News / Opinion / Columns
There is something sad about the platteland Karoo towns of the Eastern and Northern Cape: whatever they may have been, back in the heyday of the sheep and wool trade, now they are like a tarted-up trollop trying to turn her last trick before old age swamps her.
Part of that is because of the inevitable cycle of life, which forever draws the young, the curious and the energetic towards the bright lights of the cities.
But part of it, it cannot be denied, is because our institutions of local government are crumbling.
There may be places – like Willowmore, on the N9 road between the coast and the interior – where there is an appearance of change, with neat rows of matchbox RDP houses seeming to indicate that life is getting better. But is it?
Blink twice and you will miss Willowmore entirely, it is that small.
So where are the hundreds of people living in the matchbox houses expected to find work?
Even in a good agricultural year, towns like this can only support a few score job opportunities.
Now, with the prolonged drought which has been particularly hard on this part of the Eastern Cape, there are even more people in places like Willowmore.
Farmers have been selling off their herds of cattle, sheep and goats to better survive – and they now need fewer labourers…those surplus to requirements have lost their jobs.
Just under 120km up the N9 from Willowmore, there lies another apparently benighted town – Aberdeen.
Like many of the rural towns across South Africa, this has a fine church and steeple, visible for miles around in the low scrub country.
Most people on the N9 roar past it, heading to fuel up, or eat, in a bigger place like Graaff Reinet.
We decide to chance it and, urged on by Google Maps, find a small restaurant offering excellent coffee, toasties and burgers at prices last seen years ago in the cities.
The woman owner points out, because we have missed it, a sign outside, which she erected, which urges tourists not to give money to the kids on the street, who lie in ambush, it seems, for newcomers.
“If you give them money, they take it and buy tik or glue. The glue is the stuff you use around the house – they put it into chip packets and then walk around sniffing it. You’ll never know because it looks like they’re just having some chips.”
Drugs go hand in hand with poverty and, like other towns, Aberdeen is overwhelmed with people struggling to survive. Even the social grants, which can get paid irregularly, don’t help much because the money is generally stolen or borrowed from older recipients within hours of it being paid out.
Aberdeen is run by the ANC and the decay has clearly set in.
Services are patchy – a common story where deployed cadres are unqualified and unskilled and more interested in “eating”, than in serving their communities.
The woman tells us that, in the past, the local rugby ground – simple as it was – was one place the rugby-loving residents (of all races) could enjoy a bit of entertainment. No more. It has been stripped bare.
These towns deserve energetic, committed, selfless new leaders to survive.
But will they get them after they go to vote on 1 November and, probably again, habitually or dutifully place their crosses next to the ANC logo?
I doubt it.