Middelburg, a town in decline

As South Africa’s energy production shifts from fossil fuels to renewable sources, towns in Mpumalanga’s coal belt are rapidly sinking into decline.

Headlines about Middelburg – in recent years, at least – make for depressing reading: fatal road rage attacks, ATM bombings, massive heroin busts, a pastor shot dead outside his church, nurses stabbed while caring for the sick. These tragic stories are a harsh reminder of the general crimewave that has been growing in the Mpumalanga mining town.

The latest police crime statistics revealed that carjacking in the town has more than tripled between 2014 and 2017, and drug-related crimes have increased by almost 80% over the same period. Commercial crimes, driving under the influence, truck hijackings and business robberies have also spiked. And with a population of just 87 000, according to the 2011 census, the town even makes the list of South Africa’s top-20 hotspots for property-related crime.

On first impression, Middelburg appears quaint, a quiet town in which you could imagine living happily. Its suburban roads are wide, with big, grassy islands and overhanging trees.

But when you reach the CBD, you begin to notice all the empty shops, including a Pick n Pay; litter-strewn streets; street children with glassy eyes at the traffic lights; scores unemployed people desperately scouring for work.

The increase in substance abuse and crime are symptoms of unemployment and retrenchments, with the root cause being the economic squeeze that towns such as Middelburg in Mpumalanga’s coal belt experience as South Africa transitions from coal to renewable energy.

Xenophobia in the town boiled over recently after a local woman’s body was found mutilated. The community blamed migrant residents, who had to be escorted out of town by police for their safety because of looting and violence targeted at them.

Residents are concerned. A middle-aged office worker, who was reluctant to speak at first, eventually opened up about the decline of the town. “I’ve lived in Middelburg for 10 years,” she said. “I can see the way things are going.”

Sitting behind her desk, she began to talk more freely about the increasing unemployment, the rising tide of crime, and how rumours and uncertainty dominate residents’ lives.

“Crime is rampant,” she said. The previous week, gunmen robbed the jewellery shop at the mall; that week, the Markhams store in the town was held up at gunpoint.

Middelburg is just one town in Mpumalanga caught in the grip of the energy transition that began years ago, while the national level often speak as if it’s still something on the horizon. She shuddered to think about the state of affairs in smaller towns in the province such as Belfast, Kriel, Bethel and Evander.

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2 November 2018: Downtown Middelburg.

No stemming the bleed

In the streets of Middelburg, the impact of the transition is clear to see. But activist-photographer Isaac Skosana said many people living in the town don’t fully understand the transition.

Skosana lives in the nearby village of Doornkop. He works with the local branch of the NGO groundWork, documenting what is happening in nearby Mpumalanga communities that depend heavily on coal mining.

He said that although communities had noticed the economic downturn in Mpumalanga, they don’t necessarily understand why there are fewer jobs. “Very few people actually understand what renewable energy is,” he said.

Skosana said things were dire for many residents, referencing the growing number of businesses in the Middelburg CBD offering microloans. When New Frame visited the town, many of these businesses’ receptions were filled with applicants, and some even had queues spilling out on to the pavement. Skosana pointed out that many lenders are not compliant with the National Credit Act, and that people borrow from one loan shark just to pay another.

Makgale Pokwane, an activist who works with Skosana at groundWork, predicted higher unemployment rates in the province as the economy transitions away from coal. “If we say, ‘Let’s close the mines today’, what happens tomorrow?” he asked rhetorically.
“People are worried, very worried. They’re talking about it every day.”

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2 November 2018: Isaac Skosana, an activist-photographer, spoke to New Frame about the economic downturn in Middelburg.

An elderly pharmacy owner in the CBD said he could see the impact of rumours and gossip about closures and retrenchments directly in the performance of his business. When the rumours of mine closures are circling, residents “just don’t spend”, he said.

The pharmacist said that during periods like this, customers take up to 60 days to settle accounts, whereas the usual settlement period is about 40 days. His response to the downturn has been to sign his once independent pharmacy up to a franchise.

The manager of a local car dealership said the town’s future is always a topic of conversation. “People are scared,” he said. He also noted the increase in drug abuse, smash-and-grab crime and armed robbery, which has made residents edgy.

Business isn’t what it used to be. He said the dealership used to sell between 45 and 50 cars a month, but now sells 36 cars on a good month, and said this was directly related to the downturn of the coal industry. The dealership has had to respond creatively. “We market all over now. We are selling cars to customers in Pretoria,” he said.

A local business owner in the automotive industry said people had been spending only on necessities for about the past three years. “People are in a constant state of worry about the future,” he says.

He used to be able to rent a three-bedroom property he owns for R8 500 a month, but it is now sitting vacant because he can’t find a tenant for even R5 000 a month. “There are lots of vacant properties in Middelburg,” he said.

A woman who runs a bottle store, who was reluctant to talk at first but eventually opened up, said she had been trading in the Middelburg CBD for more than two decades. She said times had been particularly tough the past two years.

She seemed resigned to the effects of the downturn. “We’re not getting fewer customers, but they are spending less and buying cheaper brands,” she said. She has also had to sign up as a franchisee to get access to special deals for cheaper brands, and has watched some of her competitors close down.

This the first in a two-part series on the energy transition. Read part two here: Coal workers demand a just energy transition

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