Tag Archives: Musina

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.

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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.

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.

[mappress]

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.