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In tourist town Plett, the battle lines have been drawn against inequality

In tourist town Plett, the battle lines have been drawn against inequality
Plettenberg Bay on Thursday, 25 April. (Photo: Suné Payne / Daily Maverick)

The streets of Plettenberg Bay are awash with political party posters. They adorn lamp posts along the town’s main drag, in less affluent areas and along the N2. This part of the Garden Route, stretching from the Eastern Cape border with the Western Cape to Harkerville, is home to people who are divided not only by a national road, but also by an inequality gap.

It’s a Thursday morning when Daily Maverick visits the coastal holiday town. Several families are scattered on Central Beach, swimming in the sea or lazing on the sand on this humid, cloudy morning. 

A bus offloads tourists and they take pictures of the beach, the sky and the Beacon Island Resort. Lifeguards shy away from discussing politics, instead suggesting that Daily Maverick visit some of the poorer areas to get a sense of the glaring divide between the haves and the have-nots.

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The iconic Beacon Island hotel in Plettenberg Bay on Thursday, 25 April. The hotel forms a large part of the hospitality industry in the area. (Photo: Suné Payne / Daily Maverick)

Plettenberg Bay is in the Bitou Municipality, along with Nature’s Valley and Harkerville. The municipality is split by the N2. Along one side of the highway are a string of golf courses, luxury homes, housing estates and lagoons. The other side is more impoverished and prone to wildfires. 

According to a 2023 socioeconomic profile by the Western Cape treasury department, “pronounced income disparities exist among different racial communities” within Bitou municipality.

The report says coloured communities within Bitou faced the highest levels of inequality, followed by African communities. By contrast, income inequality is the lowest among white communities.

Mandy Corneelse, 32, lives in New Horizons, an area to which coloured people were forcibly relocated under the Group Areas Act in 1968.

She was a home-based caregiver, but lost her job seven years ago. Her life soon spiralled out of control. Corneelse began using drugs and was kicked out of her mother’s home where she was living with her three children. The kids stayed behind while she drifted around looking for a place to stay.

For a while, she earned money as a car guard. But now she is unemployed.

Corneelse won’t be able to vote on 29 May as she has no identity document or money to pay for a new ID.

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Plettenberg Bay resident Mandy Corneelse. (Photo: Suné Payne / Daily Maverick)

Describing her home town to Daily Maverick, Corneelse said: “Plett is very calm and that’s what attracts people… You don’t get a place like Plett.”

Corneelse said while there were comparisons with Mossel Bay, a place she has visited often, Plettenberg Bay was cleaner.

Her biggest issue was local unemployment, currently standing at 30%. 

Throughout Daily Maverick’s visit, we saw clean streets and municipal workers picking up litter. Bins are everywhere – in the leafy suburbs like Bowtie and the less affluent New Horizons and Kwanothukula. 

Residents told Daily Maverick the areas need to stay clean or tourists wouldn’t visit. 

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Streets of Plettenberg Bay in areas such as Kwanokuthula are kept largely clean. When Daily Maverick visited the area, municipal workers were visibly present clearing litter. (Photo: Suné Payne / Daily Maverick)

Mayor Claude Terblanche and the local ratepayers’ association echoed the importance of tourism.

“When one looks at the businesses and economic opportunities that exist within Plettenberg Bay, it’s predominantly driven by tourism – the retail outlets, the restaurants, the hospitals, the hotels,” said Steve Pattinson, chairman of the Plett Ratepayers’ Association. 

Signs advertising accommodation in the town have been inundated with posters of political parties soliciting support ahead of the 29 May poll.

While there are plenty of DA posters, the party which scored the largest number of votes in 2019, there are few if any ANC posters, which scored the second-highest number of votes.

Scattered around the town are posters for ActionSA, the Patriotic Alliance and others such as the Referendum Party and the African Transformation Movement.

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Party posters adorn streetlights in Plettenberg Bay ahead of the 29 May election. Posters from the DA, ActionSA and PA are clearly visible. (Photo: Suné Payne / Daily Maverick)

“Of late, more people have been moving to Plettenberg Bay and working remotely… But tourism is a key driver of jobs,” said Pattinson.

Tourism and those employed in the sector help to keep the town alive in many ways.

Pheliswa Hazel Cokova’s vibrant spirit and compassionate heart represent the community’s generosity in the picturesque town.

Cokova, known affectionately as Hazel, has always loved her hometown and its people. She arrived in Eqolweni informal settlement in 1994, joining her mother who has since died.

As a tour guide, she spends her time sharing the beauty and history of Plettenberg Bay with visitors from around the world. Yet, amid the scenic landscapes and bustling tourist attractions, Hazel couldn’t ignore the stark reality of hunger and need within her community.

Determined to make a difference, she opened a soup kitchen and transformed her small kitchen into a bustling hub of love and nourishment.

“I always mention the plight of unemployed people to tourists and they ask what can they do to assist,” Hazel told Daily Maverick.

“My dream has always been to either start a soup kitchen or help senior citizens with daily meals… a year ago, tourists made the soup kitchen dream a reality.”

Word of Hazel’s kindness spread quickly through Plettenberg Bay, and soon, people came together to support her cause. Businesses donated ingredients, families contributed their time and tourists visiting the area were inspired to lend a helping hand.

She said that while Plettenberg Bay was not perfect, the municipality was stable, adding that if more jobs were created, a lot more people would be happy. She said she had high hopes because Bitou was now led by young people.

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Pheliswa Hazel Cokova, known as Hazel, speaks to Daily Maverick in Plettenberg Bay about the soup kitchen she operates. (Photo: Suné Payne / Daily Maverick)

We found newly installed mayor Claude Terblanche, 37, at the Ebenezer housing project.

Terblanche, from the local Plett Democratic Congress (PDC), was elected mayor in February 2024. As Daily Maverick reported at the time, the PDC ended its coalition with the DA and a second, smaller party following claims of a lack of cooperation, issues around debt write-offs and the creation of another municipal directorate which could lead to an additional R14-million being spent on salaries.

Terblanche was elected with support from the PA, ANC and Ikhwezi Political Movement (IPM). The government of the PDC, ANC and IPM has been dubbed “The People’s Coalition”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: DA ousted by ANC-majority coalition in Plettenberg Bay’s Bitou

The coalition change caused an uproar in the town, with many people questioning Terblanche’s motives.

“It’s really tough… With the changeover and me becoming the new mayor, people didn’t take it too well,” he said. 

Terblanche blamed people who had become “accustomed to protecting their wealth… As much as we might want to say that the only people who can lead are the DA, we also find ourselves saying we are capable of leading.

“If you look at it, the Plettenberg Bay community is separated between rich and poor on both sides of the N2.”

Terblanche said his job entailed trying to reduce and then eradicate the income gap “with resources such as ensuring public funding gets split evenly within the community… I’m capable of leading this town up until 2026,” he said. 

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Government-built homes in Bossiesgif, Plettenberg Bay. In the background is a view of the beach and Keurbooms lagoon. (Photo: Suné Payne / Daily Maverick)

Learners walk home from school in Qolweni, Plettenberg Bay. This area, situated along the N2 highway, is prone to fires due to the congested shacks that are slowly being replaced by brick homes. (Photo: Suné Payne / Daily Maverick)

Newly built homes in the Ebenezer Housing Project in Plettenberg Bay. The homes were built in a collaboration between the local municipality and the provincial government. (Photo: Suné Payne / Daily Maverick)

Despite the gap between the rich and poor, Terblanche said “this town has always shown unity”, whether it was stepping in to help during the devastating Knysna fires in 2017 or “showing support through the underprivileged areas [like] informal settlements”.

Speaking to Daily Maverick about Terblanche’s tenure, Pattinson said he had a good relationship with the mayor: “I think he means well. I think his intentions are positive.”

He said the ratepayers would judge the municipality on its actions. 

“It’s very early days. This is a new shift in coalition power… We are working hard to make sure they fill all of the vacant positions with competent, experienced people with integrity,” said Pattinson.

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Newly installed mayor of Bitou municipality Claude Terblanche speaks to Daily Maverick in Plettenberg Bay on Thursday, 25 April. (Photo: Suné Payne / Daily Maverick)

The ANC, DA and PA will contest the general elections in the town. 

Terblanche’s party, the PDC, will participate. However, his party will continue to make door-to-door visits to explain the voting process and ensure people get to their voting stations on the day. 

Terblanche said the election campaign had been marked by mudslinging, but that no serious threats had emerged within the town. 

Neither Terblanche nor the PDC have publicly endorsed any party contesting the elections.

“As much as we have not yet chosen to support a particular political party, we encourage our people to go out there… to know that after 30 years of democracy, their participation in the elections is of utmost importance.” DM

Daily Maverick’s Election 2024 coverage is supported, in part, with funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and vehicles supplied by Ford.

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