/ 9 April 2010

The little town that could

The Little Town That Could

Eskom wants to run power lines through a tiny town that even apartheid couldn’t reach

It’s a mouse preparing to roar. A little town that can. A David intending to fell Goliath — and hardly anyone in South Africa has heard of it.

Tesselaarsdal, a quiet community of almost 2000 people, high in the mountains of the Western Cape’s Overberg region, is only barely on the map. It’s so insignificant that 230 years of South African history have completely passed it by.

“They tried to classify us during apartheid, but we chased them off with broomsticks,” says Johnvin Hendricks, whose family has lived here for nine generations.

It will take more than broomsticks to run off the latest threat to Tesselaarsdal. A new foe has presented itself; one which has made the familiar mistake of overlooking this patchwork of verdant meadows dotted with ancient homesteads — Eskom.

As part of its plans to build a new nuclear power station on the coast at Bantamsklip, some 33km away as the crow flies, Eskom has run proposed new power lines directly over the heads of the people of Tesselaarsdal.

“They didn’t see us on the map,” says Hendricks. The map in question is part of a scoping report being undertaken by environmental assessment practitioner Arcus Gibb, appointed by Eskom to assess the viability of the proposed power station. It shows the proposed routes of new power lines, two of which, known as the Bantamsklip-Bacchus Alt 1 and Alt 2 routes, almost completely obliterate Tesselaarsdal.

“We’re fed up with being ignored,” says Hendricks. “We found out about these power lines only in March last year, after other concerned citizens in the area let us know what was going on. We’d been gearing ourselves up, trying to develop the place as a tourist destination, getting projects going to attract visitors.

“We had plans for hiking and eco-trails in the hills and to get some guesthouses going with tea gardens and restaurants and the like. We also have some very overgrown graveyards with graves going back 250 years or more, which we wanted to fix up and which are important from a heritage point of view,” says Hendricks.

“We might as well kiss those hopes and dreams goodbye because no one is going to want to take a holiday under high-voltage power lines.”

Tesselaarsdal’s potential tourism credentials are boosted by its colourful history. Originally the farm Hartebeestrivier, Tesselaarsdal is named after Johannes Jacobus Tesselaar, a former East India settler-turned-farmer of the late 1700s who bequeathed the farm to coloured slaves upon his death in 1810.

In a South African context this simple act makes Tesselaarsdal one of the most politically correct settlements in the country. It was way ahead of its time, with people of mixed race owning and working their land in the early 1800s, co-existing happily with white settlers in the area.

Although full legal title to the land was not to come until the early 1990s, the way of life in Tesselaarsdal remained largely unchanged, with the descendants of Tesselaar’s freed slaves and inheritors quietly getting on with life as history passed them by.

“It’s a very interesting and pretty place to visit,” says Hendricks.

“We’ve always had people from Cape Town coming here for the weekend and the like. Some have bought houses here and renovated them. But we were wanting to attract other visitors too,” he says.

It’s easy to see the attraction of Tesselaarsdal. The gently sloping hills are dotted with ancient farmhouses and outbuildings. Most have been around since Tesselaar’s time, making the village a veritable living museum. Plans are afoot to restore the original Cape Dutch architecture, but these, too, have been put on hold until the future of Bantamsklip is decided.

Eskom’s selection of the Bantamsklip site has everyone scratching their heads. “Ground zero” is a beautiful stretch of fynbos that runs up to an equally pristine beach a short distance from the town of Pearly Beach on the farm Groot Hagelkraal, which also used to belong to Tesselaar. This is a biodiversity hotspot, with 27 endemic species found on the farm. Offshore southern right whales frequent the protected waters each year to calf.

So the question that begs to be asked is: why is Eskom spending untold millions of rands assessing a site that appears to the layperson to be patently unsuitable?

“There seem to be fatal flaws in the EIA [environmental impact assessment] process,” says Katrin Pobantz, vice-chairperson of the Tesselaarsdal Action Group, originally set up to fight the proposed power lines and nuclear power station at Bantamsklip but now a broad-based community body in the process of registering as a non-profit organisation.

“Fatal flaws” are construed as being factors in an initial ecological study, which is part of a pre-EIA screening process, that confirm that a site proposed for development is one of the few remaining habitats of an endangered species.

“The Overstrand and Overberg regions are home to rare, endemic and endangered species of fynbos and one of the last remaining populations of South Africa’s national bird — the blue crane — which is listed as vulnerable in the Red Data Book of South Africa.

“Ironically, the Red Data Book is sponsored by Eskom,” says Pobantz. Also ironic is the fact that untold numbers of blue crane die each year through fatal collisions with high-voltage power lines.

Eskom’s nuclear spokesperson, Tony Stott, says that the decision about whether or not to pursue the Bantamsklip site and its associated transmission lines is still a long way from being made, even though the EIA for the proposed nuclear power station is nearing completion.

“Once a draft EIA report is finished, it has to be put forward for public comment. After this, the EIA has to be approved and signed off by the Department of Environmental Affairs,” says Stott.

“With regard to the EIA for the transmission lines associated with the Bantamsklip site, I am aware that the scoping phase has raised concerns for the people of Tesselaarsdal,” he says. “The process used by our environmental assessment practitioner was to find possible routes for the transmission lines and then walk those routes, talking to farmers and communities along the proposed routes to assess the impact of the lines. Sadly, this process has created the perception that decisions have already been taken, which they haven’t, of course.”

Hendricks and Tesselaarsdal have little faith in Stott’s reassurances. “Many of us believe that the EIA is a smokescreen and that the decision to go ahead with the power station has already been taken,” says Hendricks. “You only have to look at Eskom and wonder. They don’t exactly have a great track record at the moment and we feel we can’t trust them,” he says.

“All we can do is fight as hard as we can against this,” he says. “We’ve been ignored and screwed by successive governments since this country began. We are not going to be ignored this time. Eskom must catch a wake-up.”