Tag Archives: Limpopo

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

Mining can add value

Driving into Phalaborwa at about 8am, the first thing that struck me was the haze in the air.  And this was not a heat haze, it was dust from the mines.  Phalaborwa is another one of Limpopo’s towns that today owes its existence to the copper and phosphate mines that surround the town.

The second thing that struck me while I explored the town before my first meeting was the sense of order that’s rare in Limpopo.  It’s clean, architectural eyesores are few (not that there’s any great architecture) and even the informal trading in the town centre was obviously managed.  Was this evidence of a mining company influencing a municipality?

Phalaborwa lays claim to being the tourism capital of Limpopo and its tourism info office, funded and staffed by the Palabora Foundation, is the most efficient — by far — that I’ve come across in Limpopo.  Mark Glanvill and Rosa-Leigh Kruger are real assets to the town.

Phalaborwa’s Marula Festival in February each year is one of the highlights of Limpopo’s events calendar.  Another attraction is the fact that one of Kruger National Park’s gates in only 800 metres from town.  And with the opening of the Giriyondo border post, you can now drive through to Mozambique.

Gate to Kruger National Park on the outskirts of the town

The region’s challenges are considerable.  Ba-Phalaborwa municipality has a population of 156,000 and 18% are unemployed.  Only 41% of the 15-65 age group are economically active.

In the Phalaborwa district (population 111,650), 33% are under the age of 15; 66% under the age of 34; 40% have no income and 20% earn less than R500 a month.  Some 23.5% are HIV-positive.


Malesela Letsoalo

My visit starts with Malesela Letsoalo, director of the Palabora Foundation (founded in 1986).  Until 2001, Rio Tinto’s Palabora Mining Company (PMC) contributed 3% of its after tax profit to the Foundation.  But then, someone at Rio Tinto was very clever and had the foresight to plan ahead.  With lean years looming while the company moved from open pit to underground mining, the Foundation received a lump sum grant of R176 million so that it’s work could continue using the interest earned, supplemented by other donors (European Union, Oxfam, Foskor, Sasol Nitro and others).

Of course, given that PMC made a profit of R1.4 billion last year, it’s obvious to ask if they got off lightly.  Not really.  The Palabora Foundation would have gone unfunded for a few years if the 3% formula had been retained.  It meant they could plan ahead and attract a broader donor/participant base.  And that’s not the last donation PMC will make.  Discussions on the mine’s ultimate closure have already started and that will also carry a significant lump sum payment to the community.

Now that’s all good and well, but what’s the money doing?  So many foundations thrive on doing “good work” but the results are hardly lasting.  The Palabora Foundation focuses on education, combatting the impact of HIV/Aids and entrepreneurship.

Opportunity to excel

Opportunity to excel

Educational results can only be regarded as spectacular.  The grade 12 pass rate is over 90% with over 75% gaining university exemption — far higher than the Limpopo average.   The focus is on mathematics, science and technology.  A special programme selects students with high-achieving potential, offering extra tuition which leads to bursaries, usually to study engineering.

Programmes start with early learning and extend to school learners, teachers and governing bodies for about 50 schools in the region.

Cooking classes in a state-of-the-art kitchen at the Palabora Foundation

I was singularly impressed by everything the Palabora Foundation is doing — courses in construction, computer-literacy, sewing, arts and crafts.  And those attending are not just school-leavers or others needing to improve their skills.  Mine employees close to retirement are also encouraged to attend so they have skills to occupy them productively when they leave the mines.

Mark Glanvill & Matee Seduma

Mark Glanvill & Matee Seduma

Later that afternoon back at Bollanoto Tourism Centre, I met with tourism’s Mark Glanvill, Chris Kruger (Palabora Foundation and chair of the Trade & Tourism Council) and Matee Seduma  (head of the municipality’s local economic development).  If the Foundation has been the catalyst, Seduma is rising to the challenge, and that’s why this former schoolteacher left the profession.  There’s a vibrant and informed dialogue about driving tourism but, Seduma notes, when he asked Limpopo Tourism for their business plan, he was told there isn’t one (except in someone’s head).

Rio Tinto has changed my attitude to mining companies.  As a Capetonian, appreciating how God-given assets and nurtured agricultural environments have created one of the world’s great destinations and SA’s best city, mines are an anathema.  They rape and despoil the land and the benefits they offer are temporary.  Or are they?  What Rio Tinto is doing suggests not.  It has shifted the focus of the whole region.  The Ba-Phalaborwa municipality has set its sights firmly on a tourism and wildlife focus, and the importance of entrepenurship.

Something else unique to a mining company has permeated the town.  Mines are safety conscious and cleanliness is part of the safety ethic.  Phalaborwa reflects this (unlike some other Limpopo towns where mines play a lesser role in their communities).  Mines also practice strict financial controls – and that’s probably why the Palabora Foundation really does give more bang for the buck in a province renowned for corruption and lax financial management.

And there’s a lesson for the ANC Youth League’s Julius Malema — the private sector always gets more bang for the buck than the government ever can.  And yes, there is sometimes an attractive face to capitalism.

Read more about Phalaborwa here.

Why Limpopo? The Great Unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five of SA’s nine provinces in one day!

En route to Beaufort West

En route to Beaufort West

Today’s plan is to drive until I’ve had enough – and I’m not accustomed to long drives.  That does mean hourly stops for the animals’ piepie breaks and walks, and those are rarely short because Akela loves sniffing and there are so many strange smells.  She can spend 10 minutes smelling a single leaf – I’d love to know what she can tell.

The day started off spectacularly – our early morning long walk was under a blanket of bright stars.  I seem to have grown more appreciative of the Karoo landscape too – the varying vegetation and always the spectacular mountain ranges, like those above on the road to Beaufort West.

The telephone poles alongside the road tell the story of changes in information technology – a once busy telephone pole now only carries two strands of wire.

I’m starting to get used to the Sony A200 DSLR camera and it seems impossible to take a bad photograph with it.  I’ve only been using the Auto setting and must still explore the manual overrides.  I love the way it starts focussing as you bring it to your eye and the speed of taking the pic and saving it.  No lag at all!

I tried the SatNav on my Blackberry cellphone for the first time and was surprised to see the distance to Mokopane was about 1,500km.  I thought it was more… could it be reached in one day?

Beaufort West really surprised me… it has character!  I remember it from 20 years ago as a rather dusty and easily-forgettable town.  If this wasn’t a drive north with a mission I would have stopped to explore.  Another time.

Breakfast was beckoning and the Shell UltraCity before Three Sisters proved to be the perfect stop.  It was, without doubt, the best National Road service station I encountered in the trip north.  (The worst was a BP stop on the outskirts of Bloemfontein.)  Staff made eye-contact when they spoke to you, they were outgoing and very friendly.  And of course nothing beats a toasted bacon and egg sandwich.

There was a great playground for kids (no pets please!) and an equally great place to walk and water pets.

The last time I drove this route I remember being bored out of my mind.  I must have changed because I appreciated the scenery far more than before.  But then I remember looking at Hermanus’ mountains in 2004 and thinking, “Strange that I never noticed how beautiful they are are before.”

In the past 20 years I’ve driven more national roads in France and the USA than I have in SA, and ours leave much to be desired.  I wondered if a better legacy project for 2010 shouldn’t have been a proper freeway between Cape Town and Johannesburg.  Now that would generate a lot of jobs!

As one drove out of the Western Cape, traffic police patrolling the N1 were replaced by traffic police hiding alongside their speed traps, while large, articulated trucks drove in convoys of six, making overtaking a slow and dangerous business.

The approaches to Bloemfontein arrived with a proper freeway system but enjoying the decent road wasn’t to last for long, and was replaced by the most irritating feature of road travel in the Free State, Gauteng and Limpopo – toll roads!

If these were engineering wonders, or spectacular roads along scenic routes, they might be justified.  But all the toll roads I experienced fall far short of freeway status and most were plagued by road works.

The whole of the Western Cape has two toll roads – the Huguenot Tunnel on the N1 between Paarl and Worcester, and Chapman’s Peak Drive.  All other national roads are free.  I lost count of the number of toll plazas between Bloemfontein and Mokopane, and the cost must have been around R200.  It’s iniquitous and a sign of public sector incompetence.  A cop out!

Imagine if the Western Cape had to levy a special tourist tax for visitors from these provinces, to level the playing field.

As dusk and Johannesburg approached, Blackberry’s SatNav – or Vodafone’s SatNav to be more accurate – really came into it’s own.  Using it chews up the cellphone’s battery but luckily, with no car charger, I kept the battery going by charging the phone from my laptop.

One learns to rely on SatNav so quickly… at the expense of all inner sense of direction, even glossing over road directional signs in favour of Blackberry’s directions and instructions.  And this was how I found myself on the M1 South at about 7pm on a Friday.

The outbound lane was crawling at a snails pace as a result of a rather gruesome accident.  The speed limit (due to construction work) on my side was 80km/h; I was doing 100km/h and was – by far – the slowest vehicle in sight.

And then there was another realisation – Joburg’s motorways have no street lighting and rarely have road verges where you can pull over!  I had arrived in the Wild West and darkest Africa in one fell swoop.  Eskom must love Joburg Municipality!

The M1 North to Pretoria offered more delays caused by accidents and drivers pushing their luck when they saw a gap.  French taxi drivers would be at home here.  The Great North Road (N1) is littered with toll plazas and, given the heavy traffic on the road, seems to be way under specification.

The solution seems easy to me.  Let Jacob Zuma pay his own legal bills and transfer what’s saved there as well as the budget for politicians’ protection units to road building.  Those cool dudes in their dark glasses and hearing aids could be redeployed…

“That was a long drive!” Kenya just crashed.

Enough of those flights of fancy… the reality is I drove over 1,500km in a day, I saw five of South Africa’s nine provinces in one day.  I had arrived in Mokopane/Potgieterusrus in Limpopo Province.  Who would ever have thought that I would visit Potties!

It’s not that onerous a journey, even driven alone, and it does give one a unique perspective of South Africa’s incredible landscape.