Town fights off spiral of despairComment on this story
Craig Dodds spoke to the people of De Aar, a Karoo town which once a prosperous junction between the big cities.
It’s 9am on a Friday and the queues at the bank tell us it’s payday. They are longer than they’ve been for years – a sign of changing fortunes in a town that has known economic misery for almost two decades.
An underground water source gave De Aar its name (“The Vein” in English), but its status as a major railway junction on the line between Joburg, Cape Town and Kimberley was its economic lifeblood.
The town hummed as train crews overnighted at a hostel.
But in the 1990s about 300 locomotives were carved up for scrap as the railways cut back. The town died and jobs dried up. By 2012, unemployment had hit 80 percent.
There are only 30 000 souls in De Aar. Nothing disturbs the crushing monotony. A sense of futility descended and many turned to drink.
By the early 2000s, the town had the highest recorded prevalence of foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) in the world at 12.2 percent.
Poppie Vaalpyn is 19 and has no home, she says. “My mother died and I can’t live with my father because he took another wife and she doesn’t like me.”
We have stopped at Malay Camp, a haphazard settlement across the railway line from the town centre, where the party has stumbled defiantly into daylight without pausing from the night before.
Vaalpyn sleeps outside, she tells us, because the houses here are “broken”.
Winter is coming and soon the Karoo nights will turn vicious.
Behind her, patrons swarm around a ramshackle shebeen while children kick a soccer ball on a square of dust outside.
In the gloom of the shebeen, Albert Qokela, 40, cradles a makeshift bowl of the local brew, Riemvasmaak, a spicy concoction with a chemical tang, made from a plant resembling an acacia bush.
He lives with his mother and has only occasional work. He takes a dim view of developments since the coming of democracy.
“Nothing has improved. I don’t think anything’s going to improve,” he says.
Norman Mehlo, 51, is equally disparaging. “We hear all these promises – we’ll get jobs, this and that is going to happen – but nothing changes. Our president steals all the money for himself…
“Maybe if someone better takes the job, there will be change. I got nothing from them, only a T-shirt,” he says.
Lizzie Marks, 47, speaks in a weary voice, her back turned to the others as she leans over a glass of dark liquid.
“I see nothing better. They fight, children are murdered, there’s no peace, it’s a mess. I see nothing going right. It’s not going to get better, I don’t believe it will.”
She receives an old-age grant but says it’s not enough.
“When we come out we have only R100 left. Things are expensive. It’s hard, but we carry on.”
Charlie Qeqe, 47, is the only person we speak to at Malay Camp with a full-time job – three jobs, in fact, working as a security guard. He doesn’t join in the drinking.
The wages here are far lower than in the bigger towns, and because he only has a Grade 3, he is paid less.
“The money is just enough for food and clothes, then it’s gone. I can’t build a house,” he says.
It baffles him that the council spends money on maintaining roads when so few have decent housing. “All we want is houses, we don’t need streets, I’m not going to live on the street. Streets are the last priority, just houses…
“There are adult men here who sleep outside and get murdered. It’s bad.”
But Qeqe prefers not to dwell on the negative. “Let’s leave the problems of the country, we all have problems, but I can’t give my problems to someone else. I love South Africa, I want to stay here and die here,” he says.
He is buoyed, too, by the passing of apartheid.
“For me, that time was very hard. Now, in the town, I can greet you, you greet me. You can hug me, I can give you a hug too. That business of black people and white people is over, it’s gone from us. We live from one blood. It’s long gone.”
Further out of town, Lettie Nikani and Gladys Mxhosana soak up the morning sunshine outside a house in Nonzwakazi township.
Nikani’s granddaughter, Siyamamkela Maqhina, 23, observes from a chair nearby.
“First it was better, but now it’s bitter,” says Nikani of the 20 years since the first democratic elections.
“Look at the toilet, we are struggling. The houses aren’t made properly. If you go to my house… they came and put in a door that falls out. What if I get raped? I live near the railway, the children can come and rape me,” she says.
“The tap also doesn’t work. You have to shake it for the water to come out. If you go to the toilet, you have to carry water.” Her family lost their property in the old “location” during apartheid and are still waiting for compensation.
“In the other towns the money has come, but here, no. We see on television people get paid, but we get nothing,” she says. “We claimed at the hall, then they said they had sent the forms to Kimberley, but till today, nothing. I don’t know if that’s the truth, whether they sent it or they ate the money.”
Mxhosana has TB and gets a disability grant. “I live in a shack in someone’s yard. I’ve been on the (housing) waiting list since 2000 and, nothing,” she says.
Maqhina says she’s applied for many jobs since she matriculated, but has had no luck. These elections would have been her first opportunity to vote, but she’s too disillusioned to bother.
Phiwokuhle Mgajo, 21, is more enthusiastic. “I’m already registered… I’m excited,” he says.
He is an early beneficiary of the government’s renewable energy drive, which has spawned shimmering fields of solar panels at four giant plants outside town.
Veteran journalist at the Eco local newspaper Hilna Human tells us if all the solar panels were lined up, they would stretch for 400km.
There is hope De Aar is finally reclaiming its place in the sun.
Work in the installation phase has created part-time jobs for many in De Aar and boosted the hospitality industry as out-of town technicians stay for months at a time.
There is also a big new hospital nearing completion, where Mgajo was involved in construction.
Piece work is all very well, but he would like a permanent job so he can plan a future.
Outside the Moreson Butchery on Sylyn Street, lamb chops and wors dance in the smoke as Joseph Mantjie, 32, fences with a pair of braai tongs at a roadside grill.
He says the first five years of democracy were “the best”, but it’s been downhill since then.
He’s been on the waiting list for a house for 15 years and eventually built a shelter in someone else’s yard, where he lives with his wife and three children.
He doesn’t expect things to change for the better because “everyone thinks of themselves, not of the country”.
Human says the newfound liquidity has not been good for everyone. With salary slips from three-month contracts, many have been able to open accounts on credit. Now that the work is done, these people are stranded in debt.
“And the other thing is, the people got the work, but some of them worked till 12, and they just said they couldn’t work any longer, because they’re not fit for work. They’re undernourished and they are ill,” says Human.
Nevertheless, there are many more jobs than in the past and “we’re very positive about this”.
Lian-Marie Drotsky, Northern Cape co-ordinator of the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research, agrees the flow of work has had unexpected consequences, including more spending on drink.
Her organisation exposed the extent of the FAS problem through its research and achieved a 30 percent drop with an awareness programme it launched afterwards.
Since then it has developed a more comprehensive approach that includes support programmes for pregnant women and visits by community workers. The signs are good that this will lead to a further reduction in the FAS rate.
But Drotsky is worried the decades of despair have taken such a toll on the town’s spirit it will struggle to shake the drinking habit. “Everybody drinks. Even the people I work with quite closely who don’t drink all live in homes where somebody drinks.
“The problem has been embedded for so long that it’s going to take more than just one year of better work opportunities to swing it around,” she says.
Nevertheless, she is convinced the hopelessness can be reversed.
“I think we are turning the problem around. Education is the big thing that makes the difference, but it will take time,” says Drotsky.