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Monday Jul 30, 2012

Busy weekend in town after evictions put on ice

Tourists are expected to flock to Pilgrim's Rest this weekend amid concern over its future. Business has been brisk and some local shops have run out of souvenirs bearing the village's name.

The Royal Hotel on the main street.

Last month, the Mpumalanga Public Works Department handed businesses in the historic town eviction notices.

This week the Pretoria High Court gave them a reprieve and residents are celebrating that they can keep their shops, at least for now.

Community leader and local ANC leader Sibongile Khoza labelled the interdict granted by Judge Stanley Makgoba "the best news" after a difficult couple of weeks.

"I felt like a queen, I cannot describe how happy I am; it must be God who did this," said Khoza.

She was part of a group of concerned citizens who lobbied for the support of 91 residents to stop the new government tender leases that would go into effect from August 1.

The department recently awarded tenders to two women from Bushbuckridge who will control eight of the 17 businesses out on tender in the province's historic gold mining town from next month. There are 21 businesses in the town.

The state has owned the whole of Pilgrim's Rest since 1974 when mining company Barlow Rand sold it.

Businesses rent the buildings from government from as little as R1 700 a month and government is responsible for the upkeep of the town, buildings and provision of basic services. Last October, the department advertised the leasing of the buildings and the closing date was November 2011.

Altogether eight businesses went to two women who share the same surnames and business address, while other contracts were awarded to the lowest bidder.

Pilgrim's Rest business owners' lawyer Pieter Steenkamp said they were happy with the court outcome.

"The judge clearly saw the government's tender process was peppered with mistakes and irregularities. It is therefore why he granted the interdict," said Steenkamp.

He said the next step for the business owners was to get all the tender documents from government.

"According to the judge, we will then have 30 days to appeal to the awarding of the tenders against our clients. Government may take up to six months to grant us access to all the information but at least we are moving forward," said Steenkamp.

Khoza believes this must be a chance for government to listen to the community.

"The current business owners should not be chased away; instead government should renovate the buildings standing empty and help black businesses prosper in them," Khoza said

Sharon Paterson, of Poniekrantz Arts & Crafts, said this is only "chapter one" of the fight to ensure her business's doors stay open.

Judge Makgoba criticised the tender process to obtain new tenants followed by the provincial Public Works Department.

"I have to say this whole process is a sham, it just cannot work. The second respondent (Mpumalanga Public Works MEC Dikeledi Mahlangu) is hereby restrained from evicting the applicants pending a review of the whole system," Makgoba said. I came to realise that the tenders awarded are marred with controversy and taken with some measure of illegality."

The group, represented by Francois Kriel, had been served with notices of eviction, set to be put into effect at the end of the month.

The business owners lease the properties from the provincial Public Works Department.

Kriel said the gold mining town, which has been declared a national monument, was owned and run by the Mpumalanga Public Works Department.

At that point, the judge interrupted: "This is strange to me. How can a provincial government department own a town?"

Kriel said there were irregularities in the way the tendering for the new leases was done by the Mpumalanga government.

The tendering process for the new leases had not been transparent.

He cited an instance where a bidder who operated a business in the town and had offered more than R3 000, but was turned down in favour of a bidder who offered R33 a month rent for Pilgrim's Rest Golf Course.

Pretoria News Weekend


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