Pilgrims Rest 'shut down'
The quiet town of Pilgrims Rest in Mpumalanga, popular with tourists, is reeling with shock after 17 businesses were ordered to close their doors by month end.
The businesses were issued with eviction notices last Friday by the provincial department of public works, roads and transport, giving business owners 31 days to close shop.
The historic gold mining town dating back to the 1800s was declared a national monument in 1986, with its original architecture largely unchanged. The town is owned and run by the department of public works and business owners lease the properties.
Tourism is the backbone of the small town's economy, providing employment to residents of the local Schoonplaas township.
According to Sharon Paterson, owner of Ponieskrantz Arts and Craft as well as the Pilgrims Pantry shop, business owners in town started receiving eviction notices on Friday.
"My staff is very worried. Everybody in Pilgrims Rest is totally devastated and in shock," she said.
"I can't move my stuff in a month, I have so much stuff with Pilgrim's Rest written on it, how am I going to recoup what I have spent?"
She said she was in an "absolute state" because she had to give notices of termination of employment to her 50 employees.
Paterson has been running the two shops in downtown Pilgrim's Rest for the past 20 years.
She employs a team of workers who manufacture stained glass doors, lamps, chandeliers and hot-glass jewellery.
Department spokesman Dumisa Malamule confirmed that 17 tenants had been issued with eviction notices.
He said the department advertised the leasing of the buildings on tender bulletin in October and the closing date was in November.
"The leases of all business which were on tender had expired. The whole tender process was finalised in June 2012 as the process allowed for a 90-day validity period with an allowance of extension when there is a need," he said.
Paterson said they tendered for the leases in November but said since then they have not heard anything from the department.
She said the department kept postponing the announcement of the winning tenders, leaving them in the dark.
"We were then told that the announcement would be made on June 9, but now we are told to leave in 31 days," she added.
Furious Pilgrims Rest Golf Club Manager Henry van Niekerk said he was shocked when three "aggressive" public works officials rocked up with a four-sentence letter notifying them to vacate the golf course by the end of the month without any explanation.
"I refused to sign the letter and told them that I work for a consortium running the golf course and referred them to the chairman of the committee but one of the officials became more aggressive and said: 'Blow by blow, we are going to blow you away'," Van Niekerk said.
Royal Hotel manager Chris Auty said they have not been affected by the leases fracas, saying it runs the hotel on behalf of the government.
However, Pilgrim's Rest Tourism officer Sherry Goodwin said she believed that the motivation behind the closure of these businesses was to transform the economy of the town to include the previously disadvantaged community.
Goodwin also sits in the local chamber of business.
"[It's] probably a good thing but change is not always accepted happily. I do feel for people that are employed here. I do not know if the new people will bring their own staff or not," she said.