The KZN South Coast: What could have been

RW Johnson says the ANC could have turned the area into a successful mass tourist destination, instead it destroyed it

For generations it has been a persistent dream of the residents of Pietermaritzburg and Durban to own “a little place down the Natal South Coast”. Once Alan Paton made some money from Cry the Beloved Country the first thing he did was to acquire just such a place. Indeed, there was always also a good smattering of holidaymakers from the Transvaal and Free State who had made their way to the South Coast and then decided to settle there.

It was easy to see why. The South Coast contains some of the finest real estate in South Africa: rolling hills, unspoilt beaches, wonderful bays and lagoons, the water warm enough to swim in all year round, yet with a somewhat gentler climate than Durban, let alone the North Coast. It also had the air of the land that time forgot. Everything was cheaper there than in Durban.

There was no industry, just tourism and sugar, banana, tea and nut farms. The vegetation is lush and sub-tropical: everything grows like crazy there. There was a thin fringe of white settlement along the coast and an overwhelming Zulu majority living on land that they had inhabited for many generations. Life on the South Coast was gentle and unhurried. It was a manana land.

In the 1980s there was considerable strife between Inkatha and the UDF down the South Coast, as there was throughout Natal. but otherwise it was difficult to see that much had changed by 1994. Life seemed to go on much as it always had.

What did make a difference was the drawing of the new municipal boundaries. On the lower South Coast the whites explained to Mike Sutcliffe, the ANC zealot put in charge of that job, that obviously they were going to be only a tiny minority whichever way he drew the boundaries. But it still mattered a lot which African area they were going to be put into.

In both areas the militant ANC youth had assassinated the (Inkatha) chiefs but the youth were, of course, wholly incapable of providing any alternative governance. In one area an enterprising woman had taken the helm and ran things rather well. In the other complete anarchy prevailed. Please could they be included in the former area?

Sutcliffe did the opposite. When the whites – mainly pensioners and pretty well the only ratepayers – protested, Sutcliffe simply laughed and said “It’s payback time”. Stories like that followed Sutcliffe everywhere. He became city manager of Durban and was by far the best hated man in the city. Down the South Coast Sutcliffe was responsible for the creation of Ugu municipality, perhaps the most dysfunctional in the whole country.

It will be difficult to explain to future South African generations that during the ruinous decades which followed 1994 much of the damage was done by whites. The bogus Aids cure, Virodene, was the invention of whites. White radicals were responsible for some of the crazier land reform schemes. Outcomes Based Education, which did more damage than Bantu Education, was pushed by white progressives. Many of the damaging policies responsible for the decline of our universities were the work of white administrators. Mike Sutcliffe fits well into this pantheon.

In 2009 while swimming in a South Coast lagoon I contracted necrotizing fasciitis, which kills 89% of those who get it. I survived but lost a leg. Tests showed that the lagoon had dangerous ecoli levels. I was contacted by a white retiree skilled in that field. He had, he told me, tested all the rivers and estuaries on the South Coast and all of them had dangerous ecoli levels.

He had contacted the municipal officials responsible for conducting such tests and told them of his results. They were keen that he should continue such work (unpaid) for they had entirely ceased to do the job themselves, though they were being paid to do it.

Meanwhile signs of neglect and decay multiplied. Everywhere the roads were in a bad state and all manner of municipal services withered away. A local hotelier told me that his bank had refused to lend him money to enlarge his hotel because they had commissioned a confidential report which showed that the entire infrastructure of the South Coast would collapse in 5-7 years.

The story was the usual one: the money collected from rates, charges and taxes was being stolen or was spent on paying the (high) salaries of councillors and officials who did nothing. Shrewdly, my hotelier friend invested in building his own road, buying generators and creating his own reservoir, for he realised that only complete self-sufficiency would guarantee his survival.

Crime got worse. Muggings on the beaches became common as did burglaries of holiday cottages. Local blacks reported more muti killings and as unemployment rose one noticed more young prostitutes soliciting on the highways. This doubtless contributed to the sky-high rates of HIV/Aids in the local black communities. One also began to notice an increasing number of abandoned holiday homes being overgrown by the lush beach vegetation. Their owners had either despaired of selling or had simply tired of paying rates and mortgages.

In the last few years all these trends have accelerated and, above all there are now frequent water cut-offs, often lasting weeks or even months. Power cuts and poor phone reception had long been normal but the water shortages caused many residents to leave, many holiday businesses to close down and those hardy residents who stayed all bought themselves water tanks and tried to become self-sufficient. My hotelier friend continues only because he is self-sufficient: most of his competitors have folded. The whole area is now visibly dying. It remains utterly beautiful.

In a sense this is a very ordinary story for the same phenomena of municipal corruption and incompetence have been killing not only many South African small towns but even substantial cities like Bloemfontein and Pietermaritzburg. But it is worth pausing to consider the fate of the South Coast simply because it could and should have been so different.

The KZN North Coast is booming because it offers beachcomber opulence for the top of the market. But the South Coast should have been South Africa’s Costa Brava. An intelligent government would have guaranteed the area reliable power, water and policing and the right investment incentives would have seen the whole coastline down to Port Edward blossom.

Foreign investment would have poured in to create a mass tourist destination, with hotels, golf courses, restaurants, discotheques, game reserves and all the other leisure industry accoutrements. Cheap no-frills airlines could have brought huge numbers of holidaymakers from Europe to a local airport – all year round, and year after year.

For that is the wonderful thing about the Costa Brava: it provides a huge contribution to the Spanish economy, year after year and it sustains an enormous number of jobs. In the same way the South Coast could have been a major motor of the South African economy, earning huge amounts of foreign exchange – and doing it all with completely renewable resources.

Indeed, in order to sustain that precious income source, standards would have had to rise. There would have to be no ecoli anywhere, no beach muggings, no power cuts or water shortages. It not only could have been done. One day it could still be done.

The main thing that has to change is governance. One needs an intelligent government, eager to create and grasp opportunities. And one needs to dispense with make-believe municipalities staffed by incompetents and crooks. The current municipalities serve no democratic purpose and suck the lifeblood out of the areas they supposedly administer.

Above all, municipal corruption merely provides local elites with the proceeds of petty theft whereas imaginative development could create fortunes for some and provide jobs and livelihoods for many, many thousands.

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.