Making Hermanus a ‘beautiful place’ for all – can efforts by new mayor Annelie Rabie unify the divided town?
It may be the tourist capital of whales and wine, but the Western Cape town of Hermanus has had a tough three years. Before Covid arrived, this Whale Coast town was rocked by service delivery protests-turned-riots in 2018 with a distinct racial slant. But now there’s a new sheriff in town, in the form of Mayor Annelie Rabie. Angus Begg produced a documentary for eNCA on that violent period and recently had a chat with the mayor and some of those he interviewed in 2018, checking in on the political temperature of the town.
‘The living conditions of people across the Overstrand remain foremost in my mind”, says new Hermanus Mayor Annelie Rabie, who took office in December 2021. After a reportedly successful term as mayor of the Central Karoo District, Rabie is expected to deal with tensions that have simmered for too long in Zwelihle, and her intentions are clear. “The so-called informal settlements are an excuse for local authorities not to deliver on their constitutional mandate.”
Rabie is speaking to the issue of Hermanus’s development since those economically devastating service-delivery riots. Many people in Zwelihle — Hermanus’s dedicated township (vintage 1958) situated in the middle of the town, and which means “beautiful place” in isiXhosa — lost their jobs. Pastor Lubabalo Gecwa, a Zwelihle priest who led a peace march with religious leaders in Zwelihle in 2019, says he is impressed by mayor Rabie’s slogan of “Hermanus for all”.
“I attended one of the Overstrand Municipality events, taking pictures and video clips”, says the pastor, “she has a heart of loving people, regardless of complexion and race”.
Deeper into Zwelihle, the mayor’s words wash through the ears of an astute local social commentator, who wishes to remain anonymous. Using the surname Andile, he says Rabie is “a political fish”, and that “she swims in the direction that the federal council or senate of the DA dictates”.
A few hundred metres north in Hermanus town proper, in his seafood restaurant beneath the Olifantsberg mountain and Walker Bay, Hermanus chamber of business head Gideon Serfontein, sends the pendulum of support swinging back towards the new mayor.
While stressing that two months is too early to comment on a new incumbent fulfilling election promises, Serfontein says that in her recent management of the Kleinmond/Highlands veld fires, Rabie demonstrated a “welcome” and “hands-on” leadership style. He speaks of looking forward to “a meaningful partnership with Overstrand Municipality under her leadership.”
Ebony and ivory
Clearly, this former Johannesburg banker likes what he’s initially seen of the mayor. Having worked extensively in Africa as a division general manager for Barclays Africa Group Limited, Serfontein says after moving to Hermanus in 2017 he was struck by the lack of diversity in the town’s business community. Although intending to retire, Serfontein soon found himself as chair of the chamber of business.
“I noted everyone was white. Coming from Joburg, this was just weird.”
He says that while the contrasts in resource distribution are no different to the rest of South Africa, “it (the inequality) was obvious to notice in business circles.” Serfontein appears to have since emerged as Hermanus’s man for all seasons, and remarks that the efforts to address transformation after the 2018 unrest have been “enhanced” by the Covid pandemic.
“Businesses were impacted negatively across racial lines due to Covid, with everyone losing jobs, income and even loved ones.”
Mayor Rabie returns the respect Serfontein has afforded her after her first two months in office, saying she addressed the Hermanus business community based on her conversations with the former Johannesburg banker. She could have done worse.
Serfontein is indeed a unifying voice among the various voices in the hospitality and tourism sector clamouring to be heard, and Rabie is crying out for “one voice for business in each of the Overstrand towns to talk with” regarding policy and growth.
“The more divided a sector is, the more challenging it becomes to get consensus on matters pertaining to that sector.” Funny thing that, because a lack of consensus on how to raise grievances is what tore Zwelihle apart in the dark days of 2018.
A significant voice among Hermanus’s black business people is Petros Dumse, who operates a successful towing company on the town’s industrial edge. We first spoke back then when Zwelihle was burning and the R43 intermittently blocked.
Back then Dumse supported the call by a local activist group called Zwelihle Renewal (ZR) for better municipal services. A year later he acknowledged that ZR, wracked by internal power struggles, had hijacked the protests, threatening to burn the township youth centre, because its owner, as he said at the time, “had a relationship with white people”.
More than a few township residents, all women, detailed various instances of terrorising behaviour, such as “women being chased by ZR supporters with sticks for going to work in town, and peoples’ houses being burnt down for similar “offences”. With one policeman shot, police reportedly laid into anyone caught in their raids on the township.
Business and politics
The closest Hermanus coffee-roaster Mike Bayer gets to burning anything would be his beans, which, being as highly regarded as he is along the Whale Coast, he definitely doesn’t do.
Bayer details the damage done to his business, saying his “pre-riots” Saturday morning turnover of R20,000 at the Hermanus Country Market was halved by the chaos of 2018. Speaking in 2019, he said his regular customers, especially within the large regional accommodation and hospitality industry, had simply stopped buying coffee, which had a significant and predictable knock-on effect. He wasn’t the only one.
Meetings with other business leaders in 2019 had revealed a depressed and worried community; the tourism industry had collapsed almost overnight, with the attendant job losses and consequences. Radicals in Zwelihle and Hermanus, no doubt spurred by the temporary death of business and opportunity in the town in the year after the riots, were firing verbal shots at each other across social media. Those trying to bridge the racial and socio-economic divide, like Andile and Overstrand Unite website owner Vanessa Swanepoel, were threatened by their metaphorical neighbours with bodily harm.
In contrast, in 2019 Dumse’s smile was broad, saying business was back to normal and that “all of Hermanus had benefited” from an end to the riots. Admittedly, his towing business was no doubt faring better than tourism because of the niche industry that is South Africa’s appalling driving and road accident rate.
Serfontein says the brutal reality was that 20 businesses — restaurants, retail shops and so on — closed down in 2019, as evidenced by the then empty stores in CBD and the (Whale Coast) mall. Not disregarding the Hermanus town council going AWOL as regards its responsibilities to the Zwelihle community over the 60 years of its existence, the consequences of power going to the heads of a few young men appeared extreme.
“ZR was meant to benefit the community, but it didn’t”, said Dumse at the time. “It changed, it became a danger to the community itself… the community is not blind.” And so, while some have accused Dumse of being a ‘gangster’, ZR faded away, to be replaced by the Land Party, a formal organisation which, says Pastor Lubabalo Gecwa, addresses its concerns through council. “That (Zwelihle Renewal) is the past.”
Consensus and Cooperation?
By various accounts, the head-butting that characterised ZR’s relationship with the office of the then-executive mayor, Dudley Coetzee — who said in our 2018 interview that he saw inequality rather than race being the area’s biggest challenge — has also left the building.
“I have a good working relationship with the two public representatives of the Land Party on Council”, says Mayor Rabie, who says she has also recently engaged Dumse. “But the election is done now and our focus is on building an #overstrand4all”. That’s a job that will be made easier if she pays “real” attention to Zwelihle, say her critics, specifically the lack of enforcement of by-laws in the township.
Rules for Zwe, rules for Hermanus
“Zwelihle operates by the rules of the jungle now”, says Andile. “Strong men with money or violence control what takes place”, remarking that the township where he runs his business has moved very far from its name, “beautiful place”.
He speaks of tension and unease in the community. “Non-enforcement of by-laws is a choice by municipality officials… many live in Zwelihle and enjoy the non-compliance with building regulations and many other municipal bylaws.” Swanepoel, now a member of the Land Party, yet speaking as Overstrand Unite, confirms the increasing tension.
“People have been waiting patiently for progress in negotiations around the development of (accommodation in) Schulphoek… for the new council to settle in”, says Swanepoel. “They now want to see deliverables.”
Andile says the municipality has a different set of governance rules in Zwelihle, saying that most of the service delivery basics are in place, “but very little of it is done well like in the CBD or the more affluent areas along the coast.” His distrust of some of Rabie’s staff appointments extends beyond Zwelihle, mentioning her appointment of a couple of mayoral committee members with conflicted interests, using their positions in council to promote personal business interests.
Swanepoel, who was threatened with bodily harm by some conservative hardliners in town for raising Zwelilhle residents’ concerns before and during the riots on her Overstrand Unite website, nevertheless told this writer in 2018 that the people of Hermanus have “huge heart”.
She spoke of residents’ “quick and effective response” to the shack fires of 2015 and of “the white community’s response to the xenophobic attacks of 2018” when they took people into their homes, and set up a base camp at Sandbaai for the foreign nationals, offering trauma counselling. “So we are a community that chips in. If we could actually start communicating more effectively that would help.”
Today Swanepoel remains cautiously optimistic, and for the next few months all eyes will be on Mayor Rabie as she sets about cleaning up the mess left for her office here in Hermanus.
Somehow she has to try to improve the “living conditions of the people of Zwelihle” and foster racial harmony, rectifying some wrongs of the past along the smooth sands of the Whale Coast and in Zwelihle, the “beautiful place”. DM/MC
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved