By Julienne du Toit
Photographs by Chris Marais
A family friend told us recently that his son was thinking of resettling overseas.
The young man, who has spent most of his professional life managing huge mines around Africa and abroad, was considering buying a boutique farm supplying heirloom vegetables to restaurants in Melbourne, Australia.
“He wants to find a place where children can still cycle in the streets or walk to school,” his father explained.
Just then I heard the excited teenage chatter of Cradock High School kids as they strolled past our house.
“He could come and live right here,” I suggested, half-joking, knowing there wasn’t the vaguest chance that this would happen.
A Dubious Distinction
City people probably see the South African platteland as a dire place, specifically my hometown of Cradock and its neighbour, Middelburg. We are served (disserved, actually) by the deeply dysfunctional Inxuba Yethemba Municipality (IYM). Last year, thanks to service non-delivery it was labelled the worst in the country by the Daily Dispatch newspaper.
Anyone following what Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu has been reporting about corrupt and inept municipalities will have an idea of just how bad that is. We are firmly near the bottom of 82% of South Africa’s mismanaged municipalities.
For those who are morbidly interested in how bad things really are, Cradock and Middelburg are case studies in how a perfect storm of cadre deployment, inept management and loss of institutional knowledge can kneecap a town.
The Eskom Debt
IYM owes R100-million to Eskom and, not surprisingly, the power utility is threatening to cut us off. Just to show it was serious, power was cut for six hours a day for a while in autumn, with startling punctuality. You could have set your watch by it if it weren’t so damn dark.
This was how they forced our municipal managers and politicians, still spluttering about Eskom arrogance, back to the negotiating table. We are currently living with power, but in a state of uncertainty. Lawyers are busy. There are interdicts flying back and forth.
A very worrying factor, for IYM, is that electricity is the only commodity it has to sell us. That’s where it makes its money, apart from the paltry rates budget. Like all municipalities, it buys power from Eskom and sells it on to its residents at a 30% mark-up, except for Lingelihle, the local township. They get their juice directly from Eskom.
Their lights remain on, and they pay much less for the privilege. This has caused massive resentment in other parts of Cradock. It also means that if there is non-payment of rates from Lingelihle, there is no recourse for the Municipality. They cannot cut off power as a punitive measure, like they can in the rest of town if there is no payment of rates and taxes.
Many government departments based in Cradock have also not paid their rates, along with businessmen who should surely know better. IYM is owed hundreds of millions of rands.
Then there is the water issue, the supply of which is normally another crucial source of revenue for any municipality. IYM’s waterworks were actually run really well when we arrived in 2007. The head of that section was poached by the national Department of Water Affairs a few years later. Maintenance was not carried out nearly as rigorously and proactively after that, but the water was still good.
In 2014, disaster struck. The Chris Hani District Municipality, based in Queenstown, decided to take over the water and sanitation function from the towns in its jurisdiction, apparently to boost its own income. (No one has come up with any other reason so far.)
IYM officials were appalled at the prospect. In fact everyone was.
The ANC and DA stood together for the first and only time, in an attempt to stop it. Everyone tried to make the Chris Hani District Municipality see sense. Two CHDM councillors who advised against the move said they were chased out of chambers and physically threatened.
Municipal Services Pirates
Against the good advice of everyone, CHDM (their slogan is “Sustaining growth through our people”) took over water and sanitation, not just of Cradock and Middelburg but also Hofmeyr, Tarkastad, Lady Frere, Cofimvaba, Tsomo, Elliot, Cala, Engcobo, Molteno, Sterkstroom and a half dozen other tiny dorps.
Since then, everything has gone downhill. Inxuba Yethemba Local Municipality lost nearly a third of its income thanks to this municipal piracy. As a result, our streets are full of potholes, the townships are full of litter and the municipal buildings are starting to fall apart.
Control of critical services devolved to officials and technicians 90 minutes’ drive away. Water supply became irregular. As CHDM officials took over, things went wrong, water tasted weird, people fell sick.
Not long after that, there were regular sewage spills into the Great Fish River. There were increasing numbers of water outages, usually coupled with power outages. If there was an important function with thousands of visitors pouring into Cradock for a weekend of inter-schools rugby or some big function like a motorbike rally or festival, you could almost guarantee the power and water would be cut, with disastrous effects.
Residents didn’t get their water bills for two years, then were suddenly served with notices that they owed tens of thousands of rands with no reference to water meter readings. Dead people and those who had moved away decades ago got bills.
Barely four percent of the people in the District Municipality are actually paying, so the whole water hijack has backfired on CHDM in spectacular fashion.
Civil Unrest and Tomato Plants
Parts of the town – notably one of the poorest areas of Michausdal township – have suffered without water for weeks at a time. It took burning tyres and riots before the municipal officials even thought to send in a water tanker during the scorching month of December last year.
The latest drama revolves around the sewage plant, last upgraded in 1989. It has ground to a complete halt. In fact, it was basically abandoned. The aerator tank became so stagnant that tomato plants started growing on its motionless fertile crusts. Millions of litres of sewage were and are pouring into the Great Fish River, endangering lives, jobs, dairy and irrigation farms downstream.
The national Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation is now taking the local and district municipalities to court for the pollution of the Great Fish River, an important part of water supply to Cookhouse, Grahamstown, the billion rand citrus export agri-business between Addo and Kirkwood, and Port Elizabeth.
Why Stick Around?
Theoretically, amidst all this disaster, we should be packing our bags and calling for moving trucks.
But strangely enough, Chris and I really like living in the platteland – and specifically in Cradock.
For many reasons, we cannot emigrate: too old, not rich enough, too bonded to this country. This puts us alongside millions of other South Africans who are facing the same issues.
For those who are being driven demented by crime and traffic in the cities, and who cannot emigrate, semigration to the platteland remains a viable option. There’s a quality of life here that remains, despite failing infrastructure.
These include, broadly:
- A variety of good schooling options;
- A cheaper cost of living;
- A sense of community;
- No traffic jams (more important than you would think!);
- Clean air;
- Less crime;
- A human-scale economy;
- A knowledge of where most foods come from;
- Peace and quiet, interesting people, and most importantly, the time to chat with them.
The Pothole Squad
Last week we heard the excited jabber of schoolkids again, at a higher and more sustained pitch than normal. We peered out the window (yes, you do become a curtain-twitcher in the platteland) and saw them laughing, having fun and filling the potholes that pock the road in front of our house. Then, with their buckets and stampers and traffic cones, they carried on down Victoria and Albert Streets.
Granted, it is wrong that children are filling potholes. The municipality should undoubtedly be doing it. And it is a temporary measure because the tamped-down clay soil will all melt away with the first rains.
But the mere fact that they chose to do this to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s birthday was strangely cheering.
If it were only the schoolkids that were interested in turning Cradock’s infrastructure around, I would still be worried. But the civil society pushback has been really interesting.
Power to the People
At the beginning of 2019, things reached breaking point in Cradock. Certain areas – notably the industrial zone – went without electricity for days on end.
Some businesses were facing the very real possibility that they would have retrench workers and close down.
Entrepreneur Lou Venter, with the help of DA councillor Rika Featherstonehaugh of Ward 5, called a meeting with the desperate businessmen and whoever was available at the local municipality – the Speaker and a few minor officials.
Within hours of notification on WhatsApp and Facebook, the room was packed. The municipal officials could not say or do anything useful. But many of the residents who attended this meeting later joined the new Cradock Gemeenskap/Community Forum.
It is democracy via WhatsApp – a fascinating thing to behold.
Since that day, Lou Venter and the Forum have kept information flowing between townspeople and both municipalities.
Moving the Earth
In February 2019, the town’s reservoirs started running dry. The canals bringing water from the Cradock Weir were completely clogged with reeds, silt and debris. No more than a trickle was coming through.
“Crisis brought people together,” says Lou Venter. He sent out a WhatsApp message via the Forum’s group page, calling for help. “Within hours, people were pledging money, time, machinery and diesel. We got a backhoe and an excavator. In places too cramped for the earthmoving machinery, people came with pangas, axes and chainsaws. The Cradock High School rugby team even helped. We fixed up the broken sluices, and within days the water was flowing again.”
Since then, the Forum has tackled all kinds of projects: bulldozing open the road to the landfill site; filling potholes; installing dustbins and beautifying certain areas.
“This town has many visitors thanks to the schools and events like the Fish River Canoe Marathon. We have to keep it looking good,” says Lou. “I said to the people around me that if the town goes down, all our property and investments go down with it. That’s why we are working together.”
One House, One Municipality
In response to erratic supplies of power and water, many people are installing their own ‘municipal services’. They are setting up rain tanks, water pumps and solar- or gas geysers, gas stoves, petrol generators, inverters and batteries, and solar panels. Some people are even talking about composting toilets.
Entrepreneurs who supply off-grid equipment and do installations are thriving. There are three businesses supplying cheap clean drinking water.
An incorrigible optimist might even look at the faltering infrastructure and see this as an opportunity.
Picking Litter with Friends
The one thing about small towns is that the level of detail is so much finer. People notice things that might go unobserved in a city, often because they’re out in the streets, walking or chatting with neighbours.
By the same token, it is easier to see what needs doing, and to gather a few friends to tackle the problem – pick up litter, tend a bed of flowers, maybe plant some aloes on a traffic island.
The other thing that keeps us in Cradock is the kindness. We are always coming across the largely unannounced generosity of local people giving goods, money and services to the local feeding scheme, animal shelter, old age homes, and an orphanage that is being set up. People really do look out for one another out here.
This is a mostly blue-collar, intensely practical town. People work with their hands. They know how to fix things and now they’ve shown they will step up when needed.
Gunboats vs Supertankers
Cities are like huge supertankers. They are difficult to manoeuvre. Small towns like this one are like gunboats. Their economies are human scale. With will and ingenuity, things can be turned around.
We will probably lose our friend’s son to Australia, although Cradock could really do with more people like him – a man with a background in plumbing and the ability to install services and make them work in remote places.
But there are others, locals and incomers, who will step into the breach. While urbanisation remains the biggest demographic trend in this country, we are seeing the trickle-back of city people who come with abilities, funds and new eyes.
These are the semigrants, the incomers, and each one brings fresh life and energy to a previously moribund platteland.
- Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais are the authors of Moving to the Platteland – Life in Small Town South Africa. Find out more about it HERE . Order the Ebook Version HERE.