Tag Archives: Potties

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)

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

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