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What a great little village Pniël could be!

When CapeInfo was deciding on the most beautiful drive in South Africa, Helshoogte came up tops for every reason — the ever changing views in every season, the dramatic mountain vistas and the things to do on the route.  On the Stellenbosch side of the Pass, there are views back to Table Mountain.  From the top and on the eastern side, there are views across four mountain ranges (and all the way to the other side of Worcester.)  The attractions are anchored by Delaire Graff, Tokara and Thelema on the one side and and Boschendal and Solms-Delta on the other.

And in between there’s Pniël — a delightful little village with a rich history… but little to offer the traveller.  Yes, there is the historic church as well as the fascinating Pniël Museum with its peaceful tea garden, but you need to check that they are open if you’re planning to visit — their opening times are erratic.

Pniël Congregational Church
Pniël Congregational Church — the heart and soul of the village.

I made several visits and sent several emails to the local tourism info office asking for help.  The assistant promised the manager would respond, but she never did.

Because I drive through the village a few times a week, it started bugging me that here was a village with all the potential in the world that just wasn’t living up to that potential.  And it really isn’t contributing to tourism in any meaningful way.

So… after an interview with James Vos, the DA’s shadow minister of tourism, where he had spoken about his passion for helping small towns achieve their tourism potential, I invited him to join me in looking at Pniël’s potential and the opportunities that exist.  He agreed immediately and said he would be accompanied by Stellenbosch Municipality’s Mayco member for tourism & economic development as well as the ward councillor.

We agreed to meet at the Museum with Matthew Cyster, chairman of the Pniël Cultural & Heritage Trust and curator of the Museum.  My condition was that I wanted to taste Mrs Cyster’s legendary melktert

And that’s how I came to meet Johannie Serdyn, now in her second term on Mayco for tourism & economic development.  The ward councillor didn’t come because, I was told, he doesn’t get on with Matthew!

Tuisgemaakte  Food Capital of South Africa

Over tea and Mrs Cyster’s delicious melktert (Johannie wrapped up the leftovers for the mayor) I asked why Pniël can’t become the Tuisgemaakte Food Capital of South Africa.  It could easily become renown for the best melktert, samoosas, salomies, rotis… you name it.  And that’s before one starts becoming innovative!  Imagine curried crayfish (or crabstick) samoosas!  (I’ve had that, and it’s to die for!)

I pointed to the example of the Napier Farm Stall which became so popular for its bread that people driving between Cape Town and the Garden Route used to detour off the N2 to buy Ilze’s fresh bread.  More people got to know Napier because of Ilze’s Farm Stall than for any other reason.

Tuisgemaakte means homemade in Afrikaans.

Napier Farm Stall is a compulsory stop.
Napier Farm Stall is a compulsory stop and an icon in the Overberg village of Napier.

And at the opposite site of Napier, another shop opened with a sign outside that proclaimed “Moerse Pies”… and became another drawcard.  Napier was no longer a sleepy village that you just drove through en route to Arniston, irritated by the reduced speed limit.

“Surely… home industries would be supported by Pniël locals?” I asked.  And wouldn’t the usually-empty Museum tea garden be a good place for selling produce — while drawing more feet through the Museum?

Instead of tourism Rands just driving through the town, imagine what this could put into the pockets and purses of locals?  Imagine the pride the locals would thrive on as a result of the village’s new brand.  Imagine the opportunities it would create.

Pniel church bazaar
The people of Pniël know how to cook!  And Pniël’s huge church bazaar only happens once a year, drawing everybody from the wider Pniël community back to visit the village. It’s a showcase of food and produce.

Johannie was also captured by the old photos of the village in the Museum, which prompted me to think aloud… “Why can’t Pniël become the Graaff-Reinet of the Boland?”  It just needs a catalyst to ignite civic pride, which is what the late Dr Anton Rupert did in Graaff-Reinet.  Finding the right catalyst is not difficult if you know how to look.

Johannie was bubbling with enthusiasm, and we agreed to meet again to take it forward.

We met again about two weeks later and she brought councillor Rikus Badenhorst along — all portfolio chairs have shadows, to build capacity, which is what Rikus’ job on tourism & economic development.  He also has some business experience in tourism, which gives her a sense of comfort.

We ran through all the discussions again, for Rikus’ benefit, but I added that since Matthew didn’t seem keen for any changes at the Museum’s tea garden, the front portion of the municipal offices could be converted to retail space — to sell local produce and accommodate a municipal entrepreneurial hub.  It’s currently a dead facade on the busy main road, with plenty of parking.

I also suggested a competition, funded by sponsors, to kickstart the improvement of streetscapes in Pniël and making the village a destination in its own right that visitors would enjoy exploring,

Click on an image for larger photos

The next step was to identify who would drive everything, otherwise it becomes a never-ending talkshop.  I can help but I don’t have the time, and the councillors do not have the capacity.  Johannie immediately had the solution: two new people had been appointed to the municipality’s staff who would be ideal, she said.  Since they were only starting work in the new year, we agreed to meet again after the Christmas break.

From that meeting, the mayor got a ‘selfie’ of Johannie and Rikus enjoying waffles and ice cream at the Boschendal Deli.

Johannie, Rikus and I met again at the beginning of February.  But instead of bringing staff who would manage the job, they were accompanied by the ward councillor, Malcolm Johnson, who they had decided would run with everything.

The only hope for Pniël is to bring in new blood Malcolm Johnson, ward councillor

Malcolm didn’t endear himself to me, saying on two occasions that the only hope for Pniël was to bring in new blood — nothing could be achieved with locals, he said.  I beg to differ…

The “Tuisgemaakte  Food Capital” and the “Streetscapes Improvement Competition” fell by the wayside with no-one to drive them and with Malcolm’s view that locals have little to contribute.  (He also suggested that the back of the municipal building should rather be used  — safeguarding his office at the front).

One of Pniël’s problems seems to be that there is no Urban Design Framework for the village, — something that visualises retail and the character of main street shopping 20 years from now.  Apparently Dennis Moss’ office (architects & planners) prepared some plans — at the time Pniël was being incorporated into Stellenbosch Municipality — but locals say these have been ignored.  The municipality doesn’t seem to have learned the lessons of How Franschhoek became such a successful tourist town and, by comparison, Pniël is being set up for failure by Stellenbosch Municipality.

I conveyed an offer by businessmen to prepare ideas for the area, but Johannie rejected this (for technical reasons) although Rikus thought making a start would be a good idea.  So I repeated the call I had made two months earlier to Johannie and Rikus that Fabio Todeschini, who is currently employed by the municipality and who prepared the two Franschhoek plans over 20 years ago, should have his contract extended to Pniël.

I love Johannie for her energy and enthusiasm, but I honestly think that she is out of her depth and that she really shouldn’t attend meetings without Council officials.  This isn’t a problem unique to Stellenbosch — look at Mayco members around the country and see how many of them are actually competent.  Party politicisation has debilitated the officials in the municipalities.  At least Johannie is very responsive — I can provide a list of Stellenbosch municipal officials who just ignore emails!

I think the new service station which has just opened in Pniël emphasises the inadequacies of the municipality’s development vision.  Dupré Lombard (Stellenbosch’s executive director of planning) tried to improve the developer’s plans but falls short.  I wonder if Dupré remembers the very successful process for Paradise Service Station in Cape Town (when he started his professional career at the City of Cape Town, and where he learnt so much from Peter de Tolly and David Jack)?  That aside, the OK Minimart in the complex will introduce a new era of convenience for locals, but the impact on existing small shops will be drastic: will they survive?

The new owners say they adhered to all requirements and even gathered 5,000 signatures in support of their development and the new shop.  This does not abrogate the municipality’s responsibility to have developed a shared urban design vision for the village, against which villagers can measure all development proposals.

I also raised my formal complaint to Johannie about the tourism office which had received no response.  When both councillors looked at Malcolm, his only response was, “I don’t know what they are supposed to be doing.”  This really highlights the inadequacies of the municipality’s tourism management.

Trying to salvage a single outcome from the meeting, Johannie decided that Malcolm would provide a list of names of small businesses worthy of promotion, to include in CapeInfo’s directory.  (I’d been impressed by service levels I’ve experienced in the area by small businesses, and felt they should be promoted.  I said I’d find sponsorship for them if the municipality came up with names and helped them with the process.)

When I seemed doubtful that the municipality would meet its end of the deal, Malcom said he would prepare this with his ward committee.  And Rikus emphatically told me to go ahead and find the sponsors, “you will have my list of names in one month’s time” he said.  Malcolm concurred.  I confirmed this by email to Malcolm immediately after the meeting.

Malcolm did nothing.  He acknowledged that he had never got back to me, without any apology.  I don’t think he even read the email.  I was warned of this when I told locals he had been tasked with the job and I have yet to meet anyone who can speak to his competence.  When I told him that he was just wasting my time, he shrugged his shoulders with a “Who cares?” attitude.  I’m sorry, as affable and collegial as he might be, I think he’s stealing his salary.

Click here to see what we decided to do, given his incompetence.

Pniël is one of the most resource-rich villages in South Africa, but it’s nowhere near reaching its full potential.  Many in Pniël might not want any change, but change is one thing we can all be sure of.  If you don’t plan your future, you won’t know what you’ve lost until it’s already gone.

This article was sent to Stellenbosch mayor Gesie van Deventer prior to publication.  In the absence of any response, I mentioned the saga to Alan Winde, provincial Minister of Economic Opportunity.  He said that if locals come up with a business plan, his department can help bring it to fruition.

So… Pniel locals… if your ward councillor feels there’s no competency in the area, show him how wrong he is and organise yourselves.  I’ll happily help and put you in touch with Alan Winde’s department.

18 thoughts on “What a great little village Pniël could be!”

  1. Thank for this. I agree BUT you omitted to add in that for this vision to come to fruition it must be owned by the people of Pniel and there MUST be a local champion. I look forward to seeing the plan. Regards Alan

  2. I totally agree with Alan – thanks Alan. You cannot go ahead and contact municipality and other organisations without consulting with the people from Pniel. There is another process similar to this running in the Dwars River Valley already, and we should know this group and include them in discussions please.

    1. No disagreement there, Janine! It’s a pity that James Vos MP set things up the way he did. It was counterproductive. One would assume that working through the tourism office and/or the ward councillor would have identified the best processes, but neither responded at all!

  3. Stellenbosch mayor Gesie van Deventer has responded by email this morning:

    “Thank you for the communication and your enthusiasm about our beautiful small town.

    “Can I suggest that you arrange to see Mr Behrens, the CEO of Franschhoek Tourism. He also deals with the Dwarsriver area and has great ideas for tourism in that region.”

    1. Dear mayor van Deventer, we have discussed the matter at the monthly meeting of the Pniël Heritage and Cultural trust and will arrange a meeting with all the role players. Thank you for your feedback and interest.
      Treasurer: Pniël Heritage and Cultural trust

      1. It seems that the elephant in the room is Dwarsrivier Tourism, which has no committee and no representation for the area’s very significant tourism and hospitality interests.

          1. There is NO board and Cllr Johnson, by his own admission in front of the Mayco councillor for tourism, said that he doesn’t have any idea what they are or should be doing!

  4. Mmary Jean Thomas-Johnson

    The Pniel village will get there because their people have gees and lots of it. Just watch that space!

  5. One of the places that make me believe we are staying in the most beautiful part of RSA. Spent the Easter weekend at Kijk in de Pot. The views are just awesome.

  6. Darryl Earl David

    I wrote to the Mayors office with the idea of Unesco City of Gastronomy for Stellenbosch Municipality with major festivals planned for Pniel and Languedoc. I could not believe they were uninterested. True I did say as Executive Director they would need to create a post for me. This is how Unesco works. When they came back and said no I could not believe it. SO I OFFERED MY SERVICES FOR FREE. To date they have not responded. I got the same reaction from Mayors office to my proposal. Contact Franschhoek Tourism. Well I don’t want to contact Franschhoek because Unesco want THE MAYOR’S ENDORSEMENT. As the person who is driving Durban’s bid for Unesco City of Literature I know I can pull this off. I showed what the festivalisation of Pniel can achieve with my Adam Small Festival. I created SA’s national booktown. I created SA’s only Mural Town. I think I know a thing or two about Tourism. No the problem is not the people of Pniel. The problem is not a lack of a business plan or tourism plan. The problem lies with politicians. A UNESCO CITY OF GASTRONOMY and Mayors office turns it down. Unbelievable.

  7. I drive through Pniel so often and my exact thoughts and sentiments are as per above. I am a wedding planner and now have clients wanting to do upliftment or a community project in Pniel so would love to know who I can perhaps chat to, or if you can point me in the right direction that would be appreciated. I would also love to offer all these local desserts to the clients to purchase.

  8. I grew up in Pniel and each time I return to the area I see so much potential and so little regard to preserving some of the old charm and heritage. I always imagined the old Muller property and the other homes, the old school and the Church property as the hub of of a tourist development, but it seems commercialism has prevailed.

    1. Pniel is a unique little town and is my birth place ! Please meet with the right people like Rev. Klate from our church to get the right info for our heritage of our ancestors! Our people can cook as you mention and the best milk tart recipe is coming from my Grandma who turned 105 years Sarah Maria De Wet and is still baked by her posterity! Many Thanks

      1. I wrote this story over a year ago, and – today more than ever – I can say emphatically that Pniel isn’t anywhere near reaching its full potential. There is no shared vision for its future.

        1. This article is bull###(as if we don’t know the potential) Why can’t you just leave it untouched the youth already can’t afford to buy houses etc etc that grew up here….. Everything must be developed???? Why??? Are u not satisfied with the Bo kaap saga??? What about district six?? Salt River woodstock???

  9. Ho is it possible with all the intellectual capacity in Pniel, you still fail to take responsibility for your own tourism affairs? By the way I am sitting on the Planning Committee and every time there is an Report coming on Tourism and I witness that Franschoek is managing your Grant I am Furious. It reminds me of some Slavery Mentality.

    1. HI Franklin . thank you for your concern . I think the problem lies mostly with the Municipalities mentality and few of Pniel. Indeed Franschhoek Tourism is managing the Grant and they have since the “Stellenbosch Municipality”, decided they should. Perhaps Viola can answer you that question. or maybe the ward Councillor who has brought SUCH great change to Pniel.

      I’m sure even in your meetings you will hear “Stellenbosch and Franschhoek”., whereas Pniel is always referred to a settlement area. Bare in mind that the TOWNS of Pniel, Franshhoek AND Stellenbosch amalgamated. We obtained “Town” status before the amalgamation with Stellenbosch and Franshhoek in 2001, something the Municipality fail to remember.

      On the website , Pniel being described as “settlement” – “The major portion of the area is utilised for agriculture (mainly wine production) and it includes the towns of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and settlements such as Klapmuts, Koelenhof, Kylemore, Johannesdal, Pniel, Jamestown and Raithby.”

      The grant issue is two part maybe.. to control tourism traffic visiting Franshhoek by certain body’s ? or making Pniel people out to be plain stupid. I’m sure the Pniel people are capable of managing their own grant and affairs as they have done since 1843,
      The question perhaps should be asked if the Municipal employees assigned to tourism development recognise how to develop projects instead of following on existing products.

      There is a lot of potential yes: The current white elephant municipal buildings in Pniel could be used as a “tourism hub” with at least a coffee shop small curio shops, there is so much to see in and around Pniel. Instead big space of about 100 square meters are wasted on one person in an area build and funded as a Multi purpose community Centre” Even as mentioned our information office has not succeeded in positively contributing to tourism development in the area. So what is Franschhoek tourism really doing to benefit the area.

      * How about a bicycle rental? – Surrounding farms offer kilometres of bike trails – see MBT centre on Boschendal
      * coffee shop – perhaps tires guests would want to sit awhile – so many day tourists, backpackers and tour guides come through this area
      * Personal guiding / How about the training guides that actually want to guide in Pniel, ( and certain people from the community that shall not be named), Allow our own people to show of their town.
      * Home stays financially assist local in creating a space – many have an extra room – ( have some ideas on this)
      * B&B – So many wine farms offer themselves as a wedding venue and most often cannot accommodate all the guests. having B&B an offer accommodation for such guests.

      Perhaps some Pniel people, who can afford a lavish lifestyle should recognise that tourism can boost the town’s economy by providing jobs for the unemployed and less fortunate, and not just for those who want to feed their ego, or have their name to go down in history.

      We have such a rich cultural history that people are interested to know about. we have our roots in slavery and we should be proud that we built this strong community out of Nothing. No help from the Municipality especially. The development a redevelopment of our town has mainly been done by the community funding and or provincial grants. IDP processes has been run for many years, but what benefit had this had for Pniel as a TOWN.

      Food for though:

      * Our Church building is one of the most photographed buildings. People find its location interesting.
      * Museum
      * Monuments
      * Horticulture / gardens
      * River area / mass graves
      * Geography interests –
      * Silver mines
      * Bicycle renting
      * Hiking – even many hiking trails – our charter services can drop and go – pick up and go can all be managed from the info centre witch is closed over weekends by the way.
      * B&B
      * Home Stays

      to be continued…………

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