Poor St Johns

Originally published on Sunday, January 30, 2011 in the Sunday Tribune, page 15.

POOR ST JOHNS

A fifth fatal shark attack in four years prompted reporter Matthew Savides and photographer Sandile Ndlovu to visit Port St Johns, once the jewel of the Transkei

Original article, Sunday Tribune, January 30, page 15

There’s a subtle yet ever-present foul smell as you drive into the CBD. Rubbish bins overflow and refuse piles up on crumbling sidewalks. People walk in the middle of badly potholed roads as trucks, bakkies, taxis and cars block walkways and stop seemingly at will.

Welcome to Port St Johns, a town on the Transkei’s strikingly beautiful Wild Coast. Welcome to a town in disrepair.

It is an area with high levels of poverty and unemployment of between 60 percent and 70 percent. From residents to shopkeepers, and from resort managers to even the municipal manager, everyone agrees the Jewel of the Wild Coast is no longer the town it once was and something needs to be done – something urgent and drastic.

“Tourism is what this town thrives on. We need to get tourists here, especially foreign tourists and the money they bring in. But how can we do that when the town looks like this?” says Solomon Bam, a born-and-bred local who runs the town’s youth centre.

He points down the muddy, potholed dirt road that leads to the main road into and out of town. It has been raining for two days straight – often heavily – and the town has taken a beating. But Bam believes it could have been avoided. “We should not have dirt roads. These should have been tarred.”

The poor roads are the most noticeable of the problems. But municipal manager Zola Hewu says something is being done. The R60 million contract to pave and tar CBD and other main roads has only just restarted. The previous two contractors were dismissed for “poor performance”.

The Port St Johns CBD, as seen from the road up to the old army base and airstrip. PICTURE: SANDILE NDLOVU

“The first phase is the CBD, which is a R28m project. Then we will do the other roads in town. Plans have been concluded and we are ready to go to tender. We want this done by the end of the year.”

There are also complaints about water and electricity. Many rural communities – including Poenskop, about 15km up the coast – do not have power. Some established resorts and other establishments have to use back-up generators. Rainwater tanks are common attachments to homes.

Hewu admits to the problems, but says their hands are tied by a budget of only R80m a year. Comparatively, the arch at the Moses Mabhida Stadium cost R188m. Salaries make up nearly R26.5m of the operating budget. While people acknowledge the problems, many are upset that the mayoral vehicle is a Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Thirteen wards make up the municipality, which stretches north beyond Lusikisiki, inland past Umngazi and south past the Silaka Nature Reserve. The council has a total of 29 members.

“The fact is, at the moment, our infrastructure is not up to standard. We inherited huge infrastructural backlogs, particularly in terms of roads, water, electricity and sewerage. But our budget is just too small to deal with it adequately. Our rates base is limited to the CBD, which is just a fraction of the population,” Hewu said.

“The problem is Port St Johns is the only town centre in the area and the services we have here are only offered here. This means there is a huge influx of people and the infrastructure is not adequate. We know this and we are trying to do something about it.”

The "Sutcliffe of St Johns". Port St Johns municipal manager Zola Hewu. PICTURE: SANDILE NDLOVU

An additional grant from the national treasury has been secured, and an agreement has been reached for more money to come from the Eastern Cape government’s coffers. This would cover the costs of a “master plan” to uplift the area.

“At our last council meeting of 2010 in December, we agreed to a development plan for the whole municipality. This includes development in Port St Johns and in other areas of the municipality, which will ease the pressure on infrastructure here. This is a five-year plan that we believe will make a difference,” he said.

One resort owner told the Sunday Tribune: “We are self-sustaining here. I use my own generator and have my own water. I can’t rely on the municipality. I pay tens of thousands in rates each year, but I don’t know what I’m actually getting for it. The tourism industry employs hundreds of people and is the biggest money-maker for the town, but they don’t look after us. The municipality is not doing their part and the town is just not up to standard. The visitors here just do not want to go into town.”

Sitting in her office at the entrance to the town, estate agent Maureen Kruger has seen the town deteriorate over the past decade. Her office has been there for 15 years and she lives 20km out of town.

One of the many badly potholed roads in the Port St Johns CBD. PICTURE: SANDILE NDLOVU

“There are some areas where the town is picking up, like the restarting of the roads contract. But the town is still not right. Even on that roads contract, they are using brick paving. With the amount of traffic, that will crumble within a year. Town centre is a no-go area. There are hawkers everywhere and the pavements are blocked by people and cars. There are bylaws, but they aren’t enforced. As a partially sighted pedestrian, there is just no where to walk in this town. We need the town to be up to a high standard, but that’s just not happening.”

Dries van der Merwe, local residents’ and ratepayers’ association chairman, agreed with Hewu it was difficult for the council to deal with many of the problems. He said the area had less than 14 000 ratepayers, slightly more than 9 percent of the total population of 148 000.

“We need more help from the national treasury. The town can’t reach its potential if we don’t get rid of the traditional backlogs we’ve had since as far back as I can remember. Port St Johns started in last position on the race track. After 1994 it reached rock bottom and most of the damage we see now actually occurred then. We need help to fix these problems. Our budget isn’t big enough by itself.”

But he was happy there had been improvements. For the 2009/10 financial year, the municipality received an unqualified audit from the Eastern Cape auditor-general, the first time this has happened.

“We have seen the management of the municipality improve. Politicians are getting less and less say and officials and administrators are starting to work according to their job descriptions and skills, rather than the politicians running everything. There has been much criticism, and rightly so. But at least there have been successes and we have to praise them (the municipality) for that. The town is picking up and it will continue to pick up. There is huge potential here.”

Hawkers block pavements along most CBD streets. PICTURE: SANDILE NDLOVU

Hewu said it was difficult to promote and market the town to tourists, given its current state.

“We do understand there are infrastructural problems here and we have said it is not wise to invest in the promotion of tourism when tourists won’t be getting top-notch service. At the moment, our focus is to improve the infrastructure and we have this master plan to do that. Once done, we will vigorously market the town.”

Despite the problems and recent shark attacks, tourists continue to flock to the town. During peak days over the festive season, more than 4 000 people visited the main swimming beaches. Resort accommodation was nearly fully booked and even the numbers of mid-week visitors are high.

Film-makers, too, are regular visitors to the area. Scenes from Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo Di Caprio, were shot in the town, as were parts of Amelia, which chronicles the life of legendary American pilot Amelia Earhart.

“We are happy that people film here. This is one of the country’s most beautiful areas. We want to convene a summit on filming here and promote ourselves better. Many people don’t know about us, and we want to change that,” Hewu said.

“This is a town with huge potential. And I know that once we have dealt with these problems, it will improve. I am absolutely confident of that.”

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