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Kimberley: South Africa’s tourism diamond needs a desperate polish in local government

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Xolisa Phillip has had quite an adventure as a journalist in the roles of subeditor, news editor, columnist and commentator. She pretends to be Olivia Pope during the day, while still maintaining a presence in journalism – a passion project she cannot shake away. Journalism keeps finding Phillip no matter where she is and somewhat manages to hold its own space no matter where she is professionally.

South Africa has much to offer domestic and international tourists, but the country falls short in being a full-package destination, primarily because municipalities are often badly run and fail to deliver basic services. Kimberley, the home of the Big Hole, is one such example.

The (in)efficacy of local government can either hinder or help the cause of domestic tourism. That is so because the tourism sector sits at the intersection of government service delivery across the board: roads, transport, water, refuse collection, and infrastructure.  

Considered collectively, those services demonstrate whether the three tiers of the state work cohesively or if there are gaps in the system. Take, for example, the state of the N12 between Johannesburg and Kimberley. The road runs through five provinces: Mpumalanga, Gauteng, North West, Northern Cape and Western Cape. 

On the Johannesburg to Kimberley portion of the N12, it is easy to guess from the state of the road which segments are taken care of by national government, provincial authorities, and local councils. The condition of the road is in equal parts impressive and terrifying. The contrasts are glaring. 

The road goes from smooth and clear surface markings to pothole-riddled lumps of dirt. The latter bits are most visible in rural towns along the way, while the former is notable in the long stretches between provinces. The picture-perfect scenery, with the dramatic changes in the provincial landscapes, serves as a welcome distraction. It really is no exaggeration to state that South Africa is blessed with natural beauty. 

In terms of transport, there are few options available on the Johannesburg to Kimberley route. The onset of Covid-19 is partly responsible, but this is mainly a systemic shortcoming. When running, there is a limited passenger rail service between the two cities. There are also buses. These alternatives come with the added disadvantage of inefficiency and safety concerns. A private car is the most viable, but expensive, option. 

Kimberley, with its glittering history of diamonds, is easy to miss because its location signboard is faded and has seen better days. The roads in town are nothing to write home about either. It is Pothole Central. The infrastructure is visibly crumbling. Within the Big Hole precinct, one of the main attractions, rubbish is strewn along the perimeter wall.   

But the site itself is a wonder to behold. The throwback to Kimberley’s glory days during the diamond rush of the 1800s, with its meticulous recreation of what the old town looked like in those early days, is rich in historical detail and aesthetically pleasing. Nothing is spared. There is a guided tour option available for visitors. 

Kimberley is known as a city of firsts. It was the first city in South Africa to introduce electric streetlights. Some sources state that Kimberley was not only the first city in the country to do this, but also the first in the Southern Hemisphere. Those lights form part of the display at the Big Hole. 

At the site, too, however, the shortcomings of local government are apparent. Visitors are warned about a water crisis in the city, which falls under the Sol Plaatje Municipality. The province is experiencing drought. 

The status of tourism as a sector that sits across the intersection of the three spheres of government is receiving attention from the Tourism Review Panel, which was appointed by the previous minister. The panel began its work in November 2020. The intention is to “update the policy framework guiding tourism in the country”. 

At the end of August, the panel made a presentation to the Portfolio Committee on Tourism about work done so far. 

The South African Local Government Association is among the listed stakeholder groups with which the panel has had preliminary engagements. Intergovernmental relations are a core area of focus, or theme, in the review process. The review panel, also referred to as an advisory panel, highlights the need for clarifying the “roles and responsibilities of the different spheres of government”. 

That is the correct and progressive approach. Although considered, and handled, as the subordinate to provincial and national government, the local sphere of the state is a pivotal unit when viewed holistically. It is the lynchpin of the service delivery ecosystem and thus important to the sustainability of the tourism sector and associated industries. 

Going back to Kimberley, the city has many tourism drawcards – from its historical sites and natural attractions to its accommodation establishments – but falls short where local government ought to be delivering. BM/DM

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