Pilgrim’s Rest: After the tender rush

2013-08-11 14:00

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Court ruled that businesses be given documents.

It is midday on a Wednesday in Pilgrim’s Rest, Mpumalanga.

There is a big bus with a Gauteng province registration number parked outside The Vine restaurant and a group of excited children are trickling out after lunch.

More cars come and park in front of the quaint Victorian buildings of shops along the town’s small main street, which runs through the business centre.

Curious visitors walk about, inspecting what they can get in the eateries and the arts, crafts, curio and antique shops, the museums and the photographic studios.

It’s been a year since the heritage town was at the centre of a tender controversy when the Mpumalanga department of public works – which is the custodian of Pilgrim’s Rest – issued eviction orders to 13 business operators to vacate buildings in what was seen as a show of bias towards black entrepreneurs.

John Reiners, the jolly owner of The Vine restaurant, said, shaking his head: “This is a sad and politically inspired case. A departmental official told me there were too many white faces in Pilgrim’s Rest.”

Though tempers have cooled, business owners are still in limbo over what will happen next.

Ten shops have shut down since the debacle started.

Things are, however, looking up a little on the business side, said Sherry Goodwin, a tourist guide and deputy chairperson of the Pilgrim’s Rest Business Forum.

She said: “Since the July school holidays, tourists have been coming back. Thank God. Without them, we’re nothing.”

Pilgrim’s Rest is world-renowned for its gold-mining history and the yearly gold-panning championships.

It is also sold as part of tourism packages that include such attractions as God’s Window, the Kruger National Park and an abundance of adventure tourism in the Sabie area.

The tender process raised suspicions when it turned out that, among other things, Matletle Construction and Projects won a tender to run the Pilgrim’s Rest Golf Club for just R33 a month and had a five-year contract for the caravan park for only R48?800, despite another bid of R1.2?million being put on the table.

Matletle, which is owned by Suzan Khoza, also won tenders for Mrs Mac’s Shop, Pilgrim’s Pantry and The Daisy.

Another company, Timbhulu Construction and Projects, whose director is linked to Khoza, won tenders for Mona Cottage, CH Chaitow’s Restaurant and Pub and The Vine restaurant.

Last July the North Gauteng High Court ruled that Kgopana Mohlasedi, the head of Public Works in the province, should make the tender documents available to the business owners’ lawyers following preliminary evidence that the whole process was flawed.

The business chamber, business owners and the opposition DA in the province allege that the documents have not been provided.

But Public Works spokesperson David Nkambule said they had handed over the tender documents to the business owners’ lawyers by December in line with the court order and had also spent R15 million renovating buildings in Pilgrim’s Rest.

Despite the upturn in business, operators are still unsure about their future.

Goodwin said: “This matter has gone on for too long. We still don’t have lease agreements?.?.?.?We don’t have security to buy stock for our shops because they can come any time and say we must vacate the buildings in 30 days.”

Reiners, who was targeted even though his lease agreement for The Vine restaurant was only due to expire in 2015, said government must prioritise turning around the flagging fortunes of Pilgrim’s Rest.

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