SELEBI-PHIKWE: The unimpressive voter registration numbers here are hardly surprising as the north-eastern town enters its third year of economic collapse, amidst the explosion of social ills such as crime and overall despondency.
Phikwe continues to battle the lingering ghost-town status brought on by the October 2016 closure of its economic mainstay, BCL Mine. While the Independent Electoral Commission is still fine-tuning the count, officials have already confirmed that voter registrations are drastically down in Selebi-Phikwe.
“During our meetings with them, some of the residents told us they could not register because they were not sure they would still be in Phikwe next year (during the general elections),” says IEC election officer, Sadie Ontiretse.
“We encouraged them to register because they can still transfer if they relocate.
“We also cautioned them that a supplementary voter registration exercise was not guaranteed and they should take advantage of this opportunity.” The pleas fell on deaf ears. Some polling stations in the town went for three days without registering a single person!
Selebi-Phikwe has become a disfigured shadow of its former self. The mine’s closure not only left businesses teetering on the brink of collapse, but also meant the sudden large-scale loss of household incomes left everyone fighting for survival, others turning to crime and others sacrificing their dignity for the next meal.
Phikwe has transformed into a flea market where everyone sells something to get by. On a typical day, men are walking door-to-door at workplaces selling anything from food to floor polish, which is sold in a cup for P5. Others sell clothes and food from their car boots. Everyone is trying to make ends meet and there are no businesses that are reserved for either gender; it’s each person for him or herself.
When the mine closed, a large estate of mine houses was left unoccupied, becoming a breeding ground for criminal activities.
Illegal occupation of these properties has become a headache for authorities here, and those charged with handling the mine’s affairs have been forced to conduct evictions and even relocate legal occupants to less troublesome locations.
For the ex-miners still occupying the mine’s houses, the future is uncertain. Through government support, the expenses associated with their continued stay at the houses have been carried over since the mine closed. The arrangement is not sustainable and the leases are due to expire soon.
Should no lease extension be granted, the ex-miners will have to find new places to stay in January or hope for a new arrangement where they start paying rentals for the mine houses.
Besides the housing situation and upsurge in crime, other social vices have burst to the fore as a result of the housing situation. The collapse in economic activity has seen social ills such as prostitution, teenage pregnancy and vagrancy rise. Children are increasingly finding themselves having to fend for themselves without their parents, who leave to look for work outside of the town.
It is common to see groups of children walking house-to-house asking for piece jobs or handouts.According to acting town mayor, Moses Serite, Selebi-Phikwe is entering the election year with 128 registered school dropouts due to pregnancy. He attributes the situation to lack of parental support.
“We have detected cases of negligence by some parents and children resorting to being unruly. “There are increased cases of vulnerable children who have been taken care of by the Social and Community Development office, since the mine’s closure.
“We have seen a lot of family breakdowns and increased gender based violence in the community, as compared to when the mine was operational.”
If the cliché is true and children really are the future, then Selebi-Phikwe’s hopes are dead in the mud. The removal of parental support, compounded by the general economic collapse in the town, has seen plummeting academic performances in and around the area.
The concern has become a frequent talking point at various schools’ prize giving ceremonies. Meepong Secondary at one point addressed parents about the fact that many of them stay with their school-going children in one-roomed hostels that are designed for bachelors.
The school cautioned parents that such environments were compromising academic performances. The irony is that prior to BCL Mine’s closure, Selebi-Phikwe used to boast one of the country’s highest academic performances across the various levels.
Humanitarian groups in the town are often the first point of contact for the needy. Volunteers have found their hands full helping government’s efforts where they can and appreciating the scale of the economic and human disaster left in the slipstream of BCL’s demise. “There is literally no buying power and as a result many shops are struggling to make ends meet. Wholesalers are becoming supermarkets and shops take a knock in the process. Private schools have lost children because parents
Hughes runs a food outlet in the town and reveals that on a daily basis, she receives heaps of job applications mainly from youths. Every day, customers ask for discounts on meals or anything to feed their children. Beggars are now commonplace.
“One of them even sleeps in the storm water drain outside my shop.”
The Chamber has toured Selebi-Phikwe to appreciate the challenges faced by the community and a large number of these are in Botshabelo, one of the town’s poorest residential areas. BCL Mine’s first workers at establishment stayed in Botshabelo and for decades, the area was the major locale for mineworkers.
“The Rotary Club is receiving overwhelming requests from the community for help for needy orphans and vulnerable children,” Hughes says.
“The centres are asking for food to support undernourished children and this is ongoing as we speak.
“The situation at BCL houses, particularly the hostels is also sad because they are in need of food. Some are under emotional distress as they are under pressure from unserviced loans, furniture shops, car loans and other situations.”
Hughes notes that the real estate sector has been hit hard, with prices of homes falling and many properties lying vacant, eating away at rental income as a business. “There are also no recreational facilities available as evidenced by the closure of Makhubu Club,” she says. Hughes pleads with local commercial banks to help local businesses through loans and interest rates specifically designed for the Selebi-Phikwe region. According to the businesswoman, banks should help create a platform to allow the community to engage in innovation and diversification for growth.
“Banks must also help those who need to invest in the future and the infrastructural development of this town. We need banks that go beyond their limit for the survival of this town.
“Also as the business community we must navigate the uncertainties of our town despite all the challenges we are facing. Let us work together and have an input in bringing new investors into town.”
It is not all gloom and doom in Phikwe however.
A local NGO, Human Child Aid is working on empowering vulnerable and marginalised members of the community by equipping them with vocational skills training. Though the courses offered are unaccredited, the beneficiaries are able to earn a living out of the skills acquired.
Country director, Moses Zulu explains that the training started last year and it includes courses on computer skills, sewing, vegetable gardening and production, small stock farming and poultry production.
To date 723 people have completed their training at Botshabelo and some of these are men who worked at the mine. Different professionals from government institutions are volunteering to facilitate the courses.
“Our goal is to build the capacities of different individuals who will then bring development to the town.
“We are happy that all those that we trained are running their own viable businesses. Others have even got grants from government to start their own businesses,” he says. Humana’s efforts are a drop in the ocean when compared to the overwhelming misery the majority of the town’s residents are suffering.
Selebi-Phikwe’s problems, in fact, may deepen even further as BCL Mine liquidator, Nigel Dixon-Warren says half of the people who were retained to conduct care and maintenance activities at the Mine, could be axed at the end of the month.
The liquidation process is experiencing funding problems and at least 200 jobs may be further cut from BCL. Government, as BCL’s sole shareholder, has been funding the liquidation process, but the arrangement has always been unusual as government is also one of BCL’s biggest creditors.
“There has been no update on funding yet so we are continuing with our plan and government is aware,” Dixon-Warren says.
For residents who wake up every morning with little idea where they will get their next meal from, whether they will have a bed to sleep in, or a job or what the future holds, the last thing on their minds is queueing up in the sun to register and vote for a politician.
Many are resentful of politicians, some of whom have leapt onto the BCL Mine closure to score political points.
The registration process, for many in Selebi- Phikwe, is a luxury afforded by people in other parts of the country. Their struggle is simply to survive.