Small Towns: Our big economy in South Africa

Franschoek the countrys culinary capital

For any movement to spontaneously sprout out, takes one person taking a stand, starting a dance, throwing a stone, burning a tyre or shouting for change, igniting others’ consciences to join. This is not saying that ‘others’ as I have put it, were not aware of whatever that individual was standing up against or calling for, but might probably be that they never believed there would ever be a change in that situation. That is the power one! One person can make a difference if they put their heart and soul in it. I am Dr. Igor Scheurkogel from a small town called Odendaalsrus in the Free State and I am putting my heart and soul, strongly believing in small towns. They hold our future.

South Africa is breaking charts with every negativity leaving only drops of hope for our children and their children’s children. Corruption, regression, joblessness are a reality which shouldn’t be if we were aware of what our pearls are. Small towns, given the chance could easily take us to a brighter future. Small towns in our country are losing the economical viability and this is not only caused by the great urbanization but also by expansion of big business which does not keep the money in our country but take it out.

While we agree that entrepreneurship is the way to go, young people in small towns struggle to sing from that hymn book, they look at cities. Who can blame them when everything is being centralized, even the small jobs and tenders by the municipalities in those small towns are given to big business which does not even reside in those towns. When everything is centralized from national level or even on provincial level, it takes away the creativity in small towns and to a degree render the idea as useless. Find a solar geyser installer in your small town and you will see that a bigger business has a small branch representing it, making competition extremely tough for the local business people. The community radio stations, local newspapers struggle to get revenue from advertising, small farmers struggle to sell their produce because they are made to compete using the sets of rules and criterion dictated by big business from the cities. Wasn’t Spar’s strategy to empower very small businesses in the communities? Then why is a Spar in Mthatha buying its home made pies from a pie maker in East London which is 200km away?

Big business is not helping the small towns develop but killing them. I am not anti big business but I am laying it bare that when big business struggles and the executives change strategies which result to downsizing, merging, corruption or shutting down, it is the small town that suffer most. Remember what happened with African Bank which made many furniture outlets under a chain collapse and close down? A lot of people and families in small towns still have not recovered. The acquisition of Diskom by the company Edcon, the centralization of the power stations to Eskom, the centralization of the management of dams to the Department Of Water and Sanitation are just a few that have left complete devastation in the small towns. Economic struggles and challenges are magnified in a small town, where even a smattering of home repossessions and business failures affect nearly everyone.

People in small towns do not react positively to change. In most cases they fall apart and that is when the foreigners see an opportunity, enter the small town, start business which does not only destroy the cultural heritage in terms of the infrastructure but also render the community’s identity useless and irrelevant.

One of the hope points in reviving our economy in South Africa is the Tourism industry. Small Towns are the core of this sector if their identity is preserved, maintaining their historical character and their way of life which is the great contribution to our arts and culture. My submission is not fighting against the technological development in South Africa but I believe that the two; the historic cultural identity of small town and technological development can coexist. 

This copy, paste and blanket approach strategies set by national government contributes to the deterioration of the architecture, history, natural surroundings, home grown businesses in the small towns. This then make the small towns less interesting to the tourists, infect it makes some small towns identified as the places to avoid by the tourists. 

How is it that Mthatha, the birth place of the first democratically elected president of our country and the father of our rainbow nation, not viewed and marketed as a tourist destination? For a town boasting of all three museums telling the story of prisoner who turned to be the first democratically elected president of our country cannot even break even in its books; year on year. How is it that Idutywa; the home town and birthplace of the second democratically elected president of our country washed down and never features in any talks about tourism destinations?

Small Towns must be given an ability to elect their leaders, detached from the national mandate of the political parties. Stellenbosch, Grahamstown, Mthatha, Alice, Potchefstroom, Ga-Rankuwa, Empangeni, Queenstown, Matatiele have all one thing in common; education. These towns attracted many people from our country for decades because of their very good education institutions. But when basic services and  maintaining the town’s identities are neglected, these hubs fail to attract the best teachers and professors. People want to be proud of the places they work in but cannot be when there is no real life after work. There are other small towns which boasted of great hospitals but not anymore because of factors which had nothing to do with how these healthcare centers were run.

For debate’s sake, allow me to reference the Mathjabeng Municipality where I reside. If I was a leader of my community, elected, directly by the people, I would give what the people need than listening to what the national narrative says my people need. The people do not want to leave their small towns to the cities, but circumstances force them to. My people want the town cleaner, safer and opportunities so that they can prosper. Africa is not called the dark continent because of the majority of the people living in it are dark skin toned, but it is called that because there are still many places without lights;  without electricity. This puts many small towns at a disadvantage in development because even the roads are deteriorating, making access to public services a nightmare.

Matjhabeng as a municipality, small and probably insignificant to the rest of the province, is surprisingly connected to the main high ways or is the go-to channel and bordering almost all provinces. Travelers have to go through Matjhabeng, but there is no economy testifying to that. It is sad when one starts wanting to know what the name of this municipality means. Matjhabeng is actually a Sotho word which means; ‘where nations meet’. Oh my word! This municipality was not called that because the name sounded nice or something, it was called that because that is what it is, and what its future should be!

What do these ‘bundus’ have to offer? Right here at Matjhabeng we have the Phakisa Race Course, right in my my home town; Odendaalsrus and hosted the South African motorcycle Grand Prix and the MotorDP championship from 1999 to 2004 but it finds itself under utilized. Notice the word South African, it means that the event was the national event, not a small thing. I hope when South Africans regain the appetite for grand Prix, they remember that the facilities already exist that taking it to somewhere else The track is the exact copy of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, how much international can you become? The track  capacity of 60,000 spectators is literally 60 000  or more tourist coming in Odendaalsrus at the same time for a great race. That is money in the bank for this small town. Why can it not be refurbished and hold the motorcycling tournaments once again just like Durban with the horse racing every July. Yes I get it that Durban is a city, so what? There are mines abounded, their buildings and infrastructure falls to ruins through the vandalism over the years, do we no longer have appetite for mining? Offer the rights to someone else! Why not build factories perhaps, the like textiles factories? Recycling is the future considering all the waste that get deposited into our rivers and dams. We will need to deal with all that waste soon, so why not make a recycling industry and be based in small towns?

Matjhabeng is in central South Africa, just look at the map again, you will see. A lot of people do not want to say this loud but hey, the Chinese textiles are killing our country’s textile industry. We also have all these old mine lakes which is safe to do water sports, camping, braai etc? Matjhabeng has amazing stadiums but not being utilized or maintained. Matjhabeng can be a tourism/ sporting hub, infect all the small towns can.

Reshaping the environment in Mathjabeng municipality in a way that enhances our culture and way of life is key. Allanridge with its tine population of 19,337 people is the centre of the Loraine Gold Mining company yet I don not see it shining. It’s workforce is 3 km away from it all because of the apartheid spacial planning. Connect the workforce with the town. This means developing that gap using the proceeds of the gold. Odendaalsrus is one of the oldest gold mining towns in our country, over 100 years old. Farming and gold is what made it. Till today, chicken and eggs are still part of the farming in this town. Welkom is another mining town, Virginia is a mining town, Ventersburg and Hennenman are all the towns that strongly shaped South African history and economy but are left dusty, poor and forgotten.

It is vital to keep local business of all sizes in the public eye by recognizing its contributions, save those struggling and customizing the economic development plan according to the town’s strengths and opportunities, update it annually in order to easily move with the times and continue to serve the community’s needs. Though it may sound strange to outsiders, small towns offer high quality of life and a strong sense of the worth of every resident in the community. Not everyone wants to live in the concrete jungle, some people appreciate nature and want to be part of it.

South Africa’s shape is not by accident. Our diverse languages, races, cultures and choice of places to stay are for a reason. The deterioration of small town is as a result of forcing certain things to people who are not familiar with or are comfortable with what they are currently living in. People in small towns always had a culture of togetherness in many things and initiatives they involve themselves in their communities. Sports and adequate education facilities shape the future of our people when delivered appropriately and efficiently. Small towns do not want to be rebuilt but restored, re-purposed in a way that is economically developing but without losing architectural history.


Dr Igor Sheurkogel is passionate about small towns and has been working, trying to revive his home town, Odendaalsrus in the Free state.