The “iron triangle” – Kathu, Kuruman and Hotazel – is Kalahari through and through
“Only much later did Kathu get a petrol pump, a police station and a Checkers.”
Speak of the Kalahari and people immediately picture gemsbok on the red dunes, immense silence and spectacular sunsets. But this sandy region is home to the fastest growing town in South Africa, along with one of the largest opencast iron-ore mines and one of the longest, heaviest production trains on the planet. Here you’ll also find the biggest of only two camel-thorn forests in the world, as well as the largest freshwater spring in the southern hemisphere. Kathu Heavy metal Kathu is considered the iron-ore capital of South Africa because the massive Sishen mine lies just south of the town. But it’s been a long time since this was the only mine in the area, and Kathu is now surrounded by countless smaller iron-ore mines. Although it’s hard to believe, just a few years ago this part of the world looked quite different. Forward Olifant is someone who remembers it well because he “grew up with it all”.
“Iscor started mining in 1953 on the farm called Dingle,” says Forward. “Back then, the mining town was situated at the mine, called Sishen, while the main town was only for white people. There was also the compound, called White City, where black people lived. They gave it that name because all the houses were white. The coloured people lived at Schoutenkamp, beside the railway tracks and the old Kuruman road.”
The mine grew to such an extent that many more houses had to be built between 1972 and 1977, leading to the founding of Kathu, about 15km north of Sishen.
“From ’77, however, the worldwide sanctions affected mining here and many people lost their jobs, which meant that both Sishen and Kathu were only at half occupancy. So the mine sold Sishen town to the state and it was converted into nonwhite housing, as they called it in those days. And the mine gave R1-million so that Kathu could start its own municipality.”
Kathu was given municipal status in 1980, and in 1992 Sishen was renamed Dingleton to avoid confusion between the mine and the town. But the future of Dingleton now hangs in the balance because it is situated on rich iron deposits, which the mine wants to access. Residents have already been given new houses but some people are digging in their heels and demanding large sums before they move. “Yes, the fortunes of local people have very much been determined by the mine over the years,” says Forward.
Pieter and Carla Rudolph can confirm this. Pieter arrived in Kathu in 1980 and has worked at the mine for 22 years. “When I arrived, Kathu had just one shop that stocked everything. It was called I-stores and belonged to the mine.
Only much later on did the town get a petrol pump, a police station and a Checkers. If you wanted bigger shops or to eat KFC, you had to drive to Kuruman,” says Pieter.
Kathu grew incredibly fast between 2007 and 2010, he says. “The price of ore was exceptionally good. The mine expanded and housing became scarce and incredibly expensive. Shopping centres and homes were built fast; suddenly Kathu was no longer a small town, and people from other towns started doing their shopping here.”
A global recession and that fact that China (the world’s biggest purchaser of steel) suddenly had a glut of steel were the main reasons for the dramatic fall of the iron-ore price in 2015, says Pieter. The mine went through a restructuring process: about 2 600 permanent workers took packages and 1 300 contractors were affected.
“It was a tough time and the whole town was affected. Property prices fell, businesses closed, buildings stood empty. The ore price has recovered reasonably well since then, but not >
everyone made it. And you can see that many businesses are still nervous since the collapse.”
For an extra source of income and to keep busy after retirement, Pieter began a workshop at his house where he works on Toyotas and Mercedes-Benzes.
“It’s something I’ve been doing for years – at one stage I even ran a fulltime repair service. But now I only do it after hours and over weekends.”
Carla, who’s been teaching for 27 years, ran a reading centre at home, largely sponsored by the mine, between 2011 and 2016. “But the sponsorship became too erratic. Last year I started a home school, and in the afternoons I help children with their homework and drive them to extramural activities.”
The Rudolphs also built two guest rooms three years ago when they noticed a constant demand for accommodation in Kathu. “The rooms are doing well because there are many contractors who stay over for a few days to work at the mine before returning to Gauteng. We don’t have many tourists staying over, though,” says Carla. IRONICALLY, KATHU PRIMARY was in a sad state during those years of plenty and it took a new principal to get the school on track properly. Hammies van Niekerk remembers the day in 2006 when he arrived at the school: there were 600 children and “bugger all else”.
“This field lay fallow. The school was R300 000 in debt, many learners owed tuition fees, and the one or two sports teams that did exist didn’t really have coaches. The school had to work with staff who were available in Kathu because there wasn’t any housing for new teachers and rentals were sky high.”
Hammies decided to talk to the mine boss. “I told him that he wanted top engineers to work at his mine, and these engineers wanted their children to attend top schools. I also told him that if we wanted top teachers, he had to assist with providing housing. The mine then made 10 houses available to the school.”
A member of the school governing body, Chris Minnie, assisted Hammies in creating a “goal-driven approach” for the school.
“We had story boards made to outline our entire plan and we put them up on the school walls so that everyone could see what direction we were heading in.”
Today the school has 1 700 learners and 65 teachers, and all classes are offered in Afrikaans and English.
“In basically every sport we now have six teams for each age group, and our
rugby team beat Grey College twice last year. But we give equal attention to everyone, so our drama is fantastic and our verse-speaking choir is among the best in the country. We offer so many opportunities. And all this in Kathu.”
Yet Hammies says this is just the beginning phase of what the school must still achieve. “There’s no such thing as ‘I can’t’. You should always have a plan.”
Hammies grew up in Nababeep in Namaqualand and lived in Calvinia for seven years. Before he moved to Kathu, he taught in Hartswater for 16 years – and during this time he also worked as a building contractor in the town.
“My wife and I are actually farm people and it took a while for us to get used to Kathu. Everything revolves around the mine and it’s a completely different industry to what we were used to. But when iron rubs against iron it becomes more refined, and I feel that, in the same way, we and the people here have refined one other. Now we enjoy living and working here.” IN 2006, A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER TEAM, originally from Durban, started the Kathu Gazette, which is also distributed in Kimberley and Upington. “We did everything ourselves in the beginning. The newspaper was burnt to CD and couriered to Bloemfontein to be printed,” remembers Hester Nortje. Today a whole team of people works on the paper, edited by her daughter Judi Bolweg, every week. Hester still proofreads the newspaper and helps recruit advertisers.
“I can’t stop working – I don’t know what I would do with myself otherwise. Kathu isn’t a town for the elderly. There isn’t even a retirement resort here.”
She says the few older people in the town call themselves the Goue Gerwe (Golden Sheaves), and they raise funds during the year so that they can go on tour together.
“You can live in Kathu for as long as you are able to keep up and entertain yourself, otherwise you should move.”
Hester says unfortunately the paper publishes many stories about corruption in the municipality. “It has a beautiful >
building and everything is really grand inside, but there’s no service delivery. We’ve done stories about the sewage flowing in the streets and their accounting system has gone to pot, but these issues don’t get much attention.”
Judi says she enjoys the stories about the mining activities the most. “In Kathu I’ve discovered how interesting mining can be and it’s fantastic to meet the top management at the mines and to chat to them. They’re incredibly intelligent people and it’s fascinating how they manage mines with so many staff and so many targets. I don’t think everyone realises what a huge influence mining has on our country and the economy.”
Judi says mining makes Kathu a dynamic place – it’s growing phenomenally. “It feels like things have taken off overnight. The town has exploded over the past 10 years and these days it’s full of people from other towns and even other countries. But it’s really not a tourist place, which is why there’s nothing to do. And when the mines go through a dip, so does the entire town.” SPEAK TO THE RESIDENTS and you’ll soon discover that the most popular gathering place is the Kalahari Country Club. Apart from the beautiful golf course, it also offers a gymnasium, along with rugby, soccer and cricket fields, a shooting range, an equestrian club and a restaurant. The manager, Floris Kruger, says the golf course is rated as one of the 20 best in the country and forms part of Kathu’s camel-thorn forest.
“Ernie Els has even played here. And a few of our local guys have played professionally. It’s unique to have such incredible facilities in a platteland environment.”
Although the club belongs to the Sishen mine, it generates its own income – much of the money comes from the estate, which comprises 121 homes.
Floris says he actually wanted to become a minister but then he registered for an engineering diploma at Kathu College.
“I didn’t want to work at the mine because I don’t like getting dirty.”
So he taught, started and sold businesses, and even farmed for a while until he signed up as the club’s manager in 2010.
“Now I’m ready for a new challenge. I would like to move away for a while, maybe down to Cape Town. I love the folks of the Northern Cape, however. They are unique, friendly people who love to get together and know how to party.” >
“Kuruman has always been more of a farming town than a mining town, but it’s expanded considerably over the past 10 years because of the mines in the area.”
Kuruman Those were the days…
About 60km northwest of Kathu, Kuruman, too, boasts lovely camel-thorn trees all over, but it’s really known for its massive spring. The Eye of Kuruman, where 20 million litres of crystal-clear water bubble up daily, is the largest spring in the southern hemisphere. Samuel Daniel “discovered” it in 1801 but it was known to the Tswana well before that. They had named it Ga-segonyana, which means “small calabash”.
The town is also known for the Moffat Mission, where Robert and Mary Moffat did their work between 1820 and 1870. Explorer Sir David Livingstone stayed over many a time, departing from here on several of his journeys. He asked for the hand of the Moffats’ youngest daughter, Mary, in the mission’s garden.
Today people still gather in the mission church every Sunday and the Eye still supplies the town’s water. Yet longstanding residents say Kuruman has become rough and ugly.
“I was born here,” says Zandre Allandale. “In my youth it was much neater, quieter. It’s always been more of a farming town than a mining town, but it’s expanded considerably over the past 10 years because of the mines in the area.
“Strangely enough, expansion came hand in hand with decay. And with all the people came crime. I wouldn’t say we feel very unsafe but we are definitely careful. Last week a man and woman were attacked on their plot near town and the man was murdered. It was an incredible shock to the community.”
Zandre also recalls the parties of her childhood that were held at the Eye. “We can’t do that now. The place has gone backward and is totally abandoned.”
She works at the Remax estate agency with Elretha van der Merwe, and they say it’s not always easy.
“Prices in Kuruman are affected by mine activities. When they do well and more people come here, houses are scarce and expensive. But the opposite is also true, which makes it hard to decide on the right price for the right time. And, yes, Kuruman isn’t necessarily a town you would drive through and think, heck, I’d like to live here. So we have our work cut out for us.” WHEN ELNA RADEMEYER first drove through Kuruman many years ago, she thought, “I wouldn’t even want to be >
buried here.” Now she and her husband, Louis, have lived here for 40 years.
“Strangely, it looked far more attractive then than it does now. Kuruman used to win awards for its beautiful entrances. And dances were held in the town hall, to which the women wore evening dresses and the men suits.”
Yes, a lot has changed, says Elna. And these days the traffic is so bad that a robot can turn red four, even five times before you get to cross, yet she doesn’t want to be negative about the town where they have spent many good years.
“We came here in 1978 to start a bakery. It grew so big that we later took over Sasko’s factory and baked 60 000 loaves per day.”
Although they now work on a much smaller scale at their Plaaskombuis and Mini Bakery, it’s still an “epic story”, says Elna. And if you go take a look at where Louis has been working away since 02:00, it’s clear that there’s no time to stand around. He chats while dough is mixed, dozens and dozens of bread rolls are baked and orders are put through.
“My parents started a bakery in Upington. We were seven boys and two girls, and at school we were known as
Die Brode (The Loaves). We helped them in the evenings – it felt as if I had dough under my nails permanently!”
This clearly didn’t frighten him off, because since then he has almost always baked – these days it’s what keeps him and his team busy for 12 hours a day.
Hotazel “Hot as hell”
The story goes that, back in 1917, Dirk Roos and JW Waldeck were surveying farms 60km northwest of Kuruman. At the end of a very hot day on the dry Gamagara River, Dirk called the last farm they surveyed that evening “Hot as hell”. Many years later, geologist Leslie Boardman was walking across the farm when his magnetometer clearly indicated there were rich manganese deposits in the area. Mining began in 1958 … and that was the origin of the town Hotazel.
The surrounding area is still being mined but this little place hasn’t really grown much. You’ll find a smallish OK Grocer, a fuel station, butchery, NG Church and good schools. All buildings and houses belong to South 32, an Australian mining company.
“We’ve all been hopeful that a little more could happen in Hotazel. A few more shops, you know. At least a Pep. But nothing changes,” Annatjie Liebenberg bemoans her fate in the Hotazel Slaghuis.
She grew up on a nearby farm and has been back in Hotazel for 20 years, but has lived in many other places all over. “Four months before we got married, my husband became >
a drilling contractor. I was so angry because I knew this was the start of our roaming. But after many detours we returned. He passed away three years later. It was as if he knew his end was near, and he wanted to leave me where he’d found me, at least.”
Annatjie says the mine gives each business in the town one house. She lives in the butchery’s house and the owner, Hoepel Mostert, rents a flat at the church. “A number of houses have been built here over the past few years but there is still a shortage. The turnover is high – no one comes here to settle. It’s odd because, although it’s a small place, you don’t really get to know anyone.”
Hoepel calls it a “coming-and-going” business. “It’s literally just Annatjie and the dominee and a few others who have lived here for a long time and, as far as I know, the dominee is now retiring and leaving.”
Hoepel himself only came to live in Hotazel three years ago when he took over the butchery. He was born in Stellenbosch and grew up in the Free State before starting a construction business in Daniëlskuil, about 100km south of Hotazel.
“The butchery was a new and unknown entity to me, but I’m really enjoying it now. Kuruman no longer has an abattoir so we have to collect our meat in Upington. It’s a lot of trouble and expense, but now we’re getting really good quality meat.”
Hoepel says it’s not only the meat that comes from far away. The town’s water travels via a long pipe all the way from the Vaal River near Delportshoop. And does it really get that hot here? “The whole area consists of manganese and iron, and iron loves heat. So yes, it’s as if you’re being baked from above and grilled from below,” says Hoepel.