Category Archives: Limpopo

The sustainability of Limpopo’s towns

If one thing stands out about Limpopo for me, it is that it’s an inside-out province.  The towns, in general, offer no attraction whatsoever while the country areas are stunning!  The towns, generally, are a mess!

One Polokwane product owner on CapeInfo wrote to say that Limpopo Tourism is embarking on a roadshow to find out why the province isn’t getting its share of international tourists.  I would have thought the answer is quite simple.  The lodges are world-class but that doesn’t spread tourism around, and the towns are best forgotten in any tourist’s itinerary.  Locals are accustomed to what they have; you need to look at the province through a visitor’s eyes.

Looking at Mokopane as an example: the Mogalakwena municipality covers an area of 1,683km² and comprises three towns, 117 villages, nine traditional leaders and five kingdoms.  The municipal area has a population of over 300,000 — certainly no dorp —  of which 38% is under the age of 14.  Almost 96% is black followed by whites at 4% and Indians/Asians/Coloureds combined at about 0.4%.  The Indian/Asian group has a long history in the town and is proportionately the most economically active, even having its own school.

Is it a sustainable town that can meet the needs and aspirations of its citizens?  I think the answer is an emphatic “No!” as things stand.

The Town
The town has no urban design framework or aesthetic controls.  If I speak to bankers, as good a yardstick as any, business in the town is not good.  If the town doesn’t develop a clear vision — which is not just about service delivery but rather economic growth and social development — its inexorable slide will continue.

Now I don’t believe that Waterberg towns like Mokopane, Mookgopong, Modimolle and Bela Bela have the resources or abilities to tackle what needs to be done.  And since it is a province-wide problem and challenge, it needs to be addressed at a higher level.

The Waterberg regional authority could establish or engage the necessary skills and provide a service to all the towns in the district. Good urban design and aesthetic control is a prerequisite for economic opportunity and successful businesses. (Cape Agulhas Municipality did this to very good effect for the several towns it administers about 10 years ago.)

Towns also need to establish formal public/private partnerships so that everybody reads from the same book.  (Both Johannesburg’s Inner City and Cape Town have done this with great success.)

Something locals may be accustomed to, but it surprises a visitor to the town -- just a handful of the scores of funeral parlours in the town. Death is a big business in Mokopane. Limpopo has very high HIV infection rates.

The Mines
AngloPlatinum has the largest mine in the area so most comments will be directed at them and, unfortunately, I need to draw comparisons between what they do in Mokopane and what Rio Tinto has done in Phalaborwa.  I have no doubt whatsoever that Anglo means to do well in the town, but I believe they need to rethink their corporate social responsibility programme.

A waste of shareholders' funds on "feel-good" projects: Restoration was completed months ago but the swimming pool never opened because the Municipality can't find a life guard!

  1. In Mokopane, Anglo donates generously to many ad hoc projects in the town, often just paying for things the municipality can’t afford… with little legacy impact.  Anglo’s refurbishment of the town’s swimming pool (which had been closed for years) was rather wasted.  It’s still closed because the municipality can’t find a life-guard to be on duty.  In Phalaborwa, Rio Tinto established the Palabora Foundation with initial funding of R176 million.  It does excellent work and has made a big difference to the town.  (In Musina, the Local Economic Development official said they had been trying to get Anglo to establish a similar foundation there.)
  2. In Phaloborwa, the mine sold the golf course to a private developer because it was not their core business.  Developers turned the golf course into the world-famous Hans Merensky Estate — today of the town’s greatest assets and attractions.  In Mokopane, the municipality swapped the golf course  for services the mine provided to the town.  Wasn’t this an opportunity lost?

I don’t believe that Anglo is doing nearly enough to prepare the town for the day when it retrenches all its workers, or retrenches large numbers (as it did in 2009) during the next slump in the platinum price.  As things stand now, Mokopane lives or dies by the mine’s fortunes.  If “Diamonds are Forever,” mines are certainly not!

The ticking time bomb — housing the poor
Driving into Modimolle recently, I saw a sign advertising “Sustainable Houses” on large plots.  How the hell can they make that claim, I asked myself?

I worked at the Mitchells Plain Planning Unit in the mid-1970s.  The original rental plans had been scrapped and the challenge was to build affordable housing that people wanted to buy.  We built full-scale, furnished mockup houses inside an old factory and thousands of families passed through, being educated about choices and what they could afford.  We adapted the existing mock-ups and built more as we refined the process in response to visitor comments.  Matching expectations and affordability was a very difficult task.

The original town of Potgietersrus is in the bottom righthand corner. The rest is urban sprawl showing only part of Mahwelereng Municipality

The fact that South Africa has plenty of land does not mean that one can afford urban sprawl.  One simply cannot meet expectations of  paved roads & street lighting, water & stormwater reticulation, waterborne sewage, refuse removal, and even schools,  health and sporting facilities nearby when you have large plot sizes and low densities.  It’s just not possible!

Urban sprawl also adds to the costs of all road networks and personal transport expenses.  Successful towns of the future will be those that are the most efficient for those who live there.

Central government’s infrastructure grants may address some expectations in poorer areas, but it’s the municipality’s  responsibility to maintain and service the infrastructure, but that alone will be sufficient to bankrupt municipalities or mean that the level of service they render is vastly diminished.

Large plots could be partially justified if they were used to sustain the inhabitants with extensive planting of vegetables and fruit, but this doesn’t happen, or it’s the exception… there is no water!

I attended a meeting of township residents on the outskirts of Mokopane where the only service they receive is electricity from Eskom.  (They have to buy water from those residents that do have boreholes.)  “What do they need most?” I asked.  “Jobs and job opportunities,” was the unanimous reply.  Municipalities need to rethink their roles.

What was possible and affordable 50 years ago is not possible today.  Towns and townsfolk trapped in the past are doomed to failure.

Mokopane faces even greater challenges.  Many of its citizens live on tribal lands and pay minimal rentals to tribal chiefs.  The municipality collects no rates and taxes. It’s going to take brave and inspired leadership to tackle these challenges.

What sort of future can the town guarantee to the 38% of the population who are under the age of 14?

One measure of a successful town is the number of tourists and travellers who make a detour because the town offers some or other attraction or facility that makes the detour worthwhile.

The other measure is the number of people from outside the town and region who choose to relocate to it for their retirement because it is an attractive place.  Local pride is important but what others think of you is as important.

Related content:

Postscript: Driving east from Polokwane on Route 71 did impress (after one finally leaves the peri-urban sprawl of Polokwane).  Mopane region does seem to do things differently:  Haenertsburg must be Limpopo’s gem, but Tzaneen and Phalaborwa also impressed.

The town that lost its soul

MokopaneThis is a story about a mining town where very few people feel good about themselves and the lives they lead.  It’s worst among the whites who feel trapped without upward mobility and with limited opportunity — a characteristic of most mining towns.  It is a very patriarchal, church-going community.  Speak to anyone and they tell you about how cliquey the townspeople are.  This is Mokopane in Limpopo, where a Monday for lawyers means sobbing wives who try to hide the bruises behind sunglasses and makeup.  By Wednesday, all talk of divorce is over and it all starts again.

Among blacks, there is a more genuine sense of community but the challenge is staying alive.  There are few jobs, especially if you are a member of the DA, and not nearly enough for everybody.  New mines, it is claimed, only offer jobs to ANC members.

Last Saturday, a dog was killed — murdered would be a better word — at someone’s house near the centre of the town.  Witnesses who saw what happened clammed up when they were asked to testify so exactly what happened never found its way to an affidavit.  But it’s claimed that the dog was beaten with a chair, driven over by a bakkie (or the attempt was made) and shot several times.  The dog’s owner claims the dog bit him, but whether this was before or during the beating is unclear.

Since a firearm was discharged in a residential area, the police were called but took no action.

The local SPCA took the report very seriously and it’s chairperson is Marcelle Maritz, a DA councillor for Mokopane.  She’s no stranger to difficult situations, having been the town’s Sheriff for 18 years.

They SPCA asked to collect the dog’s body to establish how the dog died.   The owner agreed and undertook to call them back to make arrangements.  When he didn’t call back, they called again only to be told that the dog’s body had been disposed of.  It had been taken to the edge of town, and buried under tyres which had been set alight.  Does this sound like the actions of someone with nothing to hide?

When I spoke to Marcelle, she said that she had just been speaking to the man’s boss.  He was clearly unhappy with the events and had issued the man with a final warning — he had used the work bakkie without permission to dispose of the dog’s body.

He also told Marcelle that the man is under a lot of stress.  His wife is out on bail and his kids have no food.  The boss was worried that the next act of violence could be directed at the wife and children.

In discussion with Marcelle, she conceded that this cannot justify his actions but she had to look after the best interests of the community… and her priority was the children.  She would obtain food for them from the Noodforum.

But what about the gun, I asked.  Had it been fired while under the influence of alcohol?  Marcelle felt it probably was.  So surely the police should open a case, confiscate the firearm and revoke the licence?  Surely, given the fact that South Africa has the highest rate of family murders in the world, one cannot take chances?

What about the other dogs?  If the children have no food, do the dogs have any?  (Let’s ignore the fact that there’s probably money for alcohol.)  Surely the SPCA should remove the other dogs?

Marcel agreed and her next stop was going to be the station commander at SAPS Mokopane.

The next thing I hear is that the man has agreed to do voluntary community service at the SPCA, and that’s the end of the whole episode.

Or is it the end of the episode?  If he walks away after the first day of community service, does the SPCA have any recourse?  Are his wife and children safe?  If they become his next victims, who is to blame?  Is it the witnesses who let a whole community down by refusing to testify?  Is it Marcelle Maritz who tried to find a middle ground?  Or is it the SA Police Service who — yet again — ignored all the obvious signs and did nothing?  A former neighbour says the man has a history of violence and alcohol abuse… a suitable candidate for a firearm license?

The real sadness is that communities allow things like this to happen.  Is this how the people of Potties (the old affectionate name for the town) want to be known — turn-a-blind-eye, sweep-it-under-the-carpet kind of people because it’s not too bad?

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated.”  — Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948)

The Diet of Worms

Dried Mopane worms (Gonimbrasia belina) sold by the mugfull on the sidewalk

Right… so from this photo you must realise that these Worms have nothing to do with the Diet of Worms (the reichstag in the town of Worms, Germany) which issued the Edict of Worms in 1521, declaring Martin Luther to be a heretic and banning the reading or possession of his writings.

Gonimbrasia belina is a species of moth found in much of southern Africa, whose large edible caterpillar, the mopani or mopane worm, is an important source of protein for millions of indigenous southern Africans.

And I just managed to avoid eating them during a visit to Tzaneen Country Lodge.

The principle producers are Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.  It is estimated that South Africa alone trades 1.6 million kilogrammes of mopane worm annually, while in Botswana this industry nets about US$8 million annually.

Although the mopane worm feeds chiefly on the mopane tree, it also feed on many other trees indigenous to the same regions, including the leaves of the mango tree.

You find basins of worms for sale at street markets and on sidewalks, like in the BlackBerry photo above taken in Limpopo.

The traditional method of preserving them is to dry them in the sun, or smoke them for extra flavour.  They can also be canned in brine.

Dried mopane worms can be eaten raw as a crisp snack or soaked (to rehydrate) before frying until crunchy, or cooked with onion, tomatoes and spices.  Dried mopane worm has very little flavour.

But they are a very good source of protein — just 3kg of leaves yields 1 kilogramme of mopane worms.  In cattle farming, 10kg of feed generates 1kg of beef.   Going to switch to worms?

Unravelling the mystery of Mokopane — Andy’s story

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.

Andy Goetsch

Andy Goetsch

“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..

Makapans Valley

Makapans Valley is one of only two Stone Age sites in the world that offered up an unbroken sequence of artefacts from the Earlier Stone Age to the Iron Age. One of the historic caves, the Cave of Gwasa, later became known as Makapan's Cave(1854), after the great chief Makapan who, with several thousand members of the Kekana tribe, tried to hide there from Boers engaged on a punitive raid following an attack on a party of trekboers at Moorddrift. Makapans Valley was declared part of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in 2005 and it is one of 15 sites that make up the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.

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

Boardwalk entrance to the Makapan's Caves with the Cave of Hearths on the right

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.

Surreal beauty of the Bushveld - hill side at Makapan's Valley

Related content: Mokopane

What a great not-so-little museum!

Most outdoor displays at the Arend Dieperink Museum are not identified. Maybe readers can help?

Mokopane has the most amazing museum, but it’s set way back from the main road and hidden behind the chamber of commerce and tourism office.

The Arend Dieperink Museum is a bequest by Arend Dieperink (1909-1986), a government employee, who began his collection at the age of 12 and handed it over to the Potgietersrus Kultuurraad in 1968 to start a museum.  In 1969, it was handed over to the municipality which has managed the museum since then.  Dieperink was the first curator of the museum.

The museum is housed in the old Klipskool (one of the very few historical buildings which remain in the town).  The building typifies the architecture of schools in the Bushveld in the 1920s.  Construction of this Edwardian-style building started in 1915 using local sandstone with quartzite, which was brought from the nearby Strydpoort mountains by oxwagon, and then dressed on-site.

The school opened as a dual-medium government schol in 1917 and was used as a primary school until 1964, when it became a store for Potgietersrus Tobacco Corporation until the museum opened in 1968.

The Arend Dieperink Museum is housed in the old Klipskool

Small part of the display of agricultural equipment

The area in front of the museum has an astounding collection of old agricultural equipment — tractors, ploughs, oxwagons and even the generator that supplied the town with electricity.

If its main focus is the settlement of the town and surrounding areas, it goes far further back into man’s evolution through the Stone and Iron Ages with information on Makapan’s Valley covering times from over 3 million years ago.

The old school hall houses the display on the development of Potgietersrus with objects belonging to Voortrekker leader, AH Potgieter, as well as a very beautiful Victorian church organ built in 1860.

Further displays show Dieperink’s family heirlooms and a duplication of his study.  There are also displays showing a typical Bushveld house, the activities of women and the activities of men.  The Potgietersrus Tobacco Corporation helped with an exhibition showing the role of tobacco in the area.

Typical Bushveld house

The Museum is well worth a visit… if you can get into it, because it’s closed on weekends when most families are able to.  I’m prepared to bet that if it opened just on Saturday mornings, it would see more visitors then than it sees in the whole of the week!

The Museum really is one of Mokopane’s biggest — potential — resources, but it’s hidden away behind the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism office on the main street.  Now imagine if those offices were relocated within the Museum, the old office pulled down and an attractive public square created between the Museum and the main road!

Imagine the wonderful grassed courtyard in the centre of the old school delivering on its promise of teas, coffees and mampoer tastings.  But it’s all going to need a paradigm shift to realise the incredible potential of this place.  As the museum brochure says: “The Museum has a tea garden where coffee/tea (with powdered milk) and cold drinks can be obtained.”  Please!  Pick n Pay is across the road.

Note:  The Mokopane Tourism Office also gets a thumbs down and needs to make up its mind if it does cater for tourists.  It closes early on Friday afternoons and is closed all weekend.

SAPS to the rescue!

After the chaos on the N1/R101 (see previous post), I wasn’t prepared to take a chance by returning on the same route.  (And just as well — I heard of others who took four hours for the 50km journey.)

I couldn’t find a phone number for a Limpopo Traffic Management Centre and Radio Jacaranda wasn’t reporting anything, but I did spot a police Polokwane Emergency Response vehicle.

“Did they know the status of the road or an alternative route?”  And they started examining the alternatives.  My road map didn’t help but Inspector Hlahla knew a way that would take me way past the accident.

They could have just fobbed me off with a seemingly insignificant request, but their helpfullness made my day.  It’s little things like this that restores one faith in the police service.

Inspector Hlahla and his colleagues from Polokwane's Emergency Response Unit. Thank you officers!

The route they sent me on over a “hill,” which towered over many of the mountains in the area, reminded me just how beautiful the rural Limpopo Bushveld is.  Away from the towns and the main traffic routes, Limpopo is a very special place.

I want to record my gratitude to Inspector Hlahla and his colleagues for their assistance and giving the day a highlight.

Chaos & anarchy in Limpopo

Slow traffic means people just add more lanes - off the road - three extra lanes on the road verges in this case! This doesn't tell the full story because cars still overtook on double barrier lines, only to pull over onto the far right verge when there was oncoming traffic. In some places, there were seven lanes of traffic and only one of them legal.

Driving to Polokwane on Sunday morning, I saw something that is commonplace on Limpopo’s roads, in fact it’s the norm. I was overtaken on a blind rise with a double barrier line by a gunmetal VW Golf, registration number 333 BEE L.

Cynical irritation! Does BEE mean you own the roads? Does 333 mean you didn’t quite crack it and with a 777 you’d be driving an Audi, BMW, Merc or Range Rover? Limpopo drivers have killed these brands for me! If I wanted to protect my brand, I’d start qualifying those I sell to because Limpopo drivers are certainly not brand ambassadors.

Driving on, I wondered how long my luck would last. Rural Limpopo has amongst the worst accident statistics anywhere.

I didn’t have to wait long. Further along the non-toll R101, I came across a number of cars pulled over with people crossing the road to look down on the N1 which runs alongside at that point. Obviously an accident and I had to wonder if it was 333 BEE L that had caused it. (I learnt later it was a head-on collision between a petrol tanker and a vehicle, with fatalities.)

A little further on, traffic came to an almost-grinding halt.  Vehicles were being diverted onto the R101 from the N1 and the three traffic cops on point duty would have done the keystone cops proud.  One (an urgent candidate for government’s weight reduction programme for law enforcement officials) was chatting to a driver at the head of the oncoming queue.  The second was trying to get the chatting driver to move on while a third was trying to get another queue to take the gap.  Traffic was now at a standstill!

But it was to get worse… much worse.  By now, the N1 was being diverted where it leaves Polokwane and I experienced my first taste of Limpopo chaos and anarchy.  My route to Polokwane no longer existed.  All traffic lanes in both directions were occupied by vehicles leaving Polokwane.  And that wasn’t enough — they created several additional lanes in the verges.  And these were not only cars and bakkies joining the new lanes, buses filled with passengers were taking the rough-terrain route too.

Those heading to Polokwane were forced to bundu-bash… on the far side of the road signs alongside the edge of the road reserve.

Provincial traffic officers looked on helplessly… these are road manners, Limpopo-style.

There is no patrolling
& policing of moving
violations in Limpopo.

This just demonstrates the Western view of a dysfunctional, lawless Africa. And in this case, it all starts with the Limpopo Traffic Department not doing its job.  You will almost never see provincial cops patrolling for moving violations.  You’ll be stopped frequently for your driver’s licence and you’ll see no end of speed traps, often manned by ten or more officers.

That’s not the solution to solving the traffic carnage in Limpopo.  En route from Johannesburg a week ago on the N1, I noticed a black car approaching from behind very, very fast – way over the speed limit.  It suddenly slowed down as it got alongside me and I noticed the blackened windows and the flashing blue light on the dashboard on the FS-registered E Class black Mercedes.

And there was the speed trap!  Once we passed it, the Mercedes disappeared into the distance in no time, way, way above the speed limit.  One must wonder, was that a standard speed trap location or are government officials and politicians advised of their locations?

Repeatedly in these travels, it’s been traffic violations by provincial officials (especially in Health & Social Welfare vehicles) and politicians that stand out.  They forget that the law applies to them too and they should be setting the example.

How can Limpopo Tourism promote their province when their roads are so dangerous?

What can be done?  The buck stops at the Provincial Traffic Chief.  Is he doing his job?  The carnage on his roads is his responsibility. If he ignores that responsibility, he is party to the homicide that occurs on his roads and should be charged for that crime.

A complaint against the Limpopo Provincial Traffic Department (ref 3400778) has been lodged on the Presidential Hotline.

Ancient civilisations, myths & legends

AS FAR AS WE CAN GO: Akela looks over Zimbabwe. The white specks on the horizon below the mountains are the Zimbabwean town of Beit Bridge.

The N1 starts in Cape Town and ends at Musina near the SA border crossing to Zimbabwe at Beit Bridge — 1,919km later. Is that the longest road in South Africa? If it is, Akela, Kenya and I have driven it together!

Whatever the distance, this feels like another country — harsh, rarely friendly and so last century. I’m starting to understand what Schultz (Mr Tzaneen Country Lodge) — who was very friendly — was trying to explain when he told me about the difference between Limpopo’s tribes. Contrary to what one finds in southern Limpopo, the Venda in the north are outgoing, confident and arguably the most friendly in South Africa.

It takes a trip like this to discover that Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s Rainbow Nation doesn’t describe the whole of South Africa.  It does describe the Western Cape where the unique mix of people ensures that domination by one racial or political group is never a given. In northern Limpopo, “rainbow” refers more to the origins of tribes like the Venda, who migrated to the area from Zimbabwe.

Beit Bridge - the border crossing to Zimbabwe.  The border fence that runs the entire length of SA's northern and eastern borders is in the foreground.  It was built when there was a perceived threat from SA's neighbours - a wide swathe of no-man's land marked by razor wire fences on either side and an electrified fence down the middle.  The dirt road alongside the fence was tarred because mercenaries planted land mines in the dirt road.  The electric fence was switched off post-1994 at the insistence of human rights groups.  The razor wire fence is dotted with holes cut into it but Zimbabweans who swarm across on a daily basis.

Baobab tree

This particular trip covers just the northern part of Limpopo province — rich in history and home to the Venda. It’s where you find SA’s ancient Kingdoms of Gold: Mapungubwe (SA’s newest World Heritage Site) and Thula Mela (a 13th century global trading centre); Thohoyandou — Venda’s capital, the Limpopo River and the Soutpansberg mountain range.  And the famous Baobab trees.

Driving north along the N1 from Polokwane, the next major town is Louis Trichardt 140km away.  Getting out of Polokwane is the biggest challenge with poor road signs or road signs that lead you nowhere.

Long, crisp vistas and views towards the horizon are rare in Limpopo because of ever-present haze, but through that haze the appearance of the massive Soutpansberg mountain range breaks the monotony of the plains and rocky outcrops.  Turning east at Louis Trichardt towards Thohoyandou only 70km away starts one of the biggest surprises of this trip.  Climbing into the foothills of the Soutpansberg, the vegetation and scenery changes dramatically.

The road to Thohoyandou runs through intensively-cultivated, wealthy farmland.  During the apartheid-era Venda homeland, these farms lay outside the homeland borders and have always been white owned.  This seems to be a recurring situation — black farmers rarely practice and maintain intensive agriculture and land redistribution so often leads to the failure of agiculture, as one has seen in Zimbabwe.  Can land redistribution continue without equal, or even greater, attention to ensure that agicultural production continues and grows even further?

Simply stunning - hedges of alternating pink and purple flowers line the road.

Roadside sellers - dead sheep!

Notwithstanding the organised agriculture after leaving Louis Trichardt, I’ve never experienced the vibrancy and feeling of authentic Africa as much as while driving the road to Thohoyadou.

I came across a group of women with three piles of “green leaves” in front of them. I stopped to ask what it was. The one pile was “Dead Sheep — good for gout and high blood pressure.”  The second pile was leaves from a Cabbage Tree and they didn’t know the translation for the third.  I bought and brewed some “Dead Sheep”… it tasted vile and I don’t think it did me any good… or harm.

Fresh produce stalls in one of the villages en route to Thohoyandou

After driving hundreds of kilometres without a single roadside farmstall, the road to Thohoyandou was a pleasure dotted with fruit sellers providing perfect photo opportunities.

Tea plantations abut the town of Thohoyandou, with the Soutpansberg in the background.


ALFRED MUNYAI: When I got out the car at my destination, a passerby greeted me and asked where I was heading. I told him I had a meeting at the municipality and he offered to help me find the person I was to see. We chatted a while and he said he'd gladly show me around Thohoyandou after my meeting. And so I gained a very good insight into Thohoyandou later in the day. Thank you, Alfred! He seems quite an entrepreneur and is looking for developers who want to invest there.

Thohoyandou is a typical large town that demonstrates the usual bad land-use planning and African chaos — judged by Western standards. But it works better than most and has good formal shopping.

I also felt very safe there — taking long walks till way after sunset and again long before sunrise.  I enjoyed the vitality of street activities and the whimsy of some street traders.

Don't Care Spaza Shop

Suburban Thohoyandou - there is a huge difference between traditional Western and African cities and towns. As living expectations in African towns rise, one must wonder how sustainable the traditional low densities can be.

When ?? learnt I was interested in visiting Thohoyandou, he called me and it was his enthusiasm that ensured my visit did take place.

Nandoni Dam on the outskirts of Thohoyandou - A popular resort and base for the community fishing industry.

It must have benefited from its status as the capital of the Venda homeland during the apartheid era — which defied its Pretoria paymasters on occasion — through investment intended to make the homeland system work, but more importantly the skills and confidence as a regional centre.  As a homeland capital, it did get a university and a casino.

If the fame of the Zulu nation stems from its prowess as warriors, the Venda are less well known but have a far longer heritage which started with the Mapungubwe kingdom in the 9th century.  King Shiriyadenga was the first king of Venda and Mapungubwe.  The sacred city of Thula Mela (Place of Birth), not far from Thohoyandou near the confluence of the Limpopo and Levubu Rivers in Kruger National Park, dates back to the 13th century.

It was on one of major trade routes of that time — Islamic traders on the east coast of Africa were the conduit between the interior of Africa and Asia and the Middle East.

Thula Mela was never discovered and ransacked by colonists, and is the only known site in the region that was untouched until archeologists started work.

One can’t help wondering why South Africa, under Thabo Mbeki, invested so heavily in antiquities at Timbuktu when there are so many stories within South Africa awaiting to be uncovered and told.

The pride and confidence of the Venda people does stand out, making them much easier to engage in conversation.

Just to the west of Thohoyandou lies the Thathe Vondo Holy Forest, a beautiful indigenous forest that incorporates the sacred burial ground of the chiefs of the Thathe clan, while the scenic Guvhukuvhu Pool is believed to be the home of water spirits that foster good relations with the ancestral spirits.

No ordinary VhaVhenda people may walk in this sacred forest and, as a visitor, one may not leave the dirt track going through the forest. Two mythical creatures keep guard — the white lion (the spirit of Nethathe, an important chief) and the thunder & lighting bird called Ndadzi, which according to myth flies on the wings of thunder.

North of the Holy Forest lies Lake Fundudzi, one of the best-known sacred places. In the Mutale River, as legend has it, a giant python god of fertility dwells that demands the sacrifice of a maiden each year. Lake Fundudzi is surrounded by mountains and special permission has to be obtained to visit this sacred Lake. No-one washes or swims in this lake.

This annual sacrifice became an integral part of Venda life, together with the remarkable ceremony known as the Domba Dance which has become part of the initiation rites of young women. The dance, also known as Python dance, is performed by rows of girls imitating movements of a python. Both the lake and the Domba Dance may only be viewed by obtaining permission from local authorities.

I didn’t get to visit these areas because I was advised that the roads were in a very poor state.

I did get to visit the Phiphidi Falls, another sacred site closer to Thohoyandou.  A complex collection of laws and rituals, some of which are closely guarded by clan elders, govern clan practice and behavior at Phiphidi; the site has traditionally been off-limits to all but the Ramunangi. Traditional belief holds that the waterfall and pool are inhabited by ancestral water spirits who require offerings of grain and beer, which are made on LanwaDzongolo. These powerful spirits receive prayers from the people for rain, health, agricultural abundance and community peace. Traditionally, these offerings were made throughout the year, with one primary and complicated annual rite that lasted many days.

The sacred Phiphidi Falls

The vhaVenda clans are among the SA’s most traditional, observing rituals and practices passed down from their ancestors. Among these clans, the Ramunangi are acknowledged as the traditional custodians of Phiphidi Waterfall, a small cascade that is central to the clan’s relationship with ancestral spirits. This custodial responsibility, however, is not legally recognized, which has limited the Ramunangi’s ability to protect their sacred site from tourism development. A rock above the waterfall — one of the site’s most holy areas — was recently destroyed as part of a road-building project, and for years, the Ramunangi have been denied full access to the site to perform their rituals and custodial duties.

ALBERT DZEBU: Local economic development & tourism @ Musina Municipality.

The next stop was Musina, and for that one has to go over the Soutpansberg at Wyllie’s Poort. The highest peak in the mountain range is Lajuma — 1,747m.

Driving down the northern descent of the Soutpansberg.

The first white person to reach and name the mountain was Coenraad de Buys, a colonist who fled from Graaff Reinet after a failed rebellion in 1795. He settled near the mountain in 1820 and was the patriarch of a half-caste clan, the “Buysvolk” or Buys People, who are still to be found at Buysdorp.

Driving over the Soutpansberg one just has to wonder how it must have been crossed by ox wagon. The vegetation on the southern side is almost imprenetrable it’s so thick. The road curves (with no laybyes for photo opportunities) below steep cliffs. It is a stunningly beautiful drive!

It’s only 92km from Louis Trichardt to Musina, but when you cross the Soutpansberg you enter a different world: one dotted with those weird and outlandish Baobab trees.

Trucks and more trucks for kilometres and kilometres waiting to cross the border post at Beit Bridge.

Musina is a mining town — copper, iron ore, coal, magnetite, graphite, asbestos, diamonds and semi-precious stones — but its recent claim to fame is as one the busiest road in Africa and one of the busiest in the world — due to black market importers from Zimbabwe, a situation that will hopefully diminish.

The drive along the border fence was illuminating. Apart from the holes in the border fences, we drove past a military camp. Groups of Zimbabwean refugees were being detained for repatriation, but what really caught my eye were the army tents — with air conditioning units sticking out of the sides of the tents. The SA Army is not what it used to be!

The crisis in Zimbabwe did bring some prosperity to Musina but that, like the mines, won’t last forever. Increased regional tourism could help to fill the gap and Albert Dzebu is hoping that Musina can get a deal out of Anglo American similar to the one Phalaborwa received from Rio Rinto. (See Mining can add value.)  I hope so because I am getting the feeling that most mining companies don’t contribute as much to communities as they claim.

It’s almost incomprehensible that two towns — Thohoyandou and Musina — only about 100km apart as the crow flies, can be so different.  Yes, micro-climates and vegetation play a role, but I’m starting to get the feeling that mining towns have the guts sucked out of them by the companies that “own” them.  Mining stifles community entrepreneurship and creativity — the mines are all that count.  But that’s for another blog post.

I didn’t get to Mapungubwe, only 80km to the west and SA’s newest World Heritage Site.  SANParks never answered my email asking for permission to visit with a wolf.

Why is Mapungubwe special?  It abuts the Limpopo River where the borders of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet.  It is the site of an ancient civilisation that predates the great Zimbabwe Ruins.

Mapungubwe Hill, seat of the Mapungubwe Kingdom (1075-1220). Mapungubwe means "place where jackals eat", derived from phunguwe  (Venda for jackal), as the hill was littered with human bones which attracted these scavengers.[8]  It is a sandstone hill, with vertical cliffs about 30 metres high and a plateaued top approximately 300m in length. There was a natural amphitheatre  at the bottom of Mapungubwe Hill where the royal court was likely held. However, the king actually lived inside a stone enclosure on a hill above the court.

This is an area I’m sure I will visit again.

Muse of Magoebaskloof

It takes a rather unusual person who — to support the launch of a friend’s new book — will undertake an epic 31-day walk from Inhambe in Mozambique to Schoemansdal near Louis Trichardt in the foothills of the Soutpansberg mountains.

And that’s what Louis Changuion did in 2002. He retraced the 900km journey of 19th century Pastor Montagne, a Roman Catholic priest, on foot, wearing a cassock. (And Montagne certainly did not do it all on foot. He would have been carried in a hammock by porters for much of the way.)

Schoemansdal was the main centre of the Boers in the north and they had contacted the Portuguese seeking a seaport they could use. Pastor Montagne in Inhambane, then Mozambique’s capital, volunteered to to visit Schoemansdal to see what the Boers needed. Apparently, he’d had an affair which resulted in a child, and he welcomed the chance for an extended absence from Inhambane.

It wasn’t long after that Schoemansdal was evacuated on instructions from Pretoria. The war between Boer and Venda was not going well and, since the safety of Boers in Schoemansdal was risky, Pietersburg (Polokwane) was established as the main town for the north.

But Changuion, then professor of history at the University of the North (now University of Limpopo) and a very fit and keen hiker, had prepared a schedule and stuck to it. He arrived in Schoemansdal in August 2002 on the day the book was launched.

Louis Changuion's walk

Louis Changuion’s walk

Changuion moved to Haenertsburg in 1971 when he accepted a teaching post at the University of the North. He didn’t like Pietersburg and… well, who wouldn’t want to live in nearby Haenertsburg?

One of the attractions of Haenertsburg and Magoebaskloof was the opportunities for hiking and it was this that led to Changuion’s first book — on hikes — which, he says, is the first hiking book published in South Africa.  One of the hiking trails around Haenertsburg has been named the Louis Changuion Trail and starts at the village hall.

And so he started celebrating the area that had become his new home.  His literary output continued with works such as Silence of the Guns : the history of the Long Toms of the Anglo-Boer War; Uncle Sam, Oom Paul en John Bull : Amerika en die Anglo-Boereoorlog; and Pietersburg 1886 – 1986.

His imprint on Haenertsburg is the Long Tom Monument — the open-air museum in the village which commemorates all the wars which involved local inhabitants — the Makgoba War, the Anglo-Boer War, the World Wars and the Border Wars.

He also influenced the aesthetics and character of The Pennefather complex in the centre of the village — self-catering accommodation and a few shops — which celebrate Haenertsburg’s gold-prospecting past.

It’s largely because of Changuion that Haenertsburg is arguably the only town in the whole of Limpopo that really celebrates its heritage.

Land of the Silver Mist

Back to Route 71 that links Limpopo’s capital, Polokwane, to Phalaborwa, right on the border of the Kruger National Park — a distance of ±300km.  I explored Magoesbaskloof briefly when I stayed at Bramasole Guest House and met with a remarkable lady.

This time I would explore further, using Haenertsburg as a base.  On our first drive along the R71, I was told to stop in at the Iron Crown Pub & Grill, so I already knew that this tiny village of fewer than 200 houses has something going for it.

Magoesbakloof is known as the Land of the Silver Mist.  This photograph gives some indication of why… mountains, ravines & valleys, forests, lakes and mists.

Stanford Lake in Magoesbaskloof

I was being hosted by Linda Miller who was looking after The Pennefather, which I had noticed during my drive up the main street on my first visit to the village.  It’s a complex of two trading posts and six self-catering cottages that celebrate Haenertsburg’s historical mining era.

The cottages draw their names on Haenertsburg’s history — Karl Mauch, Ferdinand Haenert, Doel Zeederberg, Rider Haggard, Long Tom and Prester John — and the trading posts from the long-gone mining companies.  The building style is as it was then — Victorian using corrugated iron for walls and roofing — but certainly far better appointed than any miner’s abode!

The cottages do look tiny from the outside (I was really puzzled by them on my first fleeting visit) but they are remarkably spacious and comfortable.  Linda also manages Magoebaskloof Tourism and is very knowledgeable about the area.

Spacious, comfortable and quaint self-catering cottages at The Pennefather

It may be a village, but Haenertsburg and Magoesbaskloof  surrounding it is one of Limpopo’s gems.  I’d rate it as one of South Africa’s finest destinations and as strong a destination as any I know in the Western Cape — its strength stems from a collective effort rather than single lodges, etc,  that are the norm in Limpopo.

You can easily spend a week here and find you haven’t done all you set out to do.  The area clearly caters for tourists, and many of the locals are tourists who decided to make it their home.  It’s these successful city businesspeople who have turned sleepy hollows into vibrant communities in so many small towns throughout South Africa.

Convivial host and SA's first streaker

Magoesbaskloof has no shortage of eating places.  I mentioned the Iron Crown Pub & Grill in the village in an earlier post.  It is a destination in its own right.  But the Pot & Plow out of town surprised me too.  A bustling pub & pizzeria that was full of young people the night I was there. I returned the following day to find it also has a popular outdoor area.

That’s when I met Gary Barnes — Pot & Plow’s convivial publican — and Gavin Stanford, who’s claim to fame is that he was South Africa’s first streaker during a boring cricket match at The Wanderers in the 1970s.

I was also invited to join Stuart & Linda Miller for supper at the Red Plate in Haenertsburg.  Just after we all ordered, there was a power failure!  Not unusual I was told.  And Red Plate came up with an alternative menu they could deliver on… and it was very good.

When you explore the area, don’t just follow the R71 because the R528 (which is an alternative route to Tzaneen) is just as scenic and you’ll need to take that to see the Ebenezer Dam and Woodbush Forest Reserve or to go on a canopy tour.

Roads to Cheerio Gardens and Wegraakbosch Organic Cheese Farm lead off the R71.

Two sights in the village shouldn’t be missed. There’s the Long Tom Monument — an the open-air museum in the village. The museum commemorates all the wars which involved local inhabitants and includes the Makgoba War, the Anglo Boer War, and the Border Wars.

The other is the ultimate resting place — the Haenertsburg Cemetery!

Resting place with a view: Haenertsburg cemetery

There is more on Haenertsburg & Magoebaskloof in our destination pages.