Defend Truth


When elephants fight: the tragedy of a tiny town

Aubrey Masango was born in Mamelodi, east of Pretoria. Educated at St Johns College in Johannesburg and later went to the University of Pretoria to study to be a teacher. He was bored. He decided to get out of the corporate rat-race in 2009 because he did not like the person he was becoming in the BEE scene, seeing it as pretentious and unsustainable. These days, Aubrey is a talk show host on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape talk. His regular show “Talk with Aubrey” is on a Sunday evening at 23h00 to Monday morning at 01h00.

Pilgrim’s Rest, a tiny but lively tourist spot, is now all but a ghost town, following the immediate closure of 17 of its businesses. But in the race to ensure that nobody had an unfair advantage, government succeeded in leaving no advantages at all.

There is an African proverb that says: “When two elephants fight, it is the grass beneath that suffers.” If only our leaders would remember this wisdom, which applies in so many of our current national scandals: the Limpopo textbook debacle, land restitution, the nationalisation of mines – to name a few.

And, most recently, the death of Pilgrim’s Rest.

A total of seventeen businesses in this tiny historical town have been shut down. Pilgrim’s Rest is now, effectively, a ghost town – its modest-but-sustainable tourism industry killed, with perhaps thousands of livelihoods alongside.
If you have ever been to Mpumalanga Province, you might have found yourself – while drinking in the province’s awe-inspiring natural beauty – stopping in Pilgrim’s Rest, a quaint relic of South Africa’s colonial past. You may have taken a walk through its zinc-house shops, selling all manner of memorabilia and homemade delicacies, or its rustic restaurants with unpretentious cuisine, or stopped at its ancient petrol station with pumps that are barely identifiable (yet still work perfectly).

Owned and administered by the Department of Public Works, Pilgrim’s Rest was a small but thriving hub of nostalgia, nestled in some of the country’s most spectacular scenery. It has never had any major commercial value, but a fair number of business owners leased premises from the DPW, and the town made its living.

Providing employment for many residents of the local Schoonplaas township, the tourism industry was – if not booming – a lifeline for many; the backbone of the town’s economy. But as the economic recession caused visitors to dwindle, it began ailing.

On the 4th July, The Times reported that 17 businesses had been issued with eviction orders from the DPW, and were given 30 days to vacate the businesses premises. This was following a tender process which was carried out in November last year, where current business owners were to tender for new lease agreements. Unfortunately for the 17 businesses, they were unsuccessful according to the criteria set by the department, and were ordered to vacate the premises on Friday 28th June.

Sharon Paterson, who has owned Ponieskrantz Arts and Crafts, as well as the Pilgrims Pantry Shop, for the past 20 years, also received an eviction notice. According to the Times report, she employs 50 staff members, whom she must now issue with notices of termination of employment – never mind the logistical nightmare of having to move her belongings from the department’s premises.

There are obviously multiple sides to the story; valid and legitimate arguments which, taken in isolation, can potentially distort the reality of the situation. There is, I presume, the side of the department, which would argue that this was a step aimed at giving previously disadvantaged members of the Pilgrim’s Rest community a shot at making their way into the mainstream economy. That it was an initiative of redress, a responsibility of government, in the spirit of levelling the playing fields for a more equitable society. Officials will most probably recount numerous attempts, from their perspective, to have inclusive discussions with business owners with very little co-operation. 

There is certainly merit in these arguments, given the realities of the past and the systematic exclusion of, particularly, black folks. But one can’t ignore that gnawing feeling at the back of one’s mind that other motives could be at play here, given some government officials’ reputation for the love of “Tsho-Tsho”. One can’t help but wonder if there is any race-based ill-intent, malice and corruption; vices we have grown to associate with some bureaucrats.

There is also the argument of business owners, mostly white, beneficiaries of the laws of the past and therefore in an advantaged position in terms of both their skills and financial position. But is this a sin? “Surely the advantages we possess are being reinvested into the economy, and give value to the town and thus attract the investment and tourism which benefits all!” I hear them argue. “Without which there would be nothing to even fight over. When is my whiteness going to stop being a crime in this country? How do I contribute in a way that also benefits me without having to be dispossessed as soon as I create value? More specifically, who is going to employ my many staff members, many of whom are black, whose families are sustained by our businesses and the industry, which has so much potential and promise? Who is going to manage that now that we are being told to go?” Yes, valid arguments indeed, but here, one can’t help but wonder if these arguments are not inspired by a deep-seated sense of entitlement and condescension, or even a veiled racism we have come to associate with some of our white bosses – especially those who lord over poor and uneducated and disempowered blacks in rural areas such as Pilgrim’s Rest. The intransigent contenders for the preservation of white privilege.

Yes, these are the attitudes and notions that keep us trapped in inaction as we develop arguments to further galvanise our mistrust for each other. Whether it is in the Pilgrim’s Rest scenario or the land restitution and nationalisation debates, we are trapped by the inability to see beyond our circumstances and thus develop the paradigms, attitudes, words and conversations that would take us to elegant and creative solutions. It is, in a nutshell, a lack of vision from all of us.

The answer to this kind of problem does not lie in brittle, tacit arguments, but in flexible wisdom – the abandonment of selfish motives and cleverly contrived arguments that, in the end, have no practical relevance at all.

So what should happen in Pilgrim’s Rest? I hear you ask. I can’t speak with certainty about the brewing conflict there. But, using common sense and humanity as a starting point, I would have liked to see government use some of the revenue from the existing businesses to build facilities for new entrepreneurs without taking away from established business owners. I would have wanted to see government create an atmosphere of mutual respect and security for all concerned.

I would have wanted to see business people offer skills and resources to help budding entrepreneurs succeed so that government can get more revenue through taxes and rental. I would have wanted to see more humility from business owners and not a readiness to litigate. This way, everyone could have a piece of the pie, which would be enlarged and not diminished.

I dare say that there is no shortage of creative possible answers for this situation. But as things stand, there is a shortage of vision and selflessness. There is a shortage of sanity.

So the grass beneath continues to suffer, and South Africa loses another piece of its heritage. DM


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