There is an unedifying sound coming from the usually sleepy town of Pilgrim’s Rest – the sound of slurping from the public trough, accompanied by a strong suspicion of corruption.

Such is the brazen attempt by the Mpumalanga provincial government to dish out businesses at the tourist spot to a favoured few, that the hamlet could well be renamed Pilgrim’s Theft should they have their way. Much of the town that has been preserved as a living museum on the site of South Africa’s original gold rush is owned – and neglected – by the authorities. Small shops leased from the provincial government compete for the business of tourists who brave the province’s notoriously potholed roads.

Many of these small business owners recently received eviction notices, with their leases having been awarded to new applicants. On the face of it this may have appeared to be a case of vigorous if not punitive affirmative action, but investigative journalism by Business Report and Carte Blanche has uncovered far more serious allegations. A local mine is set to expand its operations, employing and housing hundreds of additional workers and potentially bringing a mini boom to the town. At the same time, some of the successful bidders for the town’s businesses offered substantially lower bids than those submitted by the existing tenants. Some of the new applicants received multiple leases, while long-standing business owners got eviction notices which would have the effect of putting not only themselves but their employees out of work.

A first step towards stopping Pilgrim’s Rest from returning to its original 19th century state of lawlessness came yesterday when the High Court in Pretoria issued an order restraining the Mpumalanga provincial government from evicting the business owners. Judge Stanley Makgoba ruled that the tender process had not been transparent and inclusive and it was in the interest of the public that the present tenants “continue to occupy and serve the community”.

But a stay on eviction should by no means be the end of this story. A police probe of how the tenders came to be awarded and who was responsible must be conducted. Trying to steal a town is going too far.