Lephalale’s veneer of chrome and glass

Eight years after ground was broken, the once-sleepy town of Lephalale boasts a luxury hotel and two top-rated guesthouses, a gleaming shopping mall and several restaurants that would be at home in Sandton City.

Gleaming glass and chrome shops and the hi-tech power station construction are a surreal blot in a world of pristine tinder-dry bushveld.

But the major building projects of the past few years have flung open their glass and chrome doors as the workforce at the monstrous Medupi power station has halved.

The first unit of Medupi – which will be the fourth-biggest coal-fired electricity producer in the world – is expected to be officially opened today.

Marie Kruger, an estate agent at @Sold, said it was incredible: “Imagine Lephalale with a Woolies food store.”

But she said while there was talk about future projects, including more power stations in the area, “I don’t know if the mall will survive when Medupi is finished, although that will be at least 10 years.”

Last year, buses and vehicles ferrying workers to and from the site sat in traffic jams that delayed the journey of about 7km by an hour or more.

But as workers are increasingly being let go and the traffic thins, the new double-lane tarred road seems to be too much, too late.

From a bridge near the power station, Unit 6 is clearly visible as one of six blocks in the distance dwarfed by two red-and-white- topped cooling towers.

A small puff of smoke and a little red light are the only indications that the unit, which limped to the finish line in March more than four years late, is in operation.

Despite the new veneer of sophistication, the town is dominated by jaded contractors, blue-collar workers and a local population made up largely of old-school white farmers. This doesn’t make for successful racial integration, particularly when the work day is over.

Astonishingly, the town was buzzing on Tuesday night, with pubs, taverns, restaurants and prostitutes doing a brisk trade.

But while there were no overt “white men only” signs outside Mike’s Sports Bar, there was not one woman or a black person to be seen.

There wasn’t a white face at the tavern either, although the restaurants boasted a healthy mix of black and white. There was no telling what was going on along the dark roads near the parked trucks.

In Mike’s, a small table of camouflage-clad youths sat on bar stools around a central table smoking a hookah. Contractors and Eskom staff made up much of the rest of the clientele.

The only black man who entered stayed only as long as his Dry Lemon drink lasted.

When the man ordered his drink, the surly young barman had asked: “Who’s paying for that?”

In November, PayProp Rental Index noted that Lephalale was one of South Africa’s most expensive towns, with an average rental of R19 986 for a residential property.

But local estate agents say that rentals have begun falling off and, while there is a demand for houses, it is on a slower trajectory. 
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