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Eastern Cape’s Cradock part of government plan to revive small towns

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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.

Small towns are in trouble. The Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs has reviewed and updated the Small Town Regeneration Programme to arrest further decline and turn the tide on the trend.

Cradock, northeast of Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape, is a small town rich in history and blessed with rugged scenery, but in need of regeneration. 

Surrounded by commercial farms and a large rural population, the town is one of many such places around the country that are gateways to moderate upward mobility — an important mitigator of rapid urban migration. 

As South Africa’s metros and surrounding urban centres — the default economic hubs — swell to capacity, there is recognition within the establishment that the continued neglect of small towns is unsustainable. 

That is one of the reasons the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs has reviewed the Small Town Regeneration Programme to gain an understanding of the initiative’s performance, with a view to refinement and updating. 

The programme was first conceived of by the South African Local Government Association in 2013 and made operational in 2015 in 18 small towns with the intention of regenerating, restoring and fulfilling the “economic potential of underperforming small towns”. 

Seven years later, with the benefit of hindsight and the data gathered from the 18 small towns that were test cases for the programme, the department conducted the assessment to design a refreshed plan which reflects the changing thinking about local government development. 

The outcome of the review factors in the Integrated Urban Development Framework of 2016 and, among other studies, the District Development Model of 2019.  

The latter aims to address the fragmented nature of local government spheres by integrating planning among local, district and metro municipalities; the former is the overarching government strategy for urbanisation.          

The main observation of the analysis is that small towns are in distress. That is especially the case for towns located on the fringes of rural areas, whose populations are taking flight to urban centres in search of greener pastures. 

Basics, including schooling, healthcare and jobs, are contributing to the brain drain in small towns, which have lost “economic vitality due to the lack of incentives to retain the economically active labour force”.

The economies in these areas are not diversified enough, making the towns reliant on single industries that are vulnerable to shocks and even total collapse. The single industry dynamic is also not conducive to economic vibrancy, but correlates with stagnation.  

Therefore, “these towns are … unable to keep up with competition [for critical skills] from larger economic hubs”.

Bank closures are commonplace. So are “poorly functioning tourism departments, which fail to understand potential tourism assets and how to develop them”. “Department of Labour programmes are tailored to bigger towns and cities.” 

The local municipalities of these towns often fall within district municipalities that are “catastrophically dysfunctional”. 

The updated programme will adopt a phased approach which has identified 23 towns, including Cradock, to prioritise for the first leg of implementation. 

Other noteworthy Eastern Cape small towns on the list are Aliwal North in Walter Sisulu Local Municipality, in the Joe Gqabi District Municipality; and Graff-Reinet and Aberdeen in Dr Beyers Naude Local Municipality, in the Sarah Baartman District Municipality.

Cradock is the seat of Inxuba Yethemba Local Municipality that encompasses Middelburg and falls within the Chris Hani District Municipality — a contender in the “catastrophically dysfunctional” district councils.    

Administratively speaking, Inxuba Yethemba Local Municipality, in turn, is no better. 

In the 2019/2020 Consolidated general report on the local government audit outcomes, Inxuba Yethemba was among “municipalities that disclosed significant doubt in their financial statements as to whether they will be able to continue operations in the near future”.  

In the same report, the Chris Hani District was disclaimed with findings because “adhering to controls on a daily and monthly basis was not ingrained in the culture… due to… vacancies in the municipal manager and chief financial officer positions”.

The department published the review of the Small Town Regeneration Programme at the end of March. The existing cracks in the system are well known and captured in the assessment.  

The expectation now is that the integrated approach will fill the accountability gap and draw on regional resources for the revival of small towns. BM/DM

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  • Not all small towns can be saved, and there are quite a few that probably shouldn’t be, because it will be throwing good money after bad. Cradock is definitely worth saving, and I’m relieved its been identified as such by an otherwise dysfunctional government department. But it’s going to be quite a job. Last time I was there, most of the stainless steel nameplates at human height had been ripped from the walls at the Cradock 3 Museum, including Fort, Matthew and Sparrow, leaving just the surnames, Callata, Goniwe & Mkhonto which were too high to be easily reached. The museum itself, is falling into disrepair. These are the memories of three real heroes of the Struggle who paid with their lives. It made me really sad. The rest of town is, well, let’s say tragically neglected, despite the positive contributions of several passionate citizens. As with the KZN Disaster funds, let’s hope someone other than the municipality or Cogta or some connected cadre handles the money.

  • “. . . The programme was first conceived of by the South African Local Government Association in 2013.” first??? Really?
    Any effort predating the calamitous ANC rule is airbrushed out of history.
    Long, long before 2013, there was a movement called ROEP (Red ons eie Platteland, I think). Author should think a bit deeper into the reasons for the decline of small towns. And I have a feeling it began with whites, under pressure from influx of desperate blacks, abandoning them for putatively safer domiciles – the bigger, whiter cities. Their turn will surely follow.
    There is little hope now for lovely towns like Cradock, Graaf Reinet, Vryburg or Barberton recovering from a generation of misrule by their ANC governments. As your article so clearly reveals, the re-naming of white towns to celebrate some dubious African heroes seems to have been more important to the ANC, than maintaining and developing them.
    Maybe Meyerton, Malmesbury and Howick (sorry, uMngeni) might yet show the way to salvation.

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