A smooth tar road runs north for 122km from the airport in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape, to the tiny town of Alicedale, where it stops just a few kilometres after luxury game reserves such as Shamwari and Olifantskop Lodge.
The road leading out of Alicedale towards Makhanda, 50km to the east, could not be more different. It is a deeply rutted gravel road for the first 30km until the N2 highway starts.
The stark difference between the roads – one used by wealthy tourists and the other by working-class and impoverished people – symbolises the neglect of the residents of Alicedale, which is part of the Makana municipality, seated in Makhanda, but may as well be a million miles away.
A team of Makana Citizens Front (MCF) ward councillor candidates and activists from Makhanda have come to Alicedale to support their party’s local candidate, Nosicelo Mnana-Kolweni, as she campaigns ahead of the local government elections on 1 November.
“It cannot be that the road you, the majority, use to get to the public hospital in Makhanda [or] to buy groceries in Makhanda is gravel and the one that European and American tourists use to reach the game reserves is tarred,” MCF interim convenor Lungile Mxube tells residents who have arrived at a local crèche to join the party.
Alicedale had 2 000 registered voters at the last count in 2016. It has no bank and only one ATM. It has a post office, but there are no local branches of the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) or the Department of Home Affairs. It has two mini-markets but neither a clothing store nor a pharmacy.
Most Alicedale residents survive on meagre social grants, while the rest work as labourers on nearby game reserves. It costs them R160 for a return trip to the nearest government offices and retail stores in Makhanda. Those who cannot afford the monthly trip are forced to hitchhike, but they say it is often pointless because so few cars pass through the town that the chances of getting a lift are slim.
Some of the MCF members from Makhanda have never been to Alicedale before. They express shock at the underdeveloped town with its many empty, derelict buildings and rusty, broken equipment on an abandoned playground. It feels ghostlike, with just a few residents sitting here and there on the streets.
“This town has basically been forgotten by the ANC,” they say. But those who have visited before point out the beauty and benefits of the area. There is little crime here and the mountains surrounding the town create a peaceful atmosphere.
“This is a very nice place,” says Zwelethemba Yaka, an MCF councillor candidate from Newtown township in Makhanda. “It looks quiet, but people here have respect for each other, which pushes us to respect them also. We really hope for the best in the elections so that they can get some development here.”
Mnana-Kolweni has long-term plans to reopen an abandoned crèche, start mass food gardens on tracts of empty land in the town, and partner with the local clinic so that patients on chronic medication can be given soup before they take their pills.
“I also want to make sure that home affairs, Sassa and the Department of Labour open offices in abandoned buildings and employ people from Alicedale permanently. Those offices are just sitting there and the people of Alicedale are sick and tired of travelling that bad gravel road to Makhanda,” she says.
An electrical substation divides Alicedale’s township of KwaNonzwakazi and the working-class community of Transriviere. But Mxube says it’s politics that causes the main division among the townspeople.
“The DA and Patriotic Alliance think they own this Coloured community in Transriviere. The ANC thinks it owns the Black community in KwaNonzwakazi. You must unite, you are all Africans, and until you come together you will never have the development here that you deserve,” he tells those who have come to listen.
Transriviere resident Shirley Jewel, 58, has lived in Alicedale all her life. She says “it is a very good idea to have a civic front contesting the elections instead of a [traditional] political party” that neglects the residents.
“The municipality does not do much,” says Jewel. “You can complain to them and they won’t answer. They will just make promises and it stops there. The children leave Alicedale when they grow up because there are no jobs here. But otherwise, life is fine here. I am only sitting at home reading. I don’t go anywhere.
“Of course, the place needs more development. It is expensive to buy things in Makhanda, but we don’t have another choice. All the people would be happy if retail stores open up [here]. Yet it is safe for the children here in Alicedale. You don’t need to run around and look after them all day long.”
The MCF has faced an uphill battle while campaigning in ward 14 over the past month. It is a vast ward, incorporating Alicedale as well as several small farming settlements 30km away.
“The other problem the MCF has here and in other small Eastern Cape towns is that our people have been misled by the ANC for 27 years,” says Mxube. “There are false promises that have been made, so it is very difficult for residents now to break away from that culture of accepting empty promises.”
MCF member Kungeka Mashiane, a proportional representation councillor candidate, does not know what will happen to the residents of Alicedale if the ANC is elected again.
“Just look at this town. They don’t even have infrastructure here. Buildings like crèches are now closed. Youth are not working. It is very hard for the candidate to campaign in this lonely place, because the residents say they have no interest in voting because every time after they vote, nothing happens here. My fear is if these residents do not vote MCF, the next five years will be very bad for them,” says Mashiane.
Another MCF proportional representation councillor candidate, Sipho Maboza, says one of the challenges the front faces is that the residents of Alicedale “don’t know about the concept of a citizens’ front and how we differ from a national political party”. His concern is that they may see the MCF as just another political party.
Mnana-Kolweni remains upbeat, though, saying if she doesn’t win the seat this time, she will work on the MCF’s projects with the goal of winning in 2026. “By the time the next local government elections come around they must be able to say they can see what I did here,” she says.