Are SA's small towns the answer to growth?


Imagine you live in a community characterised by its high poverty levels, limited economic opportunity and joblessness.

These days it's not hard to imagine, if you live anywhere in South Africa, really.

But imagine if all the stakeholders in the community – the businesses, ward councilors, faith-based organisations and residents came together to find concrete solutions for these challenges. 

I observed this happening in Touwsrivier, a town in the Cape Winelands District. Touwsrivier lies in the north eastern part of the Western Cape, between the Boland and the Karoo.

I made the trek to this railway town, as it is known, early on a Friday morning. Knowledge Pele, a research-led organisation which helps small towns develop their economies to be self-sustaining, hosted an investment summit at a conference centre near Touwsrivier.

The purpose of the summit was for community members and other stakeholders to set out a plan to revive the Touwsrivier economy, which had been experiencing a decline in economic activity after the railway line stopped being operational in the late 1990s. The railway line was a source for jobs, and business, according to town manager Neville Fourie.

There is now a solar plant at Touwsrivier - CPV1 - which has been operating since 2015. The solar plant has the potential to lift its economy by spawning emerging industries. For this reason stakeholders came together to develop a strategy which would take advantage of this.

I was surprised to see the wide range of people represented in the conference hall which seated less than 70 people. There were youth, business owners, representatives of local government, even potential investors present. Basically anyone who cared about the future of Touwsrivier's economy and who wanted to lend a hand in shaping it, was there.

These different groups of people broke away for sessions where they identified opportunities to revive the Touwsrivier economy across different sectors.

Youth of Touwsrivier discuss the vision for the to

Youth of Touwsrivier discuss the vision for the town. (Photo: Ashleigh Sibande)

They had to consider potential investment opportunities, the existing assets which could be leveraged, the  community skills base and the enterprises as well as potential networks and community funding capabilities and possible government funding that could be provided.

They also had to identify economic opportunities and the obstacles or challenges to unlocking the potential of these options. Then they had to develop a strategy to target investors, by considering how they could use their assets to be more competitive, and each of the stakeholders had to lay out their roles and responsibilities in the broader, Touwsrivier investment plan.

By the end of the day, during the feedback sessions we learnt that there is a business case for Touwsrivier to develop its tourism sector.

Each of the stakeholders required more training and skills development across the different sectors, the youth especially requested artisanal training.

All of the stakeholders agreed that the railway line could still be a valuable asset which can be leveraged. 

Members of Touwsrivier community discuss ideas to

Members of Touwsrivier community discuss ideas to boost small businesses. (Photo: Ashleigh Sibande).

There was talk of building networks with neighbouring communities like De Doorns and Montagu to the benefit for each of the towns' economies. They also all acknowledged the importance of partnering with government and non-profit organisations to achieve these goals.

No doubt – the real challenge will be to implement all these inputs, according to Fourie. 

But it is a start – the community seems to have developed an understanding of what they want their economy to look like in 20 years time and there will certainly be monitoring to ensure these initiatives are not just a pipe dream.

I asked him about the political affiliations of those represented, it was a wonder to see different people working together. Fourie said Touwsrivier is unique in that everyone understands the situation and that they need to work towards the same goal.

I thought what something like this could mean on a national level. If each small community came together, setting aside their differences to achieve a common purpose. Perhaps, if I had more time, I could have completed a thesis on Touwsrivier to show what I hope would happen. I hope that if each small town did their bit to save their economies it would eventually help lift national economic growth and solve the jobs crisis. 

I considered for a moment the mining town where I grew up, and many times I have thought about what would happen when the mines stop operating entirely. If the single source of economic activity reaches the end of its lifetime, would it leave my hometown in the same position as Touwsrivier? 

Knowledge Pele's MD Fumani Mthembi convinced me of economic diversification as an answer for sustainability.  

If there's a lesson I want my hometown to learn from Touwsrivier - it's that we should start sooner rather than later when it comes to re-planning the local economy; and secondly, collaboration is key - more can be achieved when all stakeholders work together.

On the drive home, passing by vineyards along the N1, a massive South African flag blowing in the wind caught my eye. It was mounted on top of a shack, one of many clustered together. It captured perfectly the resilience of South Africans. Always hopeful.

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