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Clarens — the town that knows it won’t have load shedding after the polls

Clarens — the town that knows it won’t have load shedding after the polls
A view of the R712 from Bethlehem which winds through Noupoortsnek and past Titanic Rock on its way to Clarens. (Photo: Gallo Images / GO! / Francois Haasbroek)

The ‘jewel of the Free State’, Clarens, shows what keeps small-town South Africa working when the government goes AWOL.

The Titanic Rock welcomes you to Clarens — the ochre, red and gold sandstone sentinel is a fitting entry point to the town known as the “jewel of the Free State”.

Clarens wears its past in its name. The Boer leader of the Transvaal Republic, Paul Kruger, was exiled to Clarens in Switzerland. As the Free State crumbles, Clarens also offers a way of understanding South Africa’s present and future.

The town is a tourist mecca for art festivals, beer fests and good times. Situated more or less in the centre of South Africa, it draws a crowd from KwaZulu-Natal and Johannesburg who want a country weekend with plenty of gees. We saw and heard Australians, Chinese and other visitors from further afield.

A few minutes from Clarens is the Golden Gate National Park, a spectacular 340km sprawling nature reserve on the border with Lesotho. (Photo: Spencer Eckstein)

Clarens has earned fame for another reason: it was Eskom’s first experiment with voluntary load reduction in an entire town. While the rest of us have enjoyed a respite from crippling power cuts for about 60 days (pre-election days, most people think), the town’s been load shedding-free for months.

No load shedding for 11 months straight

“Since August 2023, we don’t have the load shedding,” says community leader Eben Mofokeng. I had read stories of how a bakkie went around town telling people to turn off high-demand appliances when Eskom alerted people about the high power load, but the methods are more modern than that. 

“You join a WhatsApp group. The Clarens Residents’ Association gets the information from the municipality.” People then switch off in a remarkable display of social cohesion. 

Mofokeng is a son of the soil and grew up on a farm that was turned into a golf estate, the other welcome mat in Clarens. It is where well-heeled tourists come to stay and play. Mofokeng moved to the township of Kgubetswana long ago, but when a friend recently invited him over to the estate, he needed a PIN code to enter his birthplace. 

“That hurt me. Even the electric fence [did]. It’s my ancestral place. I understand if you buy a place it belongs to you…” His voice trails off into the too often unspoken place that is South Africa’s story of land theft and the slow, slow pace of land reform and reclamation.

Mofokeng’s home in Kgubetswana is lovely and a community centre. Still, it’s not the land of his birth and birthright.

Clarens

Community leader Eben Mofokeng from Kgubetswana, Clarens. (Photo: Spencer Eckstein)

Mofokeng has stayed close to the land. He was one of the first rangers when the Clarens community and the municipality of Dihlabeng put their resources together to protect the Clarens Village Conservancy, which is at the heart of the town’s tourism success. Surrounded by mountains, it is a place for hiking, rest, rejuvenation and what the Japanese call “forest bathing” — being in nature. The conservancy marks out trails and keeps the town clean and the municipality on track.

Tourists, in turn, keep Clarens well run, an island of prosperity in a province ruined by the governing ANC’s decades of provincial capture and cadre-led government. Party strongman Ace Magashule ran the Free State into the ground over decades. Now expelled by the ANC, he is trying to get back in via his new party, the African Congress for Transformation (ACT). A week before Daily Maverick visited, Magashule was in town, trying to get Kgubetswana to vote him back in.

The posters suggest that the black vote will be split between the ANC, ACT, the MK party and even Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s African Content Movement. The white vote is being contested by the DA and FF+. 

Clarens

Neked Food restaurant and cannabis café staff in their car. (Photo: Supplied)

An ANC town that works — pragmatic partnerships at its heart

Time has not changed the town’s racial political divide, but its pragmatism is impressive. Clarens is an ANC ward under mayor Tjhetane Mofokeng in the municipality of Dihlabeng. They make it work through a mix of community spiritedness, cross-subsidisation and an active DA councillor, Irene Rügheimer. 

Mofokeng says the conservancy, where he worked for years, is just one example of how the town stays resilient. 

“We have ‘Keep Clarens Clean’

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— so it’s the cleanest town in Dihlabeng. This thing of conservancy was new to black people. We taught people that each animal has rights, and we worked with traditional healers,” he explains. The rangers had to teach sustainable harvesting of medical plants like the African potato, Mofokeng says.

The load reduction plan succeeded because the town is small enough to organise on WhatsApp and wise enough to recognise the interdependence that cuts across party lines. 

“If restaurants did not have electricity, they would close. There’s low crime in town. The police are always all over the place.” Tourists must feel safe, and they do, judging by the crowds on the weekend we visited. The place buzzes with a diverse crowd of out-of-towners filling its bars, restaurants, shops and art studios. Many artists have moved to Clarens, giving it a bohemian feel. 

Horses take children on trips around the square, and craftspeople from the rest of Africa sell their wares. 

Owner Vanessa Jarvis-Findlay with visitors at the Neked vegan restaurant in Clarens. (Photo: Supplied)

Power cuts killed the cannabis cakes

At Neked vegan restaurant and cannabis café, owner Vanessa Jarvis-Findlay says load reduction saved the town. “Everything had to be battery operated or run by candlelight. Load shedding for four, six, eight hours was cutting us off at the knees. Businesses started to close. It killed the nighttime trade,” she recalls.

“Everybody was getting short-tempered and irritable. When the electricity went down, the water went down.” Generators killed the town’s gees and buzz. “You couldn’t hear anything,” she remembers. Neked sells ice creams and cakes laced with CBD and cannabis — in addition to its fabulous vegan menu, these keep the visitors coming.

“We’d be baking cakes and the lights went out without fair warning.” Now the municipality delivers a fair warning when the electricity load is low, and the word spreads on WhatsApp, Facebook and phones. Jarvis-Findlay says residents encourage each other and call out the big users. Eskom trialled the plan for three months from 2pm to 10pm and then hit the “go” button. It has worked and Clarens is the only town guaranteeing there won’t be load shedding once this week’s election is done and dusted. 

Eskom is led by chairperson Mteto Nyati and a new CEO, Dan Marokane, who have proven steady hands at the tiller. This fix, with reforms in independent generation and transmission, is also helping things. However, most South Africans still believe the reprieve to be a pre-election ploy by the ANC. Various studies have shown that load shedding and unemployment are the two biggest drivers of voter choice. 

Jarvis-Findlay is Clarens’ famous pro-cannabis activist. After using CBD oil to help recover from trauma and cancer she moved to the town, quickly becoming a leading entrepreneur and part of the colourful human embroidery of the place. She opened her café in 2019 when a Constitutional Court judgment opened the door to legalising weed, and married a local man. 

She staged a pro-cannabis, bare-breasted march on horseback on the eve of a beer fest. (with pic) When the horse bolted, and she fell naked to the ground, the applause from the onlookers on the square was wild. The stigma fell too, and now Jarvis-Findlay does a brisk trade and has a membership base of 10,000 with 100,000 feet through her door, she says. 

Vanessa Jarvis-Findlay rode a horse while naked to advertise her new cannabis café and join the movement to legalise weed.
(Photo: Supplied)

Other small things keep Clarens going in a province that is going nowhere and offer a way of thinking about what a future South Africa may look like.

Local businesses employ local people. Mofokeng says the founder of Clarens Xtreme, which offers quad biking, rock climbing and paintball, has trained many young people and pays well above the minimum wage. Other businesspersons do the same, he says. 

More on the elections

In Kgubetswana, quad bike tours go up and down through the town. The local NG Kerk pastor offers 250 children homework supervision, food, games and computer skills every day, Mofokeng says. The municipality is kept on its toes by residents who regularly point out they are the tax base of the municipality. There are conscious attempts to build bridges across town and township, Mofokeng says.

When the vote count is done and dusted next week, Clarens’ lights will stay on.

Its method of bringing an end to power cuts and of working together is a good local example of what keeps South Africa going even when good governance goes AWOL. DM

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