By Thabiso Thakali

Almost two decades ago, the small town of Grootvlei was a thriving community with a booming economy. For the quaint Mpumalanga town, 15km from Balfour, the 1970s and 80s were a boom time. In its heyday the town had a railway station, mine workshops, churches, schools and chain stores.

It also boasted a golf course, a health centre, sports facilities, restaurants and pubs. Building also boomed as new houses went up to accommodate the burgeoning population.

The wages of the miners, who worked nonstop shifts in the seven shafts of the nearby coal mines to feed the hungry furnaces of Eskom's Grootvlei power station, minutes from the town, contributed hugely to local coffers.

But then disaster hit the town … Eskom mothballed the power station in the late 1980s because the utility was generating more electricity than was needed, and the coal mine - without its major client - was forced cease operations.

Soon afterwards the railway station closed. Miners and townsfolk who depended on the mines and the power station left, and, almost overnight, businesses were forced to the wall and Grootvlei became a virtual ghost town.

But now, with the recommissioning of the power station as Eskom races to increase its power generation capacity, the town has sprung back to life.

Dr Jana Oosthuizen, of the Topsy Foundation, said a lot has changed in the area from when she first moved in seven years ago.

"Unemployment and poverty were rife and people were moving out of the area in search of jobs in nearby Balfour or in the farming areas. But now the power station has brought back hope," she said.

At the power station, where two of the six massive turbines are once again generating power, with work continuing to get the others back on stream, 10 buses line up to ferry workers to their homes as another shift ends.

Hostels that used to house miners have been converted into guesthouses and flats for the labourers working on the refurbishment of the power station. A former Eskom hostel has been bought by private investors and turned into a massive guesthouse, accommodating 184 contractors employed at the power station.

And property values have "gone through the roof", according to estate agents, with houses that not that long ago could be bought for a song now fetching hefty prices.

A network of new roads has sprung up so that coal can be transported from mines, and a small informal settlement has sprung up next to Thubelisha township - home to about 15 000 people.

Everywhere you go is a hive of activity: adjacent to the township, former mining workshops have been turned into manufacturing warehouses and the playgrounds at Tshepeha Secondary School, built for the community by Anglo American, bustle with schoolchildren.

"We are developing a block of old buildings into residential flats to house the contractors and other people working in the area," said Jan Lombard, the operations manager at the Grootvlei guest village, now home to 130 workers from the power station.

Lombard said the village's holding company, Praedial Properties, was developing a golf course to draw more people into Grootvlei.

"In addition to the 42 double-storey residential units we are currently developing, we also plan to build a proper shopping centre that would attract chain stores to this area. But there is a lot of work that still needs to be done to turn Grootvlei into a proper town," he said.

Next to Lombard's guest village is a clinic run by the Topsy Foundation to provide antiretroviral medication to HIV patients. The clinic also runs skills development and outreach projects, plus outreach programmes for unemployed local people.

Thubelisha resident Thandiwe Dumke, who is taking part in the sewing projects at the Topsy clinic, said that when the mines and the Eskom plant closed, it was "a time of desolation". But now Dumke believes that, with the new developments and job opportunities being created, life will never be the same again in the town.

"Only God knew what He planned for the people of this area. I can only imagine where many of our relatives and families would be if it wasn't for the current shortage of electricity supply in this country that led to the reopening of the power station," she said.

Jacob Ngwenya, 84, who is also a resident of Thubelisha and a former mineworker, who first arrived in the area in 1947, said: "It was a lively area, but everything just went upside down when people could no longer support their families. After things went terribly wrong, most of the people who were here returned to their homes in faraway areas such as Lesotho and the Eastern Cape in the late 1980s."

Now, many people who left the area had begun returning as job opportunities became available.

Some businessmen have also begun trickling back. One of them is Mohammed Azar, who is operating a mini-supermarket from the garage of his Thubelisha home.

"There were no shops at all in this area. It looked like a ghost town, with dilapidated buildings standing idle and vandalised. I decided not to move into those buildings, but rather to start something closer to the people," he said.

Letsielo Khabele (64), originally came from Lesotho, came in search of a better life on the coal mines in Grootvlei in 1959, and has lived through good times and bad.

"There were about 5 000 people employed in the coal mines and an additional 800 were working at the Eskom power plant. When they closed down we all lost our jobs," he said.

And, like so many residents of Grootvlei, Khabele has stopped praying that the good times will return. They have.