When CapeInfo was deciding on the most beautiful drive in South Africa, Helshoogte came up tops for every reason — the ever changing views in every season, the dramatic mountain vistas and the things to do on the route. On the Stellenbosch side of the Pass, there are views back to Table Mountain. From the top and on the eastern side, there are views across four mountain ranges (and all the way to the other side of Worcester.) The attractions are anchored by Delaire Graff, Tokara and Thelema on the one side and and Boschendal and Solms-Delta on the other.
And in between there’s Pniël — a delightful little village with a rich history… but little to offer the traveller. Yes, there is the historic church as well as the fascinating Pniël Museum with its peaceful tea garden, but you need to check that they are open if you’re planning to visit — their opening times are erratic.
I made several visits and sent several emails to the local tourism info office asking for help. The assistant promised the manager would respond, but she never did.
Because I drive through the village a few times a week, it started bugging me that here was a village with all the potential in the world that just wasn’t living up to that potential. And it really isn’t contributing to tourism in any meaningful way.
So… after an interview with James Vos, the DA’s shadow minister of tourism, where he had spoken about his passion for helping small towns achieve their tourism potential, I invited him to join me in looking at Pniël’s potential and the opportunities that exist. He agreed immediately and said he would be accompanied by Stellenbosch Municipality’s Mayco member for tourism & economic development as well as the ward councillor.
We agreed to meet at the Museum with Matthew Cyster, chairman of the Pniël Cultural & Heritage Trust and curator of the Museum. My condition was that I wanted to taste Mrs Cyster’s legendary melktert…
And that’s how I came to meet Johannie Serdyn, now in her second term on Mayco for tourism & economic development. The ward councillor didn’t come because, I was told, he doesn’t get on with Matthew!
Tuisgemaakte Food Capital of South Africa
Over tea and Mrs Cyster’s delicious melktert (Johannie wrapped up the leftovers for the mayor) I asked why Pniël can’t become the Tuisgemaakte Food Capital of South Africa. It could easily become renown for the best melktert, samoosas, salomies, rotis… you name it. And that’s before one starts becoming innovative! Imagine curried crayfish (or crabstick) samoosas! (I’ve had that, and it’s to die for!)
I pointed to the example of the Napier Farm Stall which became so popular for its bread that people driving between Cape Town and the Garden Route used to detour off the N2 to buy Ilze’s fresh bread. More people got to know Napier because of Ilze’s Farm Stall than for any other reason.
Tuisgemaakte means homemade in Afrikaans.
And at the opposite site of Napier, another shop opened with a sign outside that proclaimed “Moerse Pies”… and became another drawcard. Napier was no longer a sleepy village that you just drove through en route to Arniston, irritated by the reduced speed limit.
“Surely… home industries would be supported by Pniël locals?” I asked. And wouldn’t the usually-empty Museum tea garden be a good place for selling produce — while drawing more feet through the Museum?
Instead of tourism Rands just driving through the town, imagine what this could put into the pockets and purses of locals? Imagine the pride the locals would thrive on as a result of the village’s new brand. Imagine the opportunities it would create.
Johannie was also captured by the old photos of the village in the Museum, which prompted me to think aloud… “Why can’t Pniël become the Graaff-Reinet of the Boland?” It just needs a catalyst to ignite civic pride, which is what the late Dr Anton Rupert did in Graaff-Reinet. Finding the right catalyst is not difficult if you know how to look.
Johannie was bubbling with enthusiasm, and we agreed to meet again to take it forward.
We met again about two weeks later and she brought councillor Rikus Badenhorst along — all portfolio chairs have shadows, to build capacity, which is what Rikus’ job on tourism & economic development. He also has some business experience in tourism, which gives her a sense of comfort.
We ran through all the discussions again, for Rikus’ benefit, but I added that since Matthew didn’t seem keen for any changes at the Museum’s tea garden, the front portion of the municipal offices could be converted to retail space — to sell local produce and accommodate a municipal entrepreneurial hub. It’s currently a dead facade on the busy main road, with plenty of parking.
I also suggested a competition, funded by sponsors, to kickstart the improvement of streetscapes in Pniël and making the village a destination in its own right that visitors would enjoy exploring,
Click on an image for larger photos
The next step was to identify who would drive everything, otherwise it becomes a never-ending talkshop. I can help but I don’t have the time, and the councillors do not have the capacity. Johannie immediately had the solution: two new people had been appointed to the municipality’s staff who would be ideal, she said. Since they were only starting work in the new year, we agreed to meet again after the Christmas break.
From that meeting, the mayor got a ‘selfie’ of Johannie and Rikus enjoying waffles and ice cream at the Boschendal Deli.
Johannie, Rikus and I met again at the beginning of February. But instead of bringing staff who would manage the job, they were accompanied by the ward councillor, Malcolm Johnson, who they had decided would run with everything.
The only hope for Pniël is to bring in new blood Malcolm Johnson, ward councillor
Malcolm didn’t endear himself to me, saying on two occasions that the only hope for Pniël was to bring in new blood — nothing could be achieved with locals, he said. I beg to differ…
The “Tuisgemaakte Food Capital” and the “Streetscapes Improvement Competition” fell by the wayside with no-one to drive them and with Malcolm’s view that locals have little to contribute. (He also suggested that the back of the municipal building should rather be used — safeguarding his office at the front).
One of Pniël’s problems seems to be that there is no Urban Design Framework for the village, — something that visualises retail and the character of main street shopping 20 years from now. Apparently Dennis Moss’ office (architects & planners) prepared some plans — at the time Pniël was being incorporated into Stellenbosch Municipality — but locals say these have been ignored. The municipality doesn’t seem to have learned the lessons of How Franschhoek became such a successful tourist town and, by comparison, Pniël is being set up for failure by Stellenbosch Municipality.
I conveyed an offer by businessmen to prepare ideas for the area, but Johannie rejected this (for technical reasons) although Rikus thought making a start would be a good idea. So I repeated the call I had made two months earlier to Johannie and Rikus that Fabio Todeschini, who is currently employed by the municipality and who prepared the two Franschhoek plans over 20 years ago, should have his contract extended to Pniël.
I love Johannie for her energy and enthusiasm, but I honestly think that she is out of her depth and that she really shouldn’t attend meetings without Council officials. This isn’t a problem unique to Stellenbosch — look at Mayco members around the country and see how many of them are actually competent. Party politicisation has debilitated the officials in the municipalities. At least Johannie is very responsive — I can provide a list of Stellenbosch municipal officials who just ignore emails!
I think the new service station which has just opened in Pniël emphasises the inadequacies of the municipality’s development vision. Dupré Lombard (Stellenbosch’s executive director of planning) tried to improve the developer’s plans but falls short. I wonder if Dupré remembers the very successful process for Paradise Service Station in Cape Town (when he started his professional career at the City of Cape Town, and where he learnt so much from Peter de Tolly and David Jack)? That aside, the OK Minimart in the complex will introduce a new era of convenience for locals, but the impact on existing small shops will be drastic: will they survive?
The new owners say they adhered to all requirements and even gathered 5,000 signatures in support of their development and the new shop. This does not abrogate the municipality’s responsibility to have developed a shared urban design vision for the village, against which villagers can measure all development proposals.
I also raised my formal complaint to Johannie about the tourism office which had received no response. When both councillors looked at Malcolm, his only response was, “I don’t know what they are supposed to be doing.” This really highlights the inadequacies of the municipality’s tourism management.
Trying to salvage a single outcome from the meeting, Johannie decided that Malcolm would provide a list of names of small businesses worthy of promotion, to include in CapeInfo’s directory. (I’d been impressed by service levels I’ve experienced in the area by small businesses, and felt they should be promoted. I said I’d find sponsorship for them if the municipality came up with names and helped them with the process.)
When I seemed doubtful that the municipality would meet its end of the deal, Malcom said he would prepare this with his ward committee. And Rikus emphatically told me to go ahead and find the sponsors, “you will have my list of names in one month’s time” he said. Malcolm concurred. I confirmed this by email to Malcolm immediately after the meeting.
Malcolm did nothing. He acknowledged that he had never got back to me, without any apology. I don’t think he even read the email. I was warned of this when I told locals he had been tasked with the job and I have yet to meet anyone who can speak to his competence. When I told him that he was just wasting my time, he shrugged his shoulders with a “Who cares?” attitude. I’m sorry, as affable and collegial as he might be, I think he’s stealing his salary.
Click here to see what we decided to do, given his incompetence.
Pniël is one of the most resource-rich villages in South Africa, but it’s nowhere near reaching its full potential. Many in Pniël might not want any change, but change is one thing we can all be sure of. If you don’t plan your future, you won’t know what you’ve lost until it’s already gone.
This article was sent to Stellenbosch mayor Gesie van Deventer prior to publication. In the absence of any response, I mentioned the saga to Alan Winde, provincial Minister of Economic Opportunity. He said that if locals come up with a business plan, his department can help bring it to fruition.
So… Pniel locals… if your ward councillor feels there’s no competency in the area, show him how wrong he is and organise yourselves. I’ll happily help and put you in touch with Alan Winde’s department.