Elizabeth Hlatshwayo has been living in Pilgrim's Rest for more than 20 years and says life in the small town has been tough. (News24)
Mbombela - The tourism industry in Pilgrim's Rest has taken such a hard knock that residents of the small mining village are struggling to get by from day to day.
Elizabeth Hlatshwayo has been living in Pilgrim's Rest for more than 20 years and says life in the small town has been tough, particularly in the last five years.
"Life is very tough now, a month can go by without making a cent here, a whole month," she said as she sits inside her stall, leaning against one of the buckets she uses to store the handcraft items she sells.
The mother of one has been selling African jewellery, clothes and table ornaments since 2011 when the shop she previously worked at closed down. She had worked at the shop for 23 years.
"In 2011, the business started to go down… the owner then decided to stop running the business, saying the rent was too high and they couldn't afford to pay the staff anymore," Hlatshwayo said.
"We could also see that business was getting tougher and there were less and less customers."
Public protector complaint
Pilgrim's Rest was one of the first two towns in the country where gold mining began in the late 1800s. It was declared a National Monument in 1986 as a living memory of the early gold rush days, and since then the Department of Public Works has been responsible for its maintenance and restoration.
The department rents out properties to independent business owners. However, the department introduced a new tender system in the town through which business owners could apply for five-year leases. Before this could be done, the department gave the original tenants 30 days to close.
Immediately after the evictions, the business owners went to court and also lodged a complaint with the public protector.
Justice Stanley Makgoba halted the evictions in July 2012 pending a review of the tenders after finding that the processes were flawed, and not fair, equitable, transparent or competitive.
He ordered the department to give the court and lawyers of the evicted businesses the relevant tender documents for review.
The public protector released her report into the matter in December 2013 and found that the "process was characterised by gross irregularities and maladministration".
Since then, some businesses have opted to close shop, citing high rent rates, concern about the decreasing number of tourists as well as the cloud of uncertainty surrounding the town's future.
Hlatshwayo said during its "heyday", the business would get so busy that by midday they shop had made about R12 000.
"In the beginning there were lots of customers, they loved that shop. I can't put an exact figure on how many would come into the shop, but the money that they used to make was quite a bit.
"Sometimes by midday the shop would have already made like R12 000 but all that has started to go down."
When the shop closed down, she decided to use what she had learnt from her previous employer and try her hand at running a business.
"I just decided to find a way to make things work. I learnt all the business skills I know there, I used to watch how they did things [but] life is very tough now, a month can go by without making a cent here, a whole month.
Saving to go back home
"If I managed to get R100 I make sure I buy the biggest bag of mealie meal because if I buy a small bag and it runs out, I am not sure when I will be able to buy more. So that's how I get buy, by being smart with money."
Things were so difficult that she was considering returning home to Lydenburg with her son. She just needed to save up enough money to transport all her belongings, she said.
"I want to go back home… I even told my son, we're going to have to save R50 a month until we have enough money to pay for transport to take us back home one day.
"If I got the opportunity I would return home in a flash because it's clear to see that things here are just getting worse and worse. There is no progress. Shops are closed, garages have closed.
"It is really difficult and we don't know where we will end up, and what our government - the same one we vote for - is doing."
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