The first Graaff who bought the farm De Grendel was the holder of a rare hereditary baronetcy.
The emergence of Sir David Graaff, Bt, from a poor family on a farm in Villiersdorp, where he was a herdboy with little schooling, is a story of exceptional drive and persistence, leading onto a versatile career in which he made his mark on the South African landscape in more than one respect.
He was an affluent businessman and successful farmer, but also an influential politician. At one stage serving as minister of finance and high commissioner in London, he was a lifelong friend and confidant of the first two premiers of the unified South Africa, the famous Boer generals Louis Botha and Jan Smuts, especially of Botha’s, who as premier sometimes asked for his advice before consulting other cabinet colleagues.
The young Dawie Graaff was only 11 when he left the farm where he was born in the Overberg for Cape Town to work in the butchery of a relative, Jacobus Arnoldus Combrinck. The Afrikaans-speaking country boy from Villiersdorp, who had probably only passed standard 3 at school in his home town and then attended an evening school in Cape Town, showed at an early age that he had an exceptional brain for business.
The young entrepreneur
As a young entrepreneur, he took over the management of the business Combrinck & Co. from his “old uncle” Combrinck when he was just 18 years old. He extended his innovations in the field of refrigeration and new developments in the meat industry with an extensive distribution network for frozen products, with the help of refrigerator carriages he bought for transport on the growing South African rail network. The large-scale refrigeration of meat, fruit and other products, unprecedented in the land of his birth, made him his fortune. He made such rapid progress that within a few years he was regarded as the pioneer of cold storage in South Africa.
The entrepreneur Graaff did not limit himself to South Africa, however, but also expanded his business interests internationally to Europe, South America and South Africa’s neighbouring countries. Graaff’s South African Cold Storage Company, which developed out of Combrinck & Co., provided meat for the British troops during the Anglo-Boer War, but also to the people in the interior and the concentration camps. He became the owner of Imperial Cold Storage after a merger with the company begun in opposition to him by the Cape magnate Cecil John Rhodes.
The progressive farmer
As a progressive farmer, Graaff imported Arab stud horses to Cape Town and had magnificent stables built at De Grendel, where he used the horses for riding and as carthorses. Over time he also established his own stud of thoroughbred Friesland cows on the farm.
Investing in property, he bought a range of adjacent farms and land, At one stage the land Graaff owned extended in a horseshoe from De Grendel and surrounding farms to Tijgerhof, Wingfield, the Ysterplaat Airfield and Montague Gardens to Paarden Eiland and the Ascot racecourse in Milnerton.
As a successful young businessman, Graaff demonstrated a singular sense of social responsibility at an early age. As a 23-year-old, he was elected as a Cape Town city councillor and at the age of 32 he became mayor of the Mother City. During his time as councillor, but especially as mayor from 1890 to 1892, the city was thoroughly modernised.
Cape Town's leading citizen
He played a decisive role in bringing electricity to Cape Town, and the first power plant was named after him. Graaff Electrical Lighting Works, now a historic monument next to the Molteno Reservoir in Oranjezicht, was opened on 13 April 1895 when the first electric streetlights in Cape Town were switched on.
Motivated by his pride as a citizen, Graaff played a leading role in making a much more inhabitable place of the dirty city, derided by some writers at that time as deserving its title, City of Stenches. Civic pride rather than personal gain was probably the main motive for his modernising initiatives to turn Cape Town into a better place for its inhabitants and a sought-after destination for visitors. For that purpose he gained foreign experience by travelling abroad at his own expense.
Moreover, as benefactor he set an early example for South African business people by way of his assistance to various charities, in particular by donating large amounts for educational purposes. He funded the school named after him in his home town, Villiersdorp, and the De Villiers Graaff High School remains a monument to the high premium he had placed on good education and teaching
Graaff was one of a number of prominent businessmen who played an important part in politics in the decades before and after unification, both in the old Cape Parliament and after 1910 in the South African Parliament. As a young man he joined the Afrikaner Bond of Onze Jan Hofmeyr and he was elected unopposed to the Cape Parliament. In 1907 he was a minister in the Cape cabinet of John X. Merriman.
At the founding of the Union of South Africa in 1910 he became a member of General Botha’s first cabinet. Soon he was involved in a power struggle with British maritime interests. At issue was the Shipping Ring, a combination of British shipping lines that through collusion and a rebate system on their postal and freight ships maintained a stranglehold on the Cape sea route. Graaff was determined to bring that to an end. It required a new Postal Act, but also all the business acumen that distinguished Graaff, who succeeded under thunderous applause from fellow Parliamentarians. He thus led the charge of South Africanism, the first exhibition since Union of his lifelong ambition for the country of his birth.
First Baronet of De Grendel
Graaff was a bachelor when the British honorary titles were awarded to South Africans shortly after unification. Initially reluctant, he received a baronetcy, a hereditary title, in 1911, probably because it was thought he would not have any heirs. Two years later the 53-year-old bachelor, then a member of the nobility, married a clergyman’s daughter 30 years his junior. Three sons were born out of his wedding to Eileen van Heerden, who became Lady Graaff.
He was high commissioner in London and for a while minister of finance during World War I, eventually retiring from politics in 1920. He thereafter pursued his business and farming interests before he died in 1931.
Graaff declared in his testament that De Grendel should be associated with his hereditary title, and that it should provide the baronetcy with a home in South Africa, until the tenth generation.