DA Appeals to Government to Save Our Pilgrim’s Rest

Anthony Benadie MPL

Provincial Leader – Mpumalanga

The following is a letter by Anthony Benadie, addressed to Premier David Mabuza, public works MEC Dikeledi Mahlangu and public works HOD Mr Kgopane Mohlasedi on the Pilgrim’s Rest tender allocation issue.

Dear Premier and Colleagues

I write to you today, in a spirit of desperation in a final bid to secure your intervention in the recent developments in Pilgrim’s Rest, which in many ways threaten not only the future of this historic town, but the entire Panorama tourist region. In this light, I request your sincere consideration of the details below.

At the outset, I wish to indicate that I write to you in my capacity as a public representative, and as the DA constituency leader for Thaba Chweu, and as Spokesperson on Public Works Roads and Transport. I write with the interest of citizens of Pilgrim’s Rest at heart, and as a politician who values our heritage and understands the economic opportunities associated with tourism. I do not write on behalf of anyone from Pilgrim’s Rest, but I write for them, many whom I have never met.

On 28 September 2010, I held a public meeting in Pilgrim’s Rest, after having been invited by community members, to be addressed on their concerns. The meeting was diverse in all aspects. Recalling correctly, representatives of the ANCYL were also present. It was a community meeting, not a DA meeting.

At this meeting, a range of concerns were tabled, which included, but were not limited to:

· Lease agreements and security of tenure,

· The tender processes

· The maintenance of the town, and the role of the department and the ‘unit manager’ or town manager of Pilgrim’s Rest.

· The maintenance of buildings

· The issuing (or lack thereof) of electricity and water consumption accounts.

· The role of the Thaba Chweu Municipality and the implementation of by-laws

· The future of Pilgrim’s Rest – medium and long term.

· Dwindling tourism numbers and the general strain of the tourism economy.

Flowing from the above, participants in the meeting expressed their caution at expanding their businesses due to the insecurity of tenure.

I, serving on the relevant portfolio committee undertook to raise the concerns of the community with the MEC and HOD of the Department of Public Works, Roads and Transport.

Since that day in 2010, until today, I have been consistent in my appeals and calls for clarity, action and assistance in Pilgrim’s Rest.

Of significance to remember is that in September 2010, during the ‘Taking the Legislature to the People’ in Sabie, the relevant portfolio committees conducted extensive discussions in Pilgrim’s Rest, and during the debates on the site visits, I made extensive reference to the urgency of the matters facing Pilgrim’s Rest. Sadly not much was done after those visits by the portfolio committee.

Subsequently, I facilitated formal interactions between the former MEC, Hon Mkasi and the Pilgrim’s Rest Business Chamber to discuss the challenges facing the town, particularly the uncertainty surrounding the lease agreements. At the time Hon Mkasi assured me and the businesses of Pilgrim’s Rest that there will not be large scale evictions of businesses and that government was in a process of considering what the long terms future of Pilgrim’s Rest should be. He undertook to address the range of concerns relating to the issuing of accounts, the electricity challenges and maintenance issues. However, before MEC Mkasi could really do anything, cabinet was re-shuffled and MEC Mahlangu was appointed.

The MEC (Hon Mahlangu) will know that Pilgrim’s Rest was one of the first matters I discussed with her when she took office. In fact, on 6 September 2011, I held direct discussions with her and the HOD, in the MEC’s boardroom about Pilgrim’s Rest. She too expressed a sentiment at least, that Pilgrim’s Rest was a valuable asset and needed to be protected. Despite the uncertainty of its future and mention of a single investor option for the whole town, I was totally under the impression that the MEC and HOD were to take decisive leadership in ensuring the future of Pilgrim’s Rest.

During my discussion with the MEC and HOD, the matter of transforming the ‘face’ of business in Pilgrim’s Rest was discussed. I, and the business chamber of Pilgrim’s Rest were at all times absolutely committed to ensuring the credible transformation and integration of Pilgrim’s Rest.

Current business owners in Pilgrim’s Rest have repeatedly committed themselves to assisting and supporting black-owned emerging businesses in Pilgrim’s Rest, to ensure their sustainability and contribution to the town. At that stage, several premises in Pilgrim’s Rest were empty and unoccupied. It was suggested that the department conduct a process of awarding those empty premises to black owned businesses to contribute to the objective of transformation, and to allow the offered support from established businesses to be implemented. This never happened.

Since then, I have raised the Pilgrim’s Rest issue on every possible occasion.

In late 2011, the department issued tender notices and invited interested parties to tender for the occupation of buildings in Pilgrim’s Rest for the conducting of business. On several occasions deadlines were missed, tender notices lapsed and had to commence afresh, to be withdrawn and later reissued again, all the time adding to the uncertainty of this town and its future. Ultimately, the department invited tenders and businesses were invited to tender.

I am uncertain what the exact process was, who tendered and what criteria was used to award tenders, but the now established outcome, raises serious suspicion about the fairness and transparency of the process.

I also have reason to believe that somehow, the impression was created, that businesses to whom tenders were successfully awarded, would ‘inherit’ a functional business or a ‘running concern’. When in reality, such successful bidders would be awarded little more than an empty ‘shell’, as the awards amount to little more than permission to occupy the specific premises.

As such, the consequence of the current tender process, in which 18 of the 21 business premises will have new occupiers on 1 August, is that all the ‘new’ successful bidders have to establish a new business from start. This undoubtedly will take months, as the evicted owners, will on 31 July take everything they have with them, leaving behind nothing more than an empty premises. During this time of re-establishment, Pilgrim’s Rest risks deteriorating into a ghost town, as the majority of the town will be shut.

Furthermore, it has come to my attention that some of the persons to whom businesses premises have been allocated, have never operated in Pilgrim’s Rest before, they don’t know the tourism sector and most importantly do not have the start-up capital to fund their own business.

In one case at least, the successful bidder has already attempted to ‘sell off’ his award to the current business owner.

I am also informed of a strong suspicion that some of the businesses to whom occupation awards have been given are politically connected, either to the ANC ward councillor or to officials within the municipality and department.

Of further concern is that one business, Matletele Construction and Projects has been awarded 5 (five) tenders. Not only does the very name of the business indicate no connection to the tourism or heritage sector, but it raises severe questions about the ability of a single company to have sufficient financial capital to fund and establish five businesses in a single month, when their occupation commences on 1 August.

In addition, two other businesses – Timbhulu Construction and Projects and Mangwanyane Tradng, were awarded 3 and 2 tenders respectively.

Colleagues, it must be noted that as a result of 18 businesses assuming new ownership of a premises on 1 August, the current businesses have had to retrench all their staff with effect 31 July. Indications are that over 100 staff members will be unemployed on 1 August, implying that at least 100 families will no longer have a bread-winner, plunging hundreds of local citizens into absolute poverty. This is due to the fact that the new businesses will not open on 1 August and are also not obligated to employ the current staff.

Given my lengthy explanation above, I wish to request your urgent intervention.

Hon Premier, I have already requested you to establish a commission of enquiry into this entire tender process.

However, in addition to that request, and within the relevant legal frameworks, and in an attempt to prevent the entire Pilgrim’s Rest from collapsing, impacting on the entire Panorama Tourism Region, I wish to request the Hon Premier, the Hon MEC and the HOD to urgently consider the following:

1. That the entire tender process and the awards made be set aside.

2. That the current business owners be encouraged to continue operating their businesses, and that a formal process of engagement with current business owners be entered into.

3. That any current business owner that wishes to continue operating in their current business, be awarded a definite guaranteed 10 (ten) year lease, to ensure that such a business is provided sufficient security of tenure and can expand and employ staff with absolute peace of mind.

4. That instances where current owners do not wish to continue operating business in their current premises, be identified in order to put these out on tender.

5. That the premises that were vacant before this process anyway, be put out on tenders and awarded to new businesses.

6. That government commits itself to ensuring the sustainability of Pilgrim’s Rest as a heritage and tourist destination, and

7. That government, commences a process of engagement and consultation to determine and decide on the long-term future of Pilgrim’s Rest.

I firmly believe that the large-scale eviction of current businesses owners will cripple Pilgrim’s Rest, whereas my proposal above, will provide those businesses who want to continue operating the security to do so, while at the same time availing ample opportunity for the credible transformation of the business sector in this town.

In conclusion, I mention the following aspects:

1. Not all the businesses in Pilgrims Rest were or are white owned.

2. Many of the current businesses were totally BEE compliant and some businesses were 100% black owned.

My point is, that the issue at hand is not a racial one, but a heritage, economic, tourist and jobs matter.

Hon Premier, on 3 July 2012, during our meeting in your office, you admitted the extent to which government had neglected tourism. Pilgrim’s Rest amplifies this. At the same time you committed yourself and government to ensuring a prosperous and sustainable tourism sector in Mpumalanga. Nothing offers you a greater opportunity to put action to your words, than to intervene and save Pilgrim’s Rest.

Lastly, it must be borne in mind that Pilgrim’s Rest is set to host the World Gold Panning Championship in October 2012, and my question is simple, will Pilgrim’s Rest be ready to do this, when 18 current businesses have been evicted and need to be re-established before the championship starts – or will the world participants be met by an empty, closed, ghost town?

I plead for a speedy response as all alternatives to the above must be considered in an attempt to save Pilgrim’s Rest.

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