuya Mzantsi spoke to the Ceres Togryers Museum manager and a resident caught in the 6.3 magnitude quake that claimed seven lives

It was about 10pm when Ceres residents thought the world was coming to an end. Homes and buildings were reduced to rubble, five children and two adults died, and scores of people were left destitute.

The 5.5 magnitude tremor that struck north of the Western Cape on Tuesday, killing one person, revived memories for Ceres residents who were caught in 1969 in the biggest earthquake in the country’s recent history.

The quake on September 29 rocked an area of about 160km² in the province, jolting places as far apart as Wolseley, Robben Island, Paarl and Hout Bay and with tremors being felt as far afield as Port Elizabeth and Durban.

The quake brought a performance of the musical Roundabout to a halt at the Masque Theatre in Muizenberg. Musical director Syd Kaye leapt on to the stage and began to sing, the Cape Times reported. This helped to calm the audience and prevent a rush for the exits.

Just after 11pm in Paarl, police received a call from Tulbagh that people could hear what sounded like “volcanic eruptions” in the mountains, reports said.

“It was the most devastating thing I have experienced,” Ceres resident Thelma Cillie said on Wednesday.

“Tuesday’s earthquake might have been a shock and taken us by surprise, but we cannot compare it with thatin 1969.

“(When the quake hit Ceres) I didn’t know what was happening until my husband told me it was a tremor.”

Hearing screams outside the house, she ran to see what was happening, opened the door and found a rock had landed on the front step.

“There were fires around the whole area and residents scrambled to save what they could of what was left. We had to quickly evacuate our home because parts of it were starting to fall. Moments later, the house was destroyed.”

Cillie, who said she was then 45, wrote the book Die Aarde Het Gebewe (The Earth Shook) in which she described events during the 1969 earthquake. “We hid in our garage for the rest of that night,” she recalled. “There were a group of us, including our neighbours. We had nowhere to escape to because of the fire in the mountains and our car was damaged.

“We all thought our lives were in danger. When things calmed, most of us were left with nothing but the clothes we were wearing.”

The couple and other residents spent months living in tents in a camp. People from a neighbouring community provided food.

The Ceres Togryers (Transport Riders) Museum has a display, including pictures and news articles, on the 1969 quake.

“The duration of the main shock was 15 seconds,” the museum’s

manager, Bertdene Laubscher, said.

Cracks appeared in nearly all the roads in the area. Pipes were ruptured and gravestones toppled.

“Sparks caused by falling rocks and scree slides caused extensive fires that ravaged the mountains

“Fortunately none of the dams in the area failed, although the earth walls of some were cracked.

“It is estimated from the magnitude of 6.3 on the Richter scale, that the earthquake resulted from a displacement of 26cm over 20km.

“The accumulation of forces over time will probably cause another earthquake.”

Laubscher has been working at the museum for 18 years.

“I wasn’t born by 1969, but the earthquake on Tuesday reminded us of how shocking things can get. I mean, we did not expect it.

“It’s difficult to say whether there are similarities between the two earthquakes. The first one here in Ceres was described as being like waves, but on the land. In the recent one you would think the reason might be the mining in the Johannesburg region.

“It’s shocking that things happen here because our country is known to be among the safest places in the world.

“That is why lots of people were saddened by it.”

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Cape Times

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