In the beleaguered town of Estcourt in KwaZulu-Natal, residents still make bad jokes about cannibalism in an attempt to deflect the misery that seems to hang in the air.
Until December 2017, Estcourt was synonymous with the well-known sausage and bacon factory a short hop off the N3 about 100km north of Pietermaritzburg. But since the grisly story about flesh eaters and grave diggers broke, Estcourt has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, including political assassinations.
The potholed streets point to a town in decline. The Inkosi Langalibalele Local Municipality has been under administration since January 2018. And the town’s biggest employer, Evowood (formerly Masonite) closed in July, laying off 600 workers.
Omesh Pithamber’s house is perched on a hill overlooking the once thriving town and his view is a desolate one. The silent Evowood plant in the foreground is emblematic of the town.
Winter had rendered the landscape brown and sandstorms added a thick layer of dust. Many residents seemed straight out of John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath, their weatherbeaten faces dejected and forlorn.
Data from watchdog Media Monitoring Africa’s Wazimap tool contributes to the bleak picture. Estcourt is home to 215 000 people and the average annual income of the 46 952 households is R14 600.
Two other figures bear testament to the failing municipality. It collects refuse from only 19.6% of the town’s residents and just 20.6% of residents are formally employed, according to Wazimap. And for two years, residents have complained about raw sewage leaking into the potholed streets.
‘Gone to the dogs’
Pithamber is almost 50 years old and spends his days fretting about how he will feed his family. He was born and raised in Estcourt.
Surveying the town with a desultory gaze, he shrugs: “This town used to be pumping, but it has gone to the dogs now.”
A father of three, Pithamber was among the small group of staff retrenched from the Ford dealership a year ago. “Nobody buys cars when there is no money.”
When asked how residents are coping with despondency, his eyebrows arch upwards. “Yeah, I’m depressed. But I’m more worried about how to get bread and milk for the family tonight.”
Stephanie Wartman is a teacher who has lived in Estcourt her whole life. She says Estcourt’s woes have forced families to split up.
“A lot of parents have had to relocate because there are no jobs for them in town. Many have left their children with grandparents. It’s sad. This town used to have a buzz about it, now we warn the children to keep off the streets or to walk in groups because it is not safe.”
Eugene Xaba is a human resources consultant active in outreach projects through the Catholic church.
“The town’s economy has been affected very badly. It all started in 1996 when the Burhose stocking factory laid off about 1 200 people. It never really recovered. We’ve had job losses at Clover and I don’t think Nestlé and Eskort are running at full capacity. Masonite was the biggest employer. It was the last hope of the town.”
Yacoob Rehman, a retrenched Masonite veteran of 23 years, helps out at a rehabilitation centre in town. “The people we treat there aren’t just youngsters. It is husbands and wives. They are desperate. In 1997, we left Dannhauser when the mines closed … Now this town is dying.”
Local business owners say Masonite’s monthly wage bill was about R6 million. The closure has affected them badly.
Vino Haribhai has run his jewellery business since 1965 and owns a number of properties in Estcourt. He says the Masonite closure was “a big shock” to a town that serves as an outpost in a largely rural, agrarian economy.
Less money is circulating and people are uncertain about the future.
Another shop owner said it was estimated that about 20% of the monthly Evowood wage bill was spent on local retail. “The economy has weakened since the closure and the knock-on effect could lead to people leaving town to find work elsewhere. Hopefully, somebody will buy the factory.”
Caring for the vulnerable
Sister Maureen Aron is an 81-year-old nurse and Catholic nun who runs the Ithembalethu Outreach Project, which cares for children and the vulnerable, with two other nuns and 12 volunteers.
Aron feeds 40 people a day through donations and has spent her life working in areas synonymous with deprivation.
“What is happening in Estcourt is terrible. Look at the dilapidated buildings. People are really hungry, I tell you. On account of this, there are more house break-ins. People want food. There is just no work. I don’t know what is going to happen.”
Haribhai says that if the municipality “pulled up its socks” and cleaned and serviced the town, it could harness latent energy in the economy.
“You should see this town at month-end. The pavements are full of people and there are queues at the bank. There is buying power. The council just needs to fix up and clean up. The negativity shows up more because of the condition of town, but if the streets were swept and the bins cleaned and that sort of thing, we could realise the potential.”
Residents, having suffered one impoverishing whack after another, come across as prickly and suspicious. They appear nervous about what they say and what the future holds.
Eskort factory managers described the town’s economy as “bad” and in need of investment. The factory, with 470 staff, is now the town’s biggest employer but it isn’t running at full capacity.
Townsfolk were invested in the industry that held Estcourt aloft for years. But now it is dwindling and in this environment, one resident said, people are easily inflamed.
By the time the stories of cannibalism surfaced in 2017, the deadly hostilities of the late 1980s and early 1990s between ANC and Inkatha (renamed the Inkatha Freedom Party in July 1990) supporters had long settled. But another type of violence has emerged, beyond flesh eating.
Mayor Jabulile Mbele was interviewed in court and bemoaned how the case had heaped ignominy on the town and drawn visits from journalists as far afield as Germany. Two men were convicted and given lengthy sentences after a trial that involved stomach-churning testimony.
Mbele was reluctant to answer questions and, ultimately, did not respond. She’s understandably preoccupied.
Her colleague, IFP councillor Mthembeni Majola, was shot and killed on the R103 near Estcourt Hospital on Friday 16 August. It was the third attempt on his life, the first left him wheelchair-bound.
Majola, along with former Endumeni (Dundee) mayor Richard Mbatha and alleged hitman Xolani Makhathini, was on trial for attempted murder.
In court in mid-August, according to the Estcourt and Midlands News newspaper, a police officer said his office had received information that Mbele approached Majola to “assassinate a black female” who was responsible for appointing municipal tenders and was known to follow regulations to the letter.