Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Never run out of petrol in Libode

I enjoyed this article by Sarah Britten from Thought Leader about one of my favourite topics, the Wild Coast. She mentioned that the blacks in Libode also witheld their rates due to poor service delivery. So much for that being a so-called race issue! Everyone is unhappy, including the blacks.

We’re in Libode and it doesn’t look good. There isn’t enough in the tank to get us to Mthatha, which is worrying because we’ve been driving up and down pretty much every muddy, rutted track that passes for a road here and there’s no sign of a petrol station.

There’s an Absa, a Pep, even a building that claims to be the Libode magistrate’s court … but no garage.

This is odd, because the roads are choked with taxis and bakkies and they must fill up somewhere. Surely they don’t all drive to Mthatha? It turns out that in these parts, you don’t get your petrol from a pump. You buy it in 5-litre containers from the hawkers at the taxi rank. We confer with the driver. Is it worth the risk? No, it’s not. Our driver buys 2 containers for R100 and we continue on our way. Technically, the hawking of petrol is illegal, but clearly there’s a need, and someone’s exploiting it.

Libode, as it happens, is the Eastern Cape town
that featured in this weekend’s Sunday Times. It’s the town that Zuma forgot, and residents are angry. In a move that would probably win them a lot of sympathy from other South Africans, residents have resolved not to pay municipal rates until the services for which they are coughing up are actually provided.

If ever you’re looking for an example of how the ANC has neglected the poor, Libode is it.

So why on earth am I here of all places? Well, in the ad industry, strategists occasionally get to leave their desks and go out into the field. This time it was courtesy of a trade visit with PrimediaFace2Face and the people who market a popular brand of margarine. Margarine is big business — the entire category is worth about R2 billion a year — and we’re here to see for ourselves how the product is sold in the spaza shops and trading stores that sell to some of the poorest, most isolated — and most neglected — communities in South Africa.

Face2Face calls this market “the bottom of the pyramid” or BOP. You can see the thinking behind the pyramid here. I’ll be honest: living as I do in Sandton, the BOP is something I prefer to drive past rather than get to know, and that’s probably true of most of those of you who are reading this. The BOP is chaotic, smelly and frequently filthy. It’s crowded with goats and chickens. Litter carpets every square centimetre of ground and the streets are dongas masquerading as roads.

But there are also a lot of people living at the bottom of the pyramid, and they all need to eat, which means that there’s money to be made. The shelves of these stores offer interesting insights into what the poor in South Africa buy. There’s mealie meal of course, but also a lot of rice — an increase in rice consumption (despite price increases) is one of the biggest shifts in food culture in South Africa over the past couple of decades. There’s also Lucky Star pilchards, Imana soya mince, Lion matches, Glen Tea, Freshpak Rooibos, Maq and Omo washing powder, Sta-soft, Colgate toothpaste, Protex soap and Sunshine D margarine amongst others.

Morvite porridge, Mortein Target and Purity baby food all have posters up in even the tiniest spaza shop, while Royal Baking Powder is present everywhere, reminding customers that it’s “your recipe to success” (sic). Sweets and snacks are popular and yes, you do see those enormous bags of orange savoury snacky things, the ones that look like Cheese Puffs but taste of nothing but stale air. There are also obscure brands you won’t find anywhere else; you have to wonder how (and if) they will be forced to comply with the Consumer Protection Act once it comes into force in October. Retailers like Pick n Pay and Woolworths might be assuring their customers that there’s no added MSG or tartrazine in any of their products, but out here, some of the stuff we see could probably be used to strip paint.

If the carcinogens in this stuff don’t get you, the suicidal drivers on the terrifying roads will.

There are billboards everywhere, for Old Buck gin and a brandy called Commando (the image features a black stallion running free). Bonnita is running an aggressive outdoor campaign reminding consumers that it will help children grow; most of the billboards feature simple messages that focus on growth and strength. “Strong” is an important word around here. The Commando campaign was noteworthy because it was the only one to use the vernacular. Everything else is in English, even the handwritten signs in the stores themselves.

Some storefronts have been brightened up by brands like Rama margarine and Vodacom; the latter has pretty much taken over the branding of store signage from Coca-Cola, which from an advertising point of view has become almost invisible. As for the other cellphone networks, Cell C has a strong presence, and MTN is nowhere to be seen.

So where does all the money spent on all these basics actually go? I found it interesting that so few of the stores we visited were owned by black South Africans. Most of them were owned by Muslims; in the first, the man behind the counter was an immigrant from Somalia. Sparg’s and Weir’s, the big wholesalers in Mthatha and East London respectively, are white-owned. Just outside Mthatha we found a general dealer owned by an old Greek man. Even after more than forty years in the area, he could still barely speak English; you can see a
photo of him here.

At the end of each day of store-viewing, we would drive to the coast to spend the night. The contrast was difficult to comprehend. Deep rural Transkei is picture-book pretty, all neat huts and homesteads in pastel pinks and turquoise blues. Horses and sheep graze peacefully in verdant meadows and magnificently patterned Nguni cattle stroll casually in the roads; around every corner is a rug that would look fabulous combined with a screed floor and an Eames chair. Here there is little of the litter that blights the parts closer to the towns. You need a sports bra to travel the roads that wind around this hills, but it’s worth it.

The forests near the coast are alive with green pigeons and purple loeries and the beaches are some of South Africa’s loveliest. Their untouched dunes are speckled with the titanium dioxide so desired by foreign miners. At Trennery’s Hotel, I run along the beach at twilight with the resident Jack Russell, Lulu. Our footprints are the only visible marks in the sand, besides the timid scratchings of the sandpipers. A pair of African Black Oystercatchers whistle across the estuary, their calls a haunting counterpoint to the roar and sigh of the waves.

It’s so beautiful that it’s hard to believe that Libode is barely a hundred and fifty kilometres to the north. We might as well be on another planet. As the old Satour calendars used to remind us: “South Africa, a world in one country.”

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