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Hutchinson locals ponder change in Karoo town marooned by time

‘Everything must change. Our circumstances where we live must change. Our work opportunities. Everything has to change, the whole country.” These were the words of Piet Jonker, a resident of the small town of Hutchinson in the Northern Cape, when asked what changes he would like to see stemming from the 2024 general election. 

Jonker described himself as a community activist for the DA. In a region that is historically ANC-dominated, he believes the official opposition party can succeed where others have failed.

Piet Jonker

He said he would vote, but noted: “The passion for voting is not there for our people because of the promises of the parties… The promises have been coming for a long time.”

Life is hard in Hutchinson, with its population of just more than 380. When Daily Maverick visited the area, the roads were waterlogged and would have been difficult to navigate without a 4×4. Many of the buildings were long-abandoned ruins. The railway line that runs through the centre of the town was quiet and the surrounding infrastructure was crumbling.

An abandoned building in the small town of Hutchinson, Northern Cape. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

Hutchinson

An abandoned building in Hutchinson. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

Hutchinson

The railway line in Hutchinson, Northern Cape. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

Hutchinson represents the many small rural towns in South Africa that have become marooned in a world where opportunities are increasingly centralised. It lies just over the border between the Western and Northern Cape, about 90 minutes north of Beaufort West. Chances for work are infrequent and short-lived, coming for the most part from Community Work Programme projects or farmwork in the area. 

The town was never large, even in its heyday. It sprang up during the railway developments that followed the diamond rush in the late 19th century, at a railway junction on the Cape Town to Kimberley line where steam trains could fill up on water and coal. The branch line from Hutchinson to the neighbouring town of Victoria West, which is around 12km away, closed in 2001, taking with it work opportunities and an affordable mode of transport between the two areas.

Mongezi Vass, a resident of Hutchinson. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

Hutchinson Primary School. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

Mongezi Vass, a local ward committee member and chairperson of the school governing body for Hutchinson Primary School, estimated that the unemployment rate in the community was around 98%. There is no clinic or high school in the town and only one small spaza shop.

While Daily Maverick was there, a car arrived with pots of food from the Sika Sonke soup kitchen, run by a nonprofit organisation in Victoria West. Frieda Eagleton, who has been working with the organisation for 17 years, said it provided meals to needy residents of both towns. She explained that many people needed support due to the high rates of unemployment in the area.

There were no political posters immediately visible in Hutchinson, though a few residents were sporting ANC T-shirts.

Hutchinson

Children receive meals from a mobile soup kitchen in Hutchinson. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

Cut off from opportunities

Transport is a challenge in Hutchinson. Few people in the community have a vehicle, meaning that to travel to Victoria West residents must either walk, hitchhike or pay someone for a ride. This includes the children who attend high school in the neighbouring town. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Hutchinson: SHUNTED’: A story from both sides of the railway track

“There’s a problem with that high school. We don’t have jobs here but they want our kids to go to the hostel there, but we can’t afford a hostel. It’s too much,” Vass said. He added that some pupils had dropped out of school because of the difficulty involved in reaching it each day.

Hutchinson

A child plays in the road in Hutchinson. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

For those young people who stick it out and receive their matric certificate, opportunities for further training or employment are still few and far between.

Jonker told Daily Maverick that there was a lack of social development in the area, with no parks or community centres that could be used for activities or training. The water and sewerage infrastructure is old and poorly placed, meaning that when it rains, drains overflow and lead to cross-contamination between the drains and groundwater.

Whichever party wins the election needed to “work to get the country back to what it was”, Jonker said.

Vass said he intended to vote for the ANC, adding that the party had accomplished things in the years since 1994 but “couldn’t get to everything.

“That’s why I believe it’s important to vote, to help the ANC to be able to do a little more, because if I keep quiet and if I don’t contribute to it, then nothing will happen. That’s why I feel the people should give the ANC another chance.”

Hutchinson

An abandoned home in Hutchinson. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

A time of change?

Hutchinson falls under the Ubuntu Local Municipality, a region of the Pixley ka Seme District Municipality. Between 2011 and 2022, the population of the local municipality dropped from 18,601 to 15,836 people. 

In the 2021 local government elections, the ANC received the majority of the vote in Ubuntu Local Municipality, with 60.8%, followed by the DA with 27.4% and independent candidates with 4.9%. 

This is unsurprising, given that the Northern Cape has long been an ANC-dominated region. However, local DA councillors seem confident that a change is possible in the Ubuntu Municipality.

In Victoria West, Daily Maverick spoke to DA members who were collecting signatures for the party on the side of the main road. Aubrey Verwey, a local councillor, said: “The people are eager for change … and the change is now to vote for the DA”.

Hugo Vorster, another DA councillor, said the Ubuntu Local Municipality was in “deep trouble” financially, with little money for the proper provision of services.

“It’s a privilege for me to be an Ubuntu councillor, to help them to sort out all service delivery problems — and there are a lot of them,” he said.

“The sewerage lines are usually blocked and they’re struggling to get that open. Water is also a huge problem. We are living in the Karoo, so water is a very big problem for us.” 

When asked about Hutchinson, he said the DA had made frequent visits to the town and was “busy making Hutchinson blue”. Like Verwey, he was confident that many people in the municipality were prepared to change their voting habits because of the ANC’s failure to fulfil its promises.

“We are completely positive that we can get very good support from all three towns in the community,” he said. “There’s definitely change coming.” DM

Daily Maverick’s Election 2024 coverage is supported, in part, by funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and vehicles supplied by Ford.

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