I’ve never struggled to understand a town quite as much as I’ve struggled to understand Mokopane, a town which somehow seems to have lost its soul — until I met Andy Goetsch, a born-and-bred resident and president of the local chamber of commerce. When he told his family’s story, everything came together.
“You must understand that Potties (the old affectionate abbreviation for the town that is still widely-used, by blacks and whites) was here to serve the farming community — one of the richest farming communities in the country. There was more water and fewer people. It was dry-ground farming — mealies, wheat and it became famous for tobacco. And then there were the Bushveld cattle.
“The town developed a massive tobacco co-op (Potgietersrus Tobacco Co-op was the second largest in South Africa) and another big business was the Northern Transvaal Co-op which served all farmers. The town’s third big business was Slattery, which manufactured threshing machines which were exported all over Africa (until bad management saw the demise of the company).
“When there were good rains, the town flourished. People joked that they measured their bank balance by reading the rain gauge in the garden. But then, in the 1970s, the droughts came.”
Andy’s roots are in the Eastern Cape. His grandfather came to South Africa as a child mercenary to fight in the Eastern Cape’s border wars. His father’s older brother moved to Potties and owned the Waterberg Trading Store. His father, who worked for General Motors in Port Elizabeth, wanted to go into the motor industry and was encouraged to move north by his brother. In 1934, he opened his own garage in partnership with Mr Slattery — Modern Services & Engineering Works. His father looked after the motor cars and Slattery senior attended to harvesting machines.
When Slattery junior took over, the business was split into two and Andy continues to run what his father started.
But back to Andy’s story: “Potties was always known as a beautiful town. But then farming became less profitable. Water was becoming scarcer — droughts became more frequent, no major dams were built and the falling water table made boreholes too expensive.
“Cattle farming made way for game farms, where a number of farms were consolidated among fewer owners and vastly reduced work forces. The labourers who had worked there were moved to tribal trust areas or the townships around Potties.
“The families on the farms and their workers had supported the town’s shops and schools, but these numbers — along with their their buying power and support — dwindled dramatically.”
So, the town’s three big businesses are no more, with the shell of the old Tobacco Co-op occupying a vast, empty trat in the centre of town. Farmers failed to adapt to changing times and government didn’t do its planning for water infrastructure. More importantly, this once-wealthy town lost its pride and character…
Nowhere is the loss of agricultural output — and not only due to drought — more clearly illustrated than the fate of Zebedelia Estate, about 30km from Potties. Production on the 2,000ha estate peaked in the 1970s at two million cartons of oranges a year — it was the largest citrus estate in the southern hemisphere. But with government’s land reform policy and mismanagement by the Agricultural and Rural Development Corporation of Zebediela from 1996, production plummeted to virtually zero by 2000.
Democracy brought with it new faces at the municipality. “Potties reached rock-bottom with its municipal manager,” Andy recalls. “When he left here he went to Brits, but he had already done the damage to our town which he ran into the ground.” Other municipal officials have spoken about the disastrous state of the town’s finances when he left.
But things are turning around slowly. “The old manager refused to answer emails or take calls from the Chamber of Commerce but, while it took a few months for William Kekana, the new manager, to start discussions, we now have a good relationship with him. He’s still left with a massive staff who have no interest in working.”
Has the town sought out new endeavours? Andy invited me on a visit to Makapan’s Caves, declared a World Heritage Site in 2005, 10km outside of town. This is where the local tribe sought refuge during a punitive raid by the Voortrekkers in 1854. The siege of Makapan’s Cave lasted 30 days; some 2,000 people perished in the cave from starvation; and Boer leader, Piet Potgieter, lost his life after being shot near the entrance to the cave.
But it’s also one of South Africa’s most important archaeological sites with remnants dating back over three million years — it shows the first use in Africa of controlled fires and houses the remains of Australopithecus africanus, the graceful ape-man..
Just being there and experiencing the atmosphere counts far more than following the walkways to the caves and the storyboards that tell the tale. It’s managed by the SA Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) and guides are drawn from the local community nearby.
Our guide, while friendly enough, was hardly the fountainhead of knowledge and inspiration. While we were there, a group arrived and the leader told the story and explained the significance of the site to his proteges. I was enthralled and ditched my guide. It was only when we left and I saw the vehicles still outside that I learnt who they were. Thumbs up, Entabeni; thumbs down SAHRA!
Excerpts from one storyboard at the Cave of Hearths
Systematic excavations began at the Cave of Hearths in 1947 and were completed by Revil Mason in 1955.
“Mason identified eleven archaeological horizons ranging in age from the Earlier Stone Age to the historic Iron Age. The sequence that he painted on the wall is still visible. Beds 1-3 contained Earlier Stone Age artifacts, like handaxes. These beds also contained part of the jawbone of an archaic Homo. (possibly Homo heidelbergensis). These Beds and the associated artifacts probably accumulated 400,000 to 200,000 years ago.”
But Andy had made his point. The Makapan’s Cave World Heritage Site is too important — to Potties, South Africa and the World — to be left in the hands of amateurs (my words, not his). SAHRA is not up to the task and the challenge (my words, not his). Look at the money, resources and professionalism that has been invested at Liliesleaf in Rivonia, Johannesburg. Why can’t/isn’t the same being done here?
Some will use the fallacious argument that mining has replaced agriculture as the source of the town’s wealth. Now that’s hogwash! How much of Anglo Platinum’s R5billion headline earnings finds its way back into local communities? The only exception I can think of is in Rustenburg, Northwest province, where the Royal Bafokeng shareholding is 67% of the mine. (By comparison, farmers would have spent most of their income in their local towns.)
But mines have a more insidious impact on the communities where they operate. They are utilitarian and authoritarian (safety-conscious) operations; they tend to “own” towns where they operate, stifling community creativity and entrepreneurship. In most cases, what they give back to communities is piecemeal in spite of the sense of largesse.
One must ask, “What happens when mining ends?” It is not a sustainable industry and the impact of around 2,000 retrenchments two years ago should be driving some answers to that question.
Maybe the last word on the town should be left to a prominent local attorney, best left anonymous. His snapshot of the town? “Monday is the day when a stream of women come into the office, hiding behind dark glasses and sobbing. They want a divorce. It’s been another drunken weekend and they’re probably hiding a few bruises. By Wednesday everything is back to normal again.” Until next time.
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