Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Breaking down South Africa?

In 2015, it was reported that Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, speaking to followers at Nongoma, criticised black South Africans for not building further on the country they had inherited from the National Party, opting instead to destroy or break down infrastructure, in this way cancelling out the (economic) progress made during a time when the country had a strong economy. At the time the king also pointedly referred to the burning down of buildings (presumably a reference to the torching of a library and other buildings on a university campus) from the apartheid era. There was scant reaction to the Zulu king’s pronouncement, for obvious reasons: the present government would not want to give too much publicity to such an accurate assessment in the light of its failure of governance (given the dirt that is being revealed at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture, to mention only one thing among many, I rest my case).

Judging by recent events in the Western Cape, it is breaking-down season again; only this time it has gone hand in hand with an unadulterated ‘land grab’. The place in question is the beautiful seaside town of Hermanus, annually (until now) the destination of thousands of local and overseas tourists. If you haven’t been to Hermanus you would not understand why, but if you are one of the lucky ones to have visited this charming place, there is no need for further information on this score.

Except that Hermanus is no longer what it used to be. The map shown in the video linked above shows the extent of the squatter camp in the town, adjacent to a stretch of land called Schulphoek, according to sources a privately owned area which — if I understand things correctly — is about to be given to a sizeable new influx of migrants from the Eastern Cape and further afield. Although it is common knowledge that in South Africa there is freedom of movement, one cannot help but suspect that such large migratory movements, by the busload, is not part of the more usual, piecemeal migration that occurs in the normal course of events anywhere in the world — when one loses a job, or has applied for a new one elsewhere, for example, and hence moves there. And I am not talking about migrations from war-torn countries such as Syria, which is not applicable here. For such large numbers of people in South Africa to move into a town as relatively small as Hermanus, virtually overnight, smacks (unless I am improbably mistaken) of political motivation — which hinges on the numbers game, of course. The more migrants move into the Western Cape, the closer the ruling party gets to taking the ‘model’ province back from the DA — which it would love to do, envious as it must be of the fact that the DA has governed the province so well, by and large.

And I say ‘model’ province advisedly, and comparatively – everywhere else one goes in South Africa (and we travel a lot), the road maintenance, as well as the public service, to mention only two examples, is relatively poor compared to the Western Cape, where it is excellent. Not long ago we had to drive to Potchefstroom for a conference, and had a hard time avoiding potholes as big as small craters on the way there from Bloemfontein. But while we have supported the DA in the last several elections because of its outstanding governance record in the Western Cape, its performance may be slipping, in view of what it is allowing to happen in Hermanus, instead of addressing the situation firmly in terms of existing laws.

Instead of confronting the leadership of the squatters — who are reportedly claiming part of the Schulphoek area, regardless of it being private land, and have also allegedly uttered the direst of threats to people like business owners in Hermanus (to the effect that their businesses will be taken, while they, and all white people into the bargain, would be ‘chased into the sea’) – the town council seems to be leaning over backwards to accommodate these aggressive land-grabbers. Besides, if these migrants came to Hermanus believing that there was employment opportunity for so many of them, they were sorely mistaken — there is not. But I don’t believe that was their motivation, which was far more sinister, judging by the rhetoric used by their ‘leaders’.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe where there is genuine need for shelter people should be assisted by local authorities as far as it is economically viable, but it is one thing to do so in a reasonable manner, and quite another to shell out (pun intended) a piece of prime land for squatter shacks to be erected on it – which is an eyesore second to none. Recently, when a leading Canadian scholar visited us as keynote speaker at the South African Society for Critical Theory’s second annual conference, my partner and I drove with him to Hermanus to share the beauty of the place with him. He was bowled over. Then, yesterday, I sent him the link to the video (provided above) on the current Hermanus land grab, and today, in his response, he wrote this (I quote):

‘Yes, how could I forget beautiful Hermanus — or at least the part of it that was beautiful. I remember well driving down that long road bordering the camps — such a contrast to the coastal road and the downtown area. You would know better than me, but your assessment of the situation along with that sobering video leaves little doubt about the prospects for the future in the region. Shocking. And it's just a microcosm of an extended dilemma.’

The ‘camps’ that my Canadian friend refers to here are the existing squatter areas in Hermanus (adjacent to the Schulphoek piece of land), and the road bordering on them, where we drove down, took us to the harbour where we hoped to find one of Hermanus’s famed seafood restaurants. Initially we could not believe it was the right road, given the inauspicious appearance of the camp, and we were therefore unsurprised to find very few people at the seafood restaurants. Again – people have to live somewhere, but to select this area for the construction of unattractive temporary shelters (instead of proper housing) is to shoot yourself in the foot regarding the visitor potential of the place, which South Africa can ill afford to lose.

This also explains my friend’s observation regarding it being ‘a microcosm of an extended dilemma’; on the way to dropping him at the international airport near Cape Town for his return flight, we drove past the seemingly endless shacks lining the N2, and he could not resist filming them to show his family back home in Canada — he was just astonished at such a sea of so-called ‘informal settlements’ (a euphemism for the saddening reality of such living conditions, of course), and saw it as constituting an intractable social and political problem. In Canada they know no socio-economic problems of such magnitude. (Needless to say, in view of the millions of rand involved in the corruption that is being uncovered in the course of the Zondo commission’s sessions, such funds might have been channelled towards better housing for the denizens of South Africa's squatter camps.)

To return to the matter of ‘breaking-down’, what I am referring to is shown in the video linked above, to wit, the stripping of buildings, including what used to be the Hermanus public swimming pool, of everything imaginable, presumably for building shacks. One is reminded of the Zulu king’s observations, noted at the outset. In this regard one may recall novelist Eben Venter’s chilling prognostication of a possible future for South Africa in his novel, Horrelpoot (translated into English as ‘Clubfoot’), which I have written on before, and the fictional scenario of which seems to be adumbrated in the events unfolding at Hermanus.

Unless the DA in the Western Cape were to gather up the courage to confront these illegal land-grabbers resolutely on legal grounds (and accommodate them elsewhere if they were to insist on settling there, despite lack of employment opportunities), it would indeed be, as the video, above, claims, ‘the end of Hermanus’. Is this what South Africans should be striving for in this beautiful country?

According to the Freedom Charter, it belongs to all its peoples, black and white, none of whom should be identified to be ‘chased into the sea’.

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