/ 31 August 2008

Karoo town gets an extreme makeover

Woman and child abuse is rife in Ratanang, just outside Jacobsdal. Here the majority of residents are dependent on social grants. Photograph: Lisa Skinner
Woman and child abuse is rife in Ratanang, just outside Jacobsdal. Here the majority of residents are dependent on social grants. Photograph: Lisa Skinner

A desolate Free State town is undergoing a total overhaul as the first to benefit from the government’s new anti-poverty programme.

Jacobsdal, 50km from Kimberley, is a tiny one-street settlement in the baking heat of semi-desert — one of the harshest and poorest areas of the country. But the dusty streets, makeshift corrugated iron shacks among rows of cracked RDP houses and bucket toilet systems will hopefully soon exist only in residents’ memories.

Bulldozers, steamrollers and men in orange boiler suits toil on the barren grey soil under the blazing sun.

”Soon we, too, will have tarred streets like those in Joburg,” said Herman Seboko (23), whose daily R50 wages from working on the project allows his family to eat.

Jacobsdal is the first area selected for improvement in terms of the government’s war on poverty campaign.

The strategy is to give specific poor communities an infrastructural facelift, coupled with a programme to train young people in artisanal and other skills. They are then placed in jobs locally, chiefly with the district council.

Since the start of the reconstruction a few weeks ago, many houses have been electrified, there is running water, the falling and cracked houses are being rebuilt and the streets are tarred.

The project also targets the poorest families in the towns. They are visited to assess what training would be useful to help family members free themselves from the grip of poverty and unemployment.

Former director general of agriculture and project manager of the anti-poverty campaign, Masiphula Mbongwa, says 30 households in the Jacobsdal area have been visited. The target is to intervene in the lives of 7 000 households in the Jacobsdal, Jakkalsfontein and Springfontein areas by April 2009.

”Currently, we have 132 000 households qualifying for this project nationwide and we intend covering all of them. The project will help unemployed youth to find jobs through skills development programmes and we will monitor their progress throughout until April next year,” said Mbongwa.

The residents of Ratanang, a township outside Jacobsdal, depend on government projects and poorly paid farm jobs in Koffiefontein, 50km away.

Almost the entire community is dependent on social grants, a situation which is suspected to have fuelled an increase in pregnancies among young women.

Many youngsters in Jacobsdal have lost hope. More drinking holes are opening up and crime, child and woman abuse and foetal alcohol syndrome are increasing.

”I think the best thing would be to get out of this place before I get spoiled rotten,” said unemployed Jonathan Romean (28) who lives with his girlfriend and son in a two-roomed RDP house.

Romean says dependence on government grants will not get the community anywhere. Instead, it makes people even poorer.

”First it was free houses, now it’s grants and who knows what the government is going to give us next.

”I am poor but I am not spoiled. At the moment I have nothing, but through my small businesses. I plan to open up a fruit market,” he said.

Across the busy street is the house of Marie Louw (73). Louw came to Ratanang from the adjacent shantytown of Sewendeland three years ago. She is a pensioner and looks after her mentally handicapped daughter.

”I am an old woman and I have nothing to live for except this daughter of mine. If I die what’s going to happen to her?” she asked.

Louw survives on her R850 old- age government grant and says it is enough for her because ”I know nothing bigger than this.”

”Who am I to complain while I sit here rotting? People who complain are those who use their brains and bodies to make a living. I am just a useless old thing,” Louw joked.

Many of Louw’s generation are faced with the burden of looking after unemployed children and grandchildren whose parents have disappeared.

”We look after them with our pension money because it is our duty. If we don’t, who would?” said John Monageng (67), a former farm worker who, six years ago, lost his job because of old age.

Monageng added that the youth in the area were frustrated and were terrorising the community.

Die laaties hulle is baie kwaai [the youngsters are very bad], after drinking they smash everything up and they fight each other,” he said.