I AM a food lover. So forgive me for beginning this piece with food and for taking courage from a platter filled with a heavenly feast.
I recently ate pork belly with crispy crackling topped with caramelised onions in Stonehaven on Vaal, an exquisite restaurant on the banks of the Vaal River.
It opened its doors in 1994, the year of this country’s all-important first democratic elections. Stonehaven is now visited by people from as far afield as Pretoria, Soweto, Sandton, Lanseria and Brits to name just a few.
What is more noteworthy about the establishment is its location: it is on the banks of a huge river that separates the Free State and Gauteng provinces. It is also not far from the once politically volatile townships of Sharpeville, Sebokeng and Boipatong.
My first thought as I walked through the door was that Stonehaven is exactly where it belongs, in a city (Vanderbijlpark) whose future now centres on a new generation of entrepreneurs, the risks they take and the creativity they muster.
During the apartheid era, this part of Gauteng was generally known as an industrial giant because of the many steel mills that operated from there.
However, most of the steel mills stand empty and people that were employed there have been retrenched and are now roaming the streets in great numbers.
Based on this, I often worried about the impact this could have on the psyche of the people who live in Sedibeng, as the region is now fondly known.
I lived in the Sedibeng area until 1988, before leaving in my early 20s for the Western Cape, Pretoria, Nelspruit, Durban and Johannesburg.
As my pork belly glittered with sweet chilli sauce, I smiled. And what ran through me as I chewed the pork belly wasn’t just pleasure but appreciation and joy.
This was because I had learned that Gauteng premier David Makhura seems to have taken a serious interest in the area.
He wants the region to have a robust economy around its river like other river cities of the world, such as London, New York, Buenos Aires, Brisbane, Paris, Dublin and Rome.
Makhura recently launched the multi-billion rand Vaal River City in a bid to regenerate the area.
The Vaal River City is a new hydropolis and entertainment hub in the south of Gauteng.
It will, according to Makhura, give birth to a new Sedibeng economy which will serve as a catalyst to unlock the massive potential of the Vaal River as an asset that can create a new economy for the people of Sedibeng.
This is a master stroke for the Gauteng provincial government, something that has eluded the successive apartheid governments and the ones that came after the 1994 all-race elections.
Makhura has realised that we’re all tied to this region which is central to South Africa’s modern narrative, and so emblematic of its triumphs and humiliations.
The decision for the ANC to deepen its armed struggle in the 1960s came after the apartheid government shot and killed more than 60 peaceful protesters in Sharpeville.
Additionally, the people of Sharpeville and Sebokeng were the first - in 1984 - to reject the apartheid government’s 99-year leasehold on their homes. They refused to pay rent for their homes. Other townships throughout the country followed.
In July 1992, scores of people were killed in Boipatong by members of the Inkatha Freedom Party. This led to the suspension of talks at Codesa, the multi-party talks which preceded the all-race elections of 1994.
In 1996 former president Nelson Mandela launched South Africa’s constitution at George Thabe Stadium in Sharpeville.
If Johannesburg is a measure of South Africa’s financial power and Cape Town a yardstick for its imagination, Sedibeng is a measure of the country’s soul.
As I listened to Makhura speak at the sod turning ceremony, I was tempted to dub Sedibeng “South Africa’s Great Comeback City”. Yes, I thought.
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*Mzwandile Jacks is an independent journalist. Opinions expressed are his own.