As the local government elections approach, journalism students from the universities of Free State and Johannesburg have taken time out to connect with their roots and take a deeper look at the state of affairs in their respective communities. Werner Smith from De Aar in the Northern Cape, reflects.
In central South Africa you will find the town of De Aar. This is the place I call home and falls in the Northern Cape Province. For election purposes it is described as Ward 5. The town used to be one of the most important links for shipping goods and train travel across the country. With the increase of privately- owned transport as well as faster and more affordable methods of shipping, De Aar’s railway era came to an end around 2000.
The removal of steam engines from the local Transnet (previously known as Spoornet) station led to the layoff of large amounts of workers and contributed to the end of a great era for De Aar. Many years went by and De Aar seemed to be a dying town. The development of non-government solar and wind farms in 2006 changed it all. New buildings stared popping up and people were making a decent living again. Solar Capital is one of the first companies to embrace the alternative route for energy in the Karoo, owned by the Phelan energy group.
With a population of about 6051 (Census 2011) and 3572 registered voters for the 2016 local elections, Ward 5 is one of the more important wards of the EMTHANJENI municipality. The main business part of town falls into this ward resulting in most of the muncipality’s economic activity taking place here. From your local corner shop to the more established car dealers, clothing stores and all public offices are spread across this town. It also plays host to a few provincial department offices and the occasional guesthouse and hotel.
The second part of Ward 5 consists of a quiet part of town with an average annual household income of R115 100 and a crime rate below 15%. Good streets and a decent living, people are at peace in Ward 5. The Democratic Alliance has been the ruling party for Ward 5 for the past five years and there has been a reasonable amount of change. Road deformities are close to non-existent and crime at a minimum. I must however, mention that none of the above has ever really been a problem around Ward 5. It has always been seen as the “quiet part of town”.
Before moving to De Aar myself, we used to always visit my grandparents for weeks at a time and it was on one of these visits that I first met Ward 5’s Councillor, Willem Jacobus du Plessis or as we know him Mr Billy. A kind, well-mannered gentleman of 69 that is always willing to listen to the everyday citizen. One phone call later and we were having a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop. Although Mr Billy has more than 35 years of experience in local public management he has only served as councillor for Ward 5 for the past five years.
A lot of things have changed in and around De Aar in this time. Ward 5 has become bigger and will be extended again once the elections are over. According to Mr Billy the biggest change came with the rapid increase in the amount of money coming into the ward with the development of the solar and wind farms on the outskirts of Ward 5. Property prices went up and anyone that is everyone with an extra room or a backyard flat was making more and more money. More businesses opened their doors and the town was buzzing with new people. This did however have an effect on the infrastructure of the ward and presented new challenges.
Mr Billy said that they did have the occasional problem with the removal of garbage and the maintenance of sidewalks but this is a matter of the past. In regards to future changes, he mentioned that they plan to have more roads built in the informal settlements as well as to supply these areas with better infrastructure to protect them against water damage due to storms.
I do however regret I will not be voting in the upcoming municipal elections due a failure to register in the correct ward in De Aar or Bloemfontien where I am a student at the University of the Free State. I was travelling at the time of the final registration and missed the cut off date.