The Cradock of this summer feels very different from last year’s. Even after the influx of month-end litterbugs, the streets are still largely clean. Coral aloes and succulents brighten traffic islands. Several buildings have had a lick of paint. The lei water furrows are gurgling with water again, bringing life to gardens in the older part of town. It’s a dramatic change from last year when any one of us Cradock residents would have said this Eastern Cape town was circling the drain.
In no particular order, these were some of the problems – regular electricity and water outages, a huge and growing debt to Eskom, raw sewage pouring into the Great Fish River, a disgraceful municipal rubbish dump, potholes, blocked stormwater drains, clogged lei water furrows, litter in the streets and at picnic spots, and visibly crumbling infrastructure. Problems, in short, that are present in about 80 per cent of the country’s municipalities.
At every braai or social gathering, people mourned the days when the town was well run. On Facebook groups like Cradock Speakout and the DA Cradock WhatsApp group, the town citizens switched between apathy, depression and anger.
Every now and then, things erupted. People from high-lying parts of Michausdal township blocked the national road with burning tyres in December 2018, after they’d been left with empty taps for weeks on end. Municipal officials hadn’t even bothered to send water trucks. A house burnt down and a young man died during the months that the fire truck’s pump was broken.
So what happened between then and now? What accounts for this lightening of mood, this playfulness that studs traffic islands with aloes in old tyres? Why are the streets cleaner? Why are there dramatically fewer water outages? How is it that the Community Work Programme (CWP) teams in their orange overalls are no longer just idling under trees, but hard at work in graveyards, empty lots and along pavements?
The turnaround took root in the dying days of January 2019, when mismanagement and lack of maintenance brought things to a head. Businessmen and entrepreneurs had lost so much income because of extended electricity and water outages (some lasting for several days on end) that they were facing the real possibility of retrenching staff and closing up shop.
When local businessman Lou Venter contacted Rika Featherstonehaugh, DA Councillor for Ward 5, about the incessant power interruptions, she asked him to call a meeting with the local municipality. Lou, a qualified goldsmith, owns Lou Jewellers and a firearms dealership in the main road, plus a carpentry workshop in the industrial area. He also paints and offers art classes.
“I said no to Rika. I said I don’t have time, and what am I going to say anyway? Then I gave it some more thought. I want things done but I say I have no time? Anyway, I called her back an hour later and said okay, I’ll get involved, let’s organise something.”
Town hall meeting
By midmorning the next day, the large meeting room in the town-hall precinct was crammed to capacity. Lou stood quietly, leaning his tall frame against a wall. The gathering started with a prayer. After Amen, emotions boiled over. The head of electricity tried his best to defuse the anger but failed. The Speaker was unwilling to say anything at all.
There was only one constructive outcome – Lou’s creation of a WhatsApp group, the Cradock Community Forum (CCF). It became a digital SOS centre where about 200 people sent in ideas, pictures of problem areas, asked for advice and vented their anger.
There were more meetings with officials, but what really galvanised the town was water, or the lack of it, in the scorching days of February 2019. Despite the privilege of having a perennial river run through this otherwise dry Karoo town, supply had been choked to a trickle.
The reason? In five years, Chris Hani District Municipality never had cleaned the three-kilometre main canal from the Cradock weir to the town’s waterworks, and it was clogged with silt, fast-growing reeds, branches and debris.
This emergency was the spark that lit up Cradock. Lou put out an alert on the forum’s WhatsApp group. Who could help? The offers poured in. Individuals and businesses pledged diesel or cash. Farmers offered the use of their tractors and TLBs. Trucking and construction companies offered bulldozers and excavators. Ordinary people came with bakkies and the strength of their arms, or with labour teams. Others brought them food and water. Literally within hours, work began to clear the canals. In sections too overgrown for vehicles, men came with chainsaws.
Suddenly all the residents’ pent-up frustration and years of despair found focus and a way forward. The Cradock Community Forum’s can-do attitude started right there. “If the town goes down, all our property and investments go down with it,” says Lou. “That’s why we’re working together.”
Sparks were lit
If you like this you may also like: Welcome to the Cradock Club
Another spark was lit in August 2019. Rindi Goosen of Karoo Styl giftshop offered to contact Barend la Grange of South Africa Day. This organisation had helped to turn around Coligny in North West Province, a town left in a terrible state by destructive social unrest following a racially-charged murder trial.
Barend arrived in Cradock at the tail end of a long, dry winter. A public meeting was organised in a school hall. The sound was bad and the seats half full. Even so, two things Barend said took root. The first was, “Don’t wait around for political will. Community will is more important.” The second was a clear plan of action, “Clean. Repair. Paint. Plant.”
Barend recommended that people start along routes with the highest traffic and visibility. He also noted how the cleaning up of a town made people feel better about it and themselves, and that potential investors took their lead from the look of a town and the morale of its residents.
“I think Barend’s visit helped with two things,” says Lou, sipping a giant cappuccino at the local Wimpy. “Firstly, it gave a context to what we were doing. Local people could see this wasn’t just a Lou Venter wild crusade. Secondly, those four steps gave people a way forward.”
After Barend’s visit, the WhatsApp group lit up, with messages between the 220-odd members providing a rapid way of coordinating dozens of spontaneous actions every day. Meanwhile, Lou has set about learning how the town works from the inside out. He speaks to everyone, from the municipal manager to the vagrants sleeping in the bush and everyone in between.
Who can help?
He is the town’s unofficial captain and problem-solver. When the CCF members post despairing pictures of rubbish dumped where they had cleaned up only days before, it is Lou who will calmly bring everyone back to what is needed. “Can someone bring in casual workers? We also need food, black bags and bakkies. Who can help?”
And people do help. “If I ask for something on the CCF group, generally people step up or donate what is needed,” he marvels. On any given day, he’ll be driving around in his silver-grey bakkie, checking out what needs to be done, trouble-shooting problems and making plans.
The area next to the river is his current obsession. Because access to the official dump is often difficult, too many people use the open area as an unofficial landfill. He goes through the rubbish looking for clues of its origin and has been known to load up a bakkie load of trash and dump it right back at the front door of the business in question.
If we didn’t jump in…who would?
But it wouldn’t work if he were the only obsessed person. There are dozens of others, including retired teacher Carien Bruwer of the guest house Oude Pastorie Kothuise. “After Barend’s visit, I realised we couldn’t just sit around waiting for answers and things to change. If we didn’t jump in and do it, who would?”
Carien went to the municipal offices, where some of her former learners now work. She asked if they could deploy the CWP workers, who are paid a stipend of R780 a month for working two days a week. The answer was yes.
“So we employ those that want to work for the other three days of the week. The Cradock Community Forum pays them R120 a day each and the local supermarkets and restaurants donate lunches for them.”
Every week they tackle an eyesore in town, including empty lots, the lei water furrows clogged with litter and the pavements along the main road through town. Many local businesses have adopted a project, or respond when Lou asks for help. The most constant need is for refuse bags and for trucks to take them to the municipal dump.
Jacques Jordaan from CAT Motors sourced a new Isuzu 4-ton side-tipper truck, supplied a driver and covered two months’ insurance for the CCF’s work. “I just saw Lou loading thorn branches and rubbish on the back of his bakkie,” says Jacques, “and thought, wait, maybe we can help.”
I am touched every day by how people respond
There are many others. Some companies, like the local Supa Quick, are filling potholes. Rainbow Construction cleared the canal alongside the graveyard. Plumber Nico Ferreira has adopted two traffic islands he is busy beautifying. The Cradock Garden Club has done the same at the graveyard and a derelict children’s playpark.
Farmers have helped by bringing in staff to clean and plant on neglected traffic islands. Dozens of people and companies have donated time, effort or money. Now, attention has turned to creating playparks in the townships.
Says Lou, “The other day, this pensioner walked into my shop and gave me a R50 note. She said to me, ‘I want to be part of this.’ I was so moved, and I am touched every day by how people respond. Despite the bad economy, people see fit to make a sacrifice of money or time or effort. It’s about more than just clean streets. People tell me they want to protect the future for their children.”
Photos: Chris Marais