Why Limpopo? The Great Unknown

Why on earth head for the province furthest from Cape Town and the Western Cape?  Well, apart from seeing a really special friend, it was the great unknown – the area between Pretoria and South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe.

What had captured my imagination, though, was a thorough make-over that occured around 2002.  Northern Province became Limpopo, and most important towns changed names too.

Now no-one can argue that the province’s new name is a vast improvement, but name changes for towns, districts, rivers, etc, are a more emotional issue when they are politically motivated (in the name of nation-building), as well as being a costly change.  How long before the body of public knowledge (and maps) catches up?  Microsoft’s Virtual Earth hasn’t even started reflecting the changes.

Limpopo’s branding, website (www.golimpopo.com) and marketing have positioned the province very well — South Africa’s preferred eco-tourism destination — but needs to do much more.  The brand may be known to those close to the province, but it’s still a new brand and means little to international tourists.

The three strongest elements of the destination brand are Kruger National Park (most of which lies in Limpopo), “Big Five” and “bushveld”.

Limpopo’s capital is Polokwane (Pietersburg), a city who’s only claim to brand fame is the ANC’s 2008 Polokwane Conference, the catalyst for the splintering of the ANC ahead of 2009’s general elections.  Few towns in the province stand out as strong destination brands.

My only point of reference here are the towns of the Western Cape – Cape Town (with Table Mountain, a leading global brand), Stellenbosch and the winelands, Hermanus and its whale-watching, Gansbaai – the Great White Shark capital of the world, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route… and all the other towns that have differentiated themselves with unique branding propositions.  Brands are all about experiences.

Limpopo’s towns, once I’ve learnt their names, don’t immediately differentiate themselves in my mind by virtue of memorable scenic attractions or activities that set the towns apart.

So that’s what I’m going to have to find out for myself.  And I have the feeling that it’s not – in most cases – going to be the towns that emerge as destinations but rather specific areas.

The province is divided in six districts (with main centres in brackets) – Waterberg (Modimolle), Vhembe (Thohoyandou), Mopani (Giyani), Sekhukhune (Groblersdal) and Capricorn (Polokwane) – which, apart from Waterberg, give no clue to their attractions.

The Waterberg Biosphere is the first region in the northern part of South Africa to be named as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, and covers and area of 15,000 square kilometres.  The latest Biosphere in the province is the Limpopo Transfrontier Park.

Context is always important so it’s useful recording some important statistics here, for reference, even if they are a little outdated (about 2003/4).

Province Capital Population (millions) Area (km2) GRP (billions) Per capita GRP
Eastern Cape Bhisho 7.1 169,580 R101.1 R13,755
Free State Bloemfontein 2.9 129,480 R69.1 R23,819
Gauteng Johannesburg 8.8 17,010 R413.6 R43,111
KwaZulu-Natal Pietermaritzburg 9.7 92,100 R206.8 R19,478
Limpopo Polokwane 5.5 123,910 R81.3 R13,691
Mpumalanga Nelspruit 3.2 79,490 R87.5 R25,108
North West Mafikeng 3.8 116,320 R81.4 R19,870
Northern Cape Kimberley 0.9 361,830 R29.6 R28,183
Western Cape Cape Town 4.6 129,386 R181,1 R35,475

So Limpopo is South Africa’s poorest province.  Now that surprised me because I had thought that the Eastern Cape or Northern Cape would occupy that position.

But Limpopo has SA’s fastest-growing economy at 6.8%, more than double the national average of 2.8%.  Nevertheless, it’s unemployment rate of 36.1% is also the highest in South Africa.

And that’s something that’s set to get worse given Limpopo’s reliance on mining, where the global slowdown is affecting the mines.  Tourism is more resilient than mining, and can absorb economic swings more easily.

Economic sector % contribution to GRP
Other services 31.1
Mining 21.8
Government services 18.2
Trade & tourism 11.8
Transport & communication 8.6
Manufacturing 3.8
Agriculture & forestry 2.5
Construction 2.1

When the rebuilding of Zimbabwe starts in earnest and peace returns to that once prosperous land, Limpopo along with Botswana and Mozambique will all benefit from increased trade and tourism.  But from what I’ve seen and read so far, it has all the attributes to be a winning South African province.

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